Malicious Myths: The Nian (年兽)

To most people, the beginning of a New Year promises a fresh start; a chance to right the wrongs of the previous year (of which there are, undoubtedly, many) and become the person you’ve always dreamed of being, albeit after you’ve gotten over that horrific hangover. But it’s important to remember that not all New Year’s celebrations are full of such hope. The Chinese may not celebrate New Year at the same time as us, but that’s not the only thing that sets them apart.

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Every year, when winter ravages the land and there is nothing left to eat, a terrifying beast rises up out of the sea and prowls the Chinese countryside in search of prey. It terrorises villages, kills livestock, razes farmer’s crops, feasts on the villagers themselves, and has a horrifying preference for child meat. After all, nothing goes down smoother than a ten-year old vintage. And by “ten-year old vintage” we mean your son. This ferocious beast travels from village to village, leaving destruction and devastation in its wake. Its Chinese name of “Nian Shou” (年兽) literally means “The Year Beast”, and its presence has become synonymous with that of the New Year itself. So, while the rest of the world is popping bottles of champagne and drunkenly regaling their friends with their 2015 woes, the people of China are huddled up in their homes waiting to be devoured. Or are they?

It turns out that the Chinese preference for the colour red isn’t just a tribute to their Communist leaders (or should we say overlords). This love of all things scarlet dates back thousands of years, to when the Nian first began raiding the villagers’ pantries for long grain rice and supple young boys. In spite of its enormous size and brute strength, the Nian is deathly afraid of three things: loud noises, bright lights, and anything red. It might look like a fearsome lion, but it’s really more of a scaredy-cat.

legend_nian2Thus during the New Year or Spring Festival period, Chinese people make more noise and create more commotion than a busload of preteens at a One Direction concert. They beat drums, set off fireworks, burn firecrackers in the street, and (from personal experience) do everything in their power to assault your eardrums on an almost hourly basis. Seriously, it’s a small wonder that the entire population hasn’t gone deaf by now. At night, paper lanterns are crafted, lit, and paraded through the streets, while red decorations and couplets of auspicious sayings are hung from the doorways of houses. People will often stay up late or even all night long on New Year’s Eve simply to ward off any sneaky demons lurking nearby.

The tradition of the Nian has become so ingrained in the culture that, rather than a cheery “Happy New Year”, people will greet one another with the phrase “Guo Nian” (过年), which means “the passing of Nian” or “surviving the Nian”. And we thought New Year’s Resolutions were bad. So you may have to start a diet and give up smoking, but at least you didn’t ring in the New Year by congratulating yourself on not being eaten.

Appearance

nianDepictions of the Nian vary depending on which part of China you’re in, but generally speaking it is immense in size and has a jaw so wide that it can scoop up several people in a single go. Remember that time you ate a whole can of Pringles and then cried bitterly about what a fat waste of space you had become? Well imagine doing that with a can full of small children, and that’s how the Nian rolls. It is often portrayed with a single horn or several large horns on its head, which it uses to skewer youngsters before toasting them over a fire like fleshy marshmallows.

In some instances it is said to have the powerful body of an ox and the head of a lion, but in other cases it appears as a half-dragon half-unicorn hybrid. The former usually depicts it with a snub-nose or relatively flat-face, while the latter portrays it with a much longer snout. In any case, it has large sharp teeth capable of tearing through even the strongest of children’s clothes. That is, until Matalan finally brings out their “flesh-eating monster friendly” range.

Origins

The story of the Nian dates back thousands of years, to a period that the Chinese refer to as “Shang Gu” (上古) or “the Ancient Times”. Long before the human race had achieved such heights of civilisation as the shotgun and the indoor toilet (both of which are still very hard to find in China), farmers were being terrorised by the ravenous Nian. It was supposedly so formidable that even other demons and beasts dared not get on its bad side, for fear that it would straight up murder them and feast on their tasty organs. At one point, to prove it was the baddest of the bad, it even killed every wild beast in the mountains and drove several species to extinction just to win a bet. Move over Chuck Norris, we got a serious badass over here.

