Shapeshifting

Elk woman

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Diana Parkhouse and Apekshit Gurukhudde (CC0)

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Original Air Date: 
November 20, 2021

There are old folktales and legends of people who can become animals. Animals who can become people. And there’s a lesson for our own time in those shapeshifting stories — a recognition that the membrane between what's human and more-than-human is razor thin.

the raven
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Bad things happen when people lose their connection to the more-than-human world. "Animals know something that we that don't," says psychologist Sharon Blackie. That's one lesson you can take from the old shapeshifting myths and fairy tales.

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13:41
raven
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Years ago, the philosopher David Abram was a sleight-of-hand magician who wanted to learn from the "traditional magicians" of Asia. So he apprenticed with a powerful shaman in Nepal, who seemed to have the ability to transform into a raven.

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14:02
The Löwenmensch figurine after restoration in 2013
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Shapeshifting images run deep in human history, going back to ancient cave paintings. Archeologist Chris Gosden says they're linked to the shaman's ability to cross into the spirit world where humans and animals merge.

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8:15
A wolf eyes the horizon
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Horror writer Stephen Graham Jones loves werewolves. He redefined the genre with his 2016 novel "Mongrels," about a family of werewolves on the run in a hostile American landscape — a story drawn from his own background.

Length: 
11:45
Show Details 📻
Airdates
November 20, 2021
Guests: 
Sharon Blackie
Psychologist and Mythologist
Author and Archaeology Professor
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Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

I'm Anne Strainchamps and this is To the Best of Our Knowledge. There are stories and legends as old as time of people who can become animals, animals who can become people, shapeshifters, border crossers, skin-walkers. And there is a lesson for our time in those stories, if we listen.

Sharon Blackie (00:56):

I think my favorite stories of all, if I had a totem story would probably be the selkie story.

Anne Strainchamps (01:04):

Sharon Blackie is a writer, psychologist, and mythologist.

Sharon Blackie (01:07):

A selkie is a seal who in certain circumstances, usually once a month, under the light of the full moon is capable of shedding her seal skin and transforming into a human woman. So, they come to a beautiful beach under the full moon. They slip off their skins, they dance on the beach, but the story goes that there is a fisherman, a very lonely fisherman hiding behind a rock watching this going on. He steals the skin of one of the selkies. She's forced to stay with him for seven years. She bears his children. At the end of seven years, she's desiccated, she's not meant to be on land.

Sharon Blackie (02:07):

She asks him for her skin back. He will not give it to her. And in most of the stories, it is her daughter who finds the skin and gives it to the mother. And then the mother goes down to the beach, puts it on, and slips back into the sea, leaving her children and her husband behind. Our mythology here in the British Isles and Island is full of women who switch between human and animal form. And I think these shapeshifting stories tap into a longing that we often don't even know we have, and we feel that very deeply as sorrow.

Anne Strainchamps (03:09):

What is that sense of longing? What do we feel that we've lost? As a psychologist, Sharon Blackie believes many of us suffer from a kind of inner emptiness. The result of living over busy, over civilized lives, safe in our houses and offices, it's easy to forget that we're part of a larger living community, the natural world. And when people lose their relationship with the more than human world, bad things happen. That's one lesson you can take from shapeshifting, myths and fairy tales. Luckily, Sharon Blackie says, "They can also show you the way back." For example, in her most recent collection called Foxfire, Wolfskin, she gives us a fiercer version of the selkie story, about a woman who's part Wolf.

Sharon Blackie (04:00):

Well, I always felt very irritated, to be honest. Although I love the stories, I always felt really irritated at the end of the selkie stories that the guy who'd stolen her skin just got off scot-free. There were no consequences. I love a good consequence. And so, if you look back at the very older stories, there are consequences.

Anne Strainchamps (04:18):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sharon Blackie (04:19):

And so, I rewrote that story so that the wolf woman didn't just... Once she had regained her skin, didn't just vanish off into the forest. She ate her husband effectively, and then she vanished into the forest and it's like, "Yeah, now that's a consequence I can live with."

Anne Strainchamps (04:34):

Yeah. It's a very satisfying story to read. So, when I think of old mystery tales involving people being transformed into animals, the first ones that come to my mind are the ones where it's kind of a form of punishment for the human. And then there are others in which being turned from an animal into a human is a form of rescue. So, the princess kisses the frog, and lo and behold is a prince or the beast is freed by beauty.

Sharon Blackie (05:02):

Yeah. And it's an interesting thing. Generally speaking, those situations in which the human is punished by being turned into an animal, they're almost always men. And the stories in which the animal becomes human are almost always women.

