In the autumn of 1972, numerous Swedish newspapers described how werewolves were causing a panic in a town in southern Sweden. According to the articles, fearsome werewolf attacks caused a “werewolf panic”, children were “paralysed with fear”, and one article even gave the alarming statement: “three school children killed! A teacher attacked and a woman beaten senseless in her cellar” (Kuusela 2016, 94). The happening took place in the otherwise quiet and peaceful town Trelleborg, at the time home to approximately 23,000 people.
The topic of werewolves was considered interesting for a couple of days, before the journalists pursued other matters. After that, the whole thing faded, and became a distant memory in Trelleborg – just a good story. Nevertheless, a couple of weeks later, newspapers reported a second outburst of werewolf attacks roughly 411 miles north of Trelleborg, in Jakobsberg, a suburb of Stockholm. This time, adults were calling the police claiming that a werewolf was roaming the rooftops at night, smashing windows and biting people to death! Like the first alarm, public interest in the second wave of werewolf attacks was brief and died out after a couple of days. The following year, one of Sweden’s biggest daily newspapers, Aftonbladet, reported that a mummy roamed in Sätra, a suburb of Stockholm. According to the article, the mummy killed cats, panicked horses, and “howled like a werewolf”. So, if werewolves were biting people to death and a mummy was roaming the streets of Stockholm, then this would have been shocking, even global news, and not something that could die out after a couple of days of circulation in local or national newspapers.
Werewolves, vampires and a mummy
The first article on werewolves in Trelleborg had the following caption: “‘Werewolf’ scared children. Police took action at school”. It appeared in a local newspaper, Trelleborgs Allehanda, on 16 November 1972. This encouraged and inspired other journalists, who travelled to Trelleborg in hunt of a scoop. They interviewed children and teachers at the school, and contacted both police officers and locals. Different newspapers tried to come up with the most sensational news. That the journalists considered the werewolf a mere rumour becomes evident from reading the articles, written with a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Frightened schoolchildren said that they had seen a “man with hairy face, large protruding teeth and claws on his fingers”, they told other children who in turn started looking for a werewolf. Rumours started circulating in town and quickly became more and more sensational.
Many children claimed to have seen a werewolf; they said that he had a beard, long hair, and horns on his forehead. Other children showed the reporters werewolf teeth (tree branches), werewolf footprints (prints from horse hooves) or showed markings on walls supposed to be scratches from werewolf claws. Some children did not speak of a werewolf; instead, they claimed that a vampire haunted Trelleborg. One rumour said that two elderly women were just about to leave a laundry room – in Sweden this is usually a separate building or in a cellar, shared by tenants of the same house or a housing cooperative – when a large, unpleasant man appeared in front of them. He attacked them and tried to claw their faces, but one of the women fainted and the man suddenly disappeared. Different articles published in local and national newspapers, based on interviews and rumours, led to more rumours and increasing fear among children and parents. Two days after the first newspaper article, several children were so terrified that they stayed home from school. Both teachers and the school principal repeatedly had to calm the situation. Even the police had to respond to different alarms of alleged werewolf sightings – but never found any reliable physical evidence. Younger schoolchildren were most afraid, while many of the older children thought the situation ridiculous; some even took advantage of the situation to frighten the younger children even more. Many distressed parents thought it might be a crazy person who dressed up as a werewolf. All kinds of rumours circulated. One thing was certain, werewolf or not, the horror that many children, and some of their parents, felt was genuine. It took a couple of days for the whole thing to die out, something that happened naturally when the newspapers stopped writing about the situation.
The second werewolf alarm is comparable to the first. The rumour was at first concentrated in one area and reported in the press by different newspapers, but died out after only a couple of days of circulation. The explanation for the second alarm is probably also due to the horror movies (see below), combined with an event. According to one article, a group of children had met a strange man with long hair and big beard in a big public garage; he shouted at them and the children interpreted this as a roar or a howl. Apparently, this strange encounter in the large, shadowy garage was enough for the children to associate the man with a werewolf. The children’s reaction and response was with upsetting narratives that quickly spread and grew in intensity among parents and other children.
The third case, the mummy alarm, originated when an eleven-year-old boy claimed to have encountered the mummy late one night in March in 1973. He was shaken by what he think he saw, and he quickly told other kids, who told parents, who called the police, which led to reporters writing about it in newspapers. The rumour spread and grew in proportions. Other children organised expeditions were they hunted for the mummy at night and spooked each other. The police was soon hunting the mummy, but never found anything.
The influence of horror films
According to police reports from Trelleborg and Jakobsberg, the werewolf in both cases was really the town oddball, who in both cases was a well-known eccentric man with long hair and a big beard (Kuusela 2016, 85). It seems clear that the werewolf (and mummy) alarms were just rumours, encouraged by older schoolchildren who scared younger kids, who in turn worried parents. The police officers seems to have been annoyed at the whole situation, especially the fact that many seemed to take the rumours seriously. One police officer, who worked on this case, said to a reporter, “Nowadays many people look more or less like werewolves, with long hair and beard” (Kuusela 2016: 93). This is clearly his opinion of a new hippie generation with long hair, sideburns and beard.
