(Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on the cultural elements I’m going to be discussing in this piece, and freely accept and apologize for any mistakes or misconceptions contained herein. Please feel free to correct me for any inappropriate or outdated terminology and information.)
From a storytelling perspective, mythology is a well. A deep well, but one that gets shallower and shallower by the year, bled dry by Hollywood’s insistence on mining as much as they possibly can from history’s ancient and bygone religions.
Most of this lends itself naturally to very specific styles of film, mostly historical epics and the like. Movies like Gladiator, Clash of the Titans, and more recently, The Northman, all dip into the vast and colorful pantheons of various extinct religions, bending them to the trappings of a modern narrative and three-act structure to produce popcorn fodder of mixed quality. More often than not, the specific mythological flavor applied to these films is nothing more than set dressing, used to fancify and make exotic what is otherwise a generic coming-of-age story or revenge fantasy.
Weirdly though, the horror genre hasn’t really dipped its toes into classical mythology, at least with any significance. Which is odd, really, considering just how terrifying the various mythological creatures and morality tales from around the world can be. We tend to know, in pop culture, the simplified, Disney versions of these stories. But much like how we’ve watered down fairy tales over the years, we’ve diluted the true, often horrific nature of the creatures and curses that populated minds of our ancestors.
Seriously, imagine a horror flick about any one of the hundreds (if not thousands) of twisted, monstrous beasts that populate the Greek pantheon. Chimeras, gorgons, harpies; All could be scary as all hell if approached with the same level of seriousness as they were revered with in their heyday.
But what horror has adopted, perhaps with too much frequency, is folklore. Legends and myths that don’t necessarily correlate to any one belief or religious system, but that nonetheless persist as superstitious beliefs in small pockets of long-lived ethnic and cultural groups. We’ve seen films about leprechauns, about mermaids, trolls, and even unicorns (Cabin in the Woods features pretty much all of the above). Stories specific to induvial regions and nations have received wide attention due to this, like the La Llorona myth of Mexican folklore, or the Alpine, Pagan Christmas demon, Krampus. These folk tales and supernatural cryptids are easy pickings for Hollywood horror cinema, for two reasons: One, because the creatures they portray are easy to display in a vacuum, without the cultural underpinnings that normally accompany a more strictly religious mythological tale; And two, because the cultures that believe in these legends are either niche enough that any complaints would barely register in the grand scheme of things, or have died out completely.
In other words, filmmakers are free to pilfer these stories, guilt-free. They’re seen as trivial, ranking barely higher than children’s bedtime stories, and yet they net studios millions of dollars every year.
There is one exception to this, however, at least in recent years. A genuine example of the horror genre pulling from more than just the hollow, skimmed Cliff Notes of an urban legend or tall tale, instead choosing to scoop down deep into the muddy waters of an entire shamanistic belief system. And, if you’re from the US like myself, it’s one from our own backyard: Indigenous American mythology. The myths and stories of America’s Native peoples have been repeatedly a source of horror as of late, popping up all across the mass media landscape. The monsters and legends from various Indigenous tribes and cultures have been a hot ticket item, with their iconography and lore headlining all sorts of spooky and seasonal outings.
The reason for this, I would argue, is because Native mythology walks a very fine line between religion and folklore. Indigenous peoples encompass an extraordinarily large and diverse set of customs, beliefs, and practices, making it impossible to really pinpoint one specific set of myths that pervade every single one of these individual cultures. As a result, from a shallow, surface-level viewpoint (i.e. Hollywood’s), it can seem that Native mythology is simply a collection of scattered folk stories and tall tales, rather than a developed, cohesive pantheon. A bestiary, one that can easily be skimmed for cheap creature-features and vaguely racist, half-baked supernatural thrillers. And much like with other films inspired by localized folklore, the Indigenous population in the United States is, from a cynical and capitalistic standpoint, a small enough minority to risk offending with no real large-scale consequence.
While I think it’s great that Hollywood is turning to such a fascinating set of ideas and cultural artifacts for story ideas (at least, in theory), it’s become increasingly apparent that, much like with its approach to virtually every other cultural mythology, the subject and setting is, again, nothing more than set dressing. These stories don’t, in any way, actually respect the mythologies that they’re pulling from; They’re simply exploiting the visual language and cultural associations that accompany Indigenous beliefs in order to garner cheap points for their works, invoking 19th century sensationalism around the ‘mysticism’ or ‘savagery’ of the Native.
