The untold truth of the Wendigo

The odds are pretty good that at some point in your life, you've been gathered around a campfire with friends trading stories about all the specters and monstrosities that could lurk out of the woods and consume your supple young flesh bits. There's the Hook Handed Man, an American classic. There are ravenous cryptids, reported secondhand but never captured on film, like Bigfoot and werewolves and the chupacabra and the small vampire that controls Mark Zuckerburg's steam-powered skin suit. And of course, there's the Wendigo.

Stories about the Wendigo have been told for centuries, echoing fears of humanity's darkest potential. Like all of the best beasts of folklore, it strikes up visceral images of the possibilities we all know are out there but lock away in the backs of our minds. In the northern wilderness, when you're all alone and miles from civilization, it can probably seem like this supernatural night terror could be anywhere. It could lurk behind any tree, or watch hungrily from any shadow, waiting to end you, unwitnessed, in unspeakably haunting ways.

What sorts of unspeakably haunting ways are we talking about? Let's explore the tale of the Wendigo.

The myth of the Wendigo

So what, you might well ask, is the Wendigo?

According to legend, the Wendigo could be one of two things. The first possibility is that it's a physical being; a hideous monster that stalks the northern woods, desperate to sate its unfathomable hunger. Different stories described it differently. Sometimes it had the head of a stag, and other times it was closer to a monstrous human, emaciated from constantly starving. It was sometimes said to grow in proportion to the size of the meal it had just consumed, making it impossible for the beast to ever eat its fill. In a particularly jarring description from Ojibwe scholar Basil Johnston, its lips were described as "tattered" and it was said that it smelled like "death and corruption."

In other stories, a Wendigo is a malevolent spirit that takes control of men's bodies, cursing them with an incurable need to consume human flesh. It was said that this spirit could possess a person who was overcome with selfishness or greed, leading them to acts of cannibalism. This sort of storytelling is mirrored in the folklore of other cultures: If you don't behave then Krampus will take you, and if you're too self-involved, you'll become a man-eating forest ghoul.

The folklore behind the Wendigo

Like many cryptozoological monstrosities, the Wendigo has its roots in a variety of cultures. It originates in the northern regions of North America with the folklore of the Algonquian indigenous peoples.

The term "Algonquian" in this case refers less to a single tribe of Native Americans and more to a subset of cultures based mostly around Canada, the Northeast U.S. coast, and the Great Lakes regions. Among the dozens of tribes included in the blanket definition are the Cree, Ojibwe, and Innu. Many of these societies shared similar dialects and, importantly, the life experiences inherent in a life spent in the punishing climate of the North. Starvation and exposure to the elements were very real dangers, and as with any culture, fears gave birth to stories and mythological personifications of possible threats. In the same way that concerns about the destructive potential of nuclear technology brought Godzilla to the modern world, a very real fear of desperation may have led to the proliferation of stories about the Wendigo. Different groups had different variations on the mythos, but one thing always stayed the same: the all-consuming hunger that drove it to take the lives of the unwary.

What to expect when you're expecting (to be eaten by a Wendigo)

So you're out in the frigid wilderness of the North American woods when you happen across a Wendigo. Your first reaction might be to panic, and maybe even give up on any chance of having a pleasant afternoon. But is that reasonable?

According to legends, yes. Stories tell us that a Wendigo is almost impossible to escape. They are relentless in their pursuit of food and unaffected by the punishing elements. On their home turf, the unforgiving cold in the forests of the North, you're pretty much out of luck. Some sources say you're no better off if you make it to shelter since the Wendigo, like the humble velociraptor, has no trouble opening doors. Wherever you go, the creature will follow, raking at you with grasping claws, tirelessly pursuing the despairing hope that you will be the meal that finally gives it satisfaction.

Oh, it's also worth mentioning that even if you do escape, you'll probably lose your mind. There really isn't such thing as a "glass is half full" Wendigo encounter.

Preparedness is key

The good news is that there are stories describing ways to kill a Wendigo. The bad news is that you're going to need a lot of silver.