Anne Strainchamps (05:19):

Oh, my! What do you make of that?

Sharon Blackie (05:21):

Well, I make of it the idea that way, way back from ancient Greek philosophy onwards, women have been associated with nature and men have been associated with the rational world and the intellectual world, and that has been seen as being superior. And so, how do you punish a rational creature? By making him animal, by making him as bad as a woman. So, I think there is an element of that in it, frankly.

Anne Strainchamps (05:45):

But it seems to me that you're interested in myths or legends that express something different rather than the human fear of becoming an animal. It's more like our longing to escape human form to be animal.

Sharon Blackie (05:59):

I think it's actually, from my perspective, an acknowledgement, certainly in our mythology in this part of the world, an acknowledgement that animals know some stuff that we don't, and that that might be good. For example, in the Welsh tradition... I live in Wales now, we have this wonderful tradition of what are called the oldest animals. So, when people are searching for the answer to a question, they might go to the elders of a particular village and they don't know. So, they go to the next village along where the elders are a little bit more elder and they don't know. And so, they say, "Oh, go to the oldest animals." And then they find the oldest, which is usually an Eagle or a Salmon and they know. So, there is this inbuilt recognition in our traditions that animals know something that we don't. And I think that's the place where a lot of these stories came from originally.

Anne Strainchamps (06:50):

I'm really fascinated by these stories and legends about shapeshifting, but they do tend to come out of indigenous cultures with strong animistic traditions and cultures where people have lived in such a way that the membrane between the human and the non-human world is very thin. And so, I wonder if they don't also represent a different way of thinking, not just about what's imaginary, but about what's real.

Sharon Blackie (07:14):

That's a very good point, exactly. Because in these old traditions, the imaginal is as real as anything, if not moreso. You see this in this Sufi tradition, which is very wonderful, where they have a concept of a world which lies in between the physical world and the world of the intellect. And that world was called by a French scholar who studied these things, the mundus imaginalis, literally the imaginal world. And that imaginal world was just as real as the physical world in the world of the intellect. And the whole point of life was to engage with that imaginal world, because without that, you weren't really engaging in the deepest levels of reality.

Sharon Blackie (07:56):

So, I see that in our own tradition, in this part of the world too, and to me, it's really very important that people recognize that, because we have such a tendency to look everywhere, but our own traditions for that kind of wisdom. Here in Europe, we look to native Americans or we look to the east and the Buddhist and the towers, but we have it here in our own land, in our own stories that showed the world just as animistic as any of those other traditions.

Anne Strainchamps (08:29):

The other thing I wonder about the shapeshifting stories in particular, one of the things that fascinates me about them is that there's a kernel, a moment of transformation. That's what they all hinge on. This moment when human skin becomes furred or seal skin drops off and soft human skin is underneath. It's a metaphor for that transformation between two different levels of reality that we just can't figure out. Do you think that's why these stories feel sort of transgressive?

Sharon Blackie (09:06):

Yeah, I guess that's exactly why they feel transgressive, but they offer as a world in which really humans are fully and mashed, where animals always have something to teach us. That's how our ancestors saw the world, and it was until the enlightenment and the age of reason, and the age of science came along. That was perfectly reasonable. That was how you lived. That was how you learned.

Anne Strainchamps (09:30):

We should talk about another story. One of my favorites in the book is foxfire, which is based on a Scandinavian legend of the huldra. What is a huldra?

Sharon Blackie (09:42):

The particular image of the huldra that I loved in a particular Scandinavian story was a woman who was hollow. And when she turned around, she had a hollow back and a fox tail as well. And that's how you knew that she wasn't a real woman that she probably had evil in mind if you met her in the wood and therefore, you should be very, very wary of her.

Anne Strainchamps (10:05):

So, tell us about your version.

Sharon Blackie (10:07):

I had a... As my main character, a woman who had lost a child and who was desiccated, I suppose to use the word, we were using with a selkie who was mired and grief and had lost her relationship with her husband, had lost her relationship with herself and went into the woods one day and found a Fox and developed a... The Fox basically brought her back to life again, that sense of play of pleasure of joy in the world that a Fox will have when you see it in the wild.

Sharon Blackie (10:34):

Then one day, her husband follows here because he doesn't know why she's sneaking out of the house at all hours of the day and night. And he sees the Fox and the Fox turns into the beautiful young woman that the huldra is, and of course, he is smitten. To cut that long story short, the woman goes to the hut where her husband has been having an affair with a huldra fox lady and accuses her of being a huldra. And the huldra takes her to a corner of the hut where there is a long mirror and asks her to turn around with a back to the mirror and to look over her shoulder, and it is the woman who is hollow, not the Fox woman.

