WORMWOOD FILES “Hellhounds and Devil Dogs” 

By Dr. Abner Mality

Despite my macabre reputation, I’ve always been an animal lover. Critters have always had a special place in my heart, especially dogs. But there are some dogs that are a bit different than the usual tail-wagging mutt you see in the street. These are the phantom black dogs who have haunted the lonely places of the world going back to prehistoric times. These beasts are not man’s best friend…they are better described as man’s best FIEND.

Tales of unearthly black dogs with glowing eyes come from many places, but nowhere are they better known than the British Isles. These creepy canines have been seen for thousands of years and still continue to be seen today. They are known by many names…Barghest, Yeth Hound, Grim,  Padfoot, Gurt Dog, Cu Sith. And there are subtle variations between each local version. But they all have certain things in common. They are unusually large, their eyes are said to glow and they appear and disappear in the manner of ghosts. And with very few exceptions, their appearance bodes ill for anyone who sees one.

The origins of the Black Dog phenomena are likely lost in the mists of history. The first real record of one was in England in the year 1127. But it is extremely probable that they were spotted in Pre-Christian Britain. One peculiarity of the Black Dogs is that they are often reported near ancient sites dating back to the days of Celtic druids. Many standing stones, old barrows and ancient burial paths are haunted by the phantom canines. Many but not all are seen near running water. These creatures are also spotted in the vicinity of ley lines…straight tracks that unite many “power” sites in the landscape. Some theorize that they are “guardians” of particularly important locations.

There are variations in the appearance of the hell hounds. Their size varies from that of a large sheep dog or Great Dane to true monsters that are the size of a horse. One of the most constant features is their glowing, coal-like eyes. The hounds seem to be no known breed but a shaggy type of canine that is unique. There are rare reports of Black Dogs with markings on them and in a couple of rare cases, they may even be white or yellow. Many are reported with black, lolling tongues and hot steamy breath.
The king of these devil dogs is undoubtedly Black Shuck. The British rock band The Darkness has helped to popularize him in modern times by dedicating one of their songs to him. Black Shuck has haunted the East Anglia area of England for centuries, particularly the vicinity of Norfolk, Suffolk and the dank marshes along the coast. The word “Shuck” is taken from an archaic Saxon word meaning “witch” or “demon”. The whole concept of Black Dogs may have come to England from the Danes who settled in the country. It may be a distorted version of supernatural dogs and wolves from Norse mythology like the ravenous Fenris wolf or Garm the hound who guards the gates of Hell.

Black Shuck would haunt solitary travelers in lonely places like crossroads or graveyards. His chilling howl was said to fill the night air and seem to come from no particular area. When he appeared, it would be without a sound. Some described him as having just one huge eye in the middle of his forehead, but this was not always reported. He was also often surrounded by mist. To see him was considered a dire omen of impending doom and a sign that you would die within a year. Despite the terrifying appearance of Shuck and other Black Dogs, they rarely bit or clawed anybody. Their appearance alone was considered disaster enough. However, there were some Black Dogs who actually seemed to help guard and protect travelers. But Shuck was certainly not one of these.

One of Shuck’s most notorious and well reported raids happened in Bungay Church in 1577, in his old haunts of Suffolk. This is one of the few sightings that was also reported by multiple witnesses. On a Sunday morning with unusually violent weather, worshippers gathered at the church for services when a tremendous blast of lightning struck. At the same moment, Black Shuck materialized in the church aisles with an unearthly howl and ran amongst the terrified parishoners. In some fashion, he struck and killed two men who were on their knees praying and severely wounded another man. As suddenly as he appeared, the monster dog vanished. The story was widely reported throughout England. Some modern experts believe that ball lightning appeared within the church and was transformed through folklore into an attack by Black Shuck. As you might expect, you can have a pint at the Black Dog Pub in Bungay even today.

Black Shuck was quite busy that day. He also put in an appearance at Holy Trinity Church in nearby Blythburgh, showing up once again in a clap of thunder. This time he ran through the church and actually caused the steeple to partially collapse. He also put his red hot paws on an old oak door at the church and left scorch marks, which can still be seen to this today.

