Voodoo Terror: (Mis)Representations of Vodou and Western Cultural Anxieties
Lecture given at the event ‘Feels Like Voodoo Spirit – Haitian Art, Culture, Religion’, The October Gallery, London 14/10/00
In 1972 the Anthology Film Archives in New York received from Grove Press five cartons of film. They contained the footage that Maya Deren had shot while in Haiti but had been unable to edit before her death in 1961 (the film presented earlier was an edit made by Cherel and Teiji Ito in 1985). A rudimentary description of the contents reads as follows: “The entire set of Haitian reels is markedly similar and repetitious in content with few exceptions. For the most part the action involves Haitian people involved in Voudoun ritual and dancing. This includes mystical drawings made on the ground, the oft-repeated sacrifice of chickens or cocks and small goats, accompanied by seated drummers, there are several instances of apparent religious hysteria and about 400 feet of Mardi Gras parade.” (quote from Anthology Film Archives, Linda Patton, 1972)
The important words for the purposes of this presentation are ‘apparent religious hysteria’. It expresses a paradox peculiar to ethnography when it attempts to represent an intimate subjective experience through an objectifying-authenticating mechanism like documentary cinema. It begs the question “what would footage of substantive religious hysteria look like”? It is also characteristic of classical ethnography to frame the religious experiences of non-western peoples within psycho-pathological categories peculiar to the west, such as hysteria. Deren was acutely aware of these complex cultural paradoxes and they may well have contributed to her difficulty in editing the Haiti footage. I will return to problems associated with representation, authenticity, the supernatural and mental illness throughout this presentation. In so doing I hope to show that, just out-of-shot of Voodoo Terror, the mental asylum looms large.
The proposed title for this presentation was ‘Voodoo Terror: Metaphors of Contagion and Western Cultural Anxiety’. The ‘metaphors of contagion’ have gone. They were a reference to Barbara Browning’s Infectious Rhythm: Metaphors of Contagion and the Spread of African Culture (Routledge, 1998). This book has been a great influence on my understanding of the uses of voodoo in US and European culture, but as I began to think about western anxieties associated with what I’m calling the Voodoo Construct, I realised that contagion was not a pronounced component. However, there is an article, cited by Browning, which points more directly to my concerns. In the chapter entitled ‘Babaluaiyé: Diaspora as Pandemic’ Browning quotes an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: ‘Night of the Living Dead II: Slow Virus Encaphalopathies and AIDS: Do Necromantic Zombiists Transmit HTLV III/LAV During Voodooistic Rituals?’. What is important here, beyond the explicit issue of AIDS and accusation (Farmer), is the framing of a serious social and medical issue in terms of a joke about popular cinematic (mis)representations of the ‘living dead’ and voodoo. The effect is deliberately comical. But why would humor be appropriate here? It is a remarkable example of how the Voodoo Construct can be used in such a casual way to shape western reactions and responses to the ethnic and racial distribution of AIDS, while simultaneously using the disease as another potential justification for the suppression of vodou in Haiti. For reasons which will hopefully become clear, an alternative title for this talk could have been ‘Voodooistic Terror: Do representations of Voodoo in Popular Culture transmit Anti-Haitian Propaganda in the Interests of Western Imperialism?’
The spelling of voodoo in my title is important. The distinction between v-oo-d-oo and v-o-d-ou is a fundamental but slippery one. The only secure consensus amongst scholars and practitioners of the religion in question seems to be that, however vodou is spelt, it should not be spelt v-oo-d-oo. On the other hand, amongst people who have heard the word but who have little or no knowledge of the culture from which it derives, the proper spelling of ‘whatever it is’ is v-oo-d-oo. Obviously there is more at stake here than a simple argument about correct/incorrect spelling. The contestations are ripe for discursive analysis; what is at stake in each of the contested spellings (vodou, vodoun, vodu, vodun, vaudu etc)? What arguments are given in support of each? What are discursive histories of their legitimation/de-legitimation, etc? In this presentation I am specifically addressing the thing spelled v-oo-d-oo; ‘whatever it is’. I define voodoo as a set of ubiquitous and enduring, popular cultural motifs evoked by the word for people outside of societies where vodou is a lived religion. This set of motifs I will call the Voodoo Construct. It is made up of four dominant interwoven motifs which recur whenever someone who has no special knowledge is asked to describe what voodoo is. For the current purposes the Voodoo Construct is made up of (i) the voodoo doll, (ii) the zombie, (iii) the voodoo witch-doctor and (iv) voodoo possession. I’ve tried to think of the construct primarily in subjective and interpersonal terms rather than objective, academic ones. It is ‘my’ voodoo construct while simultaneously it has ‘nothing to do with me’. I approach it like a rumour, a general idea, something picked up from the cultural ether. It is based on recollections and experiences of a deliberately informal and unofficial character. I have attempted to think it from the inside out, from a position of intentional naivety. The only support for my basic claims come from casual conversations with acquaintances. I have asked various people the question “What are the first things that come to mind when you think of voodoo?” There responses have been remarkably similar to my own. Try it.
