Blood on the Bayou

Ask someone in the mental health profession about the moon, and you’ll get a surprising response. They’ll tell you about a term, a symptom that affects people both in and outside of mental health facilities around the world. It’s called the lunar effect.

The full moon, apparently, can drive people crazy. People under its spell act erratically; they lose touch with reality. They begin to act more rashly—almost, you might say, more animal. Which, makes sense, really. Animals are known to act strangely during a full moon. Corals are known to propagate unrelentingly, scorpions begin to glow and seek shelter, lions—normally nocturnal hunters—take prey during the day. And fish? That depends. For centuries fishermen have looked to the moon as a guide for their catches. Still, for most people, a full moon conjures up more than images of big bass and tight lines. Often, the moon brings to mind darker visions: unnatural creatures roaming the hills at night, sinister deeds and blood-curdling howls. Yes, for many, a full moon conjures up the foul vision of a monster—the werewolf.

Science, of course, has tried to debunk the werewolf. Most sane people believe it’s nothing more than a children’s tale. Indeed, some documented illnesses are known to bestow werewolf-like traits on otherwise normal people. Hypertrichosis, or Ambras syndrome, results in incredible amounts of hair growth that very much resemble Michael J. Fox’s “Teen Wolf.”

Science, you see, always has the answer. Or does it?

Here we go loup-garu

[dropcap size=small]A[/dropcap]mericans like to think of ourselves as the masters of this continent. We imagine the United States as an impregnable fortress of modern civilization. Our lights, our cars and our technology keep us safe from man’s most primal enemy, the dark. And if we’ve conquered the dark, what could possibly defeat us?

The wild.


If you spend a night out in the wild, a night away from the city—perhaps on an overnight fishing trip—you’ll begin to get a different sense of the land we call home. Sequestered in a secluded lakeside cabin or holed-up in a riverside tent, the night grows darker, and you begin to feel the age of the land. Americans, you realize, were not the first inhabitants here. Nor were any of the Native American tribes before that. The land, the continent, is old. Much older than a 200-year-old nation. Much older than any of us. A land like this could harbor anything, especially in the dark.

It is in the dark, remote bayous of Louisiana that a secret has lingered for 400 years. It is a secret that doubles the age of our country, the secret of a creature that perhaps predates us all: the rougarou.

French settlers had another word for this creature, “loup-garu.” It translates quite literally to “wolf man.” But this wolf man doesn’t host a 1950s radio show. Instead of breaking records, it breaks bones. Human bones.

The rougarou prowls the bayou at night. Said to be seven or eight feet tall and covered in dark, coarse hair, it lurks in the nearby woods and fields, eyes glowing red through the blackness in search of a human victim to devour. The rougarou needs humans, you see, because the rougarou was once a person. Long ago, the rougarou was a man, and it can become one again should it finally sink its teeth into the bayou’s most elusive animal. Humans, of course, don’t belong there.

Alligators belong in the bayou. Fish belong there. Herons and ducks and crawfish belong there, but not people. People were not built for the bayou; the rougarou was.

And that perhaps is all there is to the legend. Children growing up in Louisiana learn to fear the rougarou. They learn to fear the bayou at night. The rougarou, then, sounds like a tale conjured by early French settlers to keep wandering children safe at night. “Don’t go outside at night, or the rougarou will get you. Don’t skip Lent, or you will become one.”

Once the children of Louisiana grow up, they recognize the truth of their nightmares. The rougarou is not real.

That is, unless the legends are true. Unless the rougarou myth can be found somewhere else.

By the time the French arrived, Louisiana was already home to a number of Native American tribes. The Choctaw, Chitimacha, Atakapa, Houma, Natchez, Caddo and Tunica all inhabited land that would eventually become America’s 18th state. Rougarou was not a native word to them, but the local tribes did have stories of an animal-like man who devoured the flesh of people; they also had a name for it—the wendigo.

Like the rougarou, wendigo are often described as beast-like creatures with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. And like the rougarou, wendigo are also considered to have once been people. But unlike its cajun cousin, whose myth remains local to Louisiana, the wendigo is a widespread North American phenomenon.

