In Algernon Blackwood's story The Wendigo, originally published in 1910, a pair of hunters encounter a creature in the Canadian woods that they had hoped was only a legend. Blackwood's Wendigo is a mystical creature, representing the lure of the wilderness. Its voice resembles the sounds of the wild - falling water, wind, the call of birds and beasts. Grasping its victim, the Wendigo runs at such speed that the poor victim's eyes bleed and his feet burn. It can take great leaps or run along the tops of trees. It will fly, repeatedly dropping its prey, as a hawk drops a fish, over and over again until it is dead. If the victim of the Wendigo does return to civilization, it is as a shattered shell of the individual, his mind crushed by the terror of the dark woods.
As with many of the creatures brought to life in the pages of gothic horror fiction, Blackwood's Wendigo is inspired by a beast already present in folk mythology. In this case, Blackwood draws upon the folk tales of the Algonquian tribe of Native Americans. In some versions of these tales, the Wendigo is an evil spirit that influences weak and susceptible individuals to engage in horrific behavior. Specifically, when facing extreme conditions and starvation, the Algonquians believed that the spirit of the Wendigo may transform an individual into a cannibal. The victim then becomes a Wendigo. Steve Pitt describes aspects of the folkloric Wendigo in Legion Magazine and describes the creature this way:
It is something like a werewolf on steroids. It stands more than six metres tall in its bare feet, looks like a walking corpse and smells like rotting meat. It has long, stringy hair and a heart of ice. Sometimes a Windigo breathes fire. It can talk, but mostly it hisses and howls. Windigos can fly on the winds of a blizzard or walk across water without sinking. They are stronger than a grizzly bear and run faster than any human being, which is bad news because human flesh happens to be a Windigo's favourite food. A Windigo's appetite is insatiable. Indeed, the more it eats, the hungrier it gets. (January/ February 2003)
It requires a leap of imagination, akin to the leaps of the Wendigo itself, however, to go from the cobwebbed pages of a gothic horror story and the campfire tales of tribal folklore to a real-life flesh-and-blood creature haunting the woods of north Texas. This claim, however, is not made by Hawk alone. For example, Loren Coleman suggests that Native American folklore has a layer of truth that should not be dismissed. Stories of Wendigo, he claims, may contain information about actual encounters between native peoples and a group of large, hairy hominids. He writes:
In eastern North America, a specific variety of manlike hairy hominid allegedly exists which exhibit aggressive behavior, hair covering the face in a mask like fashion, occasionally piebald coloring, an infrequent protruding stomach, and distinctive curved, five-toed splayed footprints. They are inhabitants of the northern forests. (Coleman, Crypto, 'Hominology Special Number 1,' April 7, 2001)
Though these creatures were called by many different names by the various tribes, they are, according to Coleman, the beings described by the Algonquians as Wendigo. In Coleman's examination of native folk tales a picture of the Wendigo begins to develop that looks more like a flesh-and-blood primate than like the mystical otherworldly being of Blackwood's tale. The Wendigo that Coleman describes are large, hairy creatures with big hands and bear-like faces. They wear no clothes and do not employ the bow, instead using stones for weapons - hence the origin of the term 'Stone Giants.' They are cannibals, though it is unclear whether this means that they eat members of their own group or that they eat human prey.
Coleman suggests that accounts of human encounters with Wendigo can be found not only in native folk tales but also in stories told by early European settlers to North America. One such European encounter even comes from the pre-Columbian period:
Leif Erickson wrote in 986 A.D. of encountering monsters that were ugly, hairy, and swarthy with great black eyes. In 1603, on Samuel de Champlain's first voyage to eastern Canada, the local natives informed the explorer of the Gougou, a giant hairy beast that lived in the northern forests and was much feared by the Micmac. A London Times article of 1784 records the capture of hair-covered hominids by local natives, near Lake of the Woods, in south-central Canada. In the Boston Gazette of July 1793, a dispatch appeared from Charleston, South Carolina, May 17, 1793, concerning a creature seen in North Carolina. The account centers on Bald Mountain, where the local residents call it Yahoo, while the Indians give it the name of Chickly Cudly. (Coleman, Crypto, April 7, 2001)
Coleman, then, not only brings the Wendigo out of fiction and folklore to stalk the forests of eastern Canada, he also sees the creature as a biological creature, an undiscovered primate. He also brings the creature closer to Texas.