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If I fits, I sits

On the run-up to New Year, villagers from across China would flee into the mountains and hide from the creature. That was until one year, when the people of Peach Blossom Village were preparing for their annual fleeing. As Hallmark always says, nothing brings a family together quite like fleeing for your life. Suddenly an old beggar entered the village, his hair a silvery white and his eyes a bright blue. Everyone was too busy making preparations to pay him any mind, but an elderly woman approached him and gave him some food.

She beseeched him to follow them into the mountains, as the Nian was fast approaching and would surely devour him if he stayed. The beggar promised that he could drive the monster away and would do so on one condition: the elderly lady must let him stay in her home for one night. But it wasn’t kinky geriatric sex that was on his mind. In spite of the woman’s entreaties, the beggar would not be moved and she was forced to head up into the mountains alone.

9753b31f15dd7a88d4f2e91b0add00baNight fell and the dreaded Nian dashed into the village, searching for a couple of kidlets to whet its appetite. It was furious to find that the village had been abandoned, but soon noticed that the candles in the old lady’s house were still lit. Approaching with caution, it was horrified when it saw a piece of red paper stuck to the door. Loud sounds like thunder began emanating from the house and the beast was paralysed by fear. At that moment, the beggar burst out of the house wearing a red robe and, with its enormous tail between its legs, the Nian bolted into the darkness.

The next day, the villagers returned and were amazed to find that their homes, livestock, and grain stores were still intact. The beggar was gone, but inside the elderly woman’s house they found the remnants of his nightly activities: a few candles, some used firecrackers, and reams of red paper. They realised that the beggar was actually a celestial being who had been sent to teach them how to ward off the Nian. Overjoyed at the prospect of a casualty-free New Year, they all dressed up, set about preparing a huge banquet, and then travelled to nearby villages in order to inform others of the incident.

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Rawr

From that day onwards, during the New Year period, people would stick red paper couplets to their doors, keep their homes well-lit, set off firecrackers, and violate all fire-safety laws known to man. The next day would be spent visiting friends and relatives to congratulate them on having survived the night and not blown themselves up. Seriously, it’s a miracle so few people end up blowing their hands off.

Modern-day Usage

Wherever there are knock-off martial arts games or TV shows, there will always be the Nian. After all, cultural appropriation is totally okay so long as you keep it factual, right? Right?! With that said, here are a few modern-day references to our leonine leviathan:

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  • A Chinese animated comedy film called Mr. Nian (年兽大作战) is set to come out on February 8th 2016, the date Chinese New Year falls on this year. The main character is a hapless and bumbling Nian.
  • There is a two-headed canine beast in the online game World of Warcraft called a Nian. During an annual event called The Lunar Festival, a boss version of this monster appears called Omen.
  • In the online role-playing game Guild Wars, the Nian is part of an event called the Canthan New Year Celebration.
  • There is a monster in the mobile strategy game Game of War called the Nian Lion whose appearance is clearly based on the Nian.
  • Nian or “The Year Beast” features as an event boss as part of the New Bloom Festival in the online video game DOTA 2.
  • In the video game World of Kung-Fu, the Nian features as a mount.
  • In the online game Perfect World: International, there are creatures known as Nienbeasts that are available as mounts and were visually based on the Nian.
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Ride ’em Cowboy
  • The Nian makes an appearance in an episode of the animated sitcom Three Delivery entitled “Night of the Nian”.
  • There is a television series called Spirit Warriors which feature Nian as characters, although they are portrayed as humanoid rather than bestial.
  • In 2013, McDonald’s launched this amazing advert where a man refuses to give his hamburger to the Nian.

 

 

Malicious Myths: The Nian (年兽)

Malicious Myths: Jólakötturinn

yulecatIf you’re not a cat person, then prepare to have your feline fears suitably justified. For Christmas is coming, and the horrifying Jólakötturinn or Yule Cat is on the prowl. This monstrous creature, a staple of Icelandic folklore, stalks the snowy countryside and searches out those who haven’t received new clothes on Christmas Eve. Anyone who has not had the fashionable wherewithal to update their winter wardrobe will be devoured by this malicious mog. Yes, you heard me, devoured. Or, as the Icelanders would euphemistically call it, to be “claimed by the Christmas cat”.

