I beat the cold by staying in. I watch movies I haven’t seen. Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, Aftersun. I have one more beer than planned. Though getting longer, the days are becoming night more quickly.

“Anxiety is the only emotion that doesn’t deceive,” say some in the psychoanalytic tradition. This annoyed me when I first heard it. Anyone with anxiety knows it’s a room of funhouse mirrors.

I look into the claim and begrudgingly agree. Anxiety may raise false scenarios but can’t force you to believe them. And though every other emotion is one you can sink into, drink in hand, Spotify playlist on blast, we don't do this with anxiety. There can be no catharsis. We want out.

How did it sneak into the club? It now piggybacks on the awe of horror and sci-fi to occupy center stage in more and more mainstream works. Oppenheimer. Black Mirror. Who willingly spends hours making themselves anxious? Millions of us.


A windigo, or just Windigo, is an entity found in indigenous folklore throughout the American northeast. The answer to the question "is it a creature or a spirit?" is "yes." Its physical form has a heart made of ice, a buck skull for a head, and an insatiable hunger for flesh.

Robin Wall Kimmerer speculates in Braiding Sweetgrass that its myth was inspired by those who grew too greedy and had to be banished after one too many offenses. European fur traders arriving in the 1600s and decimating wildlife in midwinter fueled it. Some linguists believe it comes from an older Algonquin word for "owl." Two central Osage characters in Killers have ominous visions of owls as whites kill off and rob their community.

This is a bit exceptional for the movie; Scorsese otherwise leans on what he knows (white mobsters) and forgets to flesh out the Osage characters enough. He does, however, show the fine mesh of the personal and the political that lies behind the progression of the whites’ cruelty. We see how their actions are part of a wider culture and how they still ultimately come down to “people doing stuff.” There are snapshots of the good life among it all: whites connecting with the land, indigenous people enjoying fast cars. Between this you see waypoints and forks in the road and how they choose wrong. All it takes to ruin things for everyone is a handful of people with exceptional greed and many others “just doing their jobs.”


The trickiest thing about Windigo is how it affects our ability to treat it. No external drug heals it, yet that’s the only kind of drug our culture is good at making. We discard with a scoff the idea that any of its remedies — gratitude, reciprocity, being okay with the way something is — are medicines with material effects because they aren’t material objects you can sell. This is part of the disease. Windigo resembles a tumor with its own immune system. It doesn’t want us to simply feel what we feel; it wants us to replace those feelings with bigger or better ones, always. One may know it’s important to feel things through, even anxiety or pain, but may choose to feel that of others instead, Hollywood kinds; and because it’s not your own versions that you’re feeling, you delay healing from them.

Much else of what it pushes us to do is perfectly good, just done too much and for the wrong reasons. DeNiro's character says “good” things all throughout Killers. People far less evil and greedy, myself included, follow cultural programming by working too much, even in a selfless way, at times when what’s needed is not that kind of toil, but things like care and communication. It looks like “more more more” even when this is just upping the dosage of a medicine until it’s poison.

Many of us, looking at this problem, do what Scorsese did. We’re cognizant of our past but in continuing to view it through too white a lens we make fertile soil for a self-flagellating prejudice: “We whites (or all humans) are doomed to be this way, greedy, self-serving, exceptional, alien, unable to be in touch with ourselves or nature, unable to rejoin the web of reciprocity we’ve gotten ourselves cast out of, either exempt from the curse of Windigo or cursed by it forever.” No; Windigo is a sickness. Sicknesses can go away, and this is one of culture, not biochemistry. The era of ignoring what other cultures can tell us about healing from it, thus avoiding the responsibility to heal from it, is coming to a forced and rapid end.

A culture-wide ailment may be no walk in the park but is still only impossible to heal from if the culture that has it is missing the words to name it. Windigo is one such word. They’re worth repeating, not to seem woke or sell more sage on Etsy, but because they just make sense. The ways in which we meekly or unconsciously identify with Windigo are many but, armed with a word that names many of them at once, they pop out at you more.