One of the most popular social media trends at the moment is the site TikTok, which hosts various user-submitted videos, which can range in duration from 3 seconds to 10 minutes, and it has become quite the phenomenon in its time. Here one can find all manner of video content, from the mundane to the absurd, and it has all truly become a social media sensation. Yet among the various lighthearted posts and mundane weirdness, there can be found amongst this content some pretty bizarre and far-out things, and one trend that has only recently begun to rear up is that of videos supposedly depicting the strange, mysterious supernatural creatures known as the Skinwalkers.
For those who are not familiar with the concept of Skinwalkers, they are creatures that feature in Native American lore, in particular amongst the Navajos of the southwestern United States, amongst who they are called the yee naaldlooshii, which translates roughly into “with it, he goes on all fours,” as well as in comparable legends amongst the Hopi, Utes, and other southwestern tribes. These entities are said to be exceptionally powerful shapeshifting witches or medicine men who have achieved vast supernatural powers such as supernatural strength, speed, and the power to change into the form of other people, animals such as coyotes, wolves, foxes, eagles, owls or crows, or also horrifying half-animal beasts. To become a Skinwalker, it is said that it is necessary to perform some act of pure evil, often killing a beloved family member, and that once transformed they seek to create suffering and fear, to sow terror, upon which they draw power. They are not nice, in other words. One Nevada anthropologist named Dan Benyshek, who specializes in the study of Southwestern Native Americans has said of them thus:
Skinwalkers are purely evil in intent. I’m no expert on it, but the general view is that skinwalkers do all sorts of terrible things—they make people sick, they commit murders. They are graverobbers and necrophiliacs. The skinwalkers are regarded as selfish, greedy, and untrustworthy. They are greedy and evil people who must kill a sibling or other relative to be initiated as a skinwalker. They supposedly can turn into were-animals and can travel in supernatural ways.
There are numerous variations on what these sinister Skinwalkers are capable of. In some tales they are said to be able to incapacitate a victim with fear by simply looking at them. In other traditions they can literally steal the skin of a person and wear it around like a suit, essentially possessing them. They are also variously described as being able to control the minds of their victims, hold them in thrall, drive them insane, or cause potent, terrifying hallucinations. They are usually believed to be attracted to the speaking of their true names, after which they will lock onto and hunt down the unfortunate one who has spoken of them. Indeed, it is often seen as bad luck and inviting imminent danger just to speak of them, and for this reason the Skinwalkers are not typically openly discussed among Natives, especially with outsiders, with many stories and tales of the creatures kept secret within the tribe. However, these Native peoples for the most part seem to consider these creatures to be quite real indeed, stepping beyond mere myth and folklore.
Although it is difficult to determine just when the TikTok trend for Skinwalkers began, one of the earliest series of videos was put up by a John Soto, who goes under the TikTok handle “that1cowboy.” Over the course of several months in 2020, Soto made a series of strange audio recordings on his rural property in the Southwest of the United States that he would claim were of Skinwalkers, which have long been said to use various sounds and voices to trick and lure people in to their doom. The videos themselves are inconclusive to say the least. In one, he is walking with his horse when a voice frantically calls out, “Hey!,” after which the horse stops, the voice cries out again, and the horse bolts in the opposite direction. As innocuous as this might be, the video drew in 7.5 million likes and counting and he would practically overnight gain 350k followers.
More similar videos from Soto would follow, and in the videos he maintains that there is a Skinwalker lurking about the property stalking him, perhaps even after his newborn child. Soto would claim more and more sinister evidence of this, such as chickens killed but not eaten, his horses sustaining mysterious injuries, and the skin of a peccary found near his house, and soon he became so scared that he had his home blessed by a local shaman. Soto claims that this protective barrier keeps the Skinwalker at bay, but that it is still out there, with occasional recordings of it still popping up on TikTok. Soto’s hope in sharing the videos was to bring awareness to the beliefs of his Navajo and Apache upbringing, but mostly they just drew in a storm of comments either saying how creepy it was, asking just what in the world a Skinwakler was, or criticizing the sounds as being nothing more than those of mundane known animals such as goats or mountain lions. For his part, Soto claims that those sorts of animals do no live near him and that he has never heard anything like these sounds, explaining, “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.”
