This week Warner Bros releases The Rite, an exorcism movie supposedly based on a true story. I’m a sucker for the Devil and exorcisms, so I thought this week we’d bring you all sort of Satanically-themed goodness.
In 1855 Lucifer went for a walk in the English county of Devon. On the night of 8th and early in the morning of the 9th of February a snow fell. In that snow hoof prints - like those left by a donkey - wandered around and in and out of villages all over the county. By some estimates the prints covered from 40 to 100 miles; in some towns the hoof prints stopped at every single door, and in others the prints stopped at one end of a ten foot tall brick wall and continued on the other side. The prints appeared on second story window sills, and whatever made the prints seems to have walked through six inch holes in hedges. The maker of the prints seems to have leapt from the ground to rooftops, where the prints continued. And sometimes the prints just magically disappeared in the middle of fields.
The prints were reported in thirty different locations across the county. The hoof prints were fairly small, with the largest being four inches long and three wide (some were smaller, but it’s unclear what role melting snow had in that), and they seemed to be left by something bipedal. Weirdly, though, the tracks were in a straight line - your usual bipedal track alternates left and right. And whoever left the tracks had a very small stride, with between eight and sixteen inches between each track.
A biped with hooves? Who walks like a sissy? Must be the Devil! That was one of the first theories about the mysterious tracks, although many more followed, with just about every kind of animal taking the blame. It’s been noted, however, that the people of Devon were hardly city folk; it’s likely that they would have easily recognized the tracks of most of their indigenous wildlife. Which is how the theory that an escaped monkey did it got started.
The theory I like the best is that it was a mix between a real event and a hoax. Some of the prints displayed the behavior of an animal wandering through a town, foraging. Other prints were just straight lines, doing businesslike walks through the towns. And some prints showed up days later, and in one case led right up to a church door.
So some of the tracks may have been caused by an animal as common as a woodmouse, with the tracks having been distorted by an overnight thaw and refreeze. But others may have been made by Anglicans, anxious to remind people that the devil yet walks among them.
The story of the Devil’s Footprints disappeared for some time until Charles Fort, the patron saint of weirdness, excavated reports to include in his Book of the Damned. Since then it’s been a focus of people like me, who have too much time on their hands and a penchant for the odd. The fact that prints appeared seem to be true, but the reporting of the time - and the later embellishments by those who claim to have been there - make pinpointing much else tough. People did make rubbings of the prints; using those and lots of guesswork people have blamed them on everything from UFOs to weather phenomenon to wolves, who have been extinct in Britain for a long, long time.
The Rite actually has a sly wink to the Devil’s Footprints; at one point the film’s young priest is being tormented by what might be an actual demon and he looks out his window to find a blanket of snow outside his Vatican dormitory, with a line of hoof prints leading up to the front door.