Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Roots Of Horror: The Legend And Lore Of The Wendigo In Film

 by Marie Robinson

Welcome back to another long-delayed installment of Roots of Horror! In these articles I explore horror films and the inspiration they take from folklore, urban legends, and parapsychology.

Native Americans have a rich culture that is teeming with fascinating legends. One that proves to be equally sinister and inspirational is the story of the Wendigo. As with any folktale, the specific details of the beast and its habits vary from region and culture, and the North-based legend is no exception. The tale is known to the Algonquin and Ojibwe tribes in the Northern United States and Canada, mainly Ontario.

The Wendigo resides in the frozen, desolate forest of these Northern regions, in the places were men could get lost during hunting or travel and be stranded, left to the mercy of the cruel land. When food supplies are depleted, sometimes people are forced to take desperate—and savage—measures.

That’s right, eating your friends! The Algonquians considered cannibalism a very severe taboo—they believed that even when you have no other options, it is better to resign to death then eat another person. What would you do in that situation?

One film that explores this question, and the legend, as well, is Ravenous. Antonia Bird’s 1999 film stars Guy Pearce (the love of my life) as Boyd, a Civil War veteran who is placed at a fort in Northern California with a handful of quirky characters, including two Native American siblings. When a man stumbles upon the land, bloodied and emaciated, he recounts a harrowing tale where he was forced to cannibalize the members of a group he was traveling with. The Native Americans whisper warnings to Boyd of the Wendigo, and when the group goes out with the man to find the other missing members of his party, he fears the story might be true.

Another aspect of the Wendigo is that its appetite is insatiable; the more it eats, the hungrier it gets, needing always to kill and eat more flesh. The only way to stop it—is death.

Sometimes the Wendigo is said to be manifested as a beast, parts tree, and parts deer. Sometimes it is a giant that leaves bloody footprints that sets loose an awful, wind-like cry. It is a manifestation not only of greed and hunger, but also the desolation that one might find alone in the woods. Interestingly enough, the Germans (God love ‘em) have a word for this specific sensation. Waldeinsamkeit—forest solitude, or the feeling of being alone in the woods.

Another film that invokes the Wendigo is…well, it’s called Wendigo. This 2001 flick directed by Larry Fessenden is about a family who goes to get away from it all in rural Colorado. Unfortunately, they not only have psycho rednecks to deal with, but an ancient, deadly spirit, as well.
It is a great atmospheric and emotional flick that uses the myth creatively and even gives you an eyeful of their depiction of the beast!

 Fessenden was so in love with the legend he went on to direct an episode of Fear, Itself in 2008 called “Skin and Bones”. In my opinion, this is probably the most terrifying episode in the series, about a man who was left for dead in the wilderness, only to stumble home, changed. This is a good example of another physical depiction of the Wendigo, or, rather, a man who is possessed by one: extremely emaciated, with skin taut over bones, like a walking skeleton.

Algernon Blackwood really brought this legend to the mainstream when he penned 1910 short “The Wendigo”. Apparently based on Blackwood’s actual experiences and knowledge of hunting in Canada, this story features a group of men—including two Scotsman, a Native American and a French Canadian—who are moose hunting and find themselves threatened by—well, you know.

Apparently there is a Supernatural episode that also covers the Wendigo, but I’ve never watched that show so I couldn’t tell you if it was any good. Let me know if it though, eh?
Oh, and if you get really hungry—just do us all a favor and open up a pack of Ramen, deal?


Pixel Pixie said...

When I saw the title, I was hoping you'd mention that episode of Fear Itself. It was definitely the scariest one, and might not be a good idea to watch right before going camping.

I have seen that episode of Supernatural (hubby and I just started watching it on instant streaming on Netflix). If you like the show, you'll like the episode. I would recommend it.

Marie said...

I'm so glad you are familiar! That episode is the stuff of nightmares!
I might check it out, it seems really cheesy, but then again I like Buffy and Charmed sooooo...

Natalie said...

I loved the Fear Itself series on Netflix, even though the episodes were somewhat hit or miss... love that you mentioned it on here.

Rachel said...

The wendigo episode is not Supernatural's best, but I'll be honest; I watch it for the hot guys, cool cars, and awesome soundtrack :). It's not bad though. The actual wendigo is pretty creepy (though maybe a little too fake).

Justin Wong said...

I absolutely love stories that are built on mythology. They make me feel like I'm looking at something that came to life waaay back when and has somehow survived in people's minds. Thanks for pointing a few gems, I'll have to look into them.

James Gracey said...

I love these 'roots of horror' pieces. I don't know much about the Wendigo - save for its origins in Native American folklore - but I did love Fassenden's film and am now really keen to check out that episode of Fear Itself and read Blackwood's short story. Cheers and fanks!

Mark Martucci said...

In 1961 there was a very short lived TV series during that summer called GREAT GHOST TALES. One of the episodes was an adaptation of the Blackwood story.
It's now lost, but when I saw it back then it scared the Wendigo out of me!
All I can seem to remember of that episode was lots of snow and the Wendigo hiding up in a tree ready to pounce.
I would love to see this one again.
There is also the obscure Canadian film called GHOSTKEEPER. It's also got a Wendigo. In that film it is spelled Windigo which is a legitimate alternate spelling.
I have not seen RAVENOUS, but will indeed check it out.
Mark Martucci