I am still unsure about the ‘mis’ of misrepresentation in the title. That’s why it is safely quarantined in brackets. There are two related reasons for my uncertainty. Firstly, I sense something suspiciously automatic in the informed scholarly response that v-oo-d-oo is the distorted western misrepresentation of an authentic cultural practice named v-o-d-ou. When asked for examples of the voodoo-construct in popular culture people often presume that its main source is cinema, often invoking a mysterious phenomena called Hollywood Voodoo. In the last 70 years or so, critical-cultural theorists have shown how Hollywood movies have supported various repressive cultural ideologies (primarily WASP, patriarchal, heterosexist, capitalist and neo-colonial). One unfortunate outcome of these criticisms is that Hollywood has become the easy critical target for a range of misrepresentational evils. But when one starts to examine exactly how Hollywood came to misrepresent vodou there are far fewer instances than the orthodox anti-Hollywood opinion might presume.
United Artist’s White Zombie (1932) made during the US occupation of Haiti, and RKO’s I Walked with A Zombie (1943) released shortly after the last Catholic anti-superstition campaign, undoubtedly helped shape popular US and European preconceptions about vodou. Both films could be interpreted as products of the domestic continuation of the campaigns waged against vodou during and after the US occupation. Certainly both films helped fix the popular association of zombies, somnambulists and voodoo dolls. But could the impact of these early movies still shape contemporary consciousness about Haitian culture? And how can such longevity of influence be adequately explained in terms of territorial and cultural ideological targeting coded into these two early films? During the fifties and sixties voodoo themes occurred in a range of B-movie and drive-in features in both the US and Europe but as one among many in a range of often interwoven generic tropes (some of the examples of voodoo motifs I will be using are from British films made during the 60’s). During the 70’s and 80’s there was an epidemic of Hollywood (and Italian) cinematic zombies – beginning with the aforementioned Night of the Living Dead (1968) – but they were only distant relatives of the zombies of Haitian folklore (mis)represented in the earlier films. In this genre contagion is a central metaphor but it is not a contagion primarily associated with anxieties about African diaspora. In the last 15 years Hollywood has produced only three major-release movies that could be described as Hollywood Voodoo; The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), Angel Heart (1987) and The Believers (1988). Only the first of these has explicit references to Haitian culture. I don’t doubt that these films have helped to create the voodoo-construct of the popular imagination (I will be using clips from them to illustrate the construct’s salient features) but none of them since the 1940’s (with the exception of The Serpent and the Rainbow) could be accused of misrepresenting an authentic religious practice called Haitian vodou. I propose, therefore, that the weight of blame for the ubiquity and longevity of the voodoo-construct should not be placed so squarely on Hollywood’s door. I am not discounting the likelihood that other popular cultural forms (such as comics, novels, music, newspapers etc.) may have contributed to the voodoo-construct but, like the construct itself, Hollywood voodoo seems to be a popular myth with few concrete instances to support it.
