The Pishtaco is a South American anthropophage who hunts people in order to eat or steal their body fat. Tales of the Pishtaco began in the Andes during the Spanish conquest of Peru in the 16th century, perhaps when conquistadores were seen to make use of human body fat for unusual purposes, such as dressing battle wounds. This, in combination with the important place of body fat in Andean culture as representative of strength and vitality (the pre-Incan creator deity Viracocha is closely associated with body fat), contributed to the idea of the Pishtaco.
The Pishtaco is usually described as pale, or at least “foreign,” and a stranger. Although the Pishtaco’s appearance changes through the generations, the classic representation includes tall boots and a beard, and weapons which include a curved blade and a lasso or rope fashioned from human skin. They may suck human fat with their mouths, or with an implement such as a syringe in more modern lore.
Important to the lore of the Pishtaco is the idea that the fat of the Andeans is superior to that of people in other regions of the world, and has properties that make it useful for such things as the polishing of Christian statues and the lubrication of airplane parts and other machinery. Thus, the “stranger” appearance of the Pishtaco may include the traditional vestments of monks, or even aid workers or anthropologists, thereby often causing suspicion to be cast upon outsiders who attempt to make contact with the people of the jungles of Peru to the present day.
Fear of the Pishtaco is indeed still prevalent in Andean aboriginal culture. An outrageous and bizarre example occurred in 2009, when the Peruvian National Police produced a report saying that they had uncovered evidence of a Pishtaco gang guilty of murdering scores of forest-dwelling Peruvians in order to steal their fat.
The grisly story told by the police, and published in the official report, told of Pishtacos luring people from roads near the jungles of Huánuco. When brought to the Pishtaco’s secret jungle lab, the victim would be killed, dismembered and hung from hooks over candles, which would slowly melt their fat. The fat would drip down into funnels and be collected for sale to Europeans on the black market. Video and photographic evidence of labeled jars of fat were also included in the report. The department’s report quickly fell apart under scrutiny. however. Additionally, the police themselves were concurrently under suspicion of complicity in government death squads, and it is believed that the Pishtaco story was an attempt to distract from the charges. But the frightening and compelling images of jars of supposed human fat lingered in the imagination, and the discrediting of the police did little to stop the continued spread of dire tales of the Pishtaco.
The Pishtaco in Popular Culture
The legend of the Pishtaco is a significant plot point in Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1993 novel Death in the Andes. Written only a few years after his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency of Peru, Nobel Prize winner Llosa’s 11th novel involves a murder mystery in which a Peruvian police officer, Corporal Lituma, must determine whether the culprit is the Shining Path or a pishtaco.
In the Season 9 Supernatural episode “The Purge,” Pishtacos suck the fat of their victims (in this case, weight-loss spa customers) through the use of a lamprey-like proboscis that extends from their mouths when feeding. They are parasitic humanoid creatures susceptible to silver weapons or the chopping off of their feeding protuberances.
This is one of the handful of Supernatural episodes in which a pretty girl monster is allowed to live. Granted, it’s her brother who is the real troublemaker—the pishtaco Marzita only sips at her clients’ body fat, and they are happy to pay her for the experience. Sam takes pity on her for losing her business and her family, and the boys send her back to Peru, her country of birth.
While there are some short films featuring the Pishtaco as a central villain, they tend to be pretty terrible—though not as terrible as the thriving legend of the Pishtaco itself. Although it is unclear if the Pishtaco has any supernatural abilities, or if it simply has the murderous skills of a cannibalistic serial killer, defenses against the creature are equally unclear. So just to be safe, when in in the Peruvian Andes, don’t follow any pale strangers into the jungle.