Northern Supernatural

Skogtroll/Forest Troll. Theodor Kittelsen [Public domain], 1906, via Wikimedia Commons
Every Halloween I do a post on global folklore or an international mystery, from a haunted building in Hong Kong, to the mystery of the ghost ship Baltimore. This year I’m doing some additional posts on this theme, because I want to share a wonderful BBC podcast, the Supernatural North. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough travels to Norway to look at how the weird in the North has haunted the European imagination. Along the way, she explores everything from a Sami shamanic drum made by a Californian (with an image of a surfer) to the witch trials of 18th century Finmark. What is impressive about the story she tells is how stories from this area with a relatively low population have shaped modern fantasy literature from the trolls in the Lord of the Rings to the White Walkers in the Game of Thrones. But these stories live on not only in literature but also popular memory. One Norwegian community is haunted by the history of the tragic 17th century witch trials in Finmark. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough described an unsettling visit to a public art work built to commemorate those who were burned at the stake. You have to admire the work of someone who has been knighted with a walrus penis bone, and who is on the trail of a Norse Arctic explorer.(1)

After listening to the podcast, you might wish to watch the 2010 movie Troll Hunter, which the podcast suggests built carefully upon actual traditions. It’s also very funny, and doesn’t have too much gore, despite some twists. There’s nothing worse (spoiler alert) than a rabid troll.

Carving at the Chapel of the Hills near Rapid City, South Dakota. This building is a reconstructed 12th century Norwegian Church. Photo by Shawn Smallman, July 2018.

My favorite short story author is M.R. James, who was famous for his ghost stories set in Britain and France, which typically involved an academic or antiquarian. Some of these stories adopted the “lost tape” format, in which the narrator disappears, but their story is preserved electronically. Of course, in Victorian or Edwardian Britain these stories were preserved by the discovery of papers. This was the format for James’ story, “Count Magnus,” which told the story of a Mr. Wraxall’s visit to Sweden in 1863. Those of you familiar with M.R. James will be unsurprised to hear that the story includes a manor house, an ancient church, strange art, an evocative tomb, and the memory of a long dead count. James was a biblical scholar, so of course there is a discussion of an obscure term from the Bible, the Chorazin. And of course a mounting sense of menace, although the dangers are more suspected than encountered. If you enjoy this story, you can continue this Scandinavian theme by reading “Number 13,” which is set in a terrifying hotel in Viborg, Denmark. As with all his stories, James began by discussing the places’ past in detail. One of my favorite points of the story is when the traveler finds that inn-keeper’s men refuse to enter a room at a climactic moment, and he has to refer to their ethnicity to provoke them to action: “`Is this,’ he said, `the Danish courage I have heard so much of? It isn’t a German in there, and if it was, we are five to one.'”

It’s a long way from Scandinavia to the west coast of Canada, but I also want to briefly review Shanon Sinn’s The Haunting of Vancouver Island Too many collectanea of ghost stories fail to provide historical context or a critical eye. In contrast, Sinn seems to debunk as many stories as those he endorses. Of course, Sinn is someone with his own experience of the supernatural, from the Saskatchewan prairie to Keeha Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island (pp. 6, 228-231). One of the book chapters describes his own investigation of the Heriot Bay Inn on Quadra Island. Still, Sinn is very critical of the sloppy storytelling in T.V. programs such as “Creepy Canada” (pp. 57, 111-112) and “Monsterquest” (pp. 303, 309). He has a realistic critique of Sasquatch traditions (pp. 301-313) on an island that he suggests is not nearly so wild and isolated as it might appear. How would Sasquatch avoid all the camera traps that biologists have scattered through the forest? He places the sea serpent tales on the island in the context of Indigenous spiritual beliefs (p. 327). Sinn also describes how the supposedly Indigenous traditions about the “Forbidden Plateau” were actually created in the 1920s by a Euro-Canadian who wanted to promote tourism in the area (p. 278), in what has become known as “fakelore.”

“A bridal group. Kwakiutl wedding party, bride in center, hired dancers on each side, her father on far left, all standing on platform, with plank wall behind them and flanked by two totem poles. Groom’s father on the right behind man with a box-drum.” Edward S. Curtis [Public domain] 1914, via Wikimedia Commons
Sinn also sensitively includes discussion of Indigenous traditions, which are too often omitted from similar works (pp. 253-270). Vancouver Island -shrouded in mist, with thousand year old trees, lonely valleys, and its ghost towns- has its eerie places. For all of his debunking, you’ll finish the book wanting to visit the cemeteries, inns, forts and islands haunted by the past. Some stories -such as that of the wreck of the Valencia, and the strange reappearance of its life boat- are truly mystifying (pp. 247-248). The book is also an excellent introduction to many of the disturbing aspects of the island’s history, from Indigenous slave raiding to the story of Brother XII. Highly recommended. And thanks to my sister, Ellen, for this excellent birthday gift.

If you want a novel for a long winter’s night, check out my sister’s mystery set in the Yukon, Strange Things Done. You can get a sense of the book’s northern atmosphere from this brief video.  Remember to leave before Freeze up hits. Given what happened to Barrow, Alaska in the film “Thirty Days of Night,” this is probably good advice for the north in general.

If you are more interested in North American indigenous traditions regarding the supernatural, you can read my own work, Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and History. The windigo (also spelled wendigo) has become a pop culture icon in everything from Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery to a recent video game, Until Dawn. In my study I examine Indigenous narratives and pop culture appropriation, as well as the differing manner in which local communities and outsiders understood these cases. The podcast Pleasing Terrors had an episode (#21, “Hungry Spirits) based on some of the narratives from my work. And you can check out this brief video about strange sounds in the Canadian wilderness, which the Guardian shared under the headline “Sasquatch or Wendigo.”

