Commentary

Shaffer: Vampire beast still stalks Bladenboro -- and the town is OK with that

jshaffer@newsobserver.comOctober 13, 2013 

  • If you go

    BeastFest runs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Nov. 2 in Bladenboro, about 100 miles south of Raleigh. For more information, see www.borobooster.org.

— The monster that stalked this cotton-mill town in 1953 only ate dogs and maybe a goat – never people.

But the way it ate them made it famous. It broke their jaws. It crushed their heads. It sucked all the blood from their bodies, leaving empty skins behind. Frightened townsfolk described a panther-bear-coyote thing with big teeth: The Beast of Bladenboro.

“This nervous town chewed its collective nails today,” The Wilmington Morning Star reported, “dreading the pitch of night that might bring a return visit by a mystery killer-beast with vampire lust.”

A half-dozen chewed-up dogs doesn’t usually draw a crowd. But when the newspapers start printing accounts of a blood-sucking fiend slinking around in the woods, and the wire services pick it up nationwide, suddenly you’ve got shotgun-happy creature killers piling into Bladen County clear from Tennessee. An estimated 1,000 people poured into town, loaded for beast.

The situation got so far out of hand that finally, the mayor raised a dead bobcat up a flagpole and declared it the vanquished Beast of Bladenboro, sending out photographs to news outlets statewide. So reported one Jefferson Weaver in the Bladen Journal in 2003.

“While there are numerous homespun references to a circus losing several animals near Lumberton a year or so before,” wrote Weaver, now a columnist with The News-Reporter in nearby Whiteville, “no first-hand reports of such an escape have been located. The discovery near Big Swamp of an ocelot – a type of wild cat native to Mexico – seemed to solve the mystery.”

For all the attention it gathered, the beast racked up a fairly unimpressive body count – at least to my way of thinking. A suburban coyote can dispatch a half-dozen domestic dogs without gaining so much notice, let alone earning itself an ominous nickname that survives for six decades.

A rampage with style

The Beast of Bladenboro endures because its rampage had style. It didn’t just kill dogs. It drained them. You’re not just a beast if you suck dogs dry. You’re a vampire beast, with the word “vampire” being used as an adjective. This monster was so horrendous it deserved a modifier.

At the time the beast struck, Bladenboro had something of a hum to it. Two movie theaters. A minor league baseball team. Streets that drew Friday-night shoppers off the farm. A monster that stalked pets just added to the excitement.

But the mill sputtered, shrank and finally shut down in 2000. Town leaders looked around for a new spark and cast their eyes to their old carnivorous pal.

“The biggest thing we had going for us, what put us on the map, was the Beast,” said Berry Lewis, organizer of Bladenboro’s annual BeastFest, which has its seventh run on Nov. 2.

‘A nice beast’

Most years, BeastFest draws about 6,000 people, more than three times the population. Along with the collard sandwiches, you’ll experience the spectacle of a ugly black-furred beast mascot and a militia firing muzzle-loaders and a cannon, carrying a dead cat-thing on two poles. Dogs need not fear.

“We wanted to portray him as a nice beast,” Lewis said.

And so the stalking comes full circle. An outcast becomes a welcome guest. Townsfolk put down their guns and embrace the creature whose head they hunted. The festival in Bladenboro shows the beast inside us all, the hairy and ravenous thing that craves acceptance even as it rips raw flesh. We may suck the blood out of a few dogs, bite the nose off an odd goat, but at our core, we’re all warm-blooded quadrupeds looking for home.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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