The Wendigo: Horror in the North

In the northeastern USA and Canada lies a creature so horrifying and monstrous, that, upon hearing about it, I rethought any desire of traveling any farther north than I already am. This legendary beast has cropped up in fiction and myths for centuries, and it still continues to be spoken of today. I am of course talking about the Algonquian legend of The Wendigo. Is it just a superstition that inevitably fell victim to Hollywood and horror writers alike, or is there something more to this terrifying man-eater of nefarious history?

The beast is a legend from the Algonquin people, a group of Native Americans that lived mostly on the East Coast and Great Lakes areas. This “language group” consisted of many tribes and cultures such as the Cree and Cheyenne peoples. It isn’t hard to imagine that the land these people occupied could become harsh and unforgiving in the winter months. That’s where the Wendigo comes in. In Algonquin legend, the Wendigo is an evil spirit that derives from hunger and desperation. They were once humans, but through one of the most taboo acts, they have become an apex predator with an insatiable hunger. What taboo act could warrant this unholy transformation though? The answer is: cannibalism. The story goes if you eat your fellow man, you run a high risk of taking on a Wendigo spirit and are cursed to roam the forests starving, searching for more human flesh to eat. Pretty wicked stuff, right? Well, the point of the story and legends was to keep people from eating each other during times of famine.

There are several different descriptions of the Wendigo, and they’re all equally terrifying and grotesque. The modern image we come up with when we think of a Wendigo is a tall figure with disproportionate limbs and decaying skin covering its body. They also tend to have the skull of a deer for a head. Another description is, like the last, a large creature, but with pale, almost blue, skin stretched over its bones, with the skin around the mouth and fingers being chewed off. This form looks much more humanoid in appearance, but both are still terrifying.

This terrifying ghost story may have more to it than just being a grotesque, flesh-eating demon. There is actually a mental condition named “Wendigo Psychosis”, in reference to the legend. This particular form of psychosis causes people to crave human flesh and become hyper-violent. There are a few documented cases of this happening throughout history. One of the most infamous cases was that of Swift Runner. During the winter of 1878 and ‘79, a Cree man named Swift Runner claimed to be possessed by a Wendigo spirit, and then murdered and ate his family. When he came back from his winter camp without his family, his in-laws told the Canadian Mounties about Swift Runner, and they launched an investigation. Upon entering the camp with Swift Runner, the mounties noticed human bones around the camp. When questioned about them, Swift Runner came clean about what happened but blamed it on the Wendigo spirit. In the beginning, he explained that the Wendigo started coming to him in his dreams. It then progressed to it influencing him, causing him to commit this heinous act against his family. Swift Runner was hung for his crimes on December 20, 1879.

Another murder case connected to the Wendigo involved a man named Jack Fiddler, and his brother Joseph Fiddler. These two also belonged to the Cree people and were famous Wendigo hunters. Jack claimed to have killed 14 Wendigos in his lifetime, an activity that was perfectly normal to do in his culture. The Canadian Mounties eventually caught wind of what he was doing and then arrested him to be tried for murder in 1907. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, along with his brother. However, Joseph escaped custody and killed himself, and Jack died from disease before his sentence could be carried out. There was a lot of support in getting Jack’s sentence lifted, as he claimed he didn’t know it was wrong for him to kill those who he believed were a wendigo. This proves how serious this legend was to these people.

The Wendigo isn’t just rooted in old myth and legend, it has found a place in modern pop culture as well. These interpretations are somewhat different from the original story though. The Wendigo appears in Stephen King’s book Pet Cemetary and in issue #162 of The Incredible Hulk. In the Hulk comic, Hulk fights a Wendigo, along with Wolverine -- with this being his first comic book appearance. The creature also shows up in the T.V. show Supernatural, which may be the closest representation I have seen of the old legend in current media. The Wendigo is definitely a creature to be wary of if you find yourself in the woods or near small settlements. Whether the creature is still out there, or it is just a rare bout of mental illnesses, it still pays to be cautious. What do you think about the legend? Do you think it could be real? Let me know in the comments below and give the article a like if you enjoyed it!

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