Like many children of the 1980s, I first encountered the wendigo in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark when Alvin Schwartz recounts the tale of a Canadian hunting guide lured away from his campsite. His companion searches for him, but finds only the guide’s tracks in the snow. The footprints are normal at first, but soon further and further apart as if the guide were being pulled along by something much bigger and faster than him, and then there are no tracks at all: only the vast bleak winter landscape. When the guide’s shaken companion returns to town, a local tells him his guide may have been taken by the wendigo, “an old Indian legend” that haunts the forests, searching for prey. I remember reading this story again and again, curled up in a nest of woolen blankets on the couch, shivering with fear and a strange sense of familiarity as I looked out through the window to watch the snow whirling into strange shapes among Northern Michigan’s looming pine trees.
The wendigo is a manitou, a kind of powerful spirit, and it wanders to us via the folklore of Native American tribes in the Great Lakes Region and along the Atlantic Coast. These are bleak climes where forests unroll like black tapestries and the lakes grow thick layers of ice. Northern winters are hard to explain to outsiders, but when you watch January winds lash Lake Michigan so the water leaps and spumes through icebergs that crest up like frozen volcanoes, it’s impossible to forget nature is still wild, no matter how many vacation houses we build on her wave-filigreed shores or roads we try to plow across her. I grew up in a small town in Michigan, where the legend is still common enough that last year our local paper published an article listing potential sightings across the state. It’s not that most locals actually believe in the wendigo, but our geography allows a certain openness to the idea that nature still contains terrifying mysteries.
Like any monster, the wendigo has made its way from the oral tradition into pop culture—movies and video games and books like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary—although its description varies from teller to teller. Sometimes it has an elk’s head adorned with horns or its body is covered in matted white fur that blurs into the snowy landscape. It might be formed entirely out of ice or have an ice heart beating inside a human body or its bones might protrude from under ash-grey skin mottled with bruised jaundice and purple tones like the sick sunset sky in an apocalypse movie. The wendigo’s eyes glow yellow as old tallow lanterns as its tongue unfurls into a long path leading past sharp ridges of teeth and it smells like the sweet rot of decaying leaves or, as in an Algernon Blackwood short story, it has “the odor of lions.” Sometimes the wendigo leaves drops of blood in its wake—not from victims, but from its own lips and fingers which it gnaws tattered trying to assuage its hunger. The only constant descriptive is this: when the wendigo eats, it grows in proportion to what it has consumed so that it remains simultaneously starving and insatiable.
One origin story claims the wind god’s daughter turned herself into a coyote, mated with a glacier, and gave birth to a demon who then raped and impregnated her. When the wendigo was born, it taught its siblings to consume everything edible in the land so their enemies would starve. For this destructive greed, the Great Spirit cursed it with eternal exile and hunger—in this story, there is only one wendigo and it is, though malignant, divine.
More frequently in folklore, however, wendigos are ordinary people transformed, as in the Chippewa story of an unlucky couple who fall asleep one winter night and wake up to discover their newborn baby has escaped from its cradle. Hoping to rescue their child before it dies of exposure or is eaten by a bear or a wolf, they follow its tracks, only to discover their child has become a wendigo who wants to devour their village. One of the saddest and strangest moments in the folktale arrives when the villagers hack apart the wendigo’s corpse and find the body of the baby nestled inside—bright yolk hidden inside the terrifying shell. The child’s transformation is never explained: it’s just a sad thing that sometimes happens.
And bleaker stories outside of folklore exist. Although cases have waned with the rise of urbanization, up until the early 1900s, anthropologists observed a culture-bound disorder called wendigo psychosis whose sufferers were afflicted with an uncontrollable craving for human flesh. The most famous case occurred in 1878 when, during a particularly harsh winter, a Plains Cree trapper named Swift Runner slaughtered and ate his wife and five children. When his crime was discovered, he blamed a wendigo spirit which he said had possessed him. According to legend, Swift Runner suffered from night terrors during his imprisonment, screaming “I am the wendigo,” from his dark cell. As he stood on the gallows at Fort Saskatchewan, the noose already collared around his neck, Swift Runner told the assembled crowd, “I am no longer a man.” Then the wooden door under his feet opened and his body fell, feet reaching vainly for a staircase of air.
Anthropologist David Gilmore has proposed the idea that, in most cultures, monsters assist people in “awakening…to their own values and moral traditions.” If so, then in a communal society, perhaps the wendigo is the embodiment of hunger’s selfishness. It does not run in packs or pair off to mate and raise offspring; rather, the wendigo stalks the wilderness alone, attune only to the black hole of its gullet.
But monsters leave the liminal space of one culture’s nightmares and enter the rest of the world where they are appropriated and changed to suit other fears and fancies. For those of us raised on the tender vampires of Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyers, there’s also a strange romance in untrammeled hunger. After all, ravenousness is metaphoric as well as literal. We conflate physical hunger with romantic desire in ten thousand pop songs, and who among us has not looked at a beloved and wanted to consume them?
In a different mirror, the wendigo’s insatiableness might be a manifestation of loneliness, a kind of desire for connection that has metastasized.
2. This Body and its Needs
The wendigo fish-hooked into my brain again for the first time since that childhood story when I was wrestling with my own existential hunger. Discontent in my relationship, instead of breaking up with my boyfriend, I binge ate.
Late at night while my boyfriend slept, my apartment hushed as a snowfield, I stood in the cold yellow light of the cracked-open refrigerator door, spooning thick wads of strawberry jam down my throat. I poured sugar into my hand, cut slabs of butter and pressed them into the white granules. Then I let the cold squares dissolve in my mouth like Communion wafers. I gorged myself sick every night, but I could not fill myself up full enough—somehow, I always stayed hungry.