So, if you ever find yourself lacking in fresh wintry apparel on Christmas Eve and hear a pitiful meowing at your door, you know exactly who’s waiting for you on the other side. But how does the cantankerous kitty know if you’ve received any new clothes, I hear you cry? Well, he patrols your homes and peers into your windows, of course. He’s the cute, cuddly peeping Tom-cat who has a passion for frolicking in the snow and the fresh taste of human blood.

Yet you can’t entirely blame him; after all, it’s in his nature. Jólakötturinn heralds from a wide pantheon of celebrated child-eaters. He is the house pet of Grýla, a horrifying ogress who loves nothing more than her mischievous sons, the Yule Lads, and the sweet, sweet taste of baby meat. While the thirteen Yule Lads wreak havoc on the thirteen days leading up to Christmas, Grýla and Jólakötturinn are busy gorging on plate after plate of baby back ribs. In some versions of the tale, the Yule Cat eats the food of those who haven’t received new clothes, rather than eating them. So, instead of preying on those too poor to afford new threads, it simply eats the only square meal they’ll probably have that year. Nice.

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Chilling with some of the Yule Lads

Stories of this ferocious feline were considered so terrifying that, at one point, it was illegal to use them to scare children. However, the allure of child abuse proved too strong and the ban was soon lifted. The stories themselves served as an incentive to maintain a good work ethic, as working hard was the only way to guarantee you would get new clothes for Christmas. In short, the moral of the story was: work hard for material gain or slack off and get eaten by a giant cat.

And it seems this tactic has worked rather well, since the people of Iceland put in more overtime than any other European nation. They may have traded in the loom for a modern computer, but their productivity doesn’t appear to have waned. Even to this day, people still consider receiving new clothes before Christmas to be of paramount importance. Honestly, we couldn’t think of a more stylish way to avoid being eaten alive.

Appearance

108251763_33547_originalTo all intents and purposes, Jólakötturinn looks just like a normal cat. Aside from the fact that he’s monstrously huge, has whiskers as sharp as needles, giant eyes that glow like beacons, and razor sharp claws the size of an average snowmobile. He is often depicted as looking emaciated, since it seems the good ol’ Icelanders rarely forget to update their wardrobe and he’s probably gone several years without a decent meal. He has a particularly strong, large tail, which allows him to leap great distances and pounce on his “oh-so-passé” prey. The jury is still out as to whether large balls of twine, toy mice, or lazer pointers have any effect on this furry foe.

Origins

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These pants are so last year!

The origins of Jólakötturinn are shrouded in mystery and, although he is believed to date back to the Dark Ages, written records of his mythos didn’t appear until the nineteenth century. Historians posit that he may be connected to several other mythical animals associated with the Yuletide season such as the Yule Goat, a pagan deity who was charged primarily with watching people closely and making sure their Yule preparations were done correctly. After all, Christ was born in a barn, so it seems only fitting that farm animals should be sent to do his bidding.

Yet the most likely explanation for his conception was as a simple yet effective threat. Farmers created the horrifying figure of the Yule Cat to encourage their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. Any worker who was seen to be diligent and hardworking was rewarded with new clothes, while those who were lazy and idle were given nothing and risked becoming the kitty’s next meal. What better way to get your employees to reach their quota than risk of feline dismemberment.

tumblr_nlwnt1ylqg1u8cvvto1_500Unfortunately, this doesn’t account for those who were too poor or unlucky to receive new clothing during the Christmas season. While it seemed these ill-fated souls were doomed to spend the rest of their days jostling for space in a cat’s stomach, this dilemma opens up a whole new meaning behind the myth. People were not only encouraged to be assiduous during the run-up to Christmas, but were simultaneously urged to help those less fortunate. Like Dobby and the fabled sock, families would give clothes to the needy and destitute so that everyone could enjoy a carnage-free Christmas.

