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Monday, December 4, 2023

Howling at the moon

STM debuts newest werewolf film in Ashland

By Jeremy D. Wells

Carter County Times

When I was a kid, I needed to fit everything into a box.

Ghosts were dead people.

Bigfoot was an unknown ape.

UFOs were alien spacecraft from another planet.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten much more comfortable with ambiguity. If you read about these Fortean phenomena, especially the strange cases (and let’s face it, the strange ones are the best) you’ll find things that make it harder to put it into that firm box.

If you’re an alien from another planet, why are you stopping to ask for well water and frying up buckwheat pancakes for a farmer?

If you’re a flesh and blood animal – and you must be, because you leave behind footprints – why can’t we capture a clear image of you? And what were you doing with those UFOs in Pennsylvania? Speaking of, how did you become incorporeal when shot at?

How many planets were visiting earth, given there was so much diversity among the occupants reported through the 1970s? And why did that diversity start to homogenize once the image of the grey alien was introduced to the public consciousness?

I’m not the first to notice that the phenomenon seems to change based on our expectations and the technology and mores of a time and place.

Or, perhaps, it’s better to say that our interpretation of it changes based on our own experiences.

Once upon a time folks wondered if our lives were all the dream of some giant, and if he woke we might all disappear into nothing. Today, folks wonder if we’re perhaps all living inside a computer simulation, and all the strange things that happen in our world simply “glitches” in the program.

Same basic idea, different mindset.

As I’ve become fond of saying, we can only interpret the unknown in terms of the known.

So, for me, knowing more about where stories originate, when they originate, and what folk customs and cultural wisdom says about them is an important part of understanding what we may be dealing with. Or, at the very least, in understanding why a witness interpreted the unknown in the way that they did.

Because of this shift in mindset over the years, it’s hard for me to read or watch a program where someone claims there are things that we know for certain. When exploring the unknown, nothing is ever known for certain. Once it’s known it’s written down, studied, and it fails to be the paranormal. It’s the normal – if extraordinary – at that point, at least until the novelty wears off.

It’s also why I absolutely love everything that I’ve seen from Small Town Monsters productions so far.

The filmmakers and podcasters, who recently added publisher to their resume with a trio of book titles, debuted their most recent feature film, American Werewolves 2: The Skinwalkers, in Ashland last week at the Cosmic Holler Film Fest.

Producer Seth Breedlove spoke with us before the film about his concerns with using the term werewolf at all with either film. Neither the Dogman, the main focus of the first film, nor the Skinwalker, the focus of the second, are technically the same as the classic Werewolf of European lore or the later Hollywood lore it inspired.

The Dogman in particular, he noted, is more akin to a cryptid creature, in that it’s reported to be a canine at all times. Changing from a human into the Dogman doesn’t seem to be a part of the emerging lore of this rather new addition to the cryptozoological catalog. The connection to the werewolf is that it’s an upright canine; and that, I believe, is a valid enough connection to stick it in the big box of “werewolves” despite Breedlove’s worries about his title choices. After all, if we’re trying to make sense of this from a point of view of emerging folklore, it needs to go somewhere, and we’ve already established that neat and exact boxes are impossible to keep.

The Skinwalker, on the other hand, actually has a lot more in common with the Werewolf lore of Europe. While coming from completely different traditions, both sometimes involve the donning of animal hides. Both involve the use of black magic – in Skinwalker lore to become one, in Werewolf lore either to become one or to curse someone else to it. Most importantly they both involve a human transforming into an animal, or animal like creature.

I say animal because – unlike the European Werewolf, which is usually confined to transforming into a wolf or a hybrid of that creature and a human – the Skinwalker can become almost anything.

A wolf.

A deer.

An aged person.

A young one.

They can even take on the image of someone you know.

The thing I took away from this film was that the Skinwalker, while it has become a catch all for any weird thing that doesn’t fit inside other boxes in the sphere of the internet, isn’t too far from that in Native Navajo lore and other lore of the Four Corners region and – specifically – New Mexico.

The one problem with the use of the term Skinwalker for any high strangeness (a much more appropriate term) outside of this region is that the Skinwalker is specific to Navajo lore. That isn’t the name that the people of the culture use, but it’s an approximation. The actual name, like any discussion of their powers or activities, is considered taboo. Despite this, a few things are said to be known about Skinwalkers. One is that the process always involves black magic and murder. In order to gain the powers of a Skinwalker, according to some sources, a person has to sacrifice the person they love the most.

Once they’ve crossed that line, the powers of shapeshifting and reality manipulation are theirs to wield. And since they’ve already shown that they will sacrifice the one they love the most, it makes others wary of crossing them.

That may be the real power of the belief. But Breedlove and company don’t beat you over the head with this revelation. As always, the power of their storytelling lies in the subtly. In allowing the witnesses to speak (even if some of their interpretations are tainted with the touch of internet creepypasta), providing the cultural context, and letting the viewer put it together themselves.

Do you want information that will help you go on an internet deep dive later? That’s here in the film.

Want to just ease back, relax, listen to some creepy stories and leave it at that? This film is perfect for you too.

The number of folks who Breedlove and crew were able to get to come forward, on camera, and the details they were able to get from them is beyond commendable. Large credit there goes to researcher and writer Heather Mosser, who explained in the post-film QA how she develops these relationships behind the scenes. She explained that the STM catalog stood as fine testimony to the respect the production company has shown witnesses, but that she still had to build that trust. She said that includes following up once the film is over, making sure they are doing ok. Essentially, by the time it’s all over, they’ve developed true friendships, she explained.

Because I had to follow up after learning that, she has been in contact with the witnesses in the most recent film since it finished, and there has been no further activity of note from any of them.

But, you can bet if there is, the STM crew will treat it with the seriousness and the witness with the respect they deserve.

American Werewolves 2: The Skinwalkers, is coming to streaming platforms and physical media soon. In the meantime you can find the first American Werewolves film, the Dogman Triangle: Werewolves of the Lone Star State, the Bray Road Beast, and all the other STM films streaming on Amazon, Vimeo, and other platforms, or for purchase from their website at www.smalltownmonsters.com.

If you’re looking for something spooky tonight. Something to keep you looking over your shoulder. Something that might even be true. You should check out a Small Town Monsters film. And American Werewolves 2 when it drops.

If you don’t enjoy it, write me a strongly worded letter, and I’ll run it.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com



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