Rooted in Native American folklore, videos of people hunting the witch-like monster are captivating the internet
Peering past a set of horse’s ears, we mosey down a dirt road just as the sun starts to sink in the sky. John Soto (@that1cowboy on TikTok), has been speaking about possible encounters with a ‘skinwalker’ on his property for a few videos across several months now, but this is it – the first time he’s managed to record some evidence. As he scans a cloud of vultures in the trees lining the road, we hear someone frantically call out, “Hey!” The horse stops, the voice cries out again, and the horse bolts in the opposite direction.
The video has 7.5 million likes on TikTok, and counting, and was the genesis of a veritable ‘skinwalker’ mania across social media. Hundreds of videos of encounters with this mysterious creature, explainer videos about the folklore, and storytelling about previous run-ins with skinwalkers popped up in a matter of days, as Soto continued to occasionally update his now 350k followers. The hashtag that was virtually nonexistent before, as far as social media numbers go, but skyrocketed in early October, leaving many people who did not grow up in the Southwest of the United States to wonder, “What the hell is a skinwalker?”
Naomi (@naomisummer), a star of Indigenous social media subculture #NavajoTikTok, explains that a skinwalker is a “witch” – a close but inexact translation – that committed unspeakable acts to obtain the power to “change their shape into an animal in order to do harm”. They mimic sounds that might draw someone’s attention, like the voice of a loved one or a stranger that might be in trouble, in order to lure their defenseless victims to their death. It’s often personal, akin to having a hex put upon you, and they exist primarily on Native American reservations. The skinwalker is a deeply terrifying figure for Indigenous peoples, and their threat is taken very seriously, but the legend isn’t always treated with respect in this wave of videos.
“Most of the reactions on TikTok have been positive,” Soto says. “But there’s also ones who are saying it’s fake, and they trash talk Native American beliefs.” Commenters wave the sounds away as the cries of goats or mountain lions, but in Soto’s case, those kinds of animals don’t live near his property, and he hasn’t found any signs of harmless human pranksters. After his horses got mysterious injuries, his chickens were killed but not eaten, and the skin of a javelina was found near his house, Soto brought in his local medicine man to bless his home. Since then, the disturbing sounds have not crossed the protective barrier, but he’s been warned that the skinwalker still wants something from him, perhaps his newborn baby. “I can just tell by the sounds of whatever is calling me out that it’s not right, like it wants to do wrong to me.”
Soto’s hope in sharing the videos was to bring awareness to the beliefs of his Navajo and Apache upbringing, and has found how many people accept his story as reassuring, but never could have predicted just how fascinated people became and how quickly interest spread. Suddenly, people from all across the country – who lived far from the desert and were certainly not Native American – confidently began sharing their knowledge and experiences with skinwalkers. Many, if not most, of these videos were ambiguously scary; spooky sounds at night, shadowy figures in the trees, items that seem to be talismans left as warnings. Months ago, these videos could have easily been attributed to ghosts, stalkers, a generic witch. But now the culprit is solidly determined to be a skinwalker as the likes and views of their videos grow by the millions.
The existence of these videos could, of course, simply be attributed to your run-of-the-mill clout-chasing. Soto shared that several creators of these videos had reached out to him to admit that they were “inspired” by his videos to make their own. But a trend does not exist in a vacuum – these videos need fascinated viewers to make them famous. Is it just, as Soto posits, a matter of social media allowing us to learn about other cultures and people being especially scared of the unknown? Or is there something about the skinwalker in particular that’s tugging at American consciousness?
“I can just tell by the sounds of whatever is calling me out that it’s not right, like it wants to do wrong to me” – John Soto
Colin Dickey, whose books, The Unidentified and Ghostland, dissect why Americans are scared of what they are, says that a horror trend typically doesn’t have an exact correlation with some cultural anxiety, but if there’s a connection to be made, it’s with the context of the story and not necessarily the monster itself. “Freddy Kruger wasn’t representing a sudden fear of burn victims, but the fact that those movies took place in the suburbs did reflect a real anxiety about suburban white teen culture in the 80s, and this rising panic about strangers threatening our kids,” he explains.