Modern-day Usage

References to our terrorist tabby are few and far-between. In fact, they’re so rare that we could only manage to dredge up two:

  • The Yule Cat mythos was popularised by Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum in his poem Jólakötturinn. It was this literary work that promoted the idea of giving to the needy, as evidenced in the lines:  “You may have it now in your mind/to help, when it’s needed./Maybe there still are children/that receive nothing at all”.
  • Iceland’s very own mental patient Björk wrote a song called “Jólakötturinn”, which was based on Kötlum’s poem and even uses some of the lines as lyrics.
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Please lemme eat ya

 

 

 

Malicious Myths: Jólakötturinn

Time to Spread the Christmas Fear: A Review of Krampus (2015)

krampus-movie-posterRelease Date: December 4th 2015

Director: Michael Dougherty

Country of Origin: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 1 hour 38 minutes

Apologies for all of those who were waiting for a Malicious Myths segment, but sadly that will be postponed until next week. If you really need to get your fix, why not go back and read our post on good old Krampus himself?

From the director who masterminded the magnificent Trick ’r Treat, comes a movie about the true meaning of Christmas: consumerism, greed, and a reminder of your deep seated hatred for your dysfunctional family. When I first heard about Krampus, I was convinced that it was going to be a train wreck. It’s incredibly difficult to make anything Christmassy seem scary without it coming off as trite and kitschy, not to mention I have an extreme dislike for comedy horrors in general. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and Shaun of the Dead as much as the next person, but I’m a firm believer that incorporating horror elements into a comedy film doesn’t make it a horror comedy; it’s just, at best, a parody. It wasn’t until after watching the trailer for Krampus, however, that I became truly intrigued.

The film is set three days before Christmas, when Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), along with their children Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and Max (Emjay Anthony), welcome their much maligned extended family members into their home to celebrate. This motley bunch include Sarah’s sister Linda (Allison Tolman), her gun-toting husband Howard (David Koechner), their raucously redneck children Howie Jr., Stevie, and Jordan, and the vile Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). When Max is driven to distraction by his relatives and ends up destroying his letter to Santa, his German grandmother warns him that the power of the Christmas spirit is not only a force for good, it also wards off evil. Soon, the family find themselves at the mercy of something older than good old Saint Nick; the dreaded shadow of Santa Claus.

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Just your typical family get-together

It’s a stellar cast, and one that blends the comedy and horror elements of the film perfectly. The opening sequences, in which we are introduced to them as a family unit, feel incredibly genuine and are delightfully funny without coming across as too cliché or hammy. In a world where at least one new Christmas comedy comes out every year, it’s hard to maintain any sort of originality and yet Krampus manages to play with the genre’s stereotypes without necessarily succumbing to them. You’ve got the brothers-in-law who just can’t get along, the hateful older relative who drinks his/herself into an eggnog-fuelled coma, the mother exasperated with her ungrateful family after slaving away over a hot stove; yet it’s all done so seamlessly that you forget you’ve seen it all before.

krampus04In fact, the humorous elements are so well-executed that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a fully-fledged comedy. Yet it’s when the horror begins that the film really starts to show its teeth. The snow and stunning set pieces (resplendent with the most terrifying snowmen I’ve ever seen) create a suitably oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere that was chilling in of itself. Without giving too much away, the monsters are beautifully well-realised and stunningly designed. They’re the perfect mixture of the festive and the grotesque, with a certain ridiculousness that makes them both comical and horrifying. The celebrated (and rightly so) film critic Mark Kermode compared it to Gremlins in its delicious nastiness and Poltergeist in terms of its family feel. High praise indeed, but one the film has certainly earned. It’s refreshing to see a family comedy that’s not afraid to show its monstrous side.

There were moments where I laughed myself to tears and times where I gasped with fear, which really speaks to how effective this was as a comedy horror. But what marred my enjoyment and what I’d describe as the film’s major problem was pacing. It started off as a slow burner, which served it well when it came to establishing the family dynamic, but then it seemed to introduce the titular character far too early. I was eager to see how they were going to portray Krampus, and his opening sequence is a work of pure art, but the initial reveal came just a little too early for me. Not only that, but thereafter the pace slowed once again and the film unfortunately dragged for a good ten minutes. This sets a regrettable yet recurring pattern, as the pace suddenly quickens and then just as rapidly drops far too often.

