Ghosts have always fascinated mankind and struck fear into the hearts of people the world over. However, it is possible that none does so as effectively as the phantom hound.
Origins of the Beasts
The origins of these supernatural monstrosities are shrouded in mystery but one of the earliest connections seems to be to an old Celtic legend. Arawn, the Lord of Winter, and his 'hounds of hell' supposedly flew off by night in search of human souls. Also, Cwm Annwn, who may also have been the original source for the legend of Herne the Hunter, and his pack of ethereal white dogs supposedly terrorised the countryside, according to Welsh myth. Similar stories are told throughout Germany, Scandinavia and the rest of Britain.
The legend of the phantom hounds has mutated somewhat since then and the beasts are known by many names. In the British Isles they are referred to as:
- 'Old Shuck' in Norfolk
- 'Old Shock' in Suffolk
- 'Gwyllgi' in Wales
- 'Moddey Dhoo' or 'Mauthe Doog' on the Isle of Man
- 'Gurt Dog' in Somerset
- 'Dando' in Cornwall
- 'Yeth' in Devon
- 'Barguest' in Yorkshire
- 'Guytrash' in northern England
- 'Pooka' in Ireland
In other regions the dogs are known as 'Skriker', 'Padfoot' and 'Black Shag'. In Belgium the beast is known as the Kludde.
It is interesting to note that the names 'Shuck' and 'Shock' are in fact derived from succa, an Old English word meaning demon.
Know your Spectre
The supposed forms of these foul beasts differ from region to region with their names. The ghosts are invariably black, except in the much older legends mentioned above, and the hounds are almost always said to be much larger than normal dogs, in some cases the size of a calf. Some phantom hounds were supposedly headless, whilst others had heads but with only one large eye. Glowing red eyes are also a common variant. A few of the apparitions were even said to have wings and walk on their hind legs. In several accounts of encounters with phantom hounds, the spectres have transformed into black cats, large black birds and even headless black women.
The behaviour that the creatures supposedly display is equally diverse. Common areas haunted by phantom dogs are gates, stiles and crossroads but sightings have also been reported in graveyards, especially in the United States. The apparitions are sometimes accompanied by the sound of rattling chains, or they walk with an unnerving splashing noise. Some of them are even said to talk, as in one documented case when a phantom dog said to a man passing along the lane 'I shall want you within the week'. The man died soon afterwards. In other stories the creatures chase their victims. It is impossible to escape a phantom hound under such circumstances; the more you run, the faster the beast will give chase. There is not a single recorded incident, legend or story in which a hound is in any way pleasant.
Terrifying Tales of the Beasts
Seeing a ghost dog was often said to be an omen of death; either your own or a member of your family's. It could even signal financial troubles or great emotional strife, but that would be getting off lightly. Although phantom dogs are often a portent of death they rarely actually kill people themselves. There are, however, two famous instances of this happening.
Spectre at the Roadside
The first occurred on a lonely country lane. A farmer was riding home on his cart when he saw a black dog at the roadside. Thinking that it was a creature of flesh and blood he stopped the cart, jumped down and moved to pat the dog on the head. As he did so he, his cart and his horse spontaneously burst into flames.
Violation of the Sacred
The second tale took place at the church of Bungay, Suffolk, UK during a thunderstorm in 1577. The parishioners were gathered inside the church for safety when all of a sudden a huge black dog materialised and ran wild throughout the church in a frenzy. It killed two people instantly and caused another to shrivel up and die before it ran from the building. The memory of this event lives on in the form of the church's unusual weather-vane, which has a leaping black dog on it rather than the more common cockerel.
These two accounts are both relatively old but don't think for a moment that stories of phantom hounds are confined to the distant past. There are many accounts of black ghost dogs terrorising motorists in very recent times and an invisible dog is said to haunt Heathrow Airport, brushing past people's legs and breathing down their necks.
Phantom Hounds in Fiction
The best known of all works of fiction based on phantom hounds is probably The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In this novel the great Sherlock Holmes is called to Dartmoor to investigate the alleged murders of several people at the hands of some terrifying beast. In the end it transpires that the ghost dog is a fraud: it turns out to be an ordinary dog covered in fluorescent paint and starved until it is half crazed and prepared to kill anything. The atmosphere created by Doyle's descriptions of the phantom hound, however, is powerful and intense.
Other Spectral Animals
The phantom hound is one of the better-known spectral animals in the UK. However, there are others. A farmhouse on the Isle of Man was at one point said to be haunted by a mongoose called Geff. This bizarre creature could supposedly talk and move around the house unnoticed.
In Ireland there is a legend of an enormous, black phantom pig that terrorizes the streets of Dublin and in Japan rumours persist of white phantom foxes with two tails; restless spirits of the dead.