The police might have looked for suspects among the population, but there is another, much simpler explanation. During the summer of 1972, Swedish television showed eight horror movies; two of these were werewolf movies, The Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941). The other horror movies broadcasted were Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) (see Kuusela 2016: 94). That the themes of these movies had an impact is more than likely, and confirmed by a study based on interviews at two primary schools in Trelleborg. About eighty schoolchildren – two second-grade classes and two fifth-grade classes – at the school where the alarm had been most intense were interviewed in December 1972, and the same amount of children at a school on the opposite side of town (where there were hardly any narratives of werewolves) in January 1973. Judging by the interviews, it becomes clear that the movies had a big impact: 70 % of the children in fifth grade (between 10 and 11 year olds) had seen the movies. For the younger children in second grade fewer had seen the movies: 35% of the boys and less than 10% of the girls (see Erikson, Lövkrona, Peterson 1973, 18–21).
However, the films were not the only trigger. During 1972, a new comic, Werewolf by Night by Marvel, was published in Sweden and translated as Varulven “The Werewolf”, and the second issue, published just after the summer break, had the caption Källarens hemlighet “Secrets of the cellar” on its cover. A new novel Jag är en varulvsunge “I am a Werewolf Child”, written for children by Gunnel Linde, was also published during the autumn, before the first alarm. Lastly, many children played games on the schoolyard with names taken from horror fiction, such as Werewolf, Frankenstein, Dracula, or Mummy. From the same study, mentioned above, it becomes clear that approximately 50 % of all the interviewed children had read the comic. When it comes to the game, around 60% of the boys in second grade had played werewolf, but fewer of the girls. Among the older children, around 25% of the boys had played the game but none of the girls (Erikson, Lövkrona, Peterson 1973, 18–21). Nevertheless, there is also another factor to consider, popular culture alone is not always enough to frighten children. In many cases, the children claimed to have actually seen a strange person that they instantly linked to a werewolf figure. This is clearer in the reports from the second werewolf alarm, also from 1972.
Monster with iron teeth, phantom clowns and Momo
Is it possible to compare the 1972 Swedish werewolf panic, or rather alarm, to similar cases in other countries? Yes. One similar happening took place in England in the 1950s. In the Gorbals district of Glasgow in 1954, hundreds of children stormed a local cemetery. This was at first reported in the now obsolete Glasgow morning paper, The Bulletin on 24 September 1954. Other papers followed and wrote about the same happening with different angles during the following days. Apparently, the children were looking for something they referred to as a vampire with iron teeth. The press had just reported that this vampire had killed and eaten “two wee boys”. At first, the alarm was thought to be directly linked to horror films shown locally, but was later reinterpreted as being due to horror comics. But, as shown in a study by two folklorists, the monster with iron teeth can also be traced to local legends. Above all to bogeymen and the children’s responses to legends and frightening, particularly about a certain “Jenny wi’ the airn teeth” that was used to frighten children in the area (see Hobbs & Cornwell 1988).
Nowadays, some might think that this seems odd, even chuckle at the situations described above. Maybe this reminds us of the period of the witch trials, when rumours merged with belief in a very cruel and aggressive way, but has nothing to do with our enlightened and rational worldview, right? This attitude is short lived if we recall the clowns of 2016, and the panic that spread across the world like wildfire. This fear of bad clowns was never (or at least, very rarely) reported with a light-hearted or ironic tone by the journalists, even though it – at least for a folklorist – is easy to see that many narratives actually spoke about phantom clowns, supernatural creatures that seemed to exist at night but were non-existent during the day. Curiously, this fear of “phantom clowns” had originally started a couple of years earlier as local alarms in both England and the United States, before reaching a larger area of circulation and merging with other fears (see Radford 2016). The phantom clowns and alleged sightings of them became viral on the internet, and reported in printed newspapers and television all over the world. With the help of rumours, gossip, creepy pasta and other horror stories, as well as ostensive action (where people dressed up as clowns and posted the clips on social media), the clown craze quickly had the world in its grip. Nonetheless, a lack of solid evidence, few arrests, and with time, skepticism, resulted in fewer alleged clown sightings, and the whole thing eventually died out after a couple of months (well, a few cases still pop up). Just as recently as 2018, many children (and their parents) panicked about the Momo Challenge, not knowing that the horrific creature called Momo that they sent to each other was actually a photo of a sculpture, named Mother Bird, made by the artist Keisuke Aiso, for an art exhibition in Tokyo.
Let us return to the werewolf alarms. At the heart seems to be a fear, from the grown-ups perspective, that children are in danger or victims of some crazy person. Why werewolves? I will quote my own article, and add that what I say applies to other horrors that circulates and pops up now and again:
“But, notions of the werewolf, both in folklore and popular culture, have one thing in common; it is fear of the unknown and suspicion against strange and unfamiliar people. The savage image of the werewolf, being uncivilized and nocturnal, fits well: it is a way of expressing fears of what is believed to be wrong with society […] werewolves reveal our fear of what lurks inside, the beast hidden in us all that has the potential to change a rational and moral person, leaving only dreaded animal behaviour and appetites of lust, hunger, and rage” (Kuusela 2016, 93).
References and Further Reading
Erikson, Kerstin, Inger Lövkrona & Per Peterson. 1973. “Varulven finns, gör den inte? En studie i ryktesspridning” In: Tradisjon vol. 3/1973, pp. 13–30.
Hobbs, Sandy & David Cornwell. 1988. “Hunting the Monster with Iron Teeth” In: Gillian Bennett & Paul Smith (eds.) Monsters with Iron Teeth (Perspectives on Contemporary Legend, 3). Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, pp. 115–137.
Kuusela, Tommy. 2016. ”An American Werewolf in Trelleborg: Representation of the Werewolf in Swedish Folk Belief and Popular Culture” In: Barbara Brodman & James E. Doan (eds.) The Supernatural Revamped. From Timeworn Legends to Twenty-First-Century Chic. Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, pp. 83–96.
Radford, Benjamin. 2016. Bad clowns. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
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