The indigenous peoples of Canada were not the only Native American groups to tell stories of hairy, human-like, sometimes supernatural, creatures. Navajo folklore from the American Southwest, for example, tells of supernatural creatures known as Skinwalkers. Skinwalkers are shape-shifting witches able to assume the attributes of various animals, especially canines. They walk in the skins of animals. Just as with the Wendigo, Skinwalkers also make appearances in contemporary accounts, most notably in Hunt for the Skinwalker by Colm A. Kelleher and George Knapp (2005). These authors relay several interesting accounts of modern-day Skinwalker encounters, including the following:
One story told on the Navajo reservation in Arizona concerns a woman who delivered newspapers in the early morning hours. She claims that, during her rounds, she heard a scratching on the passenger door of the vehicle. Her baby was in the car seat next to her. The door flung open, and she saw the horrifying form of a creature she described as half man, half beast, with glowing red eyes and a gnarly arm that was reaching for her child. She fought it off, managed to pull the door closed, then pounded the gas pedal and sped off. To her horror, she says, the creature ran along with the car and continued to try to open the door. It stayed with her until she screeched up to an all-night convenience store. She ran inside, screaming and hysterical, but when the store employee dashed outside, the being had vanished. (41)
According to one contemporary Navajo interviewed by Kelleher and Knapp,
A skinwalker is the size of human, six foot and under. They don't come in most of the time to where the animals are at. They come in to where people are at. They come right here and you'd never know he was standing here looking at you in the middle of the night . . . They can take the shape of anything they want to take the shape of. (48)
The shape-shifting ability of the Skinwalkers can result in quite dramatic incarnations. For example, Kelleher and Knapp report an encounter with two Skinwalkers they describe as 'so unusual, so outside our concept of reality as to be almost comical, like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon' (49). In this case the Skinwalkers were in the form of humans with dog heads. They were also smoking cigarettes. Kelleher and Knapp's Skinwalker, it seems, crosses back into the realm of the supernatural, back into the worlds of gothic horror and folklore, but is nevertheless treated as fact, not fiction.
This bizarre shape-shifting tendency has also been associated with 'The Beast of Bray Road,' a contemporary werewolf-like creature from Wisconsin documented by Linda S. Godfrey. In one case an eyewitness describes watching such a transformation take place:
It appeared then to be an overly large dog, or something like that. And then, its legs started moving real fast. The closest thing I can think of to describe it is when you see a person break-dancing, when they're spinning and kicking. And I was standing there trying to make sense of that, and I wondered if it was two dogs, uh, fornicating. And then, the only way I can describe it is that it was . . . morphing, and when it stopped, it turned and looked at me, and it had this dark, hairy body but the head and face of a gorilla. (2006, 4-5)
Godfrey admits to being a bit confused by such reports of supernatural behavior on the part of the beast, especially when those reports are compared with the more typical reports, which usually give the beast very flesh-and-blood characteristics. As Godfrey describes one of the earliest encounters with the beast, its need for food, in this case roadkill, is quite apparent. She describes the experience of her witness in this way:
As she drove forward and saw the creature from the front, its position was what got her attention, however. 'It was kneeling!' she said. 'Its elbows were up, and its claws were facing so that I knew it had claws,' she added. 'I remember the long claws.'
The claws had a chunk of what looked like a dead and flattened small animal: roadkill. She had the impression the creature had been dining upon it. Its eyes reflected the glow of her headlights, as most animal eyes will at night, and she was surprised when the creature didn't run away but turned its head to gaze back at her. She described the animal as 'dark brownish-gray' and the size of an average man, maybe five foot seven and 150 pounds. (2003, 7)
The creature also seems to enjoy scavenging from garbage cans. Godfrey recounts one eyewitness report of two large animals prowling through garbage cans under the glare of a streetlight. The creatures had ears like a German Shepherd, long sinewy bodies, and oddly small feet. They were covered in pale grey fur and had long snouts with black noses (94).
Despite these reports of animal-like behavior - behavior that seems to indicate a natural explanation for the beasts - Godfrey's files are filled with stories, like the story of the shape-shifting break-dancer, which seem to indicate a more supernatural explanation. Some witnesses insist that what they have seen is an odd, but natural, creature. Others describe it in demonic and supernatural terms. Sometimes, Godfrey notes, what witnesses report cannot easily be classified into either category, but has characteristics of both natural and supernatural phenomena. 'Sometimes,' she writes, 'it is difficult to separate the two categories, as the border between them occasionally turns porous, allowing things to seep fluidly between them' (xii).