Anne Strainchamps (11:14):

There is a really beautiful passage. You don't have a copy of the book, do you?

Sharon Blackie (11:18):

I do have a copy of the book, yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (11:20):

I really love the end of that.

Sharon Blackie (11:25):

So, at the end of the story, the wife has not seen the Fox woman for a very, very long time, and this is what she says, "I am learning to become full again. The forest is showing me how. I go there each day and I roll among the leaves on the damp mossy floor. I burrow into root balls and talk to trees, and I am beginning to understand what they whisper to me in return. Yes, I go each day into the wildwood and sometimes, I catch a glimpse of red gold fur through the trunks. Sometimes waking in the dark of night, I hear a vixen screaming deep in the heart of the forest. I am glad that she is there living her own wildlife. I am glad that I knew her. I glad for the hard lesson that she talked to me, but I will not follow her again. Now, I have my own wild [inaudible 00:12:20] path and the power of the wood is remaking me. For when last I crept out to the cabin in the clearing and examined myself again in its mirror of truth, the hole at the heart of me was almost closed."

Anne Strainchamps (12:35):

I love that so much. That passage tells us how to do what we've been talking about, and it's all about embodiment. She goes back into her body and back into her pleasure. Somehow, there's to powerful lesson in that I think.

Sharon Blackie (12:56):

Yeah. And I think to me, it was very much a sense of humans. Other humans can't always fix us, that it really is sometimes just that immersion in the natural world and that sense of relationship and connection with other animals that can bring us back to that sense of embodiment that we have so badly, badly lost these days.

Anne Strainchamps (13:29):

Sharon Blackie is a psychologist writer and teacher. She works with the myths and legend of a native British Isles. She's written two nonfiction books, If Women Rose Rooted and The Enchanted Life. And we were talking about her most recent story collection, Foxfire, Wolfskin, Stories of Shapeshifting Women. Coming up, your body is not as fixed and finite as you might think.

David Abram (14:08):

I have my small body, this human flesh, and you have your body and the spider has its body. And yet, we are all part of a much larger metabolism, a much larger physiology that of the earth itself. And sometimes, one can with practice slip out of one's smaller flesh into one's larger body and move and journey within it, and then come back to one's own small form. So, the human body itself is a kind of magical being that slips in and out of itself regularly.

Anne Strainchamps (15:08):

Shapeshifting as a mode of perception, next. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Stories about humans who can shift into animal form and vice versa go back a very long way, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to well, pretty much Marvel's entire universe, but these are myths, right? They're not real. I guess, that depends on your definition of reality. So, let's go a little deeper, a little stranger. Steve Paulson introduces a modern day, Shapeshifter.

Steve Paulson (16:02):

David Abram is one of those rare and original thinkers who can help you feel more alive. As if you've walked through your entire life seeing only black and white and suddenly, the whole world is bursting with color. He's a philosopher and cultural ecologist who's written two books, The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal. And they've reshaped contemporary thinking about animism, the idea that everything around us is alive and sentient. I've talked with David a few times over the years, but what I want you to hear today is the story of how he started out in this path as a young man in his twenties.

David Abram (16:47):

My first profession was that of a slight of hand magician. I performed in clubs and venues throughout the United States and Canada, and then took my magic on the road and traveled as an itinerant magician through the streets of Europe and some of the Middle East. At a certain point, I ventured into Southeast Asia, into more remote village areas within Sri Lanka, within Indonesia, within the high mountains of Nepal and experience that dramatically changed my life.

Steve Paulson (17:40):

What David encountered in those remote areas was an entirely different kind of magician. These weren't entertainers, they were healers. Some might even call them sorcerers.

David Abram (17:56):

I'm talking about those folks we now tend to call shamans, though that's a term that derives from a few cultures in Northern Siberia. In Indonesia, they are called dukuns. In the Himalaya, they're called Jhakris, traditional magicians.

Steve Paulson (18:17):

Let's talk about this in a more concrete sense, because you have a remarkable story about an experience you had in the Himalayas, in the mountains of Nepal. And you spent some time with sounds like a very powerful traditional magician, you call Sonam. Can you tell me about him? What attracted you to him?

