The Canadian Encyclopedia defines a Wendigo as a “spirit...that takes possession of vulnerable persons and causes them to engage in various antisocial behaviours, most notably cannibalism.” In Eyes of Blood, Heart of Ice: The Wendigo, a lecture delivered at Oxford University, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood described the Wendigo as a cannibal, with a heart of ice, eyes that roll in blood and lips blackened and eaten away, probably as good a summary of this creature’s attributes as any. Ojibwa author Basil Johnston theorizes that a Wendigo is a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point that satisfaction is no longer possible. This explains why they remain hungry no matter how much they eat.
The legend of the Wendigo or "Windigo" – two of the most common of at least forty variants of the Algonquin word “witiku” – is known in much of Canada, the Maritime provinces, the Northwest Territories and parts of the northern United States. Among the various Algonquin tribes are the Micmac or Mik’maq, Montagnais, Naskapi, Algonquin, Abenaki, Ojibwa, Cree, and the Blackfoot.
Over the years, the Wendigo has been given numerous and varied attributes, including the ability to change shape, a body and/or heart of stone or ice, and formidable strength and speed. In some accounts, the creature was said to be in excess of ten to fifteen feet tall, with sallow, yellowish skin, glowing eyes, long yellowing fangs and an abnormally long tongue. Still other accounts suggested a creature so thin that it couldn’t even be seen from the side.
The most common attribute of the Wendigo is a marked fondness for human flesh, though it’s said to also have a taste for moss, frogs and mushrooms. This is probably not so unusual, given that the legend was born in northern lands where long, hungry winters were the norm and the temptation to break down and indulge in a bit of “long pig” was an all too real enticement. Some have theorized that these occasional outbreaks of cannibalism went so much against the grain of normal human behavior that the myth of an awful phantom creature roaming the north woods looking for humans to feast on was the result.
Northern lore suggests that one can become a Wendigo in various ways, including being bitten by one, tasting human flesh, extreme hunger, being bewitched by a shaman or even by simply dreaming of a Wendigo.
In earlier times, the Wendigo was taken quite seriously in certain quarters. There are numerous accounts of people being convicted, and even executed, for being a Wendigo. One famous Wendigo hunter, a Cree Indian named Jack Fiddler, boasted of killing fourteen of the creatures, but was imprisoned for the last of these killings – that of a Cree woman believed to be possessed by a Wendigo.
The notion that one had actually become a Wendigo was not uncommon in the north. There were enough of these cases that one researcher - Morton Teicher – studied the phenomenon and reported on his findings in a 1960 paper called Windigo Psychosis; A Study of a Relationship between Belief and Behavior among the Indians of Northeastern Canada. Among Teicher’s findings were that the most common symptoms of Windigo Psychosis were strong cannibalistic tendencies.
Many Algonquins who believed that they were Wendigos would ask their fellows to kill them out of fear that they might harm their friends and families. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this condition resembles lycanthropy, a well-known psychiatric condition in which sufferers are convinced that they are werewolves. In her 2004 study, Werewolves and Windigos: Narratives of Cannibal Monsters in French-Canadian Voyageur Oral Tradition, Carolyn Podruchny examined similarities between these two types of “cannibal monster” and noted, “Were-wolf stories provided a framework for voyageurs (French-Canadian woodsmen employed by fur companies) to understand windigos.”
There have been numerous Wendigo accounts set down over the years. One of the earliest was supplied by Paul Le Jeune, a Jesuit missionary. In 1636, Le Jeune, who was stationed in Quebec, wrote to Rome about a native woman who prophesied that an Atchen, which he described as “a sort of werewolf,” was about to attack a village.
In 1823, a U.S. Army scout named Major H. Long, writing about a journey to Ontario, mentioned a local body of water called Cannibal or Wâdigó Lake, the name of “which is derived from the unnatural deed in its vicinity.” The deed, which occurred in 1811, was an incident of what Podruchny referred to as “starvation cannibalism,” in this case involving about forty Indians who ran out of food and began to feed on the bodies of their dead. The sole survivor, a woman who was found by another group of Indians, was killed due to the belief that anyone who has tasted human flesh will always crave more, becoming, in effect, a Wendigo.
"The Wendigo," a brief tale by Theodore Roosevelt, appeared in The Wilderness Hunter, his ninth book, published in 1893, just eight years before he became president. It relates a “goblin story,” supposedly told to the narrator by a “grizzled, weather-beaten old mountain hunter, named Bauman.”
Bauman tells of going trapping with a partner to a place where a solitary hunter was killed the year before, apparently by a wild animal. Early on, the men return to their camp after scouting around, only to find that a bear has ravaged the camp. But then the partner concludes that the bear had been walking on two legs. That same night Bauman is wakened and his nostrils are assailed by “a strong wild-beast odor.” He shoots into the dark and hears something crashing into the brush. The men keep vigil all night, but witness no further incidents until they return to camp the next day and find it torn up again.