With that out of the way, Krampus is not only by-far and away the best Christmas film this season, I personally found it to be one of the most enjoyable horror films of 2015. Its sharp, its witty, its delightfully dark, and I felt sucked in by the narrative from beginning to end. So if you’re sick of those cheesy carollers’ smiles, tired of encountering random objects covered in fairy lights, and shiver inwardly at the thought of hearing “Fairytale of New York” one more time, treat yourself to a little holiday horror and go see a film that is sure to amuse and terrify.

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Please God, not The Pogues

Acting: 8/10, all of the actors were perfectly cast and really sell the family dynamic. Koechner and Ferrell are particularly charming and elevate the comic elements of the film.

Storyline: 8/10, the storyline is an interesting take on the Krampus mythology and sets the film apart from other Christmas-based horror films.

Fear Factor: 7/10, some of the creatures are honestly disturbing and are sure to satisfy the most morbid of curiosities.

Overall: 7.5/10, Krampus is a clever and entertaining romp that doles out fear and fun in equal measure.

 

 

Time to Spread the Christmas Fear: A Review of Krampus (2015)

Malicious Myths: El Chupacabra

From a young age, something about the chupacabra both deeply unsettled and fascinated me. It was small, it was feeble looking, and it was kind of cute in a creepy, reptilian sort of way. Yet the disturbingly vicious method in which it killed its victims skyrocketed it in my childish mind from mischief-making sprite to bloodthirsty emissary of Satan. The name chupacabra literally means “goat sucker” in Spanish and before you ask, no, this isn’t some kind of freaky Hispanic porno. The chupacabra is classed as a “contemporary legend” and supposedly began terrorising the Americas in the 1990s, starting with a spate of killings in Puerto Rico.

In March of 1995, eight sheep were discovered dead on a Puerto Rican farm. The victims had only three puncture wounds on their chests and had been completely drained of blood. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of a fan of my blood and would prefer that it stayed in my own body. By August of the same year nearly 150 farm animals and pets had reportedly been killed in the same way. Violent, ‘Nam-style flashbacks began plaguing the locals as they were reminded of a similar epidemic in 1975, when the Puerto Rican town of Moca had been terrorised by “El Vampiro de Moca” or “the Kitten of Moca”. Just kidding! “THE VAMPIRE OF MOCA”. As if life wasn’t hard enough, it appeared as though the towns of Puerto Rico were once again being targeted by the only vampire with a goat fetish.

At first, people thought a satanic cult may be behind the killings, until a woman named Madelyne Tolentino came forward and claimed to have seen a creature. Not just any creature, but a small, scaly, kangaroo-like reptile that hopped after goats in a menacing and totally non-comedic way. Silverio Pérez, a Puerto Rican comedian, is credited with coining the term “el chupacabra” not long after the incidents were reported, which is a testament to just how seriously people were taking our little lizard friend. When you’re named after a joke by some two-bit comedian, you’re hardly striking fear into the hearts of men.

Yet our slithery bloodsucking imp wasn’t about to let this deter him. Not long after Tolentino’s testimony, similar killings were reported from the Dominican Republic and Bolivia right through to Mexico and the United States. Apparently, by March of 2005, el chupacabra had even reached Russia and took the liberty of killing and draining 32 turkeys just to, you know, let everyone know he was there. The last known sighting took place in April of 2014, when a couple from Ratcliffe, Texas claimed to have captured one of the beasts. Scientific researchers discovered the animal was in fact just a racoon with sarcoptic mange but I have to believe that, if I was confronted by a foot-high hairless creature rummaging through my garbage, I’d probably think it was Hellspawn too.

Lately, some people have started to argue that the chupacabra may in fact be an ABE or “Anomalous Biological Entity”. In sci-fi speak that means a pet or experiment that once belonged to an extra-terrestrial race but has since escaped and decided to wreak havoc on our planet. These UFO aficionados claim that the government has been trying to hide the presence of the chupacabra for years and that perhaps, just perhaps, the Republican Party is actually being sustained by goat’s blood. Okay so that part about goat’s blood is a complete lie but, if hyper-intelligent alien life forms did exist, do you really think they’d spend the better part of their time engineering a creature whose primary goal was to terrorise a few Russian turkeys? This reporter says, yes…yes they probably would.