David Abram (18:39):

It was apparent from some of the rumors that had reached my ears that this was an uncommonly gifted and skilled magician or shaman. When I finally met this man, what struck me was that I was coming into the presence of a human animal. Even as I first approached, he was sniffing the air around him with his flaring nostrils. He was sitting on his haunches, scratching his head like an ape. And when he moved, there was this kind of gangly grace of an animal, fully embodied.

Steve Paulson (19:37):

David was fascinated. He talked to Sonam into letting him hang around. Basically, he apprenticed himself to this master magician, absorbing the lessons of how to feel, think, and perceive the world in new ways. And then one day, when they'd gone way up into the mountains, everything shifted.

David Abram (20:05):

We were hiking back along a very narrow trail that wound along the side of a very precipitous mountain slope. And at one point in the trail, he rounded a bend up in front. And I couldn't see him for a stretch. As I approached that same bend in the trail, I heard the croak of a raven. And then as I came around the bend, I saw this raven perched on a large boulder jotting out to the left of the trail above the river Gorge beneath. And this raven was squawking a couple times as it looked at me and blinked, squawked again, and then the raven leap or hopped off the rock down onto the trail and as it did so, it seemed first to be flying straight into my face and my hands flew up as if to protect me, but then it landed on the trail, except that it was the sound was too loud for it to be just the raven landing on the trail.

David Abram (21:28):

And as I blinked, this small raven turned out to be a person. It was Sonam himself, but he was standing much farther down the trail, 25 feet down the trail, looking much smaller than he would've if he was just eight or 10 feet away, but I was stunned. This was a human that I had been convinced was this squawking bird, and I blinked, I shook my head back and forth wondering if was this just a momentary derangement of my senses? And Sonam walked back over to me. I had taken off my backpack in a stunned wonderment, and he picked it up, indicated I should keep going down the trail. And he took off down in front of me again, and I thought, "I must just imagined this." But then he turned and he cocked his head, looking at me and he squawked, a perfect series of ravens calls, [inaudible 00:22:40] and then continued hiking on forward, and I realized that I had just witnessed a transformation of a human into a bird and back again.

Steve Paulson (23:10):

So, what was that he just witnessed? Sonam hadn't actually turned into a bird, had he? David says it wasn't just a squawk, Sonam had this whole raven language of croaks and [inaudible 00:23:25], and the way he moved his neck and head and arms, it's like he inhabited the body of this bird in a way that seemed barely possible. Now, it's clear that Sonam had waited for just the right moment when David was around the corner and just out of sight to spring birdlike in front of him, which might seem like some sort of [inaudible 00:23:47] trick, but David doesn't see it that way.

David Abram (23:54):

I don't think that our word trick gets at what was going on. The ability to shapeshift, to take on the characteristic of another animal is a propensity that is cultivated by some traditional magicians or saucers or shamans, but they cultivate it only by apprenticing themselves to that other animal. It's something that takes years of practice, learning the ways of another creature. And to then take on those ways to slip into the embodied form of another animal is hardly a trick.

Steve Paulson (24:39):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Abram (24:40):

It is a way of extending one's own human senses to experience the world through another shape, another style of seeing and hearing and feeling, and so to get a much larger, more stereoscopic view of what this world is. It's a very complex and rich practice.

Steve Paulson (25:05):

Sonam put David through a series of rigorous exercises, hours, every day for a couple of weeks, learning how to fix his gaze on a particular spot without moving, without even blinking to hone his concentration, so that all surrounding sounds and movements faded into the background, and then something amazing happened.

David Abram (25:27):

I was watching a raven very, very intently and placing my focus, not just on the back of its neck, but sinking the focus of my eyes into its body and trying to bring my other senses, my tactile and visceral senses to bear over there where my eyes were focused in the body of this other bird, so that when the bird hopped and then spread its wings and took off, I quite unexpectedly found myself aloft and soaring over the river Gorge with this bird.

Steve Paulson (26:26):

Do you think you had become that bird?

David Abram (26:31):

I had become something other than I had been. And when I came back to my own human presence in the world, I was different. But I would not say, I had become that bird. I had extended my own organism into something wider and fuller and deeper. And much of my work is about really identifying with our animal body and waking up our animal senses to actually experience and feel the world directly. And I've become convinced that our body is just our part of this much larger flesh that this earth or this biosphere we inhabit is very easily experienced as an organic living flesh in its own right. A huge hysterical metabolism that we are a part of, so that when gazing out under a cloud studied sky across the land, we're actually gazing into the depths of our own larger body.