The second reason for the bracketing of (mis)representation is concerned with epistemic and ontological issues touched upon by the ‘apparent religious hysteria’ mentioned above. The problem might be summed up: “Can a nonexistent entity be misrepresented?” According to the rational and empirical epistemology of western psychology, the diagnosis of religious hysteria, apparent or otherwise, excludes the possibility that the dancers might ‘in fact’ be possessed by (invisible) gods or supernatural entities. Similarly, to suggest that zombies can be misrepresented presumes that zombies exist in fact. What is the ontological relationship between the phenomena represented and the medium of representation? How does the latter construct objects according to ‘its own’ inherent epistemic and ontological criteria? My questioning is inspired, in part, by James Clifford’s book The Predicament of Culture. There he shows how the idea of authenticity is fundamental to modern western epistemologies of art and culture. Photographic and cinematic modes of representation have a privileged place in the construction of authentic evidence. The diagram of the Art-Culture system (developed by the cultural critic Frederik Jameson) is used to show how a distinction between authentic/inauthentic art-culture has a fundamental value-designating function in this context. Clifford argues that the notion of authenticity develops in relation to the 17th c. enlightenment ideal of possessive individualism, when culture collecting became associated with an ‘authentic domain of [singular] identity’. It then informs the objective ideals of classical ethnography and clinical psychology as they developed (often in close theoretical proximity) during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Clifford gives the example of the ethnographer Margaret Mead complaining that a New Guinea culture, which her team had almost ‘completed collecting’, was corrupted by ‘bits and snatches of all the rag tag and bob tail of magical and ghostly belief from the pacific’. The point here is that the ideals of authenticity and cultural integrity – which are at stake in the contested spellings of vodou – have been instrumental in the western appropriation of non-western cultures. What gets to count as true culture must be provably authentic and it must have objective-concrete existence. In this way to represent ‘authentic’ vodou risks imposing a western cultural episteme whose historical function has been to capture, objectify, rationalise and demystify cultural difference.
So, rather than regarding the voodoo-construct as deliberate denigration, distortion and/or demonization of a particular religious tradition I argue instead that it owes its longevity and ubiquity to a range of deep-seated anxieties which are peculiar to western culture. These psycho-social anxieties are concerned precisely with epistemology and ontology (i.e. concerns about what can be known with certainty and what can be said to have true existence). By way of the voodoo-construct western conceptual crises of identity, authenticity, rationality and mortality are played out parodically upon racial, colonial and religious stages.
To introduce the voodoo-construct I will show a sequence from the recent Channel Four television series The Last of the Medicine Men. In the first episode, intrepid white explorer Benedict Allen reads from the comfort of his hotel room in Port-Au-Prince. He tells how the Europeans of the slave trade era were just as superstitious as the people they enslaved. He wonders whether for ‘us’ – “the modern, rational west” – our fears of the unknown (the supernatural) lie “just beneath the skin”. There is no doubt about the implied colour of this skin and ‘our’ relationship to the early slave traders. The paradox of Allen’s mission to Haiti lies in his intention to ‘discover the truth’ about voodoo. His quest is based on the implicit presumption that ‘his/our’ voodoo-construct has some direct cultural ancestry in Haitian vodou. The outcome, both farcical and disconcerting, shows how the attempt to disprove western cultural prejudice can have the effect of imposing it even more securely. It is symptomatic of the will to authenticate the Other in the name of the Self.
i) The Voodoo Doll
The first, and most often cited icon-motif of the voodoo-construct is the voodoo doll. It is usually imagined as a miniature effigy of a person into which pins are stuck which cause pain to, or kill, the person represented. It is closely associated with the motif of the voodoo idol or fetish, so much so that I have decided to keep them in one category. Also included in the voodoo doll category is the voodoo charm, an object which can bring either great luck or great harm. It can also be the carrier of a curse.
