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The Realm Between Horror Myth and Psychological Disturbance: the Windigo Psychosis

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Research Essay: Windigo

In the dark of the night, a creature with worry and murder in its eyes rummages through the forest. Its breath becomes heavier and heavier as it craves and seeks human flesh, except that it is not a creature at all, it is a person. Windigo psychosis is a rare psychological syndrome that stems from Algonquian native folklore and beliefs. This syndrome, although rare, is not only limited to legends and stories of the past but can occur in present day. However, Windigo psychosis is a culture-bound syndrome, meaning that its occurrence is not everywhere and usually limited to one particular culture; in this case, the Algonquian culture. Windigo is a syndrome that is not very understood and although its causes are also not certain, the existence of Windigo tells us a lot about the power of the human mind and the strength of cultural myths.

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Windigo is not a syndrome that is completely understood or discussed to great lengths as other syndromes such as Aspburgers syndrome or Tourette syndrome. It is also one of the more obscure and least known , granting its rarity, out of all other psychological syndromes. There is even a differentiation in its name as it is called a variety of different things including: Weendigo, Windago, Waindigo, Windiga, Witiko, and Wihtikow. It has been suggested that when speaking of a supernatural being, the word “Windigo” should be capitalized but when speaking of a cannibalistic human, windigo should be lower cased. Additionally, it is said that the name for the creature is not a proper noun because it has no name, Windigo being only a kind of “reference”. But for the purpose of this research report and for clarity, I will refer to this condition as Windigo. So what exactly is Windigo? Depending on the time in question and whom one asks, Windigo could mean different things to different people. It could be a psychological or mental illness, a psychological syndrome not yet defined as an illness, a name used to called someone who is brutish, a figure in literature or popular culture, or a myth/legend. Its definition could be varied among cultural deviations or experience, such as someone may call another person a “Windigo” referring to them being mean or a monster-like person. Or one could be talking about case studies where sufferers of Windigo murdered their loves one and were later killed themselves by their community. Or one could get the idea that because Windigo is a mental disorder, they could catch it one day and turn into a ravaging beast who could eat their loved ones. Or one could have stumbled upon folklore stories and read of this mystical spirit, the Windigo, which has the ability to eat or possess its victims. All in all, there is room for ambiguity, but research and modern day information assigns Windigo the title of a psychological syndrome under review; which of course is well documented in Algonquin folklore stories and its origins stem from there. Additionally, it is important to note that a conception common to all these different beliefs about what Windigo is, is the belief that the Windigo is malignant and often cannibalistic.

In Alquonian folklore, the Windigo is associated with winter, the North, coldness, famine, and starvation probably due to the fact that most reported cases happened in the winter and winter also happens to be the time when famine arose (Brightman 1988:362). The Windigos heart was also said to be cold and that the same happened to the host, causing them to feel no emotions. No other creature or spirit evoked such fear as the Windigo did to the natives. The stories of the Windigo are all known among the Algonquian speaking tribes in America, and were told almost as a deterrent cautionary tale or forewarning to people who practiced cannibalism because it is said that they were most likely to develop Windigo. During the time of famine when food was scarce, people from the Alquonian culture sometimes turned to cannibalism as a means for survival which could explain the need for people who see cannibalism as an evil thing to warn people from turning cannibalistic by creating the Windigo monster. This could also explain why Windigo is a culture-bound syndrome, since it exists in a culture where cannibalism was once common. The Windigo myths stress the importance of suicide or pleading for death as being the proper thing to do as opposed to cannibalism in times of starvation.

Among the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Ojibwe, a ceremonial dance known as the a wiindigookaanzhimowin in Ojibwe was held during times of extreme famine to reinforce the seriousness of Windigo. This dance is performed today as part of the last day activities of the Sun Dance, which involve wearing a mask and dancing about the drum backwards. The fact that this dance, meant initially to warn others of this horrible beast that could possess you if you don’t behave, is still performed even to this day, shows the undying nature and longevity of myths and beliefs among not only cultures but individuals own choices, as this Windigo celebration was last performed in the United States at Lake Windigo in northern Minnesota.

