William Lengeman's essay in the June Internet Review of Science Fiction featured the Wendigo, A flesh-eating beast of fearsome appearance, who haunted the wilds of northern Canada. It immediately got me to thinking about other world-wide myths concerning creatures of similarly gruesome habits.
Writers of speculative fiction have often mined that veritable treasure trove of ideas labelled legend and folklore. One need look no further than Tolkien to realise it. Dark tales of trolls and apparitions infinitely more malign than Gollum periodically make appearances in many a relatively modern (fairy) tale. George Lucas’ Sith can be seen in the shadowy Gnostic traditions of the Middle Ages. Perhaps more relevant to our discussion are the many stories of folk who may or may not have existed, which contribute to such films as Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. Directed by Alexandre Aja, whose entrance into mainstream movies was by way of French horror film High Tension, the 2006 version of Craven’s classic bears little explicit resemblance to the original, although both owe their genesis to the same Scottish legend of Sawney Beane and his clan.
In the days of James VI of Scotland and England (the early 15th century), so the story goes, Sawney Beane and his young wife set up their marital home. Their choice of dwelling was somewhat unusual, even by the standards of the day, for they chose to live in a huge cave on the coast of Galloway that flooded twice a day with the incoming tide. However, the cave ran far enough beneath the hinterland to offer the Beanes safety at high tide. Sawney’s plan was to ambush travellers on the roads connecting the nearest villages and live off the proceeds of such larceny. To ensure anonymity, he a made a point of murdering his robbery victims. However, as the local Scots were not in the habit of carrying huge amounts of cash around with them, the proceeds of Sawney’s endeavours were not enough to provide the meagre amounts of food needed to keep himself and his wife alive. Ever adaptable, Sawney and his partner decided to no longer waste the bodies of their victims, but to eat them instead.
The Beane clan grew as Sawney’s wife produced children, who were brought up in the cave, and in the family tradition of eating human flesh. While the growing number of disappearances in the area caused alarm, the perpetrators could not be found, well hidden in their twice-daily flooded cave. Eventually, Sawney and his wife had fourteen children, and these children incestuously produced another generation, so that nearly fifty cannibals ultimately took up residence in the cave. They embarked on pack hunts for their victims. For a full 25 years, the disappearances continued. Then, inevitably, they were discovered, having botched a hunt, leaving a witness alive to observe them making off in the direction of the coastline.
King James himself was said to have hunted them down with a retinue of 400 soldiers. Passing the cave entrance, the King’s bloodhounds caught the scent of death emanating from the waterlogged entrance and cornered the Sawney Beane clan inside. All forty-eight members of the family were taken to the Tollbooth Jail in Edinburgh before being executed at Leith. Sawney's wife, daughters and grandchildren were forced to watch as their male relatives had their hands and legs cut off. After the men had bled to death, the women and children were burned in three huge fires.
Revenge killing, in the above circumstances, is understandable enough, although it begs an element of comparison between perpetrator/monster and prosecutor/victim. This theme is not lost on Craven and Aja, as the hunted turn on their hunters with ever-increasing violence.
The tale of Sawney Beane can be traced to a gruesome tale found in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. A collection of stories collated in 1808, The Chronicles contain the tale of one Tristicloke, a character from the North East of Scotland who, some time in the twelfth century, "spared not to steale children, and to kill women, on whose flesh he fed, as if he had been a woolfe." The premise of this story bears a striking resemblance to that of Christie Cleek and, subsequently, Sawney Beane.
During the reign of David II (1329-71), Scotland was impoverished by the repeated incursions of English kings, firstly Edward Longshanks, then his son Edward II. The land was left fallow for long periods and livestock was either driven into England or slaughtered to feed successive invading armies. In much of the country, it was impossible to purchase food. Scottish refugees flooded into Flanders (located in what is now Belgium) and those who had no money to pay for such passage left their homes in favour of the woods, where they did their level best to forage for food. Yet these dispossessed came in such numbers, an uncultivated landscape was not enough to sustain them. Bands of refugees gathered into small tribes to eek out an existence. Such a group gathered in the foothills of the Grampian mountains, surviving for a while on small game and foraged goods such as acorns.
As winter devoured their sources of food, wholesale famine threatened. Andrew Christie was a butcher from Perth, a born leader who had initially organised the group. As their situation grew dire and members of the extended tribe began to die, Christie thought of a remedy and endeavoured to make use of a new, untested source of nourishment - the flesh of their dead. But rather than wait for his kin to die naturally, he proposed that some of their number die by lot. Once renewed upon the flesh, the rest could ambush further victims at the pass of the mountains.
The plan worked, the lots were drawn, and ultimately,unfortunate travellers were dispatched whenever the band felt a yen for meat. Horsemen were particularly favoured, as the horse provided an additional boon of protein. The rider was dragged from his saddle with a large iron hook attached to the end of a pole - the Cleek, which became a suffix to Christie‘s name. Eventually however, an armed force was sent to apprehend the cannibals. Most of the rogue band were either killed in the subsequent fight or taken prisoner, yet Christie himself escaped and fled further into the mountains, there to become the stuff of legend. A cry of Christiecleek! Christiecleek! quickly became akin to the threat of the bogeyman for Scottish children, who dared not act up once the name of the cannibal was uttered.
The similarities between the story of the Beane clan and its precursors and Wes Craven’s mutant family are mainly apparent in characterisation and setting. While the highlands of Scotland and an American outback desert may not, at first glance, appear similar, the sense of isolation and abandonment is what really matters here.
While The Hills Have Eyes insists that cannibals are the product of genetic mutation caused by fallout from atomic tests and thus something other than human, the legends make it clear that, given enough impetus, most any human being will resort to such acts (the cannibalism parts, at least) in an effort to survive. The Chilean football team whose plane crashed in the Andes in the 1970s, as well as the Donner party from the 1840s (whose story contributes to the Stephen King book, and subsequent movie(s), The Shining) are proof enough of that. This proof and the writer's or director's ability to touch our knowledge that this darkness is inside us, waiting to be released, have made for a vein of horror film and literature that appears to be mainly a showcase for gore, but which is, in fact, deceptively rich thematically.