A wendigo is a monster of Native American legend, specifically the Anishinaabe people living in modern day Canada and the United States in the Great Lakes region. Depictions of the creature in literature and lore vary widely, but in general, it is associated with severe wind and cold and usually claims its victims during the night. The wendigo typically stalks hunters or travelers in the woods. Many of the behaviors and attributes of the monster suggest that it is a personification of harsh conditions in dangerously freezing winters.
In some stories, the wendigo was once human, while in others, it is purely supernatural. It is often said to eat human flesh, and some versions of the tale tell that humans who practice cannibalism, even in desperation, will become wendigos. If human victims are not available, the creature eats non-food items such as moss and lichen, leading some to believe that the monster is a symbol for starvation and the horrors it can wreak on sufferers.
In various tellings, the wendigo has other attributes suggestive of the horrors of extreme winters. It sometimes has a heart of ice or is entirely made of ice, and can only be defeated if melted. The wendigo is often said to be missing extremities, such as lips, nose, and feet, that are commonly lost to frostbite. It is sometimes said to be too thin to see from the side view, again suggestive of starvation. The creature is also associated with insanity, as those who survive its attack go mad, sometimes running naked into the snow.
The wendigo entered the world of horror fiction through Algernon Blackwood's 1910 short story The Wendigo. In this story, the monster is never physically described. It calls to its victim, the narrator's French Canadian guide, at night, and its voice is indistinguishable from the wind. Eventually, the victim loses his senses and answers the call.
The monster then drags its victim away so quickly that his feet are burned off in the process and changed into feet like the wendigo's. His cry of "Oh, my fiery feet!" also has associations with frostbite, which is accompanied by a burning sensation. The monster later makes an appearance in the assumed guise of the abducted guide, and at the end of Blackwood's story, the guide's corpse is found with frozen feet. Since Algernon Blackwood's story, the wendigo has been a recurring character in horror literature and film, although it often little resembles the Native American original.
In the cultures in which the wendigo originated, a psychosis known as Windigo was documented in cases dating from the 19th century and earlier. Sufferers committed violent murders and often engaged in cannibalism. Treatment by traditional faith healers or practitioners of Western medicine was sometimes said to be effective.
Today, little is known about the real reason behind these apparent cases of psychosis. Legend and fact are inextricably connected in the records on the condition. Some cases may simply have been cannibalism as a result of starvation or a more universal type of psychosis culturally interpreted to fit into the wendigo mythos. Other documented cases, however, are less easily explained.