The blending of natural and supernatural elements found in accounts of Wendigo, Skinwalkers, and the Beast of Bray Road is also a prominent characteristic of stories concerning the Latin American creature known as Chupacabras, the 'Goat Sucker.' Starting in the 1990s in Puerto Rico, stories of the Chupacabras quickly spread to other nations, including the United States. The Goat Sucker acquired its name because of its tendency to leave farm animals drained of blood, with only a small puncture wound providing any evidence of how this might have been done. The killing of farm animals often corresponded with sightings of a strange creature - usually described as between three and four feet tall, with powerfully built hind legs (like a kangaroo), and dark black eyes that glowed red at night. The creature was also described as having a strange crest of spiny feathers running down its back. In addition to these strange, but perfectly natural, characteristics, witnesses also claim to have experienced things that would seem to indicate that something more than a flesh-and-blood animal was involved - including some witnesses who claim that the creature emitted beams of light from its eyes that brightened the surrounding darkness like flashlights.
Scott Corrales, in his book Chupacabras and Other Mysteries, provides the most complete record of the early reports from Puerto Rico and it is clear that those reports contain a bizarre mix of both natural and supernatural elements. For example, Corrales describes witnesses' accounts of the creature in flight. Some accounts indicate an unusual but natural phenomenon, while others indicate something weirder:
Many who saw the Chupacabras said it has a web of skin connecting its wrist to its knee or ankle, that this web forms a 'wing,' like that of a flying squirrel when it raises its arms, and that this structure allows it to glide like a hang glider. But some witnesses insisted that the Chupacabras has a levitation capability that allows it to float through the air like Superman, in level flight without flapping wings, and without other means of propulsion. One witness claimed that the extremely rapid movement of small, feather-like appendages along its backbone propelled it like a bumblebee. (4)
Whatever it was, natural or supernatural, the Chupacabras quickly became the topic of conversation throughout Puerto Rico. Soon, people everywhere were seeing the Goat Sucker. Corrales reports that in May 1995 a San Juan television station reported that a police officer and several witnesses had seen a gargoyle-like creature while waiting at a bus stop. The creature was reportedly spotted outside a government building unpleasantly devouring a large rat. The police officer attacked it with his baton, but quickly had the tables turned on him. The Chupacabras flew into the air and grabbed the baton in its claws before flying away. Soon after, the creature was spotted flying over a busy expressway (15).
The strangeness was only getting started.
One witness spotted the creature outside her home and managed to get a close look at it through a window. She reported:
It was such a weird creature that I even got down on the floor to see if it had genitals. It had nothing at all - it was 'plain' and sealed. I laughed, and said to my mother, 'What the heck is this? Does it defecate through its mouth after it eats?' It made robot-like movements as if being controlled by someone. (35)
Corrales also recounts this encounter between another police officer and the creature:
The creature attacked a Chow dog at policeman Juan Collazo's home. He heard some noises in the lower part of his home. He went down with his service revolver, and he saw the creature attacking his dog.
4 SOME WITNESSES INSISTED THAT THE CHUPACABRAS HAS A LEVITATION CAPABILITY THAT ALLOWS IT TO FLOAT THROUGH THE AIR
He immediately fired at it. His car was parked behind the creature. The creature took the bullet's initial impact, bounced off the wall, took off in a flash, and disappeared. He says it flew . . . The creature had apparently shaved the place on the dog where it was going to make its incision. (57)
Corrales offers up several possible explanations for the origins and nature of the creature, including that the creature may be an extraterrestrial, a visitor from another dimension, or the result of some bizarre genetic experiment. In any event, whatever it may be, Corrales argues that it must be taken seriously. 'Real animals belonging to real people are being slaughtered by a being not native to the Puerto Rican ecosystem' (164).
It did not take long for the Chupacabras to move beyond the Puerto Rican ecosystem, however. Fairly quickly after the initial sightings in 1995 the Chupacabras appears to have migrated to other regions of Latin America and to the United States. Reports of the creature surfaced in southern California and Miami, Florida. Within a few years the creature was making news and headlines in Texas. Everywhere it appears, reports of dead farm animals occur, their blood drained from their bodies. As with Bigfoot, the only hope for
solving the mystery was to obtain an actual physical specimen. At this point, Chupacabras hunters caught a break.
Texas television stations reported that residents had discovered the remains of the mysterious creature - not once, but several times. Video and photographic images of the carcasses of strange creatures were broadcast on television and soon spread on the internet. These creatures were roughly canine in appearance, but completely hairless and with powerful back legs. Their teeth were extremely long, growing from protruding gums. Farmers reported that in the preceding months chickens and goats had been found drained of all blood. Were these the mysterious Chupacabras? Veterinarians and experts claimed that they were coyotes suffering from severe cases of mange and malnutrition. Skeptics scoffed at the claims, as did true believers in Chupacabras, who noted that these animals, strange though they might be, were certainly not the same creatures that had been seen by other witnesses. The original creatures - creatures with high-beam eyes and the ability to fly - could certainly not be mistaken for mangy coyotes. The mystery, even with a specimen, was far from over.
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