In his essay on the uncanny Sigmund Freud famously claimed that life-like dolls elicited an epistemological/ontological anxiety regarding the difference between the animate and the inanimate, the living and the dead. We will see that some of the first representations zombies are very similar to the living-dolls in the gothic literature chosen by Freud as examples of the uncanny. The automaton and somnambulist are recurrent figures in anxious representations of gender, sexuality and subjectivity since the late 18th c. (for an account of the historical gendering of automata see Allucquere Rosanne Stone, ‘What Vampires Know: Transubjection and Transgender in Cyberspace’, 1993). Doll’s evoke recollections of childhood joys and fears. The doll has the ambivalent potential to be both a harmless, idealized plaything for children and a potentially dangerous magical object in the hands of a witch-doctor. Dolls are often imagined possessing a life of their own. In terms of the voodoo-construct such re-animations are usually controlled by evil humans. Like zombies, dolls can be brought to life and, like slaves, they can be made to fulfill the desires of their living masters. They are the object of fantasies about power and control. The function of dolls in the voodoo-construct is usually malign. They are used to injure in some way the person of whom they are a representation. Human-doll relations are often explicitly gendered and sexualized. Gender meanings are coded in the needles and pins with which they are pierced, and the cloth from which they are often made.
In European and US popular culture witchcraft is strongly associated with femininity, as are dolls. The voodoo or poppet doll has a cultural geneology which can be traced through the European witchcraft traditions of the middle ages. There is nothing essentially African or Haitian about the poppet doll any more than there is something essentially European. The anxieties which it summons concern the possibility of magical action-at-a-distance, of like-effecting-like, effects which Enlightenment rationality, which shaped modern psychiatry, was keen to disprove (e.g. James Frazer’s famous analysis of ‘sympathetic magic’ in The Golden Bough, where he distinguishes between two branches; homeopathic/imitative magic and contact/contagious magic). In 19th century Europe, belief in sympathetic magic came to signify regression to an inferior stage of cultural and psychological development and, as such, a symptom of mental illness in civilized adults. The legacy of this transformation is evident in the popular sentiment that belief in the supernatural is acceptable and encouraged in children but condemned as pathological in adults. Voodoo dolls operate on a sinister axis of distinction between child and adult, primitive and civilized, ancient and modern. As one plantation-owning brother tells the other in I Walked with a Zombie “We may have believed that when we were boys Wes, but we’re grown men now, we know it’s all nonsense”.
The European Africanization of the popett doll follows a similar historical-discursive trajectory to that of the fetish. A circuitous trajectory can be charted for both between the continental poles of Europe, Africa and America, traversing the Atlantic trade-routes of European imperial expansion. The period of European colonial domination of Africa and America coincided with the subjugation of the European cultural traditions of which the fetish-popett dolls were a part. These traditions were being reconfigured, first as heretical, later as psycho-pathological. The prefix voodoo Africanizes and racializes the figure of the European witch doll which returns to European culture in the mid to late 19th century in a variety of influential ways; as an alienated commodity for Marx, as an hallucinated substitute penis to ward of male castration anxiety for Freud, and as a relic of a primitive stage of religious development for classical ethnography. The fetish returns to Europe with a newly racialized complexion. In the voodoo-construct this alienated relic of a suppressed magical tradition is, in a post-abolition era, charged with the symbolic power to effect a racial, religious and sexual revenge upon the colonial oppressors.
As carriers of the voodoo curse, fetish’s, idols and charms often operate as trans-dimensional pathways of communication between Europe, Africa and America. A recurrent theme in Hollywood voodoo and the voodoo-construct is that central characters return home carrying their encounter with voodoo like a disease (e.g. Dr. Terrors House of Horrors, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Witches). This is certainly a ‘metaphor of contagion’ but the disease is of a psychological/supernatural kind rather than a corporeal one.
