Ravenous (1999): Cannibals, Wétikos and Manifest Destiny, Part I

(To clarify, this is the 1999 version of Ravenous, not the 2017 zombie Ravenous, which I have not watched because I’m goddamned sick of zombies).

Since I’ve re-watched Ravenous, I’ve become re-fascinated with the Native American Wendigo. For those who aren’t up on American cryptids, the Wendigo is a vicious, cannibalistic, preternatural being. The myth of the Wendigo is believed to originate with the First Nations Algonquian-speaking tribes, but the description of the Wendigo varies according to the tribal tradition. After several hours of searching, I came to the razor-sharp conclusion that it’s impossible to find exact statistics on an oral tradition. So I won’t pretend to know how many tribes do believe in the Wendigo, but since there are at least 37 different variants of the word “wendigo”, my educated guess would be approximately a fuckload. The Wechuge, however, is a distinct Northwest Pacific tribal myth, though they do share similar traits. Don’t worry. You won’t be tested on this.

Credit: Monkey-Paw via Deviant Art

However, whether the Wendigo is described by the Cree, Objibwe, or, uh…any number of other tribes, the Wendigo are invariably malevolent, cannibalistic and insatiable. They are often associated with winter, famine and consequential starvation; as such, they are simultaneously much larger than men, yet severely emaciated. With every feeding, it grows in proportion to the size of its last victim, but the larger it becomes, the more flesh it needs, hence its insatiable hunger. No matter how much it consumes, no matter how many lives it destroys, the Wendigo’s sole raison d’êtra is MORE.

In essence, the Wendigo is the supernatural archetype of greed.

Wendigo Psychosis

A Wendigo can be a legit monster with the horns and the fangs and the ARRRRGHness of the typical horror movie monster; in other traditions, a man who consumes human flesh can become a literal, monstrous Wendigo, or he can simply become possessed by its spirit. In psychological terms, this cool little crazy is known as Wendigo psychosis, in which a man (unfortunately, I couldn’t find any detailed instances of it afflicting a woman, which made me sad) develops a frenzied, uncontrollable urge to devour human flesh, typically caused from breaking the monolithic taboo of starvation-induced cannibalism. Because it’s far more honorable to starve. I guess. This is a very controversial, “culture-bound” syndrome (even the term “culture-bound syndrome” is controversial), ie Wendigo psychosis has only been recorded in Native American populations, ergo it must only occur in Native American populations (because Jeffrey Dahmer was simply misunderstood). If you want to see a bunch of anthropologists and psychologists throw down–and who wouldn’t?–ask them if Wendigo psychosis is real or fake. I suppose there is a case to be made on either side, but if you are one of those people who either likes to feel superior or masochistically harsh your own buzz, you can find plenty of very dry, scholar-y buzz-harsh dissertations online.

In the episode “Skin and Bones” from the stupidly underrated Fear Itself, Doug Jones is a family man with a bad case of wendigo psychosis.*

For the rest of us, there is Swift Runner.

Suspiciously un-emaciated.

In the spring of 1878, a Cree Indian named Swift Runner staggered into a Catholic mission. He told the priest a tragic tale of how his entire family–mother in law, wife and six kids–had perished from starvation during the harsh Alberta winter. Less tragic, though, was that Swift Runner didn’t look as if he had missed too many meals during those four months of alleged famine. Oh, and according to Cree gossip, there was plenty of healthy game that winter…and besides, his cabin was a mere 25 miles away from emergency food supplies. The final straw was when they caught him trying to lead a herd of potential snack-kids into the forest. So the priest dimed out Swift Runner to the authorities, who shrugged and led them to a big ol’ pile of marrow-sucked bones. It wasn’t his fault. He got possessed by the Wendigo from that one time he had to eat his dead friend and was overcome (8 times) with a maddening, voracious hunger for human flesh–a clear-cut case of Wendigo psychosis. Also, he drank. A lot. And he was such a mean 6’3, 200 pound drunk that the other Cree kicked his ass out, which is why they had to stay in a cabin. Apparently, Wendigo psychosis is some nasty shit. On the brighter side, the hanging cured him.

Wendigo vs. Wètiko

Total Wètiko.

