I have returned, emerging from the haze of first-time fatherhood and all the end-of-year holiday requirements that come with providing my parents and in-laws with an adorable grandchild to lavish attention on. As a peace offering, please accept this little slice of nightmare fuel.
Last August we moved to the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The majority of the Adirondacks is protected land that’s stewarded by the state, and that means the settlements up here are smaller in order to preserve the wilderness as much as possible. The result is that you’re never far from nature; in fact you’re likely to be completely surrounded by it, much as we are.
Stepping outside in the dead of night can be a spooky experience. An overcast, moonless evening with no wind has a sepulchral stillness that can leave you aware of nothing but the beating of your own heart – until you hear that twig snap. Truly the darkness of night can conjure unseen horrors – and in the winter it’s even worse.
Winter in the Adirondacks is no joke. Minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s before you take the wind chill into account. A layer of ice under the snow means food for the wildlife is scarce. In fact, the word Adirondack is a Mohawk word that roughly translated means “they eat the trees,” a pejorative they used to refer to the Algonquin tribes further north that would often go hungry in the harsh winters, forced to eat the buds on tree branches like porcupines.
The Algonquin tribes feared and hated winter to the point that an avatar of the deprivation of the season coalesced into the particularly nasty form of the wendigo. Referred to by the Algonquin as a manitou, or spirit, the wendigo represented the horrible, all-consuming hunger and terror that a long, lean winter brought to this region. Unlike other spirits, the Algonquin would never seek its guidance or wisdom but instead did whatever they could to avoid its attention, as it could possess those who succumbed to one of the greatest of cultural taboos: cannibalism.
Spirits of constant hunger, the wendigo was said to appear as a massive, gaunt, pale humanoid beast reeking of rotten meat, with wicked claws and lips tattered from its jagged teeth. The hunger of the wendigo could never be sated; some say it would simply grow ever larger as it devoured people whole, cursed to ever hunt for its next meal in a frenzy of bloodlust.
The wendigo spirit was known to possess anyone who committed the great sin of eating the flesh of another human. It would drive them mad, driving them to deplorable acts of violence in search of fresh human meat, eventually warping their body to resemble the demonic spirit within. Once the wendigo had its claws in your soul, you were doomed to forever roam the frozen wastes, murdering and consuming as many victims as you could until you either succumb to the elements or captured and exorcised. If the wendigo had destroyed the person you were, there was only one option: death.
Most modern anthropologists point to the wendigo legend simply as a story to reinforce the cultural taboo of the Algonquin against cannibalism, especially since the cold North American winters could easily isolate small settlements for weeks or even months at a time. The combination of cabin fever and dwindling food supplies could drive anyone to extremes when it comes to self-preservation – just look at the story of the Donner Party for a good example of this – and the creation and dissemination of the wendigo myth served as a way to discourage the act.
Instances of cannibalism still occurred during the brutal winter months, and many would cite wendigo possession as the catalyst for the act to the point where those resorting to cannibalism would adopt the violent insatiable nature of the manitou in a grisly instance of self-fulfilling prophecy. It happened often enough that the term Wendigo Psychosis entered the western vernacular. Instances have of course been exceedingly rare since the 20th century as access to non-perishable food spread, but the wendigo myth has survived and has become a staple of pop culture horror.
Despite the fact that the wendigo has been relegated to the kind of B-movies that you would see on SyFy starring washed-up celebrities that peaked in the 1980s, the true terror of this malevolent spirit stalking the frozen wastes of North America is still chilling – especially when you live deep in the territories it was known to inhabit. In the dark, even the most rational of souls cling to the circle of safety cast by the floodlights on the front porch, especially as the wind howls through the trees like a hungry beast and claws at your skin with needle-sharp, invisible claws. But it’s just a story, after all – don’t spend too much time thinking about the wendigo tonight as the snow swirls and the shadows deepen tonight. Still, you might want to keep your cupboards stocked.
Oh, and pleasant dreams.