Voodoo dolls appear in White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie. In the first a white wax effigy is used by the sorcerer/mesmerist figure to put the heroine into a zombie-like trance. Attached to the doll is the scarf he stole from the heroine in the opening scene. In I Walked With a Zombie the doll once again is an effigy of a white female character (the zombie of the title) who has been zombified, presumably with the aid of this doll. It is given to Carrefour, the other zombie in the movie (this time a black male), by the voodoo witch-doctor, in order to carry out his evil intentions. In both cases the doll mediates between the will of the (male) witch-doctor and the actions of the (female) zombie. In I Walked with a Zombie the black maid tells the newly arrived nurse that when she dresses the zombie its like dressing ‘a great big doll’. Here the association of zombie, somnambulist and fetish doll is explicit. The Witches (Cyril Frankel, 1966) begins somewhere in Africa. A fetish-doll knife, made of feathers and cowries, is used to terrorize a white school mistress, who is hurriedly evacuating the school with her two black assistants. On seeing the fetish the assistants make a hasty escape. The school mistress, who stays, faints when someone wearing a body-sized voodoo mask bursts through the door. After her voodoo-induced mental breakdown the school mistress takes a recuperative job in an English village school. But memories of the voodoo fetish still haunt her. While rehearsing a school play with the children she finds a headless male doll with pins stuck into it. She takes it to her guardian to ask for advice. The guardian suggests that there may be remnants of witchcraft in the area but that they should not remove the pins because this would prove that they actually believe in the efficacy of the magic. She had written articles on people who thought they were witches. “It’s a sex thing, deep down” she explains, “mainly women go in for it, older women”. She suggests that they collaborate on an article for a Sunday supplement – ‘Fetishmen in Africa, Witchcraft in England’ – “there may be more in common than people think”. After another voodoo trauma the school mistress is once more confined to the sanatorium suffering from amnesia. Upon seeing a young girl playing with a doll her repressed memories return and she escapes the sanatorium. Here anxieties about the repression and return of memory, about regression to a terrifying state of childhood candor, and about the terrible uncertainty of hallucinatory experience are all mediated by the cursed voodoo doll.
ii) The Zombie
The second most cited icon-motif of the Voodoo Construct is the zombie. Within the voodoo-construct the zombie is a person raised from the dead, devoid of freewill and controlled by the will of another. It is often used as a slave. As with the voodoo doll, the zombie upsets clear-cut distinctions between animate and inanimate, living and dead. But unlike the fetish-doll there is no obvious analogy to the zombie in popular European folklore. Existing between life and death, vampires are similar. But unlike vampires, zombies display a pronounced lack of subjective agency, and, other than being both alive and dead, zombies usually have no other supernatural attributes. Voodoo zombies have had their souls stolen by a witch-doctor whose evil intentions they act out. This is an important difference between cinematic voodoo zombies and cinematic cannibal zombies (which have more in common with the mythical ghoul).
Along with the stolen soul of the future voodoo zombie goes self-consciousness, freewill, intention, responsibility and reason. Zombies therefore represent a range of epistemic and ontological problems for the living. What is the essential difference between the living and the dead? Can zombies exist in fact? And if so, do they know they exist? What is the relationship between the soul and consciousness, consciousness and matter ? Such questions have given rise to the so-called ‘Zombie Problem’ in philosophy of consciousness and artificial intelligence studies (see David Chalmers Zombies on the Web <www.u.arizona.edu/`chalmers/zombies.html.>). The cannibal zombies of the 1970’s were hybrids of voodoo zombies, zero-personality vampires, and ghouls. In cannibal zombie movies the zombie plague marked the beginning of the end for ‘civilization as we know it’. Unlike the zombie movies of the 30’s and 40’s, in these later movies the viewer is not usually expected to identify with the zombie and as such is not to reflect on the existential issues addressed. In the earlier movies zombies were central characters, usually white European females or black Caribbean males, both under the evil spell of male witch-doctor/magician-mesmerists. As mentioned earlier, there is an uncanny continuity between dolls, zombies and somnambulists. The zombie, like the somnambulist, is simultaneously unconscious and awake and is potentially the agent of another’s will. (Interestingly, Anton Mesmer, who gave his name to Mesmerism, is said to have claimed responsibility for the foundation of the Haitian Republic). Like the witch-doctor/magician-mesmerist who controls it, the zombie is an ambivalent figure in the historical redistribution post-colonial and post-abolitionist guilt.