If you examine the defining characteristics of a skinwalker – that it shapeshifts, that it mimics the familiar in order to falsely gain trust, that at its core it’s a regular person who’s secretly unthinkably evil – it’s a monster that’s perfectly suited to America in 2020. In a country ravaged by a pandemic, where the enemy is invisible and ultimately each other, a horror figure that preys on our instinct to trust is a convenient outlet for a population that’s spent the past seven months encountering each person, stranger, or loved one with a suspicious wall up: “Do you have it?”
As an election nears, our confidence in our institutions is at an all-time low, there is a growing faction of people who earnestly believe government officials and celebrities are covertly running child sex trafficking rings, and conspiracy theories are peddled as mainstream news. A fear of being tricked and betrayed by someone or something we trusted is the undercurrent of some of the most prominent elements of our daily lives.
Dickey also points to the uncanniness of the skinwalker before they reveal their true nature; the sound of your friend’s voice in the woods where they weren’t expected, the pitch of a cry for help that isn’t quite right, the coyote that moves just a little too off-kilter. “The horror of the uncanny is that something is nominally familiar but then in a scary moment turns out to be different and dangerous,” he says.
This phase of the pandemic – having moved past the overtly terrifying nature of lockdowns, field hospitals, and refrigerated truck morgues – is now an environment that uncannily mimics normalcy, while the number of cases and deaths continues to surge. The automatic donning of masks as we leave our homes, the bustling outdoor restaurant seating, the patiently waiting in lines to get into grocery stores with unpredictably stocked shelves have all become unnervingly happenstance until you remember they’re symbols of great tragedy and terror. We live in a state of second-guessing our surroundings. Freaking ourselves out over whether a noise was a raven, or a lost child, or an evil witch isn’t that far removed from our everyday experiences.
Then there’s the matter of the skinwalker being a Native American figure in a year also marked by a renewed reckoning with the country’s history of oppressing Black and Indigenous peoples. When asked if they found the sudden popularity of skinwalkers culturally appropriative, both Soto and Naomi said no. “I love that people are educating themselves more about my culture,” says Naomi. “The only anger I’ve heard in my community and on my platform is when people spread the wrong information. I’ve seen a lot of confusion with skinwalkers and wendigos, or yei bicheis – who might look scary to someone who’s uneducated but are actually sacred to Native ceremonies, so it’s disrespectful to confuse them with something like skinwalkers. Other than that, people take pride that our culture is finally being recognized.”
But Naomi and Soto are only two people. Another Native TikToker denied an interview, saying that it wasn’t right to talk about skinwalkers at all, and that he was upset they were being treated as a trend. The seriousness with which Indigenous people regard skinwalkers seems to be a crucial element of the scariness surrounding them. Perhaps the intrigue is an extension of wanting to ‘other’ Indigenous tribes, or consume their culture into our own. Or it could be grappling with guilt over their treatment by starting to see a creature known for attacking them around every corner.
When tracing the increasing conviction in Americans’ beliefs in the paranormal and conspiratorial in The Unidentified, Dickey found that once-simple legends are becoming more complex as people contort their understanding of their beliefs to slip out of mounting evidence to the contrary. Bigfoot, for example, is no longer solely an animal of unknown origin to many believers, but is actually also an alien, or maybe a member of a lost ancient civilization. The more unknowable a figure is, the realer – and scarier – it becomes.
The skinwalker is ultimately unknowable, because once their true self is revealed, it’s too late for the victims and our only connection to the truth. That’s what’s so frightening about the skinwalker, our understanding of them and ability to conquer our fear of them will always be elusive. When you’re alone in the dark in the desert and you hear what sounds like someone calling out for you, it could be a harmless bird. It could be a vicious mountain lion. It could be an evil witch. It could be anything.