Deathclaws: The Horrifying Origins of Fallout’s Scariest Creatures

The only thing more terrifying than Fallout's Deathclaws is the true meaning of their origin story.

Fallout New Vegas Deathclaw
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

While Amazon’s exceptional Fallout series does an admirable job of showcasing many of the things that make the world of Fallout so compelling, there is one dark corner of that universe that the series has only hinted at thus far. Eventually, that show will have to force new fans to confront the creature that has given generations of Fallout fans nightmares: Deathclaws.

Deathclaws have long been some of the scariest and most dangerous monsters to roam the Wasteland. They are incredibly difficult to kill, though their ferocity in combat sometimes feels like a superfluous factoid. The time between “Seeing a Deathclaw” and “Being Killed by a Deathclaw” is often too short to support anything close to a proper fight.

For as famous as Deathclaws are, though, the details of their origins remain something of a mystery for many Fallout fans. That’s a shame because the only thing more terrifying than facing off against a Deathclaw is realizing why we have to deal with them in the first place.

Who Created The Deathclaws?

While there are elements of the Deathclaw mythology that remain unknown or up for debate, there is sadly no doubt that Deathclaws were created by the United States government shortly before the Great War. 

Ad – content continues below

When the Great War was still a largely cold conflict between the United States, China, and various other factions, the U.S. government started to realize that sending so many troops into a possible global ground war was going to be a messy and expensive affair. So, they greenlit the creation of a new type of genetically engineered soldier that could be sent into the deadliest combat zones at a discounted rate. 

That was the experiment that eventually “gifted” the world with Deathclaws, though it’s not entirely clear if those behind the project knew exactly what they were creating. We know that Deathclaws were primarily based on modified genetic material from the common Jackson’s chameleon and similar regional creatures. However, without more complete records of their genetic makeup, it’s difficult to say for sure if the Deathclaws we ended up with match their creators’ original visions of them. Of course, if the goal was to create an effective killing machine that is almost impossible to stop and spreads pure fear wherever it goes…well, hang up the “Mission Accomplished” banner, I suppose. 

Then again, we don’t even know how Deathclaws would have performed on the battlefields they were designed for. There are no records of them ever being officially deployed in a combat scenario, though undocumented deployments are certainly a possibility. It’s one of the greatest ironies of the Great War. So many nightmarish new weapons were created during that time, but few of them were ever actually used. It turns out that there was already an abundance of the one weapon anyone needed to end the world many times over: nuclear missiles. 

Like many of those weapons, though, Deathclaws would survive the fallout of the Great War and go on to somehow make an already bleak world just a little more dangerous. 

How Did Deathclaws Make It Into The Wasteland?

Like the animals that once inhabited Pablo Escobar’s zoo, Deathclaws eventually escaped their old-world confines and proceeded to cause chaos simply by existing. They initially spread along the West Coast where they quickly became something of an urban legend among early Wasteland inhabitants. Eventually, the few that survived encounters with Deathclaws brought the rest of humanity the bad news. Deathclaws weren’t a myth; they were one of the greatest threats in a world filled with incredible new ways to die. 

Not every Deathclaw that roamed that part of the world was necessarily the result of those pre-Great War experiments, though. Supplementary Fallout material suggests that The Master was able to acquire some Deathclaw specimens and experiment on them using the Forced Evolutionary Virus (the same virus The Master used to create the Supermutants). 

Ad – content continues below

However, this part of Fallout history is a bit murky. The popular assumption is that most of the Deathclaws we see in Fallout (especially in that region) are the result of The Master’s experiments. At the very least, we can assume that some of the larger and more dangerous Deathclaw variants out there originate from those experiments.

Much like the original Deathclaws though, there is no record of The Master deploying Deathclaws in any tactical way. For that matter, it’s not entirely clear why The Master began experimenting with Deathclaws in the first place. Whereas the Super Mutants were a clear part of The Master’s grand plan to repopulate the Wasteland, we don’t know how (or if) Deathclaws fit into that plan. Perhaps they were just another in a line of experiments performed by The Master to see what would happen and therefore increase their understanding of the world and its inhabitants.

