There are quite a few stories in the Ozarks about shapeshifters, most of whom are witches but with the occasional witch hunter thrown in every now and then. One set of stories has given rise to legends about the booger dog. Basically the booger dog is a great black beast, sometimes identified as an unusually large wolf, other times as a wolf-beast hybrid. He stalks the woods at night waiting for unsuspecting victim to devour. It’s usually hunters who see the booger dog on account of spending much of their time in the woods during the hunting season, but there have also been accounts from farmers about the beast slaughtering cattle or sometimes even a child. It’s said that the booger dog isn’t any normal animal, but a witch who can shapeshift into the beast at will to terrorize those who have wronged her.
There’s a story about a man who kept loosing cows to what he believed to be a wolf or coyote. One night he stayed up with his rifle to finally do away with the pest. To his surprise it wasn’t any coyote he’d ever seen before, but instead it was a giant black wolf that would rip out a cow’s throat in one bite. The man knew that none of his bullets would work on the beast, as everyone in the Ozarks knows that only a silver bullet will kill a booger dog. So, the next morning the man melted down a silver watch chain and formed two bullets. That night he waited up again for the beast to return. At about midnight he heard a rustle in the pasture and soon enough he began seeing cows dropping one by one in the field. Grabbing his rifle the man ran toward the pasture and in the light of the full moon he could see the booger dog, face covered in blood, dragging off two of the man’s best bulls. The man took aim, fired one bullet that only hit the beast’s left shoulder, and as the booger dog turned toward the man he took the second shot which pierced the wolf’s heart. Switching on a flashlight to get a better look at his foe, the man rushed to the place where the beast had fallen. Much to the man’s horror, laying there on the ground wasn’t any wolf, but a gray-haired woman dressed in a black dog’s skin with one bullet through her left shoulder and another through her heart.
There are many variations on the booger dog story. Sometimes the man, unable to shoot the beast at night, would instead shoot three silver bullets at the full moon and the next morning find the woman in a wolf or dog skin lying dead in a field. There are common themes in the stories though. It’s always a black wolf-like beast of unnatural size, it can only be killed with a silver bullet, and it always turns back into its original human form, whether male or female, after being shot. For a related story read “The Booger Dog”.
Shapeshifters aren’t limited to the booger dog, however, there are also stories about witches turning into cats (usually always black) in order to stalk their victims or enter into someone’s home in order to retrieve a personal item to use against them. Ozark Hillfolk have a distrust for all black animals and will rarely allow them into their homes out of fear that it might be a witch in disguise. Witches are also known to take the form of owls or other night birds. An owl seen on the road at night is a bad omen and usually seen as a sign that a witch is trying to work against you. An owl caught in the rafters of a home is another sign of witchcraft and should be remedied as soon as possible. There are also stories about witches turning into deer to play tricks on hunters. One such story is “The Silver Bullet”.
Shapeshifting traditions in general are interesting to look at. It seems much of the folklore surrounding the werewolf or the shapeshifter is more about the primal, animalistic part of humanity that’s coming out in a person moreso than the fact that they can transform physically into another creature. The folklore of shapeshifting is in part likely based on much older, actual practices of dressing in animal skins.
The berserkers of Norse legend were known to have worn bear pelts into battle, ber- translating to “bear” and -serkr meaning a kind of coat or shirt. Odin’s elite warriors were known as the Úlfheðnar who wore wolf pelts and were said to have ripped out the throats of men on the battlefield and were unharmed by weapons or fire. The earliest mentioning of the Úlfheðnar comes from the Haraldskvæði a skaldic poem by Thórbiörn Hornklofi in the late 9th century:
I’ll ask of the berserks, you tasters of blood, Those intrepid heroes, how are they treated, Those who wade out into battle? Wolf-skinned they are called. In battle They bear bloody shields. Red with blood are their spears when they come to fight. They form a closed group. The prince in his wisdom puts trust in such men Who hack through enemy shields.
With these shapeshifting traditions the men aren’t physically changing into an animal, but instead, by means of wearing the skins of the animal as well as likely ingesting some sort of hallucinogenic plants or mushrooms, they are able to take on the nature or aspects of the bear or wolf. The more elaborate legends about shapeshifting, especially those of the werewolves, are likely based on these much more ancient practices of our pagan ancestors. In the Ozarks the more modern legends, still based on these ancient shapeshifting traditions, would have come to the area with the first immigrants. These folks were of British, Scottish, Irish, and German descent, and would have not only carried with them tales about shapeshifters but an entire cultural foundation based on the idea that such things like this were possible. These beliefs would have then mixed with Native American traditions to give rise to such tales as the booger dog and witch owls. These legends represent much more than just storytelling; they are connections to very deep and primal beliefs that have been preserved despite changes in religion, physical displacement, and hardships of all sorts.