[Horror has long been as much about the sources of the scares as the jumps they produce, and American horror is no exception. In this week’s series, I’ll AmericanStudy some of the symbolisms behind our scary stories. Leading up to a special weekend Guest Post on a very scary disease, past and present.]
On the supernatural legend that also offers cultural and cross-cultural commentaries.
I’m not sure what kind of collection it was—whether it was an anthology of folk tales, of scary stories, of cultural myths and legends, of Americana—but I do know that only one story from it impacted this young AmericanStudier enough to stick with me nearly four decades later: an account of a party of hunters in rural Canada encountering the demon known as the Wendigo. I can even remember the way I felt inside when my Dad read the lines about the rising and howling wind, which at least in this version of the tale signaled the imminent arrival of—or perhaps even contained—the creature. Let’s just say that, unlike the boy who left home to find out about the shivers, from then on I knew exactly what that condition felt like, and didn’t need to venture outside of the pages of that very scary story to do so.
So I’m here to tell you that the Wendigo is, first and foremost, a deeply effective scary story. But the creature and story, across their many versions, also offer complex and compelling lenses into American cultures, on two distinct and equally meaningful levels. For one thing, apparently Wendigo stories can be found in the belief systems and communal myths of numerous Algonquin-speaking native tribes across both the United States and Canada, including the Ojibwe, the Cree, the Naskapi, and others. While those tribes share a basic language system, they are as culturally and socially distinct as they are geographically widespread—and yet they share closely parallel images and accounts of these cannibalistic demons of the woods. While we have to be careful about how we read such potentially but ambiguously symbolic shared mythic figures—Joseph Campbell-like, sweeping structuralist pronouncements being largely discredited these days—there seems to be no question that the Wendigo represents a part of the collective identity and perspective of these tribes.
But as they have evolved, Wendigo stories have also come to represent something else, and perhaps even more telling: tales of the perils of cross-cultural exploration and exploitation. That is, in many of the last century’s Wendigo tales, including both the Blackwood one linked above and the one that I remember from my childhood, those being threatened or destroyed by the creature tend to be non-native hunters, often if not always venturing into native territories, encroaching on previously protected or sacred spaces, or otherwise seeking to make their mark on a land not quite their own. As my friend Jeff Renye has traced at length throughout his evolving scholarly career, Weird Tales such as Blackwood’s often highlight the dangers posed by an sort of spiritual boundary-crossing, so this particular trend is certainly not unique; but in these cases, I’m arguing, the boundaries being crossed are not only spiritual but also, and perhaps more importantly, cultural. Which is to say, while the Wendigo has always been cannibalistic, the particular identity of those upon whom he feasts has significantly, and symbolically, shifted over time.
Next scary story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Scary stories you’d AmericanStudy?