White Zombie opens on a road in Haiti. A group of black peasants are burying their dead in the middle of the road. The black coach-driver informs the newly arrived white female passenger that this is to stop the bodies from being stolen. The zombies are first introduced as living-dead peasant laborers controlled by an evil magician-mesmerist. Zombies terrify the local population. The relationship between zombie and slave is made explicit in scenes set in the sugar mill (owned by the magician/mesmerist). When one zombie-slave falls into the mill the others continue their toil without reaction. No consciousness, no conscience, no feeling. The central zombie is the newly arrived white female, zombified on her wedding night to become the lover of an infatuated plantation owner. Zombification is not represented here as an African magical technique but a European one, imported by evil colonists, who, by implication are responsible for slavery as well. In contrast I Walked with a Zombie represents zombification as a non-western technique, one which the western doctor is unable to explain. There are only two zombies in this film; a white female European and a black male “West Indian” (the film is set on St. Sebastian). The female is a Mrs. Rochester figure who was zombified by a Houngan (the witch-doctor of the voodoo-construct) at the request of her mother-in-law. The husband of the white zombie insists that the new nurse thinks of his wife as a “mental case” and does not succumb to the “contagious superstition” of the natives. According to the doctor who is employed to treat her the condition was caused by a ‘tropical fever’ that burned out part of her spinal column. A central trope of the plot hinges on the contested explanations for the white zombie’s condition. Ultimately the film rejects the western medical explanation of zombiedom and sides with the ‘hocus pocus’ voodoo option.
Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (based on Wade Davis semi-autobiographical novel of the same name) makes zombiedom and its causes the central theme. As already suggested this is a movie which could be interpreted as an instance of the maligned Hollywood Voodoo because of its ideologically loaded representations of Haitian society and culture. The central character of the film, whose voice over narrates the story, is a white US ethno-botanist, Dr. Allen, working for a drug company called Boston Biocorp. He is employed by Biocorp to find out the secrets of zombification. The main anxiety exploited by The Serpent and the Rainbow, and one which the zombie embodies, is the anxiety of being buried alive. There are two central zombies, both black Haitians. The first, Christoff Durand, we see being tested for signs of life before his burial in the opening sequence. A tear roles down his face from inside the coffin. The examining doctor must have been wrong. The next zombie, Margarite, is met by Dr. Allen in a clinic in Port-Au-Prince. When asked if she remembers how she arrived in the clinic she emits some kind of psychic scream that only Dr. Allen (who we already know has psychic inclinations after a shamanic-psychedelic experience in the Amazon rainforest) can hear. The scream stops as he lets go of her decaying hand. “She obviously can’t tell us anything”, he informs the director of the clinic. He meets Christoff in a cemetery at night. Christoff has some memory left and can speak some English. He tells the ethno-botanist that the Bokor (the Voodoo witch-doctor of the voodoo- construct) makes him do evil things and sends him into peoples dreams. Zombies of the voodoo-construct are expected to do the evil bidding of their masters but they aren’t expected to have supernatural powers. They are animated corpses, less human than the living but definitely more material. Like I Walked with a Zombie, but more so, a central theme of The Serpent and the Rainbow concerns the causal explanation of zombiedom: does it have supernatural/magical causes or material/rational ones? Dr. Allen asks Christof how he came to be a zombie. It was a powder he explains, a powder which Dr. Allen spends the rest of the film tracking down. Ultimately The Serpent and the Rainbow manages to reach a compromise: zombiedom is caused on the physiological level by a chemical agent (which keeps Biocorp happy) and this effect is supplemented on the psychological level by belief in voodoo (“a net of magic beyond anything we know” as Dr. Allen’s narration describes it). In short, only people who believe in voodoo can become zombies. Christoff’s supernatural ability to travel in dreams is important, therefore, because it enables him (and other components of the voodoo-construct) to pass beyond the temporal and territorial limits of Haiti. Supernatural entities are not bound by the same logical constraints as mortals and objective rationality cannot prevent the them moving through imaginary-psychic dimensions, like those opened for the ethno-botanist by psychedelics. The zombie, like the somnambulist, and the voodoo doll can still visit the west in the space of dreams and psycho-pathological states.
iii) Voodoo witch-doctor
The third component of the voodoo-construct is the witch-doctor. The witch-doctor is able to control zombies, possess people, bring dead people back to life, make voodoo dolls, and put curses on people. Although the witch-doctor is the least dominant motif of the voodoo-construct, it is a central figure in Hollywood Voodoo where he is closely associated with the figure of the European magician-mesmerist. Like the witch-doctor, the magician-mesmerist is always male and able to exercise his will through zombies, somnambulists and voodoo dolls. The witch-doctor/magician-mesmerist composite is often conflated with the medicine man/shaman figure of native American culture. He is always a sinister figure with supernatural powers operating on temporal margins of normal society. His supernatural powers come from ancient, suppressed, occult traditions often of a non-western origin.