Anne Strainchamps (27:54):

That was the visionary ecologist and philosopher, David Abram. If you want to dive deeper, Steve recommends David's book, Becoming Animal. So, hopefully, by now you're getting the sense that shapeshifting as an idea and even as a practice runs throughout human culture. It's the subject of myths, legends and fairy tales on every continent. It's a practice that can radically reorient your sense of your own identity and your relationship to the rest of the cosmos. But Steve has another question.

Steve Paulson (28:45):

Do we know how for our back this history of shapeshifting goes?

Chris Gosden (28:49):

So, the answer is ultimately no, but the answer is also a long, long time.

Anne Strainchamps (28:56):

Archeologist, Chris Gosden.

Chris Gosden (29:03):

So, in a cave in Germany, place called Stadel cave, there is a figure made out of mammoth ivory, 40,000 years old. It's got human arms, it's got human legs. It may well have a human penis, but it's also got a very clearly lion's head. We have no idea at all what belief system were 40,000 years ago, but it's possible that the people who carved this thing were trying to combine the powers of the lion, the powers of the mammoth and the powers of the human, and also quite possible that they didn't make the sorts of distinctions that we would make between species that in many cultures today, if you meet a bear, you are not sure whether it's a bear, bear or a human bear. It could be a human in a bear's form. So, maybe some of those ideas go a long, long way.

Steve Paulson (30:01):

That's fascinating. You're saying that most cultures at least, historically have viewed the world this way. There's no rigid line between human and animal.

Chris Gosden (30:11):

No, I think it's Western science that has come to draw this line. So, universities make a distinction between the disciplines that study humans, the social sciences philosophy history and the disciplines which study the natural world, the zoology department, the plant sciences department. And they are totally different intellectual enterprises, different ways of seeing the world, but say a Siberian shaman would scratch their head as to why they aren't one and the same thing, really?

Steve Paulson (30:48):

So, there are certain people in certain cultures... I guess the shaman is the most common word for these people who seem to have this ability or it's believed they have this ability to turn into an animal, often in a trans like state.

Chris Gosden (31:05):

Yeah.

Steve Paulson (31:05):

What was the shaman trying to do when entering these other worlds, these spirit worlds? What was the purpose of those spirit journeys?

Chris Gosden (31:16):

So, the things that happen in the world that we inhabit, so your reindeer herd start to die, or the geese that you hunt don't turn up one year. The reasons for that will be in the underworld as we would conceive of it. So, often the shaman will be journeying into this deeper world to try and work out what the spiritual problems are that are affecting the reindeer herd or the geese, diagnose it, deal with it, wrestle with it, intercede with the spirits, and then come back and then hopefully, the reindeer will recover. So, all life forms have intelligence, and if you are in tune enough, clever enough to read what the trees are worrying about, then you can learn a lot about the world as well.

Steve Paulson (32:09):

You're talking about animist cultures.

Chris Gosden (32:12):

I am.

Steve Paulson (32:13):

How would you describe the animist worldview?

Chris Gosden (32:16):

The animist worldview is an enchanted worldview. Animists believe everything is animist obviously, and that's not just reindeer and trees. A rock is sentient, not in a weird human way, it's sentient in the way that a rock is sentient. The basic is to how rocks react too slowly. There a times scales, they don't rush things to rocks. They will erode, they will roll down the valley, but it can all take a long, long time. You can't rush a rock by and large.

Steve Paulson (32:53):

Yeah. Well, you talk about in your book, you talk about what's been called the new animism that it's possible to think about these ideas as not just some sort of premodern world view that a lot of these ideas are actually consistent with modern science if you really sort of explore the edges of science and philosophy. So, the question is how do you reconcile this magical world that you've been talking and about with today's science?

Chris Gosden (33:22):

Yes. Part of what I'm trying to do is to argue for the development of a new form of magic, because I think it would give us a much more open, healthy relationship with the world. So, how are rocks sentient? So, there are a number of different scientific answers to that question. One comes from the problem of consciousness and so-called panpsychism. So, the issue with consciousness is we are conscious, we can probably say that most life forms are conscious in various different ways down to probably viruses and various things. But then at some stage, we might want to stop and say as Westerners that rocks aren't sentient, but panpsychs say that if you don't make that distinction, if you say that everything is conscious, everything is sentient, it doesn't get you to set up boundaries between the sentient and the non sentient that the universe as a whole.

Steve Paulson (34:25):

Well, and it relates to this ecological notion of kinship, that we, humans are kin with everything in the natural world. To be human is to be intimately connected with all of life and the rocks and the mountains and the rivers as well. And this of course, goes way back in the worldview of indigenous cultures, and it would seem that there's an ethics that comes along with that as well.