The chief weakness of a Wendigo, traditionally, is its heart. The beast reportedly has a ticker made of solid ice, which, while probably great when it doesn't want to make a cooler run at a barbecue, leaves it vulnerable to a rare form of violence we'll call "heart smashery." According to howstuffworks, if you can get at the creature's heart with a silver blade or stake or bullet, then shatter the heart, then put the shattered heart bits in a silver box, then lock the box, and finally bury the box in a graveyard, then maybe, just MAYBE, the Wendigo will die. The folks at mythology.net add a few steps like dismembering and cremating the body and scattering its ashes in several directions.

The best way to win a fight with a Wendigo, though, is to avoid a Wendigo altogether. To accomplish this, it's recommended that you keep a roaring fire going to dissuade the icy monster. Barring this, there are always amulets and charms.

Wendigo psychosis

Every so often, a mythological creature will become so iconic that a medical condition will be named after it. The chimera lends its name to genetic chimerism, in which a human being has more than one set of DNA. We get the word "phobia" from Phobos, the Greek personification of fear. Narcissism, hermaphroditism, and Proteus syndrome all come from ancient mythology. The Wendigo, too, has a namesake, and as you might expect, it's downright unpleasant.

Wendigo psychosis is a fascinating condition with a storied history. It's a term for what happens to people who for one reason or another turn to eating other people. Shock factor aside, it's especially eye-catching in that it isn't necessarily a result of being desperate for food. In fact, some of the most famous cases of Wendigo psychosis seem to have sprung up for no reason at all. Whether it's an actual psychiatric condition or the result of culturally embedded fears taking hold of people is a matter of debate, but the stories are gripping.

The Jesuit Relations

For just over 40 years in the 1600s, a group of French missionaries of the Jesuit order traveled through New France, a wide swath of North America that is now comprised of Montreal, Quebec, and regions of the United States acquired during the Louisiana Purchase. On this mission, the men of the cloth interacted with the indigenous people, hoping to spread Catholicism. They published stories of their encounters in a series of books called Relations des Jésuites de la Nouvelle-France, or The Jesuit Relations, which they used to spread word of their work and attract financial backing.

In a particularly horrific passage, the Jesuits described the ill fate that befell a group of men they were supposed to meet. Reportedly, they had been overcome with a mysterious psychosis, which they described in detail: "(They become) so ravenous for human flesh that they pounce upon women, children, and even upon men, like veritable werewolves, and devour them voraciously, without being able to appease or glut their appetite — ever seeking fresh prey, and the more greedily the more they eat."

The account continues, and we're told that the afflicted men had to be executed as this was the only cure for their condition. It's one of the first Western accounts of Wendigo psychosis in action, and it's also tied with every German fairy tale for "worst bedtime story ever written."

The hunger of Swift Runner

According to the Edmonton Journal, the man known as Swift Runner was generally well liked for a while. He was a member of the Cree tribe, and he had worked as a guide for the local mounted police. But toward the end of 1878, he took his family into the woods and walked into macabre history.

The next time he was seen in public was in the spring of 1879. He claimed that his entire family, including his wife and six children, had died of starvation during the harsh winter months. The police at Fort Saskatchewan, however, couldn't help but notice that the man himself didn't look like he had missed a meal. They investigated his campsite and discovered grisly remains: bones picked clean of meat, some with the marrow hollowed out. A skull with a shoe jammed inside. When confronted about the crime, Swift Runner confessed to having killed and eaten his family.

Swift Runner's story went on to become the go-to example of Wendigo psychosis since it's believed that he had ready access to means of survival besides slaughtering and consuming his entire family. The full truth will probably never be known, and the world's most famous Wendigo was executed in late 1879 in Alberta's first government-sanctioned hanging.

Jack the monster slayer

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a member of the Sandy Lake First Nation named Zhauwuno-geezhigo-gaubow. Known to the Europeans in the area as "Jack Fiddler," he was a shaman, a holy healer with a particularly sought-after skill set: Jack could fight Wendigos.

Jack claimed to have stopped as many as 14 Wendigos in his life. His method? Euthanization. When people felt the curse of the Wendigo beginning to overpower them, they would send for the holy man to end their misery before they could do any real damage, safe being better than sorry.

