Do you ever see the title of a film, and immediately go, “Oh no”? There are words and names that should never be said – unless you want to attract the attention of an evil spirit. To see one of those words casually slapped in a movie title, even if that movie is a documentary, has me on my guard. Despite that, Skinwalker: The Howl of the Rougarou has its merits.
The documentary explores connections between old French legends of werewolves (loup-garou) and contemporary sightings of loup-garou/rougarou in Louisiana. Both spellings are variations on the same word, with “loup-garou” the original French, and “rougarou” the French-Creole variant. Literally, the word refers to “a man who walks on four legs,” or “a man who transforms into an animal [wolf],” but the connotation is “mystical shapeshifter capable of taking a bestial or plant form, willingly or unwillingly, often because of a curse.”
I especially liked the way the legend was traced from France to French Canadian colonies to Louisiana, where the French folklore mingled with the stories of indigenous nations like the Houmas and Choctaws. Testimonies from people of Houma, French Canadian, and Cajun backgrounds were synthesized to paint a picture of the rougarou as a culmination of cultural exchange. There’s something unique about rougarou legends that distinguish them from the werewolf legends they came out of, and this was very well presented.
What ended up being my favorite part of the documentary actually started with me rolling my eyes as a woman started her rougarou story by saying she thought the house she grew up in had been built on an “Indian burial ground.” From that cliche, however, she told a story of a rougarou coming to her in the night with a warning. “The things that you picked up today, you need to put them back,” it said of some arrowheads and other findings she’d dug up and pocketed earlier. “You need to honor your ancestors. You need to put these back in the ground where they had been.” After she did so, the visitations from the creature stopped. This struck me because so often in horror fiction, our idea of the “old Indian burial ground” is one of the dead returning to enact terrible vengeance on those who have, even unwittingly, stolen their land. It’s a story of blind rage and souls who don’t get to rest in peace. Meanwhile, when indigenous people tell stories of their dead ancestors returning, it often involves them coming to give protection, comfort, or guidance, like in that segment of the documentary. Or this horror parody by The 1491’s. It was a nice break from convention.
Which is why the decision to bring skinwalkers into it was disappointing and just plain confusing. The rougarou is largely a figure of Cajun folklore, found in Louisiana. The skinwalker (yee naaldlooshii, in this particular instance) is an evil witch belonging to the Navajo. The traditional homelands of the Navajo encompass parts of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. For those of you who don’t have a map of the US handy, that territory doesn’t even come close to touching Louisiana. And other than being humans who are able to turn into animals, the purely evil skinwalker has no relation to the rougarou. I don’t have time to fact-check the entire documentary, but Wikipedia is right there, and one of the first lessons in any class about Native American history or culture is that Native Americans are not a monolith. Their cultures and folklore are not interchangeable. Make an effort before some cranky historian makes it for you.
Overall, despite the often silly visuals and cultural insensitivity, Skinwalker: The Howl of the Rougarou does have some merit as an informative piece. The background of the actual rougarou legend is well put together, and a good diversity of rougarou encounter stories are told. Just go into it remembering that anyone can make a documentary, and there is no requirement that documentaries tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Elaine L. Davis is the eccentric, Goth historian your parents (never) warned you about. Hailing from the midwestern United States, she grew up on ghost stories, playing chicken with the horror genre for pretty much all of her childhood until finally giving in completely in college. (She still has a soft spot for kid-friendly horror.)
Her favorite places on Earth are museums, especially when they have ghosts.