Appearance

By artist Rodrigo-Vega

Physical descriptions of the creature vary between countries and it appears to range in size from “large rabbit” right through to “small bear”. It’s characteristically reptilian, with either leathery skin or greyish green scales covering most of its body and spines or quills jutting out of its back. Most descriptions claim that it hops like a small kangaroo, but in some areas it appears to run on all fours like a wild dog. It is often portrayed as looking slightly emaciated, with unnaturally pronounced eye sockets and skeletal features. Being a predator, it has large fangs and claws for taking down goats and turkeys, the most cunning of prey, but it is sometimes depicted with features like that of a vampire bat due to its predilection for drinking its victim’s blood. So just imagine a bug-eyed, scaly frog with oversized choppers and you’re practically there.

Origins

Sil from the movie “Species”

Believe it or not, chupacabras may not actually be real. I know this may come as quite a shock to you, so just take a moment to let it all settle in. After a five-year investigation, Benjamin Radford, author of Tracking the Chupacabra, discovered that the original eyewitness, Madelyne Tolentino, had actually been describing the alien Sil from the sci-fi horror flick Species. Why it took Radford five years to figure this out is beyond me, particularly when you take into account the fact that Tolentino had seen the movie only a few days prior to the event. Evidently it was a slow day at the Bureau for Chupacabra Investigation, or Radford just really needed the money. Either way, Radford concluded his investigation by stating that Tolentino had not seen a chupacabra but was in fact just batshit crazy, as she had begun to believe that the events from the movie Species were really happening.

By artist hellcorpceo

Over 300 reported victims of the chupacabra were examined by veterinarians and a necropsy of the corpses found that the animals had not actually been drained of blood but were just a little deflated, as I’d imagine anyone would be after, you know, becoming a corpse. Many of the reports in the United States and several other countries were confirmed to be coyotes suffering from sarcoptic mange that had started hunting livestock because, in their weakened state, they couldn’t take on their usual prey. The two holes on the necks’ of the victims were consistent with canine teeth and the fact that the animals had not been eaten indicated that they probably escaped their predator but died later due to internal bleeding.

So a rather disappointing end for our creepy little critter. No one knows exactly why the legend has perpetuated for so long or why it spread to so many different countries, but at least now goats of the world can sleep a little easier.

Modern-Day Usage

Considering how young this urban legend is, the chupacabra has managed to weasel its way into a number of media outlets. In fact, its fame is so far-reaching that I can’t even begin to mention all of the references to it here, so I’ve chosen a smattering of the more famous ones to give you an idea:

  • The films Chupacabra: Dark Seas, starring John Rhys-Davies, and Guns of El Chupacabra, starring Scott Shaw, both revolve around the urban legend.
  • In Marvel’s Fantastic Four miniseries “Isla de la Muerte”, our heroes head to Puerto Rico to confront the chupacabra.
  • Marvel’s notoriously controversial antihero Deadpool is at one point enlisted by a Mexican goat-herder to save his prize goat Bella, which has been kidnapped by a group of chupacabras.

    Dexter’s cheeky chupacabra
  • During the second season of the cartoon Dexter’s Laboratory, Dexter accidentally creates a creature known as “La Chupacabra” that subsequently escapes and makes its way to South America.
  • In the South Park episode entitled “Jewpacabra”, Eric Cartman tries to hunt down a Jewish chupacabra that he claims kills children on Easter Sunday.
  • In an episode of Futurama, the Planet Express crew travel down to the sewers and are confronted by a vicious monster that the local mutants call El Chupanibre.
  • In the anime Occult Academy, Maya and the gang investigate a series of mysterious cattle deaths near their school. The character Ami is eventually kidnapped by the chupacabra, and it’s up to her friends to save her.
  • In the wildly famous T.V. series X-Files, the episode entitled “El Mundo Gira” reveals that the chupacabra are actually illegal immigrants who have been infected with an alien fungus.
  • In an episode of the T.V. series Bones entitled “The Truth in the Myth”, one of the possible murder suspects is a chupacabra.
  • In the video game franchise Castlevania, later games feature an enemy known as the “Cave Troll” but this is a mistranslation; the enemy is in fact a chupacabra.
  • The chupacabra features as an enemy in the video game series Shin Megami Tensei.

