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In Native American folklore, the wendigo is described as a mythical monster or evil spirit that feeds exclusively on human flesh. Roughly translated, the word wendigo means “the evil spirit that devours mankind.” In some cases, a human is possessed by an evil, cannibalistic spirit, causing them to commit acts of murder and cannibalism, whereas in other cases the person slowly becomes a wendigo by indulging in cannibalism of their own free will. In some folklore, the wendigo is able to shapeshift to assume the form of a human that it’s cannibalized, and can mimic voices and other sounds to lure victims into it’s lair.
They are described as being tall and human-like in appearance, with some allegedly standing up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) tall, with gaunt, pale, skeleton-like features, and dark, sunken eyes. They are described as being lanky and having supernatural hunting abilities, with sharp claws and fangs. They appear to be driven mad by the urge to consume human flesh, and their hunger is never sated. It’s said that over time the wendigo’s appearance becomes more and more fearsome as the possessed individual is stripped of their humanity.
Whether or not the wendigo really exists, or is used to enforce cultural taboos against cannibalism is still a mystery, but encounters with the creature have been reported throughout the United States and Canada dating back hundreds of years and continue to present day. Many doctors and psychologists during the early colonization of America were convinced that the wendigo was real, with some even going so far as diagnosing patients with a rare condition known as Wendigo Psychosis.
One famous case of alleged Wendigo Psychosis was reported in 1878, when a Native American trapper from Alberta, Canada named Swift Runner claimed to be possessed by the spirit of a wendigo. During the winter Swift Runner, his wife, and their five children lived in a cabin in the woods, trapping animals and hunting for food. The cabin was located approximately 25 miles from the nearest village.
According to legend, when Swift Runner returned to the village the next spring, he was alone. When people began to ask what happened to his wife and family, he replied that they had become trapped in the cabin over the winter and died of starvation. When authorities later went to investigate the cabin, they found a gruesome, horrific scene inside.
Swift Runner’s deceased family clearly appeared to have been murdered, and their remains cannibalized. Due to the relatively close proximity of the cabin to civilization, it was concluded that Swift Runner’s cannibalism was not a last resort to avoid starvation, and he was diagnosed with a case of Wendigo Psychosis. He confessed, and was later executed at nearby Fort Seskatchewan.
Another well documented case of Wendigo Psychosis occurred in 1907, when an Oji-Cree medicine man named Jack Fiddler, who claimed to have killed 14 wendigos over the course of his lifetime, was arrested for homicide. At the age of 87, Jack Fiddler confessed to murdering an elderly tribeswoman on the grounds that she had been possessed by a wendigo spirit. According to Jack, the woman was on the verge of fully transforming into a wendigo, and he had no choice but to kill her before she became a threat.
Jack Fiddler was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, however he chose to end his life instead and committed suicide shortly after.
In recent years the wendigo has made it’s way into pop culture as a horror icon, with many Hollywood movies and television shows featuring similar creature. But even more disturbing is that due to technology like the internet, more and more sightings are being reported today, with most originating in rural, wooded areas.
Whether the wendigo exists as a metaphor, or a fairy tale to prevent unethical behavior, one can’t help but wonder if such horrific creatures can truly exist.
Brian Weaver is the founder and creator of GhostQuest.net, one of the internet’s largest databases for haunted locations, urban legends, and folklore tales throughout the United States. He grew up in rural New Hampshire, where he attended college for Computer Science.