You can see this in virtually every mainstream example of Indigenous mythology in horror, from low-budget found-footage all the way up to big-budget tentpole monster-movies.
Take, for instance, Skinwalker Ranch. Released in 2013, the film takes its name from the real-life Sherman Ranch in Ballard, Utah, where decades of supposed UFO sightings has led the 500 acre estate to be known as one of America’s hotspots for paranormal activity. It follows a government team as they set up surveillance on the ranch after the owner’s son mysteriously vanishes, documenting increasingly sinister and unexplained phenomena as their investigation spirals out of the bounds of control. A solid found-footage horror flick, if not a bit derivative and clichéd.
But the quality of the film itself isn’t the problem here: It’s the subject matter. Or, more accurately, how that subject matter is exhibited. A skin-walker, for those unfamiliar, is an element of Navajo folklore that represents the dark mirror to their community’s healers and medicine men. They are, in the most basic terms, witches, users of dark magic and rituals designed to harm and manipulate nature, rather than preserve it. Little is known or understood about them outside of the Navajo community itself, due in part to the culture’s (understandable) reluctance to share these stories with the outside world, as well as a genuine fear and reverence for the supposed power of the entities in question. Skin-walkers, like many other fixtures in Indigenous mythology, are deeply rooted in very serious, very respected and traditions and ritualistic practices, and are still an active fixture in the lives of many within the Navajo nation.
So it’s such a shame that Skinwalker Ranch’s approach to this particular piece of culture fabric is to simply handwave it as extraterrestrial in origin. That’s all the film amounts to, at the end of the day: An alien abduction film draped in a lazy veneer of cultural appropriation. Shallow lip-service is paid to the Navajo mythology that surrounds the legends, going only as deep as to include an eye-rollingly stereotypical sequence wherein a nondescript ‘Native shaman’ attempts to bless the land, only to become ill when exposed to the supposed evil that’s tainting it. There’s absolutely no need whatsoever for this film to try and squeeze out a little extra cultural currency, especially when it ultimately doesn’t amount to anything, plot-wise, when all is said and done.
But then again, Skinwalker Ranch never claimed to be an accurate or faithful representation of Indigenous folklore. Any and all reference to actual Navajo beliefs are largely just incidental, some cultural fluff to pad out the runtime on what would otherwise just be a run-of-the-mill UFO film. It’s appropriation, undeniably, but largely inoffensive in its intention.
There are other films and media, however, that I would argue are far worse: The pop culture experiments that aren’t content with simply content with stealing a few pieces of visual and thematic flair simply for the sake of ‘spicing up’ their little horror flick with some Native American flavor. The movies and shows that actually have the audacity to try and engage with Indigenous culture on a deeper level, without actually doing any of the proper research that would result in a faithful, respectful end product. Appropriation on a much larger, much more offensive scale.
And more often then not, all of these examples tend to focus on the same bit of mythology: The wendigo.
Yes, if you have any familiarity at all with the spirits and monsters of Native folklore, you’ve no doubt heard of the wendigo. From Marvel comics to shows like Supernatural and Hannibal, the wendigo rears its ugly head whenever a writer needs a monster with a little bit of frontier, Manifest Destiny Americana flavor. And virtually every appearance is the same: In typical monster-of-the-week format, some poor yokel will be found torn to shreds, leading whatever leading man/men in the show you happen to be binging that day to ultimately follow a fairly standard chain of investigation, usually involving tales of cannibalism exposited by a wise old Indian smoking from a pipe. Odds are, I just perfectly described something you’ve seen before.
Hell, even video games have gotten in on the action, with interactive horror-movie simulator Until Dawn using the wendigo as its central monster de jour. And while Until Dawn may be a tad less stereotypical and exploitative with its depiction of the mythical beasts, it’s still not exactly accurate to the cultural legends that surround them.
Which is a shame, really, considering the actual folklore behind the wendigo, from the mouths of the practitioners who still engage with these myths and legends, is far more interesting and terrifying than anything we’ve yet to see onscreen. The wendigo, as adopted by pop culture, tends to be something akin to a werewolf more than anything else: A cursed individual who transforms into a ravenous beast under certain conditions. Usually, this curse is brought on by cannibalism. The creature itself is generally a vaguely-human figure, often covered in fur, with claws and deer antlers. The horns in particular seem to be a fixture of the more recent media depictions of the creature, with Antlers being released last year taking full advantage of the imagery.