  • In the video game Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, a chupacabra can be killed as part of a side-quest. Killing it even rewards you with an achievement entitled “Chupathingy”.
  • In the video game Fallout: New Vegas, the character No-Bark Noonan confuses an enemy known as a Nightkin for a chupacabra. When someone explains to Noonan that the holes in the murdered cattle were in fact made by bullets, he responds by saying “well…we got a chupacabra with an automatic weapon”.
Malicious Myths: El Chupacabra

Malicious Myths: The Wendigo

When it comes to nightmare fuel, not many creatures outrank the wendigo. It’s a demonic half-beast from Algonquian legend and, if that’s not enough to ward you off, it has an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Since Algonquian culture covers a range of Native American tribes, the creature goes by many names, including weendigo, windiga, and wihtikow, but supposedly all of them roughly translate to mean “the evil spirit that devours mankind”. The Native Americans believed that these malevolent spirits could possess human characteristics or, in some cases, even transform into human beings. They are creatures that are doomed to starvation, forever hungry and pursuing a relentless desire for human flesh. They were often associated with winter, the cold, the north, famine, and starvation.

According to Algonquian legend, men could either become possessed by the spirit of a wendigo or people who were subsumed by greed or who had cannibalised could transform into wendigo. You were at particular risk of possession if you were dreaming, as if we needed any more reason for sleepless nights. Once you became a wendigo, your heart would become cold as ice and your body would begin to change. Some accounts by settlers’ documented the wendigo as a dark omen whose presence immediately preceded the death of someone in the community. In some, chilling cases, wendigo were even purported to keep live hostages in a sort of makeshift, cannibal pantry to snack on later.

This hideous dark omen, with flesh dangling from its teeth and eyes burning from its sockets, was considered such a legitimate threat by the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Ojibwe Native Americans that they dedicated a ceremonial dance to it, known as wiindigookaanzhimowin in Ojibwe. This dance took place on the last day of the Sun Dance and involved wearing a mask whilst dancing backwards around a drum. The only way to kill a wendigo was supposedly to set it on fire and incinerate all of its remains. If any part of it survived, its essence may very well possess another human being. So keep your flamethrowers at the ready as we delve into the mysterious origins of the wendigo.

Appearance

The appearance of the wendigo varies from legend to legend, but it’s commonly described as being gigantic, over 15 feet tall, and appears emaciated due to its insatiable hunger. It has ash grey skin that is pulled taught over its bones and its eyes appear deeply sunken in their sockets. Its lips are bloody and tattered, almost non-existent, and give way to a grotesquely long tongue and unnervingly sharp teeth. In some descriptions they have deeply matted hair whilst in others they are hairless. It appears sallow and gaunt, like a skeleton, and is portrayed either with purely human characteristics or, in some instances, with the head of a stag.

As it passes, it disseminates an odour of death and decay, since it is practically decomposing as it walks. Somehow this walking, stinking corpse is not only able to keep standing, but is endowed with supernatural strength. It is able to overcome victims easily and, in some Algonquian communities, it was even believed that it grew larger with each victim it consumed.

Origins

The origin of the wendigo mythos is directly connected to how wendigo supposedly came to be. Wendigo were either malicious spirits that had been transformed by magic or, more often, they were once people who had been overcome by greed or who had eaten human flesh. This included, rather specifically, anyone who had resorted to cannibalism as a means to survive.

The Algonquian family consisted of hundreds of diverse tribes that inhabited a stretch of territory in a northern arc from New England right up through to the Great Lakes and the eastern Rockies. This meant that, during the bitterly cold winter, poor hunting seasons and resulting starvation was a very real threat. In fact, whole villages were known to have been wiped out by starvation during a particularly devastating winter. In these times of abject desperation, some members of the community would resort to cannibalism. In Algonquian culture, a hefty taboo was placed on cannibalism and it was considered pertinent to commit suicide or allow yourself to die rather than resort to eating human flesh.