Chris Gosden (34:55):

Absolutely. So, the really important element of that, the unity of humans with the world around them that encourages an element of kinship and therefore, an element of care. And definitely, we are in a mess. Most people, I think now would accept that there's a climate emergency. There's an ecological catastrophe happening, and that's in large part because we've been living too well. We've taken too much from the world and rather than thinking of the world as our kin. We think of the world as a series of resources that we can extract, but if we have also a sort of transgenerational notion, what are we going to pass on to our kids and our grandkids? Then that also encourages a notion of care we would like to pass on a world in good order, in a world that they can live in. So, for me, the really important notion of elements of magic is they encourage kinship. They encourage care. They encourage a sense of unity with the world rather than a separateness from it.

Anne Strainchamps (36:12):

Chris Gosden talking with Steve Paulson. Chris is an archeologist at Oxford University, an author of a groundbreaking new book called Magic, A History From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present. So, ready to live in a more magical world. Writer, Stephen Graham Jones has been there, done that. Didn't I also read that at a certain point, as a teenager, you actually kind of seriously tried to become a werewolf.

Speaker 9 (36:46):

Wolf, what's that?

Speaker 8 (36:53):

That's a human being. Certain times in the year, it changes into a wolf.

Speaker 9 (36:57):

You mean runs around on all fours and bays at the moon.

Speaker 8 (37:01):

Oh, even worse than that sometimes.

 Stephen Graham Jones (37:04):

Yeah. I found some books that told me all the different ways you can become a werewolf. You can lie naked in the sand, under a full moon and ride around and that might transform you into a Wolf.

Speaker 9 (37:16):

The pentagram, it's the sign of the werewolf.

 Stephen Graham Jones (37:20):

Supposedly, if you drank water collected in the paw print of a werewolf, you could become a werewolf.

Anne Strainchamps (37:27):

But where would you find the paw print of a werewolf?

 Stephen Graham Jones (37:30):

Well, what I did was I went at my grandma's house. I took the hose and I made a whole mess of her dirt driveway and made it all muddy and then went to bed that night, woke up the next morning and went out and found a big canine print by it.

Speaker 9 (37:45):

What was that? They caught nothing in the top, so now they're going to hunt the wolf, [inaudible 00:37:48] from me. Stop it, stop it.

 Stephen Graham Jones (37:50):

It was probably one of our dogs, but I dutifully drink from that water in the chance, it would make me werewolf.

Speaker 8 (37:58):

Wear these charm over your heart always.

Anne Strainchamps (38:01):

Were you disappointed when you didn't become a werewolf?

 Stephen Graham Jones (38:05):

Yeah, I was. I wanted to feel that power but who knows? Maybe it's a delayed reaction. Maybe it's still going to kick in.

Anne Strainchamps (38:16):

He's not a werewolf yet, but he's created in many of them. Horror legend, Steven Graham Jones on why we need werewolves and other monsters, next. I'm Anne Strainchamps and this is To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio-

Speaker 9 (38:34):

Oh, I'm sick of the whole thing, I'm going to get out of here.

Speaker 8 (38:36):

Who ever is beaten by a werewolf and leaves, becomes a werewolf himself.

Anne Strainchamps (38:44):

... and PRX. One of the first places to look for shapeshifters is under the bed. That's where they like to hide, vampires, werewolf, chupacabras and all the other part, human part animal monsters. Horror writer, Stephen Graham Jones loves them all, especially the werewolves. He redefined the genre with his 2016 novel, Mongrels, about a family of werewolves on the run and a hostile American landscape. It's a story drawn from his own background, growing up as a black feet kid in West Texas. In 2020, he gave us the terrifying Elk Head Woman. That's from his novel, The Only Good Indians. Steven, why are you so fond of Monsters?

 Stephen Graham Jones (39:30):

I think it's because I write horror. Horror always needs some element of the monstrous. You've got to have something that's shaken up the world, that's disrupting the status quo, that's erupting into so-called safe spaces and monsters are the best at that.

Anne Strainchamps (39:42):

I want to talk about werewolves because you've written so famously about them. When your wrote Mongrels kind of did for werewolves, what [inaudible 00:39:50] did for vampires in the sense that you made them real. So, out of all of the monsters that you could have picked, why the werewolf?