The truth is that the wendigo, in its purest forms in predominantly-Algonquin folklore, is a much less literal being. It’s a spiritual entity, a malevolent one at that, which is less of a physical force of violence and more a metaphysical representation of insatiable hunger and ravenous greed. It tends to be a stand-in for things like famine and starvation, and is strongly associated with the winter, for obvious reasons. It’s true that cannibalism, which many depictions of the wendigo in media tend to specifically focus on, is a central and crucial component to the wendigo legend, but it’s by no means the defining characteristic. Some myths describe a literal transformation from human to wendigo after consuming human flesh, which is the basis for our modern pop-culture image of the creature, while others stress the transformation can be brought about simply by selfishness and greed. In other versions of the myth, a wendigo exists as a separate entity altogether, a cruel and violent species that preys on human beings as its primary food source, their hunger never satiated.
Stories about the wendigo can be taken at face-value, as actual stories warning of the dangers they pose to the unsuspecting and the guilty, or as metaphorical. It’s this latter interpretation that sees the most usage in the modern age, even amongst those belonging to the individual tribes and nations that still subscribe to the wendigo myth. Indigenous culture is based strongly on the community, on the wellness of the whole over the individual. The wendigo serves as a conceptual, metaphorical cautionary tale against forsaking the tribe or the community over personal gain, a warning against the consequences of unchecked greed. The wendigo is the manifestation of consumption, of domination and forced assimilation. It doesn’t exactly take a historical scholar to see why these fears would take monstrous shape for the native peoples of America.
The wendigo can also be seen as a metaphor for mental illness, most notably psychosis and schizophrenia, although these interpretations are largely the work of contemporary anthropologists and psychologists, and don’t necessarily correspond to the folklore as practiced by its originators.
The antlered, lycanthropic image of the wendigo that we’ve gotten accustomed to in the film and television landscape as of late is one largely born of later, white-penned works of fiction. The works of English writer Algernon Blackwood in particular can be traced as the source for many of our modern interpretations of the creature, with his story “The Wendigo” giving a physical description that has remained largely unchanged for nearly a century since. Traditional wendigo are presented as a much more subdued entity, being most frequently as a gaunt, pale, emaciated humanoid figure, resembling either a person on the verge of starvation, or a decaying corpse. Some groups describe them as giants, growing more and more with each person they consume, and yet remaining deathly thin due to the cursed nature of their perpetual hunger.
And these are just the physical codifiers of the wendigo of myth. Many other versions see them as a much less tangible force, a dark spirit or otherworldly being that transcends physical form. This is a monster of the psyche, one that attacks the mind or the soul instead of the body itself. Sometimes they can possess, forcing a person to give in to their basest impulses, while other times they can simply influence, posing as the devil on an individuals shoulder as they whisper words of encouragement towards selfish and destructive deeds. In any case, to simply portray the wendigo as another simple monster to be slain is a highly reductive and culturally ignorant reading of the lore which they spring from.
The aforementioned Antlers is a chief example of what Hollywood doesn’t seem to grasp about the myths that they pull from in order to manufacture cheap scares. The film follows a school teacher in the Pacific Northwest as she investigates the homelife of an impoverished student, discovering the shocking revelation that the boy’s father and brother have become consumed by the wendigo curse and have begun to transform into the viscous beasts of Native American folklore. You can tell pretty much right away, based on nothing more than the title, that the visual representation of the creature isn’t going to stray from stereotype in any significant fashion. It’s a large, antlered, hungry beast with huge talons and a taste for human flesh. Substitute virtually any monster you can think of, and it serves the exact same purpose.
To the film’s credit, the behavior of the wendigo here is actually a mite more canonically inline with legitimate Algonquin folklore. It’s described as a malicious and cannibalistic presence, a spirit of some ancient and bygone era, that can jump from host to host as it forces them to attack and consume their loved ones and eventually transforms them into a grotesque and nigh unstoppable animalistic form. It’s not as simple as just a predatory beast, roaming the countryside to snack on unsuspecting locals. No, the wendigo in Antlers is a thinking, hateful, vengeful entity, who exists solely to inflict pain and misery. While some specifics are played fast and loose, mainly to anchor the film more firmly in classic monster-movie territory, Antlers takes surprisingly few liberties with usage of actual mythology, as vague and as surface-level as it may be.