The creature reappears at midnight, lurking in the woods and occasionally emitting a “harsh, grating, long-drawn moan, a particularly sinister sound.” The men now decide that discretion is the better part of valor, but go out to collect their traps before leaving. They stay together most of the day, but just before heading back to camp, Bauman leaves his companion and goes to round up a few more traps. When he gets back to camp he finds his partner with his neck broken and four great fang marks in his throat. Bauman takes nothing but his rifle and hightails it out of there.
One of the best known, and most compelling, of all Wendigo tales was published less than two decades later by the great supernatural writer, Algernon Blackwood. Also titled "The Wendigo," it appeared in 1910; just three years after Blackwood published what is arguably his best story, "The Willows."
According to Blackwood’s biographer, a moose-hunting trip to northern Canada in October 1898 served as inspiration for "The Wendigo" and four other Blackwood stories. Like "The Willows," "The Wendigo" is a story of outdoorsmen encountering something unspeakably frightening in the immensity of the great outdoors. Though usually categorized as a short story, at about eighteen thousand words, "The Wendigo" is actually closer to novella length. The tale is set in the Canadian woods and concerns moose hunters Dr. Cathcart and his nephew Simpson, a divinity student. Also on board are guides Joseph Defago, a French “Canuck,” and Hank Davis, a rough-hewn character given to salty language. The fifth member of the expedition is Punk, the Indian cook.
As the story opens in the last week of October, Cathcart and Davis are headed in one direction and Simpson and Defago in the other, searching for signs of moose. The latter pair heads for a lake known as Fifty Mile Water. As they set up camp, Defago begins to get visibly nervous and they become aware of a peculiar odor. Defago tells Simpson of “a sort of great animal that lives up yonder,” but Simpson dismisses this as “a backwoods superstition.”
That night Simpson wakes and hears “a soft, roaring voice outside the tent...of immense volume.” The voice seems to be saying Defago’s name and the pair smell the “odor of lions.” Defago runs out of the tent and into the wilderness, calling out about his “burning feet of fire” and leaving Simpson to his own devices.
Simpson manages to find his way back to his companions, though he encounters many strange sights and sounds along the way. The men spend some time looking for Defago, but to no avail. Not long after, they have a discussion of the Wendigo, which is said to be a creature which moves so fast that it burns its feet. It subsists primarily on moss and has been said to sometimes run along the tops of trees.
Soon, Defago reappears. The others realize that it is not him after all, but merely a creature that resembles him and which has “something dark and oddly massed where moccasined feet ought to have been.”
When they finally arrive at base camp, they find the “true” Defago, though his mind is gone and his feet badly frostbitten. As the tale ends, Blackwood concludes – simply - that Defago has seen the Wendigo.
While rather straightforward and low key, Blackwood’s novella is a masterful buildup of mood and atmosphere that provides “a glimpse into prehistoric ages, when superstitions, gigantic and uncouth, still oppressed the hearts of men, when the forces of nature were still untamed, the Powers that may have haunted a primeval universe not yet withdrawn.”
The Wendigo legend made one of its first appearances in a movie just about two decades after movies came to be. The Lure of the Windigo, released in 1914, was the story of a young woman, portrayed by Edith Johnson, a former Kodak girl once said to be “the most photographed girl in the world.” She cheats on her husband with a Canadian Mountie. He proceeds to leave her high and dry and her Indian friend steps into the picture to exact revenge for the slight.
The Lure of the Windigo was produced by Selig Polyscope Company, which churned out nearly 1,200 movies from 1898 –1921. It was directed by Francis J. Grandon, who acted in nearly 100 films in the early part of the twentieth century and directed nearly as many.
The next noteworthy appearance of the Wendigo was in a 1936 poem, "The Wendigo," by Ogden Nash, who was well known for his way with comic verse. Nash’s Wendigo had eyes of “ice and indigo,” a voice that was “hoarse and bellowish,” slithery tentacles and hungry, blubbery, smacky, sucky, rubbery lips – among other things.
The Wendigo turned up again in The Rim of the Pit, a 1944 novel by Henning Nelms, writing as Hake Talbot. The story, a locked room mystery, features a Wendigo as a possible explanation for a murderer who appears to be able to fly. It first appeared in the pulp magazine, Thrilling Mystery Novel.
All was relatively quiet on the Wendigo front until 1981, when Ghostkeeper, a relatively obscure low-budget Canadian film was released. The story concerned a trio of twenty-somethings who are stranded at a lodge during a snowstorm. Here, the female innkeeper has a Wendigo in the basement that subsists on the human flesh she acquires for it.
In 1983, Stephen King published Pet Sematary, adapted for the big screen in 1989. The story features a Micmac burial ground supposedly cursed by a Wendigo. The Wendigo is described in the script as a “spirit of the north country,” though one interpretation held that it “may be seen as a supernatural manifestation of (protagonist) Dr. Louis Creed’s desire to escape responsibility for holding his family together.” At one point, Creed encounters the Wendigo, this time described in the script as being “vaguely manlike: perhaps sixty feet tall, perhaps eighty,” with “great yellow eyes the size of lighthouse lamps.”