Most people believe that the wendigo legend was created to reinforce this taboo on cannibalism. As wendigo symbolised gluttony, greed, and excess, it is believed they were also used to encourage cooperation between people and moderation of appetites. Some people believe that the cannibalism aspect of the myth may have been inspired by actual diseases, such as Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease or other brain diseases, which may have been transmitted via cannibalism and resulted in violent psychosis. It is thought perhaps the wendigo myth was used to explain the strange behaviour of afflicted individuals that may have ingested human flesh.

A Cree Indian named Jack Fiddler was considered to be one of the most famous Wendigo hunters in history. He claimed to have killed 14 of the beasts in his lifetime but was imprisoned at the age of 87, along with his son, for the murder of a Cree woman in October of 1907. Both him and his son plead guilty to the offense but maintained that the woman had been possessed by the spirit of a wendigo and was on the verge of complete transformation. They attested that they murdered her as a form of self-defence, believing she would kill other members of the tribe if left to transform.

Historians believe that Jack Fiddler may have been one of the only known cases of a culture-bound disorder known as “Wendigo Psychosis”. Though “wendigo psychosis” is not an official medical or psychological term, it’s used to refer to a disorder that occurs only within the Algonquian community, hence the term “culture-bound”. The symptoms include either a craving for human flesh or an unfounded fear that people behaving strangely have indulged in cannibalism. It’s a very specific form of paranoia, where one either believes they are becoming a wendigo or, in the case of Jack Fiddler, that those around them are wendigo.

Modern Day Usage

Though wendigo are perhaps not the most well-known in the monster canon, they have been subtly used in various forms of media, including:

  • The 2001 film Wendigo. The film plays upon the idea of “wendigo psychosis” and features a wendigo that may or may not be real. The same author/director used the wendigo in his 2006 movie The Last Winter.
  • The 1999 film Ravenous, in which a soldier in the United States Army develops supernatural powers after cannibalising a fellow soldier to survive.
  • In the cinematic reboot of The Lone Ranger, Tonto refers to Butch Cavendish as a wendigo because he eats parts of his victims.
  • In the Digimon movies, the main antagonist is called Wendigomon.
  • The wendigo featured as a monster in the T.V. series Supernatural.
  • In the popular T.V. series Charmed, one episode features one of the main characters, Piper Halliwell, turning into a wendigo.
  • A wendigo features as an antagonist in an episode of Teen Wolf.
  • In the anime One Piece, Chopper’s monster form was heavily influenced by modern interpretations of the wendigo.
  • In the T.V. series Hannibal, Will Graham frequently has recurring dreams and hallucinations featuring a deer with ravens’ feathers. At one point in the series, he hears the Word of God, which confirms that this creature is a wendigo. At the end of the series, Will Graham has a final hallucination that reveals Hannibal Lecter is the creature he has been seeing all along and is, in fact, a wendigo.
  • In Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, the Indian burial ground and the path leading to it is frequented by a wendigo. At one point, the main protagonist very nearly encounters it.
Hannibal Lecter as a wendigo
  • The wendigo is a common villain that features across several Marvel comics, including X-Men, Spiderman, and The Incredible Hulk. It’s well known for its catchphrase, its primal shout of “Wen-Di-Goooo”. Anyone who eats human flesh in the Canadian forests will become a wendigo in the Marvel universe. At one point in the comics, it is even revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D once pioneered a WENDIGO project in an attempt to create super soldiers.
  • In the Cthulu Mythos, Ithaqua was inspired by the legend of the wendigo.
  • In the video game World of Warcraft, wendigo are monsters similar to yetis or Sasquatch.
  • Wendigo feature both as playable characters and enemies in the video game series Shin Megami Tensei.
  • Wendigo feature as enemies in the video games Final Fantasy V, X and XII.
  • Wendigo is an official category of monsters in the video game Diablo II.
  • SCP-323 or “The Wendigo Skull” in the SCP series is described as the skull of an unidentified creature that causes anyone within close proximity to develop cannibalistic urges. Eventually, the victim is compelled to force the skull on their heads and transforms into a creature resembling the legendary wendigo.
Malicious Myths: The Wendigo