Spooky stuff, in fact, spooky enough that with the kinds of hits and followers he was getting a whole slew of other TikTokers were soon releasing their own videos purporting to show Skinwalkers. Mostly featuring scary, eerie sounds at night, shadowy figures in the trees, items that seem to be talismans left as warnings, and other various anomalous phenomena, as well as explanations of Navajo history and culture and even stories of death related to Skinwalkers, they proved to be very popular. Indeed, there were so many of these videos that the #skinwalker hashtag has received well over 2 billion views since it was first introduced on the TikTok platform, and it just keeps on growing. Indeed, Skinwalker content on TikTok has become a veritable phenomenon.
While most of the videos on offer are rather blurry, fleeting, and downright fake-looking, some have turned out to be particularly spooky. One is from March 2021, when a video was uploaded by TikTok user “itz_louisvuitton” that shows some people riding in a car through the countryside as someone shines a flashlight over a grassy field. It seems they are looking for animals because someone can be heard to say “I thought we’d see a buck or something.” One of the unnamed people in the car then asks “Is that a buck?” after which the camera focuses on a pale, human-like creature, which appears to be hurtling through the grass towards the vehicle as the panicked people within scream “What is that?!” The camera then swerves down and the clip abruptly ends. Although this could have been anything, and was most likely a hoax, that didn’t stop thousands of commenters from asserting that it was a Skinwalker. Whatever it was, the clip was popular enough that it garnered more than 900,000 likes from more than 6 million viewers in short order.
Another TikTok video that went viral is a two-part series that supposedly was taken in May of 2021 by TiKTok user “rananas007.” The videos were supposedly taken by two Canadian security personnel during a 12-hour night shift, and at one point they claimed to have seen a figure that seemed to blend in with the long grass as though it was camouflaging itself from the women. The women stop their car and get out to film it, and the figure can be seen walking towards them as they repeatedly say “what the f**k is that?.” The video stops at this point, and the follow up was taken from inside the car as they drove closer to investigate. Despite the figure being on a clear path, it still appears the same color as the surrounding grassland and does not have any identifying features. It proceeds to come towards the car as the women decide to back away and get out of there. Again, whether this was a Skinwalker or not is anyone’s guess, but that was what numerous commenters were saying, and the videos received millions of views seemingly overnight.
There are countless other videos where these came from, and while they have generated a lot of online buzz and plenty of hits and likes, many within the traditional Native American community are not pleased. The Skinwalkers have long been a taboo subject that were rarely talked about even within the tribe, as it was said that to mention them was to risk summoning one, so to see the legends plastered all over the place online has drawn consternation and criticism that it is disrespectful, represents cultural appropriation, and even flirts with dangerous dark forces beyond our understanding. Indeed, one of the things that seems to be driving the popularity of this TikTok trend seems to be this very forbidden nature, the idea that we are getting a peek into an exotic world we were not meant to see. The anger from within the Native American community has come despite the fact that many of those posting these videos are young Native Americans themselves, which shows the divide between the old ways and the new generation of more free-wheeling, social media-savvy tribal youths who see discussing the creatures on TikTok as a way to reclaim their power. TikToker “Naomi,” who goes by “naomisummer,” a star of Indigenous social media subculture, says she does not think it is culturally appropriative and has not faced much backlash from her young peers, explaining:
I love that people are educating themselves more about my culture. 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.
It is interesting that this whole Skinwalker thing should hit social media so hard at the moment. After all, stories like this have been doing the rounds on the Internet and sites like Reddit and 4Chan for some time. So why is it only now beginning to worm its way into the public conciousness to the tune of millions of views and countless comments? Celeste Kaufman has said of this trend on the site Dazed:
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.
At the moment there are countless Skinwalker videos doing the rounds on TikTok and much chatter as to what it all represents and what it all means. It sometimes seems like even the most innoccuous videos that could be anything at all are being attributed to Skinwalkers nowadays, and it all has really taken off to take on a life of its own. What are we dealing with here? Are any of these videos legit, and if so, what do they really show? Is there some boundary being broken by dragging ancient, secret Native beliefs into the limelight with all of this, and how disrespectful or even dangerous is it? No matter what you may think, this is social media we are talking about, not exactly a last bastion of credibility or rational, sensible discussion, so like it or not, the Skinwalker craze on TikTok doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.