From my Halloween 2009 archives. My nephew Bubba told me today that a couple of his friends say they have SEEN the Wampas Cat, one on Starr’s Mountain in McMinn County–a pretty spooky place on its own. He wanted to know more about the legend, and I told him I’d repost this for him.
Cultures across the globe have legends about humans who can turn into animals by supernatural means. In France, during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and into the seventeenth centuries, thousands suspected of changing themselves into wolves by magical means were burned at the stake as heretics. In other places, depending on what the apex predators and large creatures are, there can be wereleopards, weretigers, werelions, even (although I suspect somebody’s being facetious about this one) werealligators.
We have legends of a werecreature in East Tennessee. Ours is called the Wampas (or Wampus) Cat, and it may truly be a supernatural creature: a ghost, rather than a shapeshifting human.
The Wampas Cat is described as bigger than most cats, tabby striped, with great glaring green eyes, huge paws, and the ability to walk, human-fashion, on its hind legs over sustained distances. Although it is normally found in deep woods, away from human contact, for some years now reports of its presence have come from a number of East Tennessee towns: Bristol, Jonesborough, Knoxville, Robbinsville, Cleveland, Chattanooga, Erwin, and others.
Most encounters happen at night. One man thought he was chasing a dog that was about to cock a leg on his prize cabbages, only to find he was staring into feline eyes, four feet off the ground. Another reported following a huge cat down the streets of a town, only to see it stand up on two legs, look in the window of a pharmacy that was closed for the night, and then walk off—bipedal. When approached, the creature will hiss like a cat. It’s never been known to attack anyone.
But a ghost, you ask? Charles Edwin Price, the author of such marvelous collections of Appalachian folklore as HAINTS, WITCHES AND BOOGERS, HAUNTED JONESBOROUGH, and MYSTERIOUS KNOXVILLE, thinks so. As he tells the tale, in his 1992 book DEMON IN THE WOODS: TALL TALES AND TRUE FROM EAST TENNESSEE, the Wampas Cat is the ghost of a brave Cherokee woman who once faced down a demon, and continues to protect the area against its return. Here’s a synopsis of the tale, as he heard it from Cherokee storytellers.
Before the whites came into the area, the Cherokee hunted and farmed these lands in southern Appalachia. One village, however, was plagued by a wood demon called an Ewah, which stood twelve feet tall and whose single glance could drive a man mad. A Cherokee warrior called Great Fellow boasted he could get rid of the creature, which had not only driven several hunters in the area out of their minds; it was continually disturbing villages around with its unearthly howls and screams. Great Fellow went out in pursuit of the demon, only to return a gibbering wreck of himself; the demon had surprised him, and one look into its eyes had driven him clean out of his senses.
Now Great Fellow had a wife, a brave and tenacious woman called Running Deer. With her husband no longer able to fill his role as husband or warrior, she determined she would be avenged on the demon; she would destroy it or run it out of the Cherokee lands forever. To that end, she consulted with the Adewahis, the Cherokee medicine men. They put her through a series of purification rituals, gave her advice—the main piece of which was that, whatever she did, she must make sure she saw the demon before it saw her, lest she glance into its eyes unaware and be driven mad by the sight—and, last of all, they gave her a weird mask: a magical mask, the preserved face of a wildcat, to conceal her features and protect her from the evil spirit.Running Deer went into the woods on a night when the moon was dark, guided only by the sounds of the screams and moans of the demon as it shambled through the forest. Concealed behind a boulder, she saw the demon as it entered a clearing, totally unaware of her presence. As it came nearer, she stood up and gave an unearthly scream, much like that of the cat whose mask she wore. Startled, the demon faced her. Running Deer screamed again, that horrible wildcat scream that sounds exactly like a woman in deadly peril. Her screams seemed to terrify the demon, as did the sight of her cat face. At first, the Ewah rolled on the ground, howling as if it were in pain. Then, it got up and ran—ran as hard as it could run, from the apparition that had seemingly risen from nowhere.
The demon was gone. Running Deer returned to the village, still in her right senses, to find herself considered strong medicine against evil spirits, for she had defeated the demon . Inevitably, the Ewah returned, but, until the end of her days, Running Deer was the one who donned the mask, went into the woods, and drove the demon away again.
And now, long after her life ended, it may be that the Wampas Cat is her ghost—still protecting the lands of East Tennessee from the return of the Ewah.
Which is not to say that her ghost doesn’t scare the heck out of those who encounter it. After all, as a hillbilly might say, cats what kin walk on their hine laigs like people ain’t somethin’ you see ever’ day.