A character named Wendigo also appeared in various Marvel Comics. This incarnation of the myth has been described as “a huge humanoid beast, possessing great superhuman strength and endurance, and seemingly immune to cold, disease, and aging. His skin is thick enough to withstand great amounts of force and energy, and is even capable of regeneration. The Wendigo’s claws are deadly, and he can run for great distances and track with remarkable accuracy (with presumably animal-like senses) through the wilderness.”
One of the first of Marvel’s Wendigos was a hunter who had killed and eaten a companion on a hunting trip and who later faced off against Marvel characters Wolverine, the Hulk and Nightcrawler. Various other Wendigo incarnations have appeared in Marvel comics, each of them attaching themselves to a different human host and becoming involved in various adventures.
Call Of The Wendigo, a 1994 young adult novel by Robin Hardy, presented the Wendigo as “a monster with a heart of ice that devours the bodies and souls of teenagers and haunts four sixteen year olds at their tennis camp.” A 1994 film – Windigo – though it was filmed in Quebec, apparently had more to do with politics than supernatural entities.
Wendigos have also appeared, not surprisingly, in a two-part X-Files episode and also in a 1999 episode of the TV series Charmed. Another film, Frostbiter: Wrath of the Wendigo, was released in 1996 by Troma Films, whose many productions include such low-budget wonders as Tromeo and Juliet, A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell and the Toxic Avenger series.
Written and directed by Tom Chaney, Frostbiter is probably most noteworthy for a starring role by Ron Asheton, guitarist for proto-punk band, The Stooges . The plot, what there is of it, features drunken hunters breaking a sacred circle that holds a Wendigo captive, thus causing all hell to break loose. The budget for this epic was said to be in the neighborhood of twenty-five thousand dollars.
Several more successful Wendigo films followed over the course of the next few years. Ravenous, directed by Antonia Bird, written by Ted Griffin, and starring Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle, was released in 1999. Pearce takes a starring turn as a veteran of the 1847 Mexican-American war who has effectively been exiled to an isolated fort in California’s Sierra Nevada – shades of the Donner Party – because of an act of cowardice. Pearce’s character, Captain John Boyd, finds Fort Spencer peopled by various personalities ranging from merely offbeat to completely demented. Before long, Carlyle, as F.W. Colqhoun, the sole survivor of a snowbound party, turns up.
As the story progresses it becomes obvious that Colqhoun has developed a taste for human flesh that he can’t kick. While the proceedings tend to unravel into an ending more suited to a comic book and while the film overall took something of a critical beating, Ravenous is a interesting mix of quirky and creepy and is leavened throughout with a heap of black humor. Also quite effective are the scenes of snow, cold and isolation, which were actually shot in the Tatras Mountains of Slovakia, about as far away from the Sierra Nevada as you can get.
Another cinematic rendition of the Wendigo myth appeared the following year. The Windigo, a sixteen-minute student film, was written and directed by Minnesota native Katie Koskenmaki. The film is also set in Minnesota, though it was filmed in Vermont. The Windigo is about a pair of wildlife biologists who cross the great north, studying wolves. When they lose all their supplies in a nasty encounter with some thin ice, they must make a tough journey back to their camp, a trek made more unnerving by the belief, on the part of one of the men, that a Windigo is stalking them.
The following year brought yet another Wendigo movie, this one simply titled Wendigo. Written and directed by Larry Fessenden, who also adapted the story as a comic book, the story follows a family of city folk on a winter trip to a friend’s house in remote upstate New York. After their car hits a deer and they have an unsettling encounter with some local hunters, things begin to get decidedly strange. The father, George, is injured in a sledding accident and son Miles goes for help, only to find himself pursued by a Wendigo which, in this case, is portrayed as a large, bipedal half-man and half-deer.
It’s here that we end the rather compact saga of pop culture and the Wendigo, a creature that never really attained the same exalted position as its supernatural cousins the vampire or the werewolf. This is primarily because Wendigo legends are rather obscure, not to mention the fact that there’s no firm consensus on what a Wendigo even is or what it looks like. Mention the words “vampire” or “werewolf” and most people will conjure up a certain image, albeit one gleaned from popular culture. But even among those few who are familiar with Wendigo legends, the word probably brings to mind no clear picture.
So while Wendigos will surely continue to put in an occasional appearance in popular entertainment as the years roll on, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see anything along the lines of Buffy the Wendigo Slayer or Wendigobusters.
As to whether wendigos really exist, that’s hardly a question we can resolve in these pages. But if you ever find yourself rambling around the north woods, you’d do well to remember the words of Margaret Atwood, who points out that “you cannot outrun or outwit a Wendigo” and who also notes that “for those who believe in it, the Wendigo is far from a laughing matter.”