The wendigo haunted our relationship. When we first started dating, I was on a historical fiction kick and read a novel where a wendigo-inspired serial killer stalked the streets of 1663 New Amsterdam. Wandering around my neighborhood on a lazy post-brunch Sunday, we found a horror film company called Wendigo Productions setting up shop in a storefront a few blocks from my house. Soon, a few lines from Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” began to beat a ceaseless drum loop in my head: Slay all monsters and magicians, / All the Wendigos, the giants became my brain’s default white noise.
There was nothing wrong with our relationship precisely, but it also wasn’t right. My boyfriend was generous and attentive—quick to text and reliable about plans. He was smart, although his intelligence lay in the realm of tech and coding rather than literature and art, both of which he dismissed as “Not my thing.” What we had in common was that we both wanted to be in a relationship. He’d spent 8 years as a New York bachelor and was tired of Tinder, of chatting up strangers in clubs, of being “that guy” who never had a steady girlfriend.
I’d also been single for a few years before we started dating. And, before that, I’d had two terrible heartbreaks, the kind where you weep for months and contemplate extreme actions like joining the Foreign Legion or religious conversion or sailing alone around the world. I’d missed having a regular weekend date, a warm body to curl around as I slept, bright eyes and agile conversation across the dinner table. When I was single, I felt like I radiated loneliness. I hated buying groceries for one-pot meals and leaving parties to ride the subway back home alone. Almost all my friends were paired up, many of them with children. I’d spent my twenties and early thirties assuming that would happen to me too—that I’d meet someone and everything would fall into place easy as Chinese checkers when you move your marbles to the other end of the star. Instead I was one of the last ones left single, an adult version of the ungainly child on the sidelines when the sporty kids pick dodgeball teams. Even though I knew my boyfriend wasn’t the right person for me, being in a relationship was relaxing; the gnawing sense in my gut that this isn’t right easy to push aside for a while so that I no longer spent blurry hours scrolling through OkCupid profiles or small-talking on innumerable first dates. Instead, I could let the phrase “My boyfriend” sparkle in conversation and feel like part of a partnership again.
I wanted to love my ex; I think he wanted to love me too, but there just wasn’t enough of a connection. We could sit on his couch, my feet resting lightly on his lap, and talk for hours, but our desire never sparked—we were companionable rather than dry kindling and a quick flame. On the nights when I was alone, other men starred in the stories that unrolled behind my closed eyelids. Sometimes I would catch myself looking at him, thinking, I would miss you if you leave rather than Losing you could destroy me. Of course I was binge-eating; I was trying to use one kind of hunger to hide the absence of another.
I found comfort in my research. Instead of talking to him about our relationship, I delved into university archives and listened to scratchy recordings of Cree elders recounting wendigo stories, my earbuds blocking out the world. I read the comments forum for Dungeons and Dragons and found advice to neophytes warning that the wendigo is “more a force of nature” than a true monster. The gamers meant that one must strategize battles against a wendigo differently than against other supernatural creatures, but it’s also insightful folkloric analysis. As long as the moon isn’t full or the sun risen, vampires and werwolves can move easily through civilized society, but the wendigo exists only in the wilderness. It does not dissemble or defer desire and it never pretends to be human until fangs lengthen and fur grows. The wendigo does not lie. Instead, there is a purity to its actions—it acts only in accordance with its hunger. The wendigo, in short, was the opposite of me.
3. Desire is a Compass
When I think of the people I have been in love with, what I remember is a kind of wintery yearning like I was peering through the window of a warm house, wondering if I’d be invited in. Even when with the person, there was still a kind of hunger no matter how many hours we’d spend lost in conversation or twined together in bed. Sometimes this felt sad—a reminder of how separate we are in this world even from those we love most, that you can never truly feel satiated. But now I think maybe it’s necessary. Desire is a compass: it points you at the person you need.
Longing can be painful, but it’s worse not to feel your own hunger.
The legends say there are many ways to fight a wendigo. You can hit them with sumac sticks; scare them away with dogs; shoot them with silver bullets or slice them with axes or knives; but it’s most effective to burn them alive.
If you’re tired of being lonely, you can try to destroy yourself, but I think it’s better to preserve your own hunger. Hunger is a kind of truth.
Instead of shivering in the snowscape, first you make yourself love yourself (you build that cabin up around you, pine board by pine board) and then you invite other people to cross that threshold. You are tired of being lonely so you look for your tribe, someone you can trust when you feel weak or sad: someone who seems like shelter. You must unveil yourself so your beloved sees you fully—the matted fur, the sharp teeth, the long tongue that speaks too fast and too sharp—and smell your scent of lions and forest and soft decaying leaves. You let him listen to your voice, hoarse and plaintive as the wind whipping through frost-sharp branches.
Everyone is solitary until they find their right match so you have to trust that you aren’t the only wendigo. Maybe there are long winter stretches where you’ll wander solitary across the bleak white landscape, but somewhere where spruce and pine forests unroll like green scrolls there is someone else of your kind, and when you find him, you’ll both be each other’s feast instead of famine.
Kate Angus is a founding editor of Augury Books. She has received the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando prize for Creative Nonfiction, Southeastern Review’s Narrative Nonfiction award, and residencies at the Betsy Hotel’s Writer’s Room in South Beach, the Wildfjords trail in Westfjords, Iceland, and the BAU Institute in Otranto, Italy. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review, Subtropics, Court Green, Verse Daily, The Awl, The Rumpus, Best New Poets 2010 and Best New Poets 2014. A former Writer in Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy, she currently lives in New York.