 Stephen Graham Jones (39:59):

I think it's because I grew up where I grew up in West Texas. And in West Texas, there's places out there called no trees and we have brownfield and level land. It's just a big flat baking pad for the sun basically. And when you think about... Well, number one, when you're 12 years old, you can sense that your body is turning into something. You have no idea what that might be really. People tell you and you read books, but that doesn't really help. So, what I did was imagine what I wanted to turn into. Vampires and werewolves, they both often seem to enjoy being werewolves and vampires. However, growing up in West Texas, without me [inaudible 00:40:36], I knew that being a vampire would be very short-lived prospect, because I would get fried instantly. Being a werewolf was actually within the realm of possibility. If werewolf were a real thing, then I could be a werewolf in West Texas. And I think that's why I identified with the werewolf and became forever fascinated with them.

Anne Strainchamps (40:55):

Well, you were also kind of haunted by them, right? I've heard you say that you had a series of recurrent dreams about werewolves.

 Stephen Graham Jones (41:02):

I did. We were living in my mother and brother and one of my other brothers too, we were all living this little house [inaudible 00:41:08] in the country and I would have dreams so many nights of werewolves circling around our house, and I could see their fur pressing up against the glass as they ran past.

Anne Strainchamps (41:18):

Did you imagine... Because you've written about the moment of transformation, right? You've imagined this more than once and really, really vividly. And so, why does it so often turn scary or monstrous?

 Stephen Graham Jones (41:34):

I think werewolf stories or half human, half animal stories are reminders to us that we have animal appetites that we shouldn't camp down. We need to let them out into the moonlight to run once a month for two nights or something. That if we just on denying our animal side, then the animal side is going to express itself in some way that's probably going to be worse, and end up with our own destruction or the destruction of the ones we love, something like that.

Anne Strainchamps (42:05):

I'm starting to have some sympathy for the monsters here because... What happens when we realize the monster is us? We're the monsters.

 Stephen Graham Jones (42:15):

Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (42:16):

Right now, look at climate change. We're the ones poisoning the earth and ruining life for everything.

 Stephen Graham Jones (42:23):

No, you're totally right. I don't know. When you go back to say the trial of Peter Stumpp or Peter Stumppy, sometimes called, this is in the 16th century I think. He's the first person documented to have been tortured and executed for being a werewolf. Of course, he wasn't a werewolf, he was someone living on lands that had been ravaged by waring kingdoms, and so there was no livestock, no grain. He had to eat something. So, he took to the travelers and started [inaudible 00:42:52] on them. And when he got busted for that, he said, "It's not my fault. I'm a werewolf." Which is to say the werewolf mask is something that people put on to hide the evil that's actually inside them. And the werewolf kind of becomes the scapegoat, I feel like, or the monsters become the scapegoat.

Anne Strainchamps (43:12):

How does being a native writer fit into working with werewolf stories? Because there's this long colonialist association of Indians with wolves, for instance.

 Stephen Graham Jones (43:26):

Yeah. We get associated like that because America specifically, but I think the world at large prefers to think of natives as stewards of the forest. We cry when there's a Dr. Pepper can in the Creek, that kind of stuff. And that's well and fine, except for that also means that we're pretty much elves. Elves are also stewards of the forest. And if we're going to be elves, then we're fantasy creatures. We don't exist. We're nobody that you have to take seriously. We're nobody, there's any legal obligation to anything like that.

 Stephen Graham Jones (43:56):

So, it's definitely dangerous, but yes, any truck stop you go to in America, you pull up and you see that van out by the road with blankets up on racks that you can buy. And those blankets generally have a painting of some Indian chief with half his face being a wolf because we're like merged together and it's been a slow process in America anyways for native people to be allowed to be human. And I do think that that's the next step that we've gone from wolves to elves and hopefully, the elves can have their ears dulled down and we can become people

Anne Strainchamps (44:38):

And then the elves can, like everybody else have mortgages and kids in public schools and yeah, right?

 Stephen Graham Jones (44:45):

Exactly. And they can be trying to pass their credit check down at the car lot.

Anne Strainchamps (44:50):

Yeah. So, as long as we were talking about monsters in a more recent book of yours, The Only Good Indians, there is another creature, Elk Head Woman.

 Stephen Graham Jones (45:02):

She is the kind of manifestation of a hunt that went bad 10 years ago. These four guys snuck into a place on the reservation they weren't supposed to be. Shot a lot of elk they didn't have access to, or they shouldn't have had access to. And what that rupture triggered was a spirit of vengeance to rise. And that spirit of vengeance does have a human body and elk head, a cow elk specifically.

Anne Strainchamps (45:30):

Where did she come from? There are myths, I think in different tribes of deer head woman, right? Deer woman.

