It’s time to continue our paranormal cryptid/evil monster mythology. Yesterday, I talked about the legend of the Wendigo; today, let’s tackle another popular monster with a Native American pedigree: the skinwalker.
More than just a mindless werebeast that changes to animal form whenever the moon is full, the skinwalker is instead someone who gains the ability to shapechange through witchcraft. The most plentiful stories come from Navajo lore where skinwalkers are believed to be people who have broken a cultural taboo – much like the wendigo does in Algonquin lore – and gain the ability to change their form into that of an animal.
In addition to shapechanging, Navajo skinwalkers were all accomplished witches, and not the kind that float around Munchkinland in a big pink bubble, either. No, these witches were specialists in dark magic; that cultural taboo was usually something like murdering a sibling, committing incest, necrophilia, or grave-robbing. In other words, these aren’t your misunderstood gentle nature worshippers – skinwalkers were violent and dark-hearted monsters even before they took the visage of a four-legged creature.
The notable thing about skinwalker lore is that this isn’t ancient history. It’s very hard to uncover modern day stories of skinwalker encounters, especially since most Navajo are reluctant to share these stories with non-Navajo, but there are urban legends that recount skinwalkers causing deadly mischief by banging on the doors and windows of houses late at night in order to terrorize the inhabitants, or even cause car accidents, and not as just an animal but some humanoid hybrid with the head of a coyote. It’s understood that they can mimic the sounds of any animal – or any human being they hear – which can add to the terror.
The worst and most sinister ability skinwalkers are believed to have is most definitely that of taking on the face and appearance of a specific person. Meeting the gaze of a skinwalker means allowing him into your soul, granting him power over you and allowing him to take your likeness. This usually meant the victim was “disposed of” in some way – and with their already dark reputation, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of skinwalkers murdering and consuming people before slipping seamlessly into the void left in their lives, sometimes living that way for decades.
The idea of the skinwalker isn’t confined to Navajo territory, though. There are other myths and urban legends that circulate throughout the United States and Canada, and there are some apocryphal stories of viciously territorial “goat-men” that haunt the forests east of the Mississippi. Supposedly sourced from a Menominee myth, the goat-man is different than a Navajo skin-walker in that it was less of a human witch and more of a malevolent spirit, having more in common with the wendigo (it’s important to note that the Menominee are an Algonquian tribe, which is also where the wendigo legend originates).
If anything, goat-men are even more terrifying than skinwalkers. Fiercely territorial, goat-men possess many of the same abilities as a skinwalker – the shapechanging, the mimicry of voices, and even the adoption of human form – but they delight in psychologically torturing any who venture into their lands. Supposedly accompanied by a strong smell of burning blood and ozone in some stories, goat-men stalk those in their territory in the night and purposely disturb the undergrowth, though never enough to reveal their presence clearly to their prey. They gibber in a guttural manner to disorientate and terrorize their prey, then adopt the form of a human to slip in unnoticed to a group of people, often sowing chaos when the group realizes there’s one more person than there should be – and then promptly disappears once there’s another headcount.
If anything, the goat-man presents as even more sinister than a Navajo skinwalker, simply because of the seemingly alien intelligence behind it. A skinwalker, while in possession of the powers of dark witchcraft, is still of human origin. The goat-man by comparison is incomprehensible in its motivations, seemingly only dedicated to preserving its territory by psychologically terrorizing any trespassers. It’s not even limited to the wilderness areas of the Americas, either; much as modern Navajo skinwalker stories exist, there’s folklore for goat-men that take the guise of a hapless victim in order to pass among humans in a more urban area. The only way to tell a goat-man has replaced one of your friends is to watch them for strange behavior such as halting speech, unbroken uncomfortably long stares without blinking, and a complete change in personality seemingly overnight.
Are you spooked yet? Don’t worry – there’ll be more cryptids, supernatural monster myths, and things that go bump in the night to come.