According to Southwestern folklore, a Skinwalker is said to be a malevolent member of a Shamanic cult, or secret society, with the power to transform into various animals not unlike the An-yoto Ani-ota (West Africa’s Human Leopards). This parallel is particularly strong concerning the role of greed and petty jealousy motivating their applications of Black Magic. As with the Human Leopards, the Skinwalkers are reputed to require the flesh and/or blood of their victims for use in their secret rituals.
Navajo legends describe how, at one time in the past, there were good Skinwalker shamans who would help the tribe. However, this alliance ended after The Long Walk (when the Navajo were forcibly relocated between 1864-66, and ultimately allowed to return to their own lands in 1868). Interestingly, the neighboring Ute people believe that the Skinwalkers are a curse sent by the Navajo as retribution for their alliances with the Federal government. Perhaps more interesting, as with many other Native peoples, the Navajo make a clear distinction between the shape-shifting Skinwalkers and the Bigfoot, or Hairy People. This distinction is one of several similarities between the Southwestern Skinwalker lore and the legends of the Windigo in the Northeast. Both are said to be a person transformed by some kind of evil magic, and empowered by that malficia to shape-shift and hypnotize their victims.
While the two monsters are unique with very different characteristics, they have many shared attributes. Traditionally, the Windigo is the victim of a possessing spirit; the Skinwalker, on the other hand, is generally a voluntary participant. Both are known to menace campers and terrorize homesteads, and both are often blamed for mysterious disappearances and unexplained deaths. The primary distinction is that the Windigo is ostracized to the wilderness by an absolute transformation into some form of zombified corpse monster, the ultimate victim of an all consuming curse. The Skinwalker is more akin to other sorcerers and witch-doctors the world over in that they are able to move freely among the people. In that respect, many Skinwalker tales reflect a common fear of priestly corruption, expressed through a magical-realist lens. The concern that those who are entrusted with special knowledge will misuse that power is universal. We fear that those who want to educate the young might corrupt our children; or, that those who claim to heal might make us ill for profit; or, that those who protect us are in fact exploiting our weaknesses. These are ancient fears that become exacerbated by the anonymous distrustful nature of modern life.
Journalist George Knapp has become something of an expert on this paranoia inducing element of the Post-Atomic American zeitgeist. Working as an investigative journalist for the CBS affiliate in Las Vagas, Knapp introduced the public to the term “Area 51” when he broke the news about the USAF’s top secret testing facility in the Nevada desert. He stands out as a journalist who has managed to report extensively on what he calls “anomalous phenomena” without losing professional credibility. He has won an Edward R. Murrow Award (2004) for a story on voter fraud, “over a dozen Emmies” and a Peabody Award (2008) for his contributions to the investigative series Crossfire: Water, Politics, and Power.
George Knapp became associated with the Skinwalker legends after writing about strange events on a ranch in Uintah County, Utah, in 1996. This led to a series of investigations that are documented in the book, Hunt for the Skinwalker (2005) which Knapp co-authored with Colm A. Kelleher, PhD. The book describing the efforts of a National Institute of Discovery Science (NIDS) funded research team to shed light on the phenomena at the now infamous location.
The team, headed by Dr. Kelleher, had numerous strange experiences and observed many unexplainable phenomena during the nine year investigation. Unfortunately, retired U.S. Army colonel, Dr. John D. Alexander, characterized what he witnessed as enough to convince him personally, but, insufficient for a scientific paper. Knapp and Kelleher assert that the forces at work on the ranch were able to predict their actions, and seemed to taunt them.
Dr. Kelleher was plagued with technical anomalies reminiscent of the way poltergeist are said to tamper with electronics. Researchers would see something strange, only to discover the fully charged batteries in their cameras had been spontaneously drained. Knapp, although he attests to the credibility of his fellow investigators and other witnesses, claims to have never seen anything convincing with his own eyes. Nevertheless, Knapp believes in earnest that the ranch was the site of a nexus of bizarre phenomena going back over 100 years.
Knapp relates that the 480-odd acre lot is neighbored on all sides by the Ute reservation and according to Ute legend, the land is cursed. Knapp relates what he was told by Ute elders as follows, generations ago the Ute stole the land from the Navajo who sent the Skinwalker to drive them off the land forever. In local folklore the highpoint on the property is known as Skinwalker Ridge, and the surrounding lands are the shape-shifting wizard’s hunting grounds.
During his investigation of Skinwalker Ridge, Knapp uncovered evidence of Masonic rituals preformed on the site in the late 19th Century. Knapp has linked this to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, which was stationed in the area and had (according to Knapp) a high number of Masons in the ranks. His hypothesis is colorful, but, entirely plausible, suggesting that a troop of Buffalo Soldiers bivouacked in the abandoned ranch house and carved a Masonic symbol on the wall in a ritual to ward off the curse believed to haunt the land.
However, the family who had owned the ranch prior to the Shermans claim to have never experienced anything even vaguely paranormal in the four decades they occupied the land. Likewise longtime neighbors resent tourists and thrillseekers drawn by the notoriety surrounding the property. Dramatic manifestations of the phenomena ceased around 2005, concluding roughly a decade of horrifying activity with no conclusive explanation or proof. We are left with an allusive conundrum. In the case of the ranch, skeptical eye witnesses have become believers but their quest to confirm what they witnessed has not born enough fruit to prove their claims. We know that the Shermans suffered grievous losses to his herds under strange circumstances. Fortunately for the family, an eccentric billionaire with an interest in the paranormal offered to buy the cursed property so he could conduct research. Unfortunately, whatever it was that felt drawn to torment the Sherman family and their animals, grew disenchanted with the unflappable scientists.
The NIDS team was able to collect an impressive amount of data without the irrefutable proof needed to support their extraordinary claims. Other research teams using more unorthodox methodologies have conducted their own investigations since NIDS disbanded in 2005. Their findings have been interesting, if controversial, and while they contribute to the folklore they fall short of satisfactorily solving the mystery.
In 1996, the great professional skeptic James “the Amazing” Randi publicly chastised the then new owner, Robert Biggalow, for buying into an obvious hoax. Biggalow sold the ranch in 2016 having yet to give the great debunker his comeuppance. Randi had retired from public life the year before, and would die in 2020 resolute in his belief the whole story was bunkum. However, theories about the cause of the anomalous events at the ranch spring forth from the bizarre and tantalizing evidence collected. The only thing that is certain is that no one of the hypothesises proposed adequately explains all of the “anomalous phenomena” George Knapp has reported occurring at the now infamous Skinwalker Ranch.