 Stephen Graham Jones (45:36):

Yes. There is deer woman, yes, for sure. The Blackfeet don't have any stories like that as far as I know anyways. Where she came from for me was I had just got back from the first Indigenous Comic Con and I'd come back with Elizabeth LaPensée's comic book and on the cover is basically Elk Head Woman. And so, when I needed a monster, she was right there waiting.

Anne Strainchamps (45:58):

You also know elk pretty well.

 Stephen Graham Jones (46:01):

I do. I've been hunting elk since I was 12, probably.

Anne Strainchamps (46:04):

Yeah. So, what are the elk characteristics that you imagined merging with human characteristics?

 Stephen Graham Jones (46:13):

Very, very intelligent, it's probably the first one. Elk live under such extreme hunting pressure that they've had to become very, very wily, very, very cagey. You can be walking 15 feet from a massive bull elk with his huge rack and you can be in thick brush and he'll just walk like a cat and you won't even know he is there. It's not just hunting pressure from humans that have made elk smart, it's hunting pressure from mountain lions, from grizzly bears. And elk are just really, really canny. I respect them so much. To me, they're hardest big game in America to hunt.

Anne Strainchamps (46:48):

We started by talking about the horror genre. You're out there as predators, killing, shedding blood, ripping entrails. That seems fairly monstrous.

 Stephen Graham Jones (46:58):

That is, and that's exactly what happens in The Only Good Indians. These guys, they don't just get the meat that they might need, they kind of go into a frenzy and they are just shooting everything that's moving in their scope. You hear about wolves sometimes wondering into herd of sheep and just killing left and right, just killing to kill. I don't know if this is documented. This could just be stories that ranchers tell to kind of rationalize their own shooting of wolves, but whether true or not, it's a story that sticks. We associate that kind of behavior with wolves, specifically. And I think that's probably why the werewolf monster has persisted as long as it has, because it feels right to us. It matches up with what we instinctually believe about wolves that they are just killing machines.

Anne Strainchamps (47:51):

Why do you think we need horror and stories about monsters? You talked about them as reminding us we've got to keep our own inner monsters on a leash, but seems like there's also something maybe kind of therapeutic about reading stories about monsters, or what do you think it is that draws us back to them over and over again?

 Stephen Graham Jones (48:11):

What I think it is that... On the Savannah, for millions of years when we were evolving until what we are now, we were basically bags of meat. We didn't have sharp claws anymore. Our teeth got flat, we couldn't have a good camouflage. We weren't especially fast. All the things that would help us avoid predators were traded in so we could think. So, our calories should go to our brains basically. And the result of that was that we always had to be vigilant every second of the day, we had to be watching that stand of grass, watching those trees, watching the sky, because everything wanted to make a meal for us, which is to say that got hardwired in, this fear of monsters of teeth in the darkness or in the sunlight too.

 Stephen Graham Jones (48:57):

And in today's modern world, we shine lights into all the dark corners, we sterilize all the surfaces. And what that's done is kind of erase monsters, I feel like. What horror can do is let us feel human again by having us confront or suspect monsters. To me, you're most human when you feel fear, when you feel that fear of being eaten by something else.

Anne Strainchamps (49:26):

Well, you're sort of suggesting that we are drawn to the stories about monsters because we want to stay embodied.

 Stephen Graham Jones (49:34):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Strainchamps (49:34):

We live in an increasingly, as you said, sterile, silicon world. So, we need werewolves to remind us that we're human and that means animal.

 Stephen Graham Jones (49:46):

Yeah. We're not just intellect. I think the impulse through the generation, through the eras has been towards winnowing humanity down to just thinkers. We just think and feel, but we also bite and I think monster stories and specifically werewolf stories remind us that we need to bite.

Anne Strainchamps (50:08):

Stephen Graham Jones, doing his part to keep us human by scaring us to death. He's written almost too many books to count. We mentioned Mongrels, the one about a boy growing up in a family of werewolves and The Only Good Indians in which Elk Head Woman wreaks vengeance on some guys who really should have known better. And his most recent is a bloody and brilliant a mashed slasher films called My Heart Is a Chainsaw. Today's episode is part of our project on Kinship with the More-Than-Human World, produced in collaboration with the Center for Humans and Nature and with support from the Kalliopeia Foundation. You can find out more at ttbook.org/kinship.

Anne Strainchamps (50:50):

From all of us at To the Best of Our Knowledge, Angelo Bautista, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Mark Riechers, Joe Hardtke, Steve Paulson and myself, thanks for listening. Be well in whatever shape you take.

Anne Strainchamps (51:05):

PRX.

Last modified: 
November 23, 2021