As it was the turn of the century, tribal traditions were beginning to go by the wayside, and when the Canadian government got wind of a mystical cannibal fighter, they didn't much cotton to the idea of spiritual medicine by way of execution. Mounties were sent to investigate and discovered a woman who had been strangled to death in order to pull the people-eating spirit out of her. Jack and his brother were arrested for murder. Before he could be executed, the shaman escaped from jail and killed himself.

Dead is better

If you're one of the millions of people across the world who love Stephen King movies but lack a compulsion to see modern remakes and the Olympic-level attention span required to read his uniformly way-too-thick books, you might not be aware that the Wendigo plays a pivotal role in one of his most famous horror stories.

In Pet Sematary, an upper middle-class family moves into a big, creepy house in a small Americana town, as is the wont of upper middle-class families in horror stories. Through their friendship with a local alcoholic and a series of merry mix-ups, they discover that they're living within spitting distance of a Micmac burial ground, abandoned by the natives because "the ground was sour." In the 1989 movie adaptation, the combination of a woodsy area and vaguely defined spiritualism was enough of an explanation to get audiences from A to B, narratively speaking, but in the book, there's cannibal monster chicanery afoot to boot.

Yes, the spirit of the Wendigo is what drives the actions of the undead in Pet Sematary. You know, because that narrative wasn't creepy enough.

The Wendigo helped bring us Wolverine

For all of the evil attributed to the Wendigo throughout history, at least a little good has come from it: It indirectly contributed to keeping Hugh Jackman employed for the better part of two decades. Starting in the '70s, Marvel Comics co-opted the Wendigo legend, taking myths about a bone-thin forest demon and subtly sculpting them into a comic book villain, 8 feet tall and covered in muscle. The Wendigo served as a Hulk antagonist, a man cursed with primal hunger after committing an act of cannibalism in the Canadian wilderness.

It was during a Hulk v. Wendigo donnybrook that Wolverine made his first appearance. The scrappy little dude still had a significant amount of rebranding to do before he would become a household name (he had whiskers at the time), but he managed to down the Wendigo without using any silver at all, which must've taken some effort.

So there you have it: The Wendigo is technically part of the same universe as Iron Man. No word on when he'll be getting his own movie, or how the MCU would square having a flesh-eating death demon in the same cinematic universe as, say, Baby Groot, but they've made weirder things work.

The Wendigo across pop culture

In much the same way that the spirit of the Wendigo lurks in the corners of the forest, its presence can also be felt across swaths of popular culture. They've appeared in more than their fair share of B-movies, as well as episodes of shows like Charmed and Supernatural.

Creep monster that it is, the Wendigo also makes a great target in the world of gaming. They're the (spoiler alert) main bad guys in 2015's Until Dawn. Most recently, they appeared in Fallout 76 as the hideous result of radiation-based mutation, featuring otherworldly, stretched-out bodies, acid-laced teeth, and potbellies waiting to be filled with delicious wasteland wanderer giblets. There's even a mission where the player is tasked with killing one while dressed as a clown because who the hell knows what's going on with that game.

And for fans of adding a little bit of horror show nightmarishness to their kid-friendly cartoon gaming, take comfort in the fact that the maneater from the North can be adorably summoned in the Scribblenauts franchise. Horrifying.

The Wendigo won't be coming alone

No matter what your thing is, it's nice to know that there are other folks out there who share the same interests. Lucky for the Wendigo, it's far from the only cannibalistic night-sweat inducer on the field.

There are Iroquois and Seneca legends, for example, that tell the story of the Flying Head. The Flying Head is a giant, you guessed it, flying head, said to be taller than a man and hungry for human flesh. In some stories, it's the cursed head of a murder victim, out for delicious anthropophagus revenge. In other tellings, it's the fate that awaits people who turn to cannibalism in the first place. Many of the Athabaskan tribes indigenous to Alaska, British Columbia, and the Pacific Northwest told stories about the Wechuge, another man-eater, said to be the result of a person being overpowered by old, powerful spirit animals. And what list of human/monster amalgams that will devour you in your sleep would be complete without fan favorite Baba Yaga, the occasionally friendly Slavic forest witch who lives in a chicken-legged hut and probably thinks you're delectable.

So to sum up, the good news is that the Wendigo probably isn't real. The bad news is that, according to the law of averages, one of the other dozen or so cannibal monsters out there might be and, statistically, it's standing right behind you.