Where the film falls apart in its representation, however, is in the same place that nearly every depiction of another culture’s belief system ultimately fumbles: The utilization. Sure, Antlers may have a relatively respectful and more-or-less faithful interpretation of the wendigo legend itself (visual appearance notwithstanding), but that means very little at the end of the day when the story doesn’t engage with this in any meaningful way. What I mean by this is that Antlers, much like many of its predecessors and contemporaries, takes a complex and storied bit of mythology and legendarium, one that has its roots and identity tied directly to the cultural stock of a very real and very active demographic, and manages to exorcise them almost entirely from the equation. Antlers does not allow any actual engagement with the Algonquin people or their way of life.
There’s a character in the film who’s identified as being of the Indigenous peoples who lived in the area. This character is the town’s former sheriff, who identifies the creature and explains the legend to the film’s protagonist. He himself does not actually engage with the creature, nor does the film’s narrative utilize him for anything other than exposition. In a film centered entirely on a creature from Algonquin folklore, the actual Algonquin people are pushed entirely to the wayside in favor of a white main character. Would it not be far more interesting, both narratively and culturally, to have a main character that actually exists within the world that the film wants so desperately to borrow its ideas from? To explore the horror that it touts as its central draw with a figure that’s actually a part of its cultural legacy? Apparently not, according to this particular film.
It would be like a film set in ancient China, at the Great Wall, about invading forces of monsters from Chinese mythology, and starring Matt Damon. Would be ridiculously offensive, right?
Again, I want to stress that Antlers isn’t necessarily a bad movie. In fact, a lot of what the film does with the wendigo legend is genuinely fascinating and unique. The creature here serves as a metaphor, much like its folklore counterpart, for violence and rage directed at a person’s own community. It’s a stand-in for the protagonist’s own past trauma, experiencing a childhood of abuse at the hands of her father. Likewise, the primary villain of the film, a local man who was inadvertently exposed to the wendigo curse, represents the cycle of abuse often attributed (perhaps too stereotypically) to low-income mining families, and the socio-economic factors that contribute to that. The spirit of the wendigo legend is present, modernized in an effective and compelling manner. But by stripping it of any cultural identity and removing it completely from the people from whose minds it originated from, the very fact that it’s a wendigo and not some other creature (original or otherwise) is nothing more than an aesthetic facemask.
And Antlers is just a recent example. The horror genre is full of examples where Indigenous religious and ritual culture is mined for cheap story ideas. Poltergeist and Bone Tomahawk are both Halloween favorites of mine, yet they feature “Indian burial grounds’ and savage, cannibalistic natives, respectively. Despite our belief that we’ve come a long way from the 19th century, when ‘Noble Savage’ narrative trope was at full swing in popular culture, we still have a long way to go in terms of representation and authenticity. I know I’m not saying anything new here, but it would be a genuine delight to have some horror in Hollywood actually be crafted by the people whose culture is being used to tell its stories.
It’s not impossible. It happens all the time outside of Hollywood. Films like Trollhunter and Rare Exports are horror films (by loose definition, perhaps) that faithfully adapt Nordic folklore into effective and fun cinema experiences, largely because they were made by the people who live and breathe the culture. Likewise, similar cultural products have come from Japan and Indonesia. The people who know best how to effectively portray the legends and myths of any given people are those people. It’s not a hard thing to understand.
Truthfully, they don’t even have to be made by representatives of a given culture, given the proper amount of respect and research given to the source material. Something like Ari Aster’s Midsommer, which is as culturally-rich as an American made and distributed film can be, is proof of that. It’s entirely possible to make a film that utilizes another people’s culture in an effective and authentic way without being exploitative or appropriating aspects in an offensive manner.
If Hollywood wants monster movies, there’s two routes they can take: One, they can (god forbid) create their own mythology, movies with original ideas for their bloodthirsty beasts. Or two: If they’re going to insist on borrowing a creature or a plot device from the lore of another cultural group, at least consult with them? Wishful thinking, I know.
I feel as though I should stress, once again, that I’m speaking from a very privileged position on the subject. I do not belong to any of the ethnic, cultural, or national groups I’ve talked about over the past several thousand words, and I don’t claim to make any statements on their behalf. These are simply my observations and thoughts about the issue as I see it. And maybe I’m wrong! Maybe there’s people out there that genuinely love these movies, just by virtue of seeing their culture portrayed onscreen at all, even in the small ways that they’ve historically been approached. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that; Any and all representation is significant, no matter how insignificant it may seem. I just think that maybe we could do a little better.