Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Michigan Dogman: a case study in myth-making

Where England has its Black Shuck and the pine barrens of New Jersey have the Jersey Devil, Michigan has the Dogman, a creature said to resemble a dog or a dog-human hybrid that is sighted in years ending in 7. Sometimes it is thought to change shape, like a werewolf. Like these other cases, it seems probable that cultural legends shape how people perceive the spooks of the darkness which the idle brain generates from misunderstood or imagined stimuli - but in the case of Michigan, we know precisely where the legend comes from, and so we can see the myth-making process in action.

There is no reality hiding behind the Dogman. The entire legend was created in 1987 as an April Fools' joke.

Steve Cook, a Traverse City DJ, wrote and recorded a song with a vintage feel to it describing one sighting of the Dogman per decade going back to 1887 - sightings which he invented. (There are cryptozoologists who claim he based the song on existing legends, but none who cite any kind of source where either Cook makes this claim or where one of those stories is told before Cook's song.) He titled it "The Legend," and played it once in the morning of April 1.

And then, bizarrely, the phone calls began.

Listeners wanted to know where he had gotten the song and how they could get a copy (which prompted Cook to start selling the single, on cassette tapes, for $4, giving the proceeds to a local animal shelter), and requested that it be played again (it was, in fact, the most requested song on the station for a while after it first aired). Many of them told him why the song had stuck with them - they had seen the Dogman themselves.

People who had had a weird moment in the woods, the kind that lacked a cultural shape to interpret it, remembered new details that fit their memories into the Dogman legend - the one that, unbeknownst to them, hadn't existed a week earlier. And many thus remembered the dates as having been in years ending in 7, as the song said they should have been.

The details we are told about the Dogman by people who say they have seen it don't all agree. But that's to be expected - even the accounts in the original song don't match, giving the whole myth an air of mystery that providing concrete details would fail to supply. Sometimes the Dogman is a giant dog or wolf, able to leave claw marks high up in a church door. Sometimes it walks on two legs like a man. Sometimes, it seems to be a werewolf, transforming before the witness's eyes. There exists a film which purports to document a sighting; the creature in the so-called "Gable film" is an indistinct, shaggy shape, which believers can fill in as being whatever they expect the Dogman to look like. (In fact, the Gable film is an admitted hoax; the shaggy Dogman form it depicts is just a man in a ghillie suit.)

People who research such things with an eye toward proving them to be truth connect the Michigan Dogman to the Beast of Bray Road, another half-man, half-wolf creature regularly reported in Wisconsin. To a folklorist, it's clear the two myths started off separate and mostly remain distinct, though because of the writings of those credulous monster-hunters they may be beginning to merge with one another into a single, general, upper-midwestern werewolf myth. But for many in Michigan who know of the legend, the song remains the most canonical account, and whereas the Beast of Bray Road may be sighted any year, the Michigan Dogman mostly remains a once-per-decade phenomenon arriving in the "seventh year."

1987 and 1997 and 2007 have all given the world new Dogman sightings. It's likely 2017 will as well. Somehow, simply telling the story to a mass audience has brought the legend into being, and with it, the phenomenon. Our credulity shapes our perception of reality, and brings these phantoms out of the world of pure fiction and into that of human experience.

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