A wendigo is a hunger spirit whose hobbies are eatin' folk and possessin' other folk to eat more folk. If a wendigo chew-chew-chooses you, you will suffer terrible side effects, like a feeling of incurable frigidness, and also a bellyful of your own family. According to legend, the wendigo grows as fast as it eats so that it never knows anything but bottomless hunger.
In the winter of 1878-79, a Cree Indian named Swift Runner murdered and ate his entire family. It was noted as a "particularly cold, bitter winter" in Alberta that year. When Runner walked into the Catholic mission in St. Albert come spring to report his family dead of starvation, he forgot to clarify whose starvation killed them. Priests eventually figured it out, mostly since he looked like a guy who had spent the winter eating eight people. Adding to their suspicions was the way he straight up told them, "Guys, I am being tormented by a wendigo, which is a thing that eats people."
Faster than you can say "please pass the mother-in-law," police had him up on a hangin' rope. His last words were "I am the least of men and I do not merit even being called a man." Dang, Swift Runner, you did not even try to live up to that name.
The Boring Reality
You can learn a lot about a culture by what they fear. In a hunter-gatherer society like the Cree (and most Algonquin tribes), people share almost everything they have, and the worst type of person is an insatiably greedy ghoul.
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A nightmare the white man knows too well, my friends.
Plus: cannibals. Everyone hates those guys. "It's important to understand that cannibalism was repellent to the people," explained ethnohistorian Nathan Carlson in what was the least necessary explanation ever. Mix in the bone-cracking misery of a winter anywhere north of Delaware, and the wendigo is a perfectly logical scapegoat. Which is easier: to admit that you're the type of guy who starts gnawing on family when the fire goes out, or telling everybody you've been possessed by a monster that instantly absolves you of any responsibility?
What's your worst fear? Dying of an incurable disease doctors can't diagnose? Watching your loved ones in pain? Being buried alive? How about waking up from a coma and losing years from your life?
Haitian Clairvius Narcisse suffered all of these horrors in 1962 when he went to the hospital because he was coughing up blood. He presented symptoms of fever, body aches, strange tingling sensations, and blue lips due to cyanosis (lack of oxygen). A couple of days later, he was dead ... ish.
Not so dead that he couldn't be dug up and forced to work on a sugar plantation for two years, at any rate.
"Zombie sugar plantation" is at least three kinds of harmful situation.
After being buried, Narcisse drifted in a timeless semi-conscious state. That's when a bokor (Voodoo priest) and a couple of henchmen exhumed him, bound him up, and whisked him away to the fantastical world of a sugar plantation, which is nowhere near as fun and candy-themed as it seems.
For the next two years, farming was Narcisse's job, and zombing was his hobby. And he was not alone. The bokor had a whole zombie work crew, which he fed one meal a day: a paste made of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and zombie cucumber. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but zombie cucumber is an effective narcotic: It once got British soldiers so high that they could see their house from Virginia.
Narcisse said the bokor took his soul, and with no will to resist, he only escaped when one of the zombies rebelled against the abuse and killed their captor with a hoe. Free of the curse, the zombies were able to wander off in search of more lucrative employment, and possibly brains.
The Boring Reality
Ethnobotanist E. Wade Davis studied the case, purchased some zombie powder from local bokors, and analyzed it. He determined that it was a mix of skin irritants and tetrodotoxin (pufferfish poison, like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer made a bucket list). The irritants chafe the skin, allowing the poison to enter a person's system in nonlethal doses and cause a state that is nearly indistinguishable from death. When the victims who survive the zombie powder are dug up a few days later, the psychological effects of their "death" and a continuing diet of strong hallucinogens convince them they've been zombified.
So ... holy crap. That one was actually true? All right, there you have it: Zombies are real, and pufferfish are the cause. Kids, make your own zombies at home for fun and profit.
If you're not quite horrified enough yet, take in 8 Prehistoric Creatures Ripped Directly from Your Nightmares and 6 Terrifying Creatures That Keep Going After They're Dead, or see Cracked's Field Guide to Real Monsters for much more.
Brendan is a humoriatrist and monster. May God forgive him, because humanity will not.