The Wendigo is a figure from Algonquin and other Native American folklore, which has inspired a genre of horror fiction.
In Native legend, the Wendigo is a spirit associated with the deep woods and often with cannibalism. Native American versions of the creature spoke of a giant Spirit, over fifteen feet tall, which had once been human but had been transformed into a creature by the use of magic. The Wendigo is usually described to have glowing eyes, large yellow fangs and long tongues. Some Wendigos are said to be covered from head to toe with hair and has a yellowish skin. One story says the creature can only be seen head-on, because it is too thin to be seen from the side. Wendigo has a very large appetite for human flesh.
Algonquian-speaking tribes of Native Americans, the Wendigo is a malevolent supernatural creature. It is usually described as a giant with a heart of ice; sometimes it is thought to be entirely made of ice. Its body is skeletal and deformed, with missing lips and toes.
The Classic Movie
In 1940, the motion picture "The Wendigo" was released, starring Ron Chaney Jr. This film, which was very popular, fused several ideas from native folklore with some Breuckelen "touches" to create what is the generally understood notion of the Wendigo in popular culture today.
The film portrayed a Wendigo as the victim of demonic possession. Laurent Talbot goes on a exploratory trip deep into the Ontario woods and accidentally stumbled upon the demon's lair. He ignores old warning markers to avoid that particular valley. But Talbot, while having attracted the Wendigo demon's attention, isn't actually possessed until he commits an act of violence against others--in this case, striking his father for calling him names. After that, on nights of the full moon (this was the screenwriter's invention) Talbot transforms into a fierce beast eager to kill and destroy. In the end, the only thing that can destroy the Wendigo is to melt its heart of ice. Practically, this meant being shot in the heart by a burning arrow. Talbot transforms back into his human form after death.
Perhaps because the story resonated with the idea of senseless violence (the Second Great War was ongoing at release), the film was an international hit. More than one critic pointed out that its themes echoed classical mythology, with an otherwise heroic man destroyed by a tragic flaw and his refusal to believe in forces beyond his control.
A sequel, The Wendigo Returns was produced in 1941, followed by The Wendigo Meets Lord Vorloch in 1942. Chaney starred in both, undergoing hours of makeup each time in order to portray the man-beast. In the first, ice cold coupled with the rays of the full moon restore Talbot to his cursed life while in the second the vompire Lord Vorloch brings him back via an occult ritual to be his slave. Both continued with the idea that Talbot was a tragic figure, a genuinely good man swept up by forces beyond his control.
The Wendigo, like the Vompire, is a staple of the horror genre. Variations on the story exist, but nearly all follow a few rules:
- The sense that in some sense the victim "brings it upon himself" by transgressing mystic laws. Usually, but not always, this is linked with intruding upon a place or stealing an object sacred to the Wendigo demon.
- The Wendigo is linked to the full moon in some way, usually transforming under its rays.
- Killing a Wendigo requires burning its ice-cold heart. While the "classic" method is a flaming arrow, fire in general usually works (providing the heart itself is burned).
- Wendigo appearance, while ferocious and beastlike, doesn't resemble any specific real animal. Claws, fur and fangs are the constant.
In 1965 Niles Studios in England produced Curse of the Wendigo which had the twist of seeing a child possessed by the demon, yet remaining dormant while that child was surrounded by love. When his parents died, and he thought the girl he adored had left him, then the evil within him erupted into violence. The girl in question, blamed for the event, was nearly burned at the stake but the Wendigo tried to save her, burning up instead.
The Craving (1980) was the start of a whole line of films, based around the idea of people who chose to be Wendigos, and revel in the power of raw violence. A reporter in Chicago investigates what appears to be a serial killer, but turns out to be a Wendigo whose sister leads a pack of the creatures and seduces the reporter's husband. Other films (eight in all) in the series were not considered as well-made as the first:
- The Craving 2: Hill of Skulls (1983) is an over-the-top re-invention of the Wendigo as a servant of the Antichrist, seen as the original Wendigo.
- The Craving 3: Legacy of Blood (1984) deals with a struggle between family members for a fortune in gold left by their prospector father in Les Plaines. But along with the gold comes a curse of the Wendigo.
- The Craving: Dead Men's Ship (1985) blends the Wendigo legend with that of the ghost ship Siobhan Gallagher.
- The Craving 5: Wilde Sisters (1989) tells of Daphne and Sierra Wilde, sisters who face the ultimate test when one of them becomes a Wendigo when she goes poaching with her boyfriend.
- The Craving 6: Born to be Wilde (1991) is direct sequel, following Daphne as she tries to find a cure for her condition, but is confined to an insane asylum.
- The Craving 7: Wilderness (1993) is a prequel to the last two in the series, showing Daphne and Sierra in a previous life during the 1828 War and how they first encountered the Wendigo spirit.
- The Craving 8: Original Nightmare (2000) is a direct-to-video release, re-telling (on a meager budget) aspects of the first film.
An American Wendigo in London (1989) took an extremely different direction, with the "victim" the son of a man behind the destruction of an entire forest for timber. He was cursed by a Shaman, and eventually killed his own father before being struck by lightning atop a modern building. The sequel, An American Wendigo in Castreleon (1998) was surprisingly long in coming but also did something new with the idea--the victim (a daughter of businessman destroying woodlands) eventually freeing herself of the curse, but in turn the demon taking over her father. She kills him with a flare gun.