Monsters have lurked within the human mind since the first moments of sentient thought. The creaking of the floorboard igniting within us all sorts of creatures that shift in the shadows and lurk in the night. Some of these creatures were invented as ways to justify seemingly random occurrences; others helped teach vitally important lessons that would be the difference between life or death. The Wendigo taught children of the First Nations Algonquin tribes about the dangers of isolation and cannibalism. Vampires were used to curtail sexual promiscuity and the occult. Monsters help define humanities greatest fears and illuminate our history. These are the three most influential folklore of the United States.
The words “Croatoan” are all that is left of the Roanoke Colony. A mystery that has lasted more than four hundred years. The facts are scarce, but leave a trickle of clues that leave any observer feeling like they’re desperately close to a solution, though any concrete truth holds illusive. John White was given Governorship of Roanoke in 1587, however, he was called to England shortly after. In 1590, he returned to Roanoke to find the settlement fortified and completely abandoned. Upon searching the area, he found the word “Croatoan” carved into the palisade (Perimeter wall made of large wooden stakes). White took this message to mean that the colony had abandoned the settlement and moved to the island of Croatoan. Though the only rescue ships ever sent were turned back by devastating storms. It’s easy to think that the mystery ends there, but murmurs of English settlers living within Native American tribes began spreading. On top of that questions about why the settlement had been so heavily fortified bolstered the mystery. Soon there was a fervor over what exactly had happened at Roanoke. Though to this day the mystery persists. A colony that vanished with no clear answer. Roanoke is taught to most school children and has wormed its way deep into the American legend. The mystery will live on forever while any hope of clarity has been lost to the past.
What price does one pay for becoming a cannibal? This is the question at the heart of the Wendigo. The myth dates back well past the sixteenth century, though most Western colonial accounts start trickling around 1630. Wendigo’s are defined by their gaunt, lanky frames and constant hunger. Similar to zombies, they are always on the hunt for a new prey. Previously human, Wendigo transform after a human commits the act of cannibalism.
Winters were long and hard in the Pacific Northwest for indigenous tribes. Starvation was a very real threat for everyone, leading to the potential for cannibalistic events similar to those of the Dohner Party. The Wendigo fairytale served as a warning to children about the dangers of isolation and eating human flesh. Those stories have persisted today, with major television shows and video games such as Supernatural and Until Dawn.
It’s nearly impossible to discuss American mythology without discussing the king of the forest, Big Foot. Only sixty years old, this myth has made its way into every form of popular culture. An endless number of movies, television shows, songs, and so much more have been dedicated to the large, furry, humanoid beast. After so many years of hunting and searching for the creature, why is America still so fascinated? Big Foot strikes at one of the fundamental beliefs of American culture. There is an unknown that must be conquered. From Manifest Destiny to countless wars and genocides, America was founded on conquest. That core ideology is still taught and molded into every citizen today. Whether it presents itself in the form of college, wealth or travel, there is a need to conquer through exploration. Big Foot is one of the greatest symbols for this ideal. A creature that is illusive, dangerous, and able to be found by those dedicated enough to search, Big Foot promises riches, fame, and everything else dictated by the modern American Dream.
Forests have always been the birth places of myths. Behind every tree is the next great monster. Wendigo, Big Foot, a werewolf or anything else. It’s ready to eat. We tell these stories as reminders of how dangerous the world can be when we’re not cautious. At any moment an entire village can suddenly disappear with no clear sense of what happened. So, as you go off on your next great excursion remember, that movement you saw in the shadows, it might not be so innocent after all.