In folklore, the Windigo is also associated with gluttony and greed, because it is said that the individual is never satisfied after killing and consuming just one human. It is also believed that an individual who was overpowered with greed could turn into a Windigo (Johnston 222-225). Alternatively, Among the Ojibwe, Eastern Cree, Westmain Swampy Cree, Naskapi and Innu tribes, the Windigo is perceived as a giant, who upon consumption of a human being becomes bigger in proportion to its meals and thus can never get full and was often starved and appeared emaciated (Brightman 344). As described by Ojibwe school teacher and scholar, Basil Johnson “The Weendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets…”

In popular culture, the Windigo is not depicted much like it is depicted in the myths and descriptions given by those who had experiences with a Windigo. The Windigo was portrayed in literature since 1910 when it was introduced to horror fiction in Algernon Blackwood’s short story “The Wendigo” and in Stephen Kings novel “Pet Sematary”. In Algernon Blackwood’s story “The Wendigo,” the story takes place in the Canadian wilderness, and after the characters decide to separate, it is suspected that one of them has been abducted by the “Wendigo.” The Author describes one of the characters suspected of having been possessed by the Windigo in the following way: “…his mind, influenced by loneliness, bewilderment, and terror, had yielded to the strain and invited delusion.” and “The chances against his finding camp again were overwhelming; the delirium that was upon him would also doubtless have increased, and it was quite likely he might do violence to himself and so hasten his cruel fate.” In Stephen Kings 1983 horror novel, “Pet Sematary” an ancient burial ground that could bring whatever dead, previously animate object back to life is said to be evil in nature and haunted by the Wendigo, which is stated to be a horrible creature who gives men a thirst for flesh of their own kind. In this novel, just as the short story by Algernon Blackwood, the Windigo, in this case being a creature and in a sense a demonic entity, has had its image altered to meet the standards of a Western horror creature. Other modern portrayals of the Windigo tend to deviate from how the Windigo was viewed in Algonquian myths and had led the Windigo to be most commonly viewed as a creature such as a vampire or Frankenstein. Additionally, the representation of Windigo as a creature in video games such as Final Fantasy, The Legend of Dragoon, and Warcraft Universe target a younger audience who may also view the Windigo correspondingly to what is portrayed in the entertainment device. This depiction of the Windigo in popular culture could be a persons only experience ever having heard of the Windigo and could thereby alter its perception as a horror story or Sci-Fi creature, influencing the way people look at this possible psychological disorder.

From a psychological standpoint, Windigo psychosis has been given the title of a culture-bound syndrome. This title is primarily given because although there are case studies and other facts which could serve as a corroboration towards it being an actual mental disease, Western psychologists claim that the evidence is not significant or blame misinterpretations about the condition. There are those who argue that Windigo is a psychological illness perhaps because of their own research or perhaps because they don’t know much about its origins. One such example is author Dennis DiClaudio who cites Windigo in his book The Paranoid’s Pocket Guide as a mental illness, describing its symptoms and origins. There has been debate in the psychological community as to whether Windigo psychosis is a genuine disorder or a misinterpretation of Algonquian myths (Marano 1982) and some researchers even argued that “Wendigo psychosis was essentially a fabrication, the result of naïve anthropologists taking stories related to them at face value.” ( Blackwood). It is also argued by author Lou Merano in his book “Windigo Psychosis: The Anatomy of an Emic-Etic Confusion” that “Windigo Psychosis is an etic/behavioral form of Anthropophaony… from an anthological view Windigo psychosis never really existed in an etic/behavioral sense and it is held that the “psychosis” is an artifact of research which failed to distinguish the emics of thought from the etics of behavior.” However, there are those who believe firmly in the Windigo disorder and despite these allegations, there is not enough research to discredit Windigo Psychosis as being a syndrome and enough proof to manage to maintain its credibility to a number of people.

Perhaps the most notorious case of Windigo psychosis is that of a man named Swift Runner, who in 1878, ate his wife and five children after almost starving, even though emergency food supplies were 25 miles away. It is said that because he decided to murder and consume his family even though he was fairly close to food supplies shows that this was not a case of pure cannibalism or a last effort for survival but a case of Windigo psychosis. He eventually confessed and was executed by authorities (Brightman 1988:353, 373). Another popular case involving Windigo psychosis is that of Jack Fiddler, a shaman and Oji-Cree Chief who was known for defeating Windigos and was said to have defeated 14 Windigos in his lifetime. Jack Fiddler was arrested for euthanizing Windigos and was arrested for murder and then subsequently committed suicide (Thomas and James R. Stevens 1985).

As shown in these cases, the symptoms of those with the psychological syndrome Windigo psychosis, are clear to those who have the syndrome; or as they would say, believe are falling victim to the windigo spirit. Depression, poor appetite, nausea, antisocial behavior, vomiting, and becoming obsessed with paranoid ideas of being bewitched or possessed by the Windigo spirit are preliminary symptoms before the situation becomes potentially violent and are all signs that the onset of this disorder is imminent unless the proper steps are taken to possibly prevent it. The affected individual’s belief that they are no longer in control of their actions or thoughts but instead have lost their autonomy and are being governed by the Windigo is a secondary symptom that follows the firsts. Additionally, the affected individual may see those around him as animals or other sources of food items. The individual begins to crave human flesh and becomes almost lycanthrope-like, which is why in Western societies Windigo is sometimes described as the equivalent of turning into a werewolf. The desire for human flesh is not an instantaneous reaction however, as it usually comes last after the other symptoms that are moderate and less severe; which also gives the victim enough time to realize what is happening to them and to isolate oneself or tell others to leave so they can avoid harming anyone. The desire is also strong and intense, not just a simple curiosity or craving but an uncontrollable, unyielding persistent coercion from a powerful force. The insatiable desire for human flesh even when there are other food sources available is what primarily categorizes the individual as having Windigo psychosis (Brightman 351-2, 365). It is clear that the accumulation of all these symptoms is what can lead the affected individual to commit such delirious acts as murder and cannibalism.

