Wendigo: Danger of the Frozen North
Written By: Angela DiLella
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
The wendigo is perhaps the most well-known creature of Native American folklore. Wendigos have appeared outside of Native American culture starting around the turn of the century in Algernon Blackwood’s and other weird fiction author’s tales. Since then, wendigos have continued turning up in various forms of media, moving from text to television, film, and videogames. Unsurprisingly, adapting wendigos to different forms of media for different audiences has led to many different permutations of the legendary figure, some very far from the original folklore of the Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Cree, Naskapi, and Innu tribes of Canada and the United States.
What is a Wendigo?
Obviously, all of these different tribes have some variations on what a wendigo is, though they all agree on some points. For one, the wendigo is always seen as a malevolent force. The creature is forever ravenous, with its main food source being humans. A wendigo is usually portrayed as a gaunt creature despite constantly consuming humans; folklore associated with the Ojibwe, some Cree, Naskapi and Innu tribes suggests that the wendigo is constantly growing in size in relation to what it has eaten, so it can never be satisfied. In the book Legends of the Nahanni Valley, Basil H. Johnston described wendigos as corpselike, pallid with sunken eyes and bones that are visible from underneath taut flesh. They carry scent of rotten meat and general decay. Their lips are tattered and bloody; sometimes the explanation is given that in their desperate hunger, the wendigos chew their own lips off. Historian Nathan Carlson has added that wendigos are sometimes described as having large claws and huge, owl-like eyes.
It seems as if such a huge, foul-smelling creature would be easy to avoid. You would certainly know if it was coming for you. However, the wendigo has a special ability that makes it nearly irresistible to humans, even those who are on their guard. It can mimic human voices and will call out to humans to lure them into the woods, right to the always-hungry wendigo. The call can be irresistible, and a human may run and fight to reach what they know will be their doom.
What are some of the Theories?
Some legends also claim wendigos can possess humans. Usually, these are humans in dire straits, starving in harsh, unforgiving winters. Cannibalism may be their only option if they hope to survive, and the wendigo moves in. Eventually, the human starts transforming into a wendigo themselves. Some claim that just seeing a wendigo can be enough to trigger a transformation. Breaking other taboos could also condemn a human. Relentless greed or excessive behavior can also result in a wendigo transformation. It is possible that these were the original wendigo sins, and cannibalism only became a part of the picture once European settlers began interacting with natives.
How does Media and Television portray the Wendigo?
In pop culture, the wendigo legend has transformed. In some cases, the wendigo as a ravenous creature has preserved with some inaccuracies: the videogame Until Dawn (2015) has characters lost in woods that have been cursed by wendigos. These wendigos are identified as transformed, cannibalistic humans. The transformation can be observed a few times in the game, depending on the routes the story takes.
Interestingly, though, the most gruesome facet of the wendigo has not been preserved as often as you would think. Some of this could be due to what the story is being adapted for. For example, children’s media, like the DuckTales reboot (2017), features a wendigo without endless hunger, but one which suffers from endless, desperate obsession. Many children encounter the wendigo for the first time in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, where a wendigo haunts a dangerous part of northern Canada. A hunter hires a local native, Defago, to guide him, but the wendigo calls out to Defago when they are in the woods. He can’t resist the call, and rather than being eaten, he is dragged across the snow so quickly he becomes airborne. The hunter can hear him screaming as the building friction burns the native’s feet off. In this story, the wendigo eventually just drops humans to their deaths from high up in the sky and is linked with strong gales of wind.
Schwartz’s tale is partially adapted from Algernon Blackwood’s 1910 story “The Wendigo,” in which the badly injured Defago is found later, only to be taken away again, then returned a second time as a mere shell of his former self. The wendigo’s speed, size, and smell are all discussed, but cannibalism is not a part of either Blackwood’s story or Schwartz’s adaptation. When Defago briefly reappears among friends for the first time, he looks aged and acts oddly, but it’s hard to tell how much is meant to show the wendigo’s influence on Defago, and how much Blackwood was playing into stereotypes.
The wendigo most recently stepped into pop culture in a big way again in 2019, when Stephen King’s Pet Sematary was adapted for the big screen a second time. The creature appears in the night as main character Lou Creed traverses the woods surrounding the titular cemetery. King fans recognized the chilling symbol of perversion and evil in the primal woods from the 1983 novel, but for a while Google was awash with queries about the mysterious shape slinking in the background.
Did you enjoy our article? Comment below.