Regardless, it’s another chapter in the Deathclaws’ remarkably consistent history of experimentation. Unfortunately for all of us, those weren’t the most terrifying experiments performed on Deathclaws in the post-war era. 

How Did Deathclaws Make It to The East Coast?

Throughout the Fallout franchise, we are often reminded of the shadowy influence of The Enclave: a post-war group of power brokers that aspired to further “American interests” throughout the Wasteland and beyond. Said interests often included using deadly pre-war technology to advance the group’s increasingly radicalized agendas. As you’ve probably guessed, that tactic gradually grew to include the use of Deathclaws. 

In the early 2200s, the Enclave successfully created a more intelligent breed of Deathclaw. Eventually, they deployed those Deathclaws in Vault 13: the same vault that the original Vault Dweller from the first Fallout game once called home. After the Vault Dweller was effectively exiled from that Vault at the conclusion of that game, Vault 13’s residents, The Brotherhood of Steel, and The Enclave engaged in a prolonged conflict that resulted in The Enclave wiping out the rest of Vault 13’s residents. To cover their crimes, The Enclave ordered their army of intelligent Deathclaws to occupy Vault 13 and ward off any intruders. 

As we see in Fallout 2, though, that truly terrible plan did not go off without a hitch. Eventually, the intelligent Deathclaws of Vault 13 realized that they didn’t need to take orders from The Enclave or anyone else for that matter. Led by a Deathclaw named Gruthar, they attempted to form a new kind of society within the confines of the vault. Once the Enclave learned of their plans, they dispatched a team of operatives to Vault 13 to wipe out all of the intelligent Deathclaws. None are believed to have survived. 

Ad – content continues below

However, the Enclave’s influence on Deathclaws doesn’t end there. In Fallout 3, players encounter Deathclaws that were captured by Enclave members and outfitted with a special chip that allowed the Enclave to effectively use those Deathclaws as operatives. The Brotherhood of Steel is eventually able to turn that experiment on the Enclave before they can do more harm with it, though the presence of those Deathclaws raises an interesting question. Did The Enclave bring Deathclaws to the Capital Wasteland and the rest of the East Coast?

The answer isn’t entirely clear. While The Enclave was experimenting on Deathclaws in that area, we don’t know if those Deathclaws were brought to the Captial Wasteland by The Enclave. It’s possible that Deathclaws simply migrated there over the years on their own. After all, they have few natural predators, and they are capable of navigating hostile natural hazards that few other creatures could realistically survive.

Deathclaws Aren’t Bad, They’re Just Built That Way

As Deathclaws began to spread across the United States, horrifying variations of the monsters were gradually identified. Albino Deathclaws, Blind Deathclaws, a Legendary Deathclaw, Deathclaw Mothers…it got to the point where you would almost feel grateful just to encounter a “standard” Deathclaw. You could argue that some of those Deathclaws owe their existence to the gradual escalation of the Fallout games rather than any lore-friendly origin story. Then again, the gaps in the known history of Deathclaws create ample room for reasonable speculation. 

Yet, even a brief look at the known history of Deathclaws forces us to confront the terrifying truth that they are not nearly as aggressive or violent as the people who created them and continued to experiment with them. 

Most Deathclaws ultimately want to establish a piece of territory to call their own and inhabit it with others of their kind. They will certainly defend their territory, but there are no records of Deathclaws actively assaulting human settlements unless they are commanded to do so by other humans. For that matter, there is evidence that Deathclaws of a certain level of intelligence can, and will, resist such orders.

Deathclaws are easily among the most terrifying creatures in all of Fallout lore. Nothing will erase the memory of encountering one for the first time. Even veteran players are forced to afford them a measure of respect.

Ad – content continues below

Yet, like so many other things in the Fallout games, the powerful imagery of the Deathclaw’s design and the ways they’ve grown alongside that franchise’s popularity make it easy to forget the message of their true origins. We created the Deathclaws, we created the wasteland they inhabit, and we are the ones who continue to encounter and experiment with them despite an extensive history of reminders that they are best left alone. 

A Deathclaw is a nearly perfect killing machine that so happens to look the part. It is also the tragically perfect embodiment of our insatiable thirst for violence. They are the front-facing consequence of much greater horrors that we should all be united against if we weren’t so busy just trying to survive.