Don't go too deep into the dark woods or wetlands in Cajun Country at night. You might find yourself face-to-face with a tall, terrifying, blood-thirsty creature called the rougarou. He stalks through the sugar cane fields looking for prey, tearing his victims apart, drinking their blood, and then turning them into unworldly beasts as well. Even if you don't believe that he's real, you may want to take precautions to stay out of his way.
The story of the rougarou, also known as the loup garou, is not unique to southern Louisiana. It seemed to have traveled from France to anywhere French people settled. "Loup" is French for wolf, and "garou" comes from the Frankish word "garulf," also meaning wolf. The menacing half-human, half-animal mythical beast appears in French lore beginning in the Renaissance period, perhaps even sooner. Naughty children or Catholics who didn't practice Lent for seven consecutive years, might find themselves turned into one. Of course, those who didn't believe that the loup garou is real merely said that these fables were made up to scare people
When the loup garou traveled to southern Louisiana with the Acadian people who were exiled from French Canada, its name evolved into rougarou, though you may hear him called both. It's also been noted that he isn't strictly a werewolf-type entity. It can shape-shift to any animal that calls the bayou home. Laura McKnight wrote about the rougarou for Houma Today, and recounted a tale that apperared "in a 1971 Louisiana Folklore Society publication, [where] the rougarou appears as a calf struck by a motorist on the highway, [and w]hen the driver got out of his vehicle, the calf had vanished, and an uninjured man, apparently a rougarou, was walking away from the spot where the creature was hit."
The mythical creature doesn't seem to be as violent as your run-of-the-mill werewolf from the silver screen. It prefers to wreak havoc by destroying property or passing his curse onto someone else so that it will leave them. A Vermilionville informational pamphlet for children reads, "The legend says that when a person comes into contact with a loup-garou and sheds the blood of the beast, the loup-garou will then change to its human form and reveal its secret. The victim then becomes a loup-garou for 101 days. If the victim speaks of the encounter to anyone, it becomes a loup-garou. But if he remains quiet about it, he returns to its human form and continue on with its life. In the legends, the loup-garou is said to be someone the victim knows, such as a jealous former friend." Like many creatures of the night, it resumes its human form when the sun comes up.
There are ways to protect yourself from becoming a rougarou, other than being on your best behavior. These beasts don't seem to be the brightest beings, and they can be easily outsmarted. You need only lay 13 small objects, like coins or beans, by your doors and windows. An approaching rougarou will attempt to count the objects, but he can't count higher than 12. He will be unable to count all of the objects, which will confound it to the point that he won't stop trying to count them all. It will be so distracted that he won't be able to enter your home. He'll have to leave when the sun rises and he becomes human again.
Not everyone down the bayou is convinced that the rougarou exists. They may believe, however, in the power that the legend holds over those who do believe. McKnight explains that "[t]he creature has even imbedded himself in local lingo. When Juliet Henry of Houma spends a restless night tossing and turning in her bed, she tells people, 'I made the rougarou all night.' Like a lot of Terrebonne and Lafourche residents, Henry grew up hearing older family members use the phrase, and now her own children 'make the rougarou' on sleepless nights, too. Some locals also use the word to describe a person who carouses at night, roaming in a rowdy fashion. 'Faire loup-garou' or 'faire rou-garou' means to stay up late at night and run around causing a disturbance,' according to the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany."
If you want to go out hunting for a rougarou, you can start by visiting the life-size rougarou at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, which has been thrilling and chilling visitors for decades. You can also celebrate the beast at rougarou Fest in Houma in late October. The brave-at-heart enter into the gougarou costume contest. Of all of the strange things living across the south of the state, like the Grunch and the Honey Island Swamp Monster, the rougarou has got his place in our story.