Wendigo Psychosis: the Probably Fake Disease that Turns People into Cannibals

Wendigo Psychosis is one of the more dramatic mental illnesses. It is characterized by a deep craving for human flesh as food. It's also — possibly — entirely made up. Judge for yourself.

If you're like me, your first contact with the wendigo came from one of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, in which a pair of trappers are stranded in the wilderness in a storm. One trapper is driven mad by the wind calling his name, and runs outside, seemingly dragged by the wind until he burns up from the friction.

The original story of the Wendigo is told among the Algonquin. It's generally associated with deepest winter — the time of famine. One man, through hunger or personal failure, broke the taboo against eating human flesh. An evil spirit possessed him, and forced him to become insatiably hungry for more — always eating and always starving. The idea of a moral slip leading into a spiral through which it destroys the sinner is a cross-cultural one, but this particular idea, the Wendigo, has spawned a specific, and violent, delusion.

Wendigo Psychosis: the Probably Fake Disease that Turns People into Cannibals

Or has it? Wendigo Psychosis is the sometimes uncontrollable craving to eat human flesh, even when other food is nearby. Reportedly it was localized within North Eastern American tribes, and was dying out as European American anthropologists began cataloging it. It left behind some vivid stories. One of the most well-known stories was that of Plains Cree trapper in the late 1800s who, after the death of his eldest son, killed and ate the rest of his family while well within reach of outposts at which he might have gotten supplies. Another famous Wendigo story is of Jack Fiddler, an Oji-Cree man who reportedly hunted and cured others of Wendigoism. When he killed one supposed Wendigo, he was tried and convicted of murder, and executed. The fact that the psychosis was localized, both geographically and culturally, and seemed to be vanishing as the culture vanished, caught a lot of anthropologists' eyes.

The fact that the moment anyone looked for Wendigo Psychosis it vanished seemed significant to quite a few skeptics, as well. While plenty of people heard stories of such a psychosis, but few seemed to meet a Wendigo sufferer in the flesh. One of the few people to actual see a person with the psychosis was a missionary named J E Saindon, who travelled around in the early 1900s. The woman who was supposedly "possessed" seemed rational, had no desire to eat human flesh, and only wanted to kill strangers because she feared they would hurt her. She surrounded herself with her close family, and avoided new people in order to avoid the temptation to kill them. This was one of the most well-documented cases, and doesn't resemble the psychosis at all.

A closer look showed more problems with the so-called psychosis. Anthropologists pointed out that people who were said to be Wendigos generally suffered from all kinds of mental problems, and that the term was a catch-all phrase for any mental issue. Early anthropologists, they believed, had assumed that everyone to whom the phrase was applied suffered from the same psychosis, and so assumed that it was widespread. When cannibalism figured in a crime, people assumed that it had to be because of this cultural psychosis, rather than being an aspect of violent crime that can happen anywhere, and happens for many different reasons. A good story and a few dramatic tales that no one was a first-hand witness to, and soon a psychosis had been invented. One that conveniently vanished before it could be verified.

Top Image: Zlatan Zlatanov

Second Image: Jan-Erik Finnberg

Via Cogitz and UFDC.