Crucially, it is also a documented one.

The most famous case involving a real-life wendigo occurred in the early fall of 1907.

Men of the Fiddler tribe, 1910

Just over a hundred years ago in Ontario, a Cree man known as Jack Fiddler found himself in the custody of the Canadian Mounted Police. Fiddler was 68 years old and a well-respected member of his community. Yet, Fiddler, along with his brother Joseph had just been charged with murder.

Murder, the police said, of a young woman in his tribe. Murder, Fiddler said, of a wendigo.

You see, the Fiddler brothers were experts in the disposal of wendigos. For decades, they had overseen their tribe and protected its people from the evil wendigo spirits that would consume the sick and vulnerable, turning them into blood-thirsty, cannibalistic beasts. In all, Fiddler claimed to have killed 14 wendigos in his nearly seven decades with the tribe.

The authorities, for their part, believed none of it. Dismissive of the native lore, they transported the Fiddler brothers to a holding facility to await trail. But a strange thing happened before they could be sentenced. Jack escaped custody—he was free, free it seemed—before mounties discovered his body later that day, apparently self-hanged from a nearby tree.

His brother Joseph would go on to stand trial and eventually be convicted of the young woman’s murder. Joseph Fiddler died in custody in 1909, just three days before he would eventually win an appeal for pardon.

The tribespeople, it seemed, had fought for his case. The Cree believed that Fiddler was a hero; the wendigo, they knew, were real.

Perhaps that was because thirty years prior, in the winter of 1879, another Cree had become entangled with a wendigo.

A strong and capable man, Swift Runner was a trader for the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company. At times, he served as a guide for the very troop of mounties that would go on to arrest the Fiddler brothers. But in the unusually cold winter of 1879, the tall, muscular native with a chiseled face and chilly demeanor faced a dilemma. He was trapped in the snow-filled mountains of Alberta. With him and presumably under his care were nine others: his wife, mother-in-law, brother and six children. Together, they settled in for a bitter fight against the cold.

And there, in the freezing mountains, an unspeakable tragedy occurred.

Swift Runner
Swift Runner

The Canadian winter that year was especially harsh. It would go down in Cree lore as one of the worst of all time. Neither Swift Runner nor his family were able to escape the mountains so covered in snow, so it was with great sadness that he returned to the village that Spring alone. The winter, he told the village elders, had claimed his family. With little food and shelter, his party of nine had perished from exposure to the bitter frost.

But something about Swift Runner’s story didn’t quite add up. His stoic frame still had the well-fed, muscular appearance of a nourished man. If his family really had died of hunger in the mountain air, how could he appear so well fed?

The elders—and the police—would soon find out.

Upon questioning, Swift Runner guided the mounties into the heights to the site of his winter camp. There, they found the grave of a child. The body was carefully buried, and appeared for all the world to have been the victim of starvation. Swift Runner’s story was adding up. At least, it was adding up until the police discovered one of the most gruesome crime scenes in Canadian history—eight human skeletons strewn around a campfire in various states of disrepair. Some were intact, others were broken in half. Many were missing the marrow, which had apparently been sucked out from the inside.

Swift Runner had eaten his family. On a cold Canadian mountain in the winter moonlight, he had murdered, then devoured them. This, of course, explained his fit physical condition. He was a lunatic, a cannibal; he was also a man suffering from a mental condition called Wendigo psychosis.

The Cree, after all, were right. Half-man, half-beast, the wendigo was real.

And the rougarou? Suddenly those ancient legends from the swamp make a little more sense.

Stories of strange creatures are often dismissed by modern society. Around any good campfire, even the most fearsome beasts can resemble an old wives tale. Modern technology lays a veil over our well-trained eyes, one that is not easily broken by spoken word or text, that is, until we stop to consider that some monsters turn out to be more real than we could ever imagine.

If you find yourself a campfire out in the wild, out in the kind of dark places that take you away from civilization, be careful. Sometimes, when you’re hunting for a tall tale, you just might find one hunting you back.