two wendigo superimposed side by side creepy

7 Creepy Facts About Wendigos & Their Origins

Wendigo legends have gained more attention and popularity in the last decade or so; not least because of its terrifying nature. An unnatural creature that stalks and kills its prey for horrible reasons. It’s not clear what attracts a wendigo to a person; but when it does, it’s almost impossible to escape its cold, dead grasp.

What is a wendigo? Appearance and characteristics  

skeletal wendigo grimaces toward camera

A wendigo, also spelled windigo, is a terrifying creature borne from the myths and legends of Native American tribes.

Depending on the account, the appearance of a wendigo can vary. However, the most well-known depiction of a wendigo is a pale, emaciated creature with gray skin stretched tightly over its skeletal frame.

Its sunken, hollow yellow eyes and quiet stalking are the last things someone sees before the wendigo attacks, tearing them apart and consuming their flesh to cure its insatiable hunger. The cannibalistic wendigo is usually associated with famine, coldness, and starvation because of this.

Some depictions of wendigo show them with hair, others totally hairless. Sometimes the wendigo has antlers or horns, whereas other times its depicted as more human-like; and other times still it is recorded as reaching nearly 15ft in height.

But most horrific of all is the wendigo’s origin. It’s believed that they were once human beings and that their frozen hearts are where the once-human part of them still resides. That’s why in some wendigo legends, the only way to kill one is to burn the heart out of them.

Regardless, as the wendigo feeds on its victims, it grows in proportion to the meal it consumes. That’s why they look constantly starving, inhuman and unsettlingly creepy. A constant embodiment of the insatiable hunger a wendigo itself feels.

Where did the wendigo legend come from?

Although a seemingly Halloween inspired creature, the Wendigo is a Native American legend, believed to have first been told among the Algonquian language tribes of the indigenous peoples.

Prominent Anthropologist Robert Brightman has researched the phenomenon of wendigo legends. He determined that the first mention of wendigo-like behavior dates back centuries.

Originally a verbal legend, the first written recording of a wendigo is from 1636. It was by a French Jesuit missionary Paul Le Jeune, who was living among the Algonquin people. In his account, he calls it an “atchen” and speaks of a woman warning that it had eaten some members of the tribe.

Brightman, however, argues that these early references were not specifically to wendigo, but instead more just generally anthropophagous (meaning cannibalistic) monsters. Nevertheless, it is widely agreed that these creatures were more specifically what became known as the wendigo.

Where do wendigo live?

wendigo grimacing upward

It may be unsurprising to learn that those of us living South of the equator are largely safe from the terrifying Wendigo legends. The people who really need to worry are those living in the US and Canadian Great Plains and Great Lakes regions.

Usually, wendigo sightings occur in the colder climates and forests where the Algonquian tribes reside, and most recorded sightings follow this pattern.

Where do wendigo legends come from?

wendigo depicted in a book child is reading

In some wendigo legends, the creature is actually borne of human origin. They are us, but an us who have been overpowered by greed, according to some tales. In others, wendigo are humans who resorted to cannibalism. They are those whose have changed them into the horrible human-like wendigo, allowing them to hunt and kill any that cross their path.

But the most well-known wendigo Algonquian legend is of a warrior who made a deal with the devil. With his tribe in a desperate state, he offered to become a wendigo in order to protect them. Eventually, he drove away the wendigo that attacked the tribe. But with it gone, his usefulness had run out and he was rejected by the people he protected. The man-turned-wendigo spent the rest of his days roaming the forests, feeding on the flesh of those unlucky enough to meet him.

How do you kill a wendigo?

person thrusting red light twoard a wendigo

It’s notoriously extremely hard to kill a wendigo. Even in the original Native American wendigo legends they are fast, deadly monsters who are almost uncatchable. In other words, those who meet a wendigo don’t often live to tell the tale, and certainly aren’t successful in killing it.

Much like werewolves, however, piercing a wendigo’s heart with a silver stake or bullet can kill it. According to these legends, a wendigo heart is frozen, and shattering them is the only way to guarantee it can’t return. The more cautious also recommend dismembering the body and burning the individual pieces to make extra sure it’s dead.

The coldness associated with the wendigo could also account for the belief that the creature’s weaknesses include fire. So the legend goes, if a wendigo is burnt right down to its frozen heart, they will die. Much like how they’re killed in the popular video game Until Dawn.

Wendigo psychosis

wendigo close up smiling at camera with antlers

The first recorded instance of wendigo psychosis appeared not long after the first written record of wendigos themselves. And was not unlike those suffering from the “delusions” that made them victims of the Salem Witch Trials just 3 decades later.

The legend of the wendigo originates from the ancient beliefs of Algonquian tribes. This is why, when symptoms of something now known as wendigo psychosis started to appear, it was predominantly in those of Native American heritage. In the early 20th century, psychologists used the term to describe those suffering from depression, delusions such as possession, violent behaviors, and cannibalistic tendencies. Much like the dreaded wendigo itself.

The Jesuit Relations paper was the first to report wendigo psychosis in 1661, (although it wasn’t known as that term at that time):

Those poor men (according to the report given us) were seized with an ailment unknown to us, but not very unusual among the people we were seeking. They are afflicted with neither lunacy, hypochondria, nor frenzy; but have a combination of all these species of disease, which affects their imaginations and causes them a more than canine hunger. This makes them so ravenous for human flesh that they pounce upon women, children, and even upon men, like veritable werewolves, and devour them voraciously, without being able to appease or glut their appetite—ever seeking fresh prey, and the more greedily the more they eat.

Wendigo psychosis and Swift Runner

Reports of others afflicted by wendigo psychosis surfaced over the years. But one of the most famous cases involved Swift Runner, a hunter from the Cree tribe, in 1879. After a hard, brutal winter, Swift Runner returned from the mountains where he had set out with his entire family including his wife, six children, brother, and mother. He was alone.

The Cree hunter claimed the harsh conditions had trapped his family, leading them to starve or commit suicide. But that wasn’t quite the case. Police soon uncovered the horrifying truth. They investigated the site the family had been living on, only to find human remains stripped clean. Under the grips of what is now recognized as wendigo psychosis, Swift Runner killed and ate at least 6 members of his family.

He was later executed for his crimes.

Wendigos in popular culture

until dawn wendigo crouched and snarling upward

Although lesser known than the traditional vampire or werewolf, wendigos have long been part of the list of terrifying supernatural creatures that are part of pop culture.

In Until Dawn, wendigos are the main villain of the horror game and are completely deadly if not stopped. Usually, the protagonist’s only choice is to run from the terrifying creature or be torn apart. Their cannibalistic roots and that they’re borne from Native American tradition also play a strong role in the game.

Beyond video games, wendigos have made appearances in famous books. Algernon Blackwood’s 1910 novella The Wendigo features the creatures, as do films like the recent horror movie Antlers.

There is something even more unnatural about wendigos than most of the supernatural creatures that grace our literature and television screens. Perhaps it’s the varied bodily descriptions or the notion that they feed on human flesh, tearing us apart limb by limb to feast on our insides.

Whatever it is, wendigo legends are some of the most truly creepy and horrifying.

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