These destructive rampages in front of large crowds are very atypical for Black Dogs. Much more often they are seen in the type of lonely places mentioned earlier, menacing single travelers. What is surprising is that they are still seen and rather frequently. In this era of cellphones, GPS systems and motor transport, the creatures of old myth and lore are slow to fade away.  There are some sections of Britain’s A10 motorway, a major highway, that report Black Dog sightings.

The rural Meon Hill area has been haunted by spectral hounds for centuries. There is an eerie link to the unsolved murder of Charles Walton, believed to be one of the last “cunning men” or male witches of England. Walton was a hedgeclipper who was widely believed to have supernatural powers. He saw Black Dogs nine times in his life…once, the Dog transformed into the spectre of a headless woman and Walton’s sister died shortly thereafter. Walton was murdered in 1945 in a way that suggested it was a ritual killing meant to destroy a witch. The murder has never been solved and Scotland Yard’s famous Inspector Fabian declared that it was the most baffling case he ever encountered. Fabian himself is believed to have glimpsed a Black Dog on Meon Hill. You can read more about the Walton murder right here at Wormwood.

Black Dogs will also haunt the sites of executions. The infamous Newgate Prison at Dartmoor has been visited by a Black Dog for 400 years.  The Newgate Dog has a very specific legend connected to his appearance. In 1596, an innocent schoolteacher was accused of witchcraft by vindictive students and sentenced to Newgate to await a trial. The prison at that time was the worst hellhole in Europe and before the man could be tried, he was killed and eaten by starving prisoners. Shortly thereafter, the Black Dog of Newgate appeared to haunt the prison. Later the cannibal prisoners escaped but the Black Dog was said to hunt them down on the nearby moors and kill them. For centuries after, the hell hound was seen near Newgate. This legend inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write the famous Sherlock Holmes adventure “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.

Not all Black Dogs were threatening or ominous. The version that lived in the area of Somerset was known as the Gurt Dog and he would often help protect travelers at night, scaring off thieves and bandits. In fact, he would help lead lost children safely home.

There were scores of Black Dogs in Europe, with so many different names that it would be impossible to list them all. Some of the names included Hairy Jack, Capelthwaite, Padfoot and Gytrash.  The Yeth Hounds of the Devon area had an extra layer of horror because they were said to be headless. A peculiar variation was the ancient Scottish version of the Black Dog known as the Cu Sith…this dog was colored green and looked like he had moss instead of fur.  The Isle of Man is well known as a place haunted by many fairies and specters, including a Black Dog known as the Moddy Dhoo. France, Belgium and Germany also had their own Black Dogs, although the British Isles remain the undisputed center of activity.

One hot spot for Black Dog sightings today is Latin America. In Mexico and Central America, particularly Guatemala, there are many stories of El Cadejo, a phantom hound. The legend here differs from those in English speaking countries because there are two versions of El Cadejo…the sinister Black Dog who stalks and torments travelers in lonely places and a benevolent White Dog who acts to counteract his ebony counterpart’s evil. In rural locations in Latin America, El Cadejo is not something from the distant past, but a creature that is being encountered even today.

Is there a real phenomenon behind the Black Dogs or is it all just distorted legends of the distant pagan past? Some theorists believe that many Black Dog stories were created by smugglers and criminals to keep people off the lonely roads and country tracks where they did their dirty deeds. There is certainly some truth to this. Old time smugglers in the days before motor transport and electricity were not above using the supernatural to cover their tracks or protect their interests.

A great flurry of interest arose in May 2014 when the bones of an enormous dog were uncovered at Leiston Abbey in Suffolk, long the stomping grounds of Black Shuck. The dog would have stood seven feet tall on its hind legs and weigh more than 200 pounds when it was alive! Had the bones of Shuck been found at last? The press would certainly have you think so with their sensationalistic reporting. However, it seemed more likely that the bones belonged to a Newfoundland dog kept by the Abbey as a guard dog. Research revealed that the dog had had a badly crippled back leg and was probably pampered in old age by the monks at the Abbey, who gave the big mutt a reverent burial.

There are so many reports of Black Dogs from different locations over such a time span that it seems likely some kind of physical phenomena is at the root of the stories. Even today in the heyday of digital computers, they are still being seen. But so are ghosts. Chances are, Black Dogs will continue haunting the dark places of the world until man himself has passed into oblivion.

This is Dr. Abner Mality, turning out the lights.