I also want to recommend two books on the windigo in particular. John Robert Colombo has a wonderful collection of the works on the windigo (1). Even though it was originally published in 1982, it remains one of the best resources on the subject. When I first became interested in the windigo, I read the first-hand accounts, short stories, poetry, and scholarship regarding this strange being in this concisely edited collection. The work is not only thorough, but also a perfect book to read by the fire during a blizzard, when the wind is making odd sounds in the attic. If you find yourself enjoying his work, he has also edited an immense collection of collectanea regarding the strange and supernatural in Canada. I also recommend Morton Teicher’s thorough study, Windigo Psychosis, to anyone interested in further exploring the topic (2). The book consists of a collection of reported windigo cases, and includes a helpful map (p. 115). Teicher died on June 13, 2017, and it’s a great regret to me that I never had the opportunity to meet him.

If you want to read more terrifying Indigenous traditions of the North, you can also read Howard Norman’s Northern Tales: Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Inuit Peoples. The book collects diverse narratives of the north from peoples as diverse as the Ainu and the Cree. Part six, “Thrashing Spirits and Ten-Legged Polar Bears: Stories of Strange and Menacing Neighbors,” (pp. 203-244) provides a wealth of frightening stories (3).

I can’t cover this topic without including an iconic Canadian story, the mystery of the Mad Trapper of the Yukon. In 1931 a man who used the alias Albert Johnson shot a Mountie. What followed was one of the great stories of Arctic endurance in history, “The Arctic Circle War,” which is captured in this old CBC podcast, The Story of Albert Johnson: the Mad Trapper.

If the podcast peaks your interest, there a wealth of book’s on the topic, all of which try to uncover the man’s identity. One good book is Dick North’s, the Mad Trapper of Rat River: A True Story Of Canada’s Biggest Manhunt. The strength of North’s work was the depth of the research that he did, including multiple interviews with people who knew the man who may have become Albert Johnson. Be warned, however, that only the opening of the book deals with the actual chase, whereas the majority of the book deals with theories about the man’s identity. This part of the book might prove very slow for most readers, except for those people truly interested in a deep dive on the topic. Barbara Smith also has a short, photograph-rich book, The Mad Trapper: Unearthing a Mystery, which tells the story of scientists’ excavation of the killer’s grave, which was written to accompany a documentary on the topic. If you do purchase the book, I would suggest purchasing it in paper-format because of its color photographs. The book is well-written, carefully researched, and engaging. Despite recovering the man’s DNA, however, scientists are still no closer to learning his true identity. How did a man wealthy enough for sophisticated dentistry -including extensive gold work- wind up a murderous hermit in the Canadian Arctic?

Finally, for a northern historical work you might read John Harris’ novel, Above the Falls, a work that has many of the same elements as the Mad Trapper narrative. Harris based his story on true events in the Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories during the 1930s. The Nahanni River region is a favorite theme in Canadian folklore, a remote region where legends of headless trappers and lost gold mines long ago inspired newspaper headlines. Harris’s reconstruction of events draws deeply on historical research, but the work is also hard to place in a genre. It’s a historical novel, but it’s not truly a mystery. Instead, the author reveals the truth of what happened, as well as the character’s motivations, from the opening. In the first half of the work there is mounting suspense, but then the narrative shifts away from the scene of the action. Too me, this was a frustrating book, which began strong but then lost its tension. Nonetheless, the sense of atmosphere will leave you dreaming of a strange river and burned out cabins, while the rich characters and northern setting are haunting.

As always, if you are taking children out to trick or treat, please remember reflectors and a glow-stick. Happy Halloween everyone.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

Two of the viking stone ships (burial grounds) at Badelunda, near Västerås, Sweden.
By User:Berig (User:Berig. Transferred from en.wp) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Postscript: In the unlikely event that you are so enthralled by the Norse supernatural world that you might want to take a deep dive into the literature, I recommend Chadwick’s article on Norse ghosts, for which I give the full reference below (4).  Even though it’s from the 1940s, it’s still an excellent study today. Chadwick covers a wide range of topics from the Icelandic sagas to the barrow dwellers. One can understand why these legends enchanted Tolkien. My favorite aspect of the piece is its style, especially Chadwick’s British sense of understatement:

“A characteristic of the draugr, or the hagbui, “barrow dweller,” as these Scandinavian ghosts, or rather animated corpses, are called, is that they frequently come out of their barrows, and walk, or even ride abroad, which is thought by the living to be an undesirable habit.” (Chadwick, p. 54).

On the plus side, these barrow dwellers sometimes leave humans gifts in the night, as a memento of their visit (pp. 54-55). They also engage in poetry recitals, which humans passing by their barrows may hear (106-107). At a time when many publishers are no longer including poetry in their catalogues, it’s fantastical to imagine a world in which warriors prepared their death chants, and even the dead could be overheard reciting poetry.

(1). Colombo, J.R. ed (1982). Windigo: An Anthology of Fact and Fantastic Fiction. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books.

(2). Teicher, M. Windigo Psychosis: A Study of the Relationship between Belief and Behavior among the Indians of Northeastern Canada. Ed. Verne F. Ray. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

(3) Norman, H. ed. (1990). Northern Tales: Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Inuit Peoples. New York: Pantheon Books.

(4) Chadwick, N.K. (1946, June). “Norse Ghosts (A study in the Draugr and the Haugbui)” Folklore. 57:2: 50-65.



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