As discussed previously, greed and cannibalism were said to be the etiology for Windigo in Algoquinion myths, but more commonly the cause is viewed as simply becoming possessed by a demonic spirit known as the Windigo, meaning that it could happen to anyone. This possession is documented as sometimes to happen through dreams as well, and sometimes served as a reassurance that the possession is going to happen inevitably. The etiology of Windigo also stems from the culture from which the syndrome originated, especially since as mentioned before, natives indigenous to that area experienced famine and cannibalism was practiced. Other causes such as having a mental disease like schizophrenia or paranoia could be the cause for the hallucinations and delusions related to Windigo psychosis. Extending to the power of suggestion, in the way that if an individual has heard about these stories, symptoms, and signs and they begin to feel the onset of any of these, they themselves may drive themselves into becoming mad with the Windigo; or perhaps if someone mentioned to them that they appear to have one of these symptoms, the same conclusion could arise. Additionally, the self fulfilling prophecy effect could come into play in explaining this condition as well, in the way that if someone mentioned to the at risk individual that they are bound to have Windigo for some reason or another, the person may actually succumb to this predetermined and false notion and thereby get Windigo. Another factor or possible cause that should be examined is agitation leading to psychosis in people who have perhaps been pushed too far by the stresses of life or the stresses of having to survive under famine. As stated by author Lou Merano, “Windigo is not a closely isolated obsession but rather a predictable-though culturally conditioned variant of the triage homicide and witch hunting typical of societies under stress.” which is a logical observation that has been documented to occur as shown in cases such as the Salem Witch Trials and many other horrific cases where the stress of the moment leads to terrifying consequences. This illustrates how a community can be inundated by fear, producing irrational ideas and thus leading to a possible explanation for Windigo. Similarly related to the Salem witch trials, are also several documented cases of “Windigo trials”. One such trial recorded by explorer David Thompson in the late 1700s is that of an Indian hunter who announced that he had a strong inclination to eat his sister. The council decided that he should die and was strangled by a rope and burnt to ashes. It is also important to realize that although there could be one firm cause for Windigo, there could also be a multitude of causes that all interplay into the development of said condition which can also vary from person to person.

Treatments for a disorder that is not completely understood or even recognized as a disorder can be hazy. In Algoquion culture, if the affected individual recognized the symptoms of Windigo in themselves, they would ask to be executed before they could harm others. But usually the most common treatment method was to go to traditional native healers or Western doctors, and if these attempts failed, the person was usually executed (Brightman 1988:348, 349). Additionally, it is also said in Algoquion beliefs that the only way to rid the Windigo spirit was to burn the body of the host. It is also believed that since the Windigo is not immortal it can be killed with a silver bullet, like a werewolf. As exemplified by one ojibway story where a medicine man named Big Goose fought and managed to kill a Windigo, even though the creature was as “tall as the clouds”. The frequency of Windigo cases and interest in Windigo had subsided since the urabanization of the native Aloquion people which shows the effects of what urbanization can do to a society, getting them away from chaos, famine, and other harsh conditions that could lead a person to cannibolism.

In conclusion, Windigo is a real life case of dealing with the unknown or bizarre. Some could call it a real life warewolf story given that the person transform into a bloodthirsty beast, but what it most certainly demonstrates is the power of beliefs and suggestion in the human mind. Not only to create and implant such myths as a terrifying spirit that can possess people and has the power to make one kill and consume their loved ones, but to actually immerse oneself in the belief to the point where one believes they’ve become a Windigo. Undeniably, although this syndrome is very rare and culture-bound, it still exists, even if just in name. Which means that at one point someone decided to write about this phenomenon or document perhaps what was happening to them, leading to more and more stories. Even though its causes or treatment aren’t completely understood, one can speculate and come to their own conclusions about the beginnings of this condition or myth (however one sees it). In seeing that there is more to Wendigo than meets the eye and the depictions given in popular culture, one can apply it to the larger context regarding the imagination of a particular culture and the powers of the human psyche.

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