Unfortunately, most Wendigos aren’t literally cannibalistic…and no, that’s not a typo. Don’t get me wrong; I am hardly a defender of people-eaters…but even the hungriest Wendigo can only consume so many humans–the Wètikos have been known to consume entire nations. The one trait they do share is insanity: Wendigo psychosis is the obsession with consuming human flesh (or they become possessed by a supernatural Wendigo–tomātoes, tomahtoes); Wètiko disease is a moral psychosis which consumes on a massive scale and invariably results in exploitation. Or, as the late author Jack Forbes explained in Columbus and Other Cannibals, “Cannibalism is the consuming of another life for one’s own private purpose or profit,” which in and of itself is insane. Wètikos can seem almost invincible; rather than flesh, they gain their strength from money and privilege. Like the Wendigo, they are insatiable–the more they take, the more they want and eventually, they’re going to want what you have, rationalize why you don’t deserve it and fuck your basic needs…they’re going to take it. After that, they’ll still want more and resent you for not having it to take. The Wètiko will exploit, violate, abuse, lie, cheat, steal and even kill in their mad quest to conquer and possess, destroying everything in their path–land, animals, humans–but it is still never, ever enough.

Today’s Wètikos include Jeff Bezos–on track to become the first trillionaire but slave-drives underpaid workers and obsessively drives thousands of independent retailers out of business. Right-to-Deathers, whose mask-free liberty is more important than others’ health–Wètiko Karens. Pharmaceutical CEOs, who quadruple the cost of insulin to justify their $40 million a year salary–incurable Wètikos. A leader who cares more about the economy than hundreds of thousands of lives–currently the worst Wètiko in the fucking world.

But Wètiko disease is highly contagious and spreads rapidly. Wètiko madness can present as corrupt political systems, unjust laws, racism, misogyny, ethnocentrism, income inequality, authoritarianism, nationalism, terrorism and/or colonization…Manifest Destiny for example. Which finally brings us to Ravenous.

Wètiko: the Poster Child for Manifest Destiny

“Manifest Destiny…Westward expansion…thousands of gold-hungry Americans will travel over these mountains, on their way to new lives…passing right through here. This country is seeking to be whole . . . Stretching out its arms . . . and consuming all it can. And we merely follow–Cannibal Colonel Ives, whose irony is surpassed only by his appetite.

In terms of sheer Wètiko-ness, Manifest Destiny —the idea that white folks have a divine right (because God. And whiteness) to snatch up the whole entire country comes second only to the divine right to own human beings (same). Just as Colonel Ives happily and indiscriminately consumes humans, Manifest Destiny happily and indiscriminately consumed all in its path–flora, fauna and many, many, many more humans than Ives could ever dream of eating. Ravenous opens at the end of the Spanish War, in which James Polk pulled a George W., lied about a Mexican attack to justify killing thousands of Mexican citizens, steal 7 states worth of land and set ablaze the whole slave state versus not-being-a-horrible-human-owning-piece-of-shit-state debate…which, on top of everything else, set things in motion for the Civil War (both Lincoln and Grant voted against the Mexican-American war because it was unjust and a dick move besides).

By then, everybody ie white people–and especially land speculating white people–said, “Well, might as well take the rest, then!” Their justification? Pretty much the same as the justification for all colonialism, war and genocide: 1) Americans (white people) and its institutions were innately superior, because God liked white people better than dark people and wanted them to have nice things, 2) it was their duty to bring Christianity and institutions across the country, shove it down the throat of any other existing (not white) peoples and if they resisted, God was okay with driving them away and killing them because they were inferior (not white), anyway, and 3) taking all the whole entire land all the way to the Pacific was Christian destiny, because God likes white people etc.

Even now, Wètiko evangelicals use this same moral mobius strip to justify their prosperity gospel and aggressive involvement in politics to increase their prosperity some more. After all, God is the biggest Wètiko of them all.

Next: Part II: a brief history of the actual, honest-to-god cannibal upon which Robert Carlyle’s Colqhoun/Colonel Ives character is based.

*The series Fear Itself was stupidly canceled after only one season of great episodes directed by horror heroes, including Brad Anderson, Darren Lynn Bousman, Stuart Gordon, John Landis and Larry Fessenden, who directed “Skin and Bones”, but you can stream the entire season for free if you have Roku. Or you can do what I’m gonna do–buy the DVD. Why? Because future blogs, that’s why. You will see the Wendigo again…


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