We have already seen various examples of the witch-doctor in White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie. In the first film he is more magician-mesmerist than voodoo witch-doctor. But he is certainly a zombie maker. Perhaps the most exemplary voodoo-construct witch-doctor appears in The Believers. On arrival in New York from Africa he is asked by the customs agent to open his bags. “Just personal items. No need to look in there”. The witch-doctor stares into the eyes of the customs officer who then lets him pass. So as recently as 1988 the witch-doctor is still conflated with the mesmerist. It is an enduring alliance. In Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (UK,1965) one of several stories involves a white British jazz musician on holiday in the Caribbean. Despite warnings he visits a voodoo ceremony at night. He is captured by the attendants as he tries to write down the ceremonial music and is brought before the high-priest. The priest wears a mask of ‘the great god Damballa’ and warns the musician that he will be punished for stealing the music. He does not heed the warning and, on returning to London, plays the tune at a night club with his jazz band. During the performance a powerful wind picks up and blows through the club, panicking the audience who leave screaming. The musician flees too, troubled on the streets by sinister black men as he struggles to get home. When he switches on the light he is confronted by the painted face of the voodoo witch-doctor, who has come to exercise the vengeance of Damballa. The musician faints and the witch-doctor leaves as mysteriously as he arrived, carrying the score of the ceremonial voodoo music with him. This is an excellent example of the voodoo curse theme that passes from one world to another like a contagion. The racial aspects of this confrontation between witch-doctor and musician are explicit, as they are between the witch-doctor and the ethno-botanist in The Serpent and the Rainbow. Both films involve racial, shot-counter-shot, face-offs between the leading males. In the latter the racial face-off is prefigured in the Amazon rainforest when, during the Dr. Allen’s psychedelic trip, the benign shaman is replaced by the evil witch-doctor. The witch-doctor, who is called Captain Petro, is chief of the secret police in Port-Au-Prince. In one scene, while terrorizing Dr. Allen with a blowtorch during a torture session, the witch-doctor tells him “You’ve got a pretty face, the girls must like it. Do you like it? You’re pretty white face?…I asked you a question!”. “Yeah, I like it”, Dr. Allen replies courageously. “I like it too”, Captain Petro says, as he lights the blow torch and then his cigar. “I’ll leave the face”. In both films there is a strong homo-erotic inference in these racial face-offs. As already suggested the figure of the witch-doctor/mesmerist performs a redistribution of historical responsibility for slavery. Here the evil chief of the Ton tons Macoute works to support the necessity for US intervention in Haiti. As the good witch-doctor tells Dr. Allen before the final face-off “These people – Petro, Duvalier – they’re not Haiti, they’re mad dogs…and the madness must stop”.
A final example of the witch-doctor figure is taken from Benedict Allen’s The Last of the Medicine Men. In an endeavor which exemplifies the problem of ‘revealing the truth about voodoo’, Allen, in Haiti, seeks out “the evil witch-doctor character so dear to Hollywood”. In Pleine du Nord, he encounters – allegedly, but unconvincingly, “by chance” – “the man who represented [his] best chance of investigating the supposed dark-side of voodoo”. In a scene evocative of the final confrontation between Willard and Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, the confrontation is once again filmed as a shot-counter-shot face-off between the white explorer and the black witch-doctor, who has been watching him bathing in the mud. The witch-doctor Artess, Allen informs us, is “rumored to make zombies” in the back room of the temple which Allen visits to attend a voodoo ceremony. “Artess was a professional bad guy no doubt” Allen reflects, “but I couldn’t be sure he was a fake”. When Artess was unable to evoke voices from hell during the ceremony Allen decides that Artess’ claims to be an “evil witch doctor so dear to Hollywood” are false. Now Allen is satisfied that Artess is only a fake evil witch-doctor.
iv) Voodoo possession
The final motif of the voodoo-construct is possession. Within the voodoo-construct possession is the state of having one’s consciousness and will replaced by that of another, usually the spirit of a dead person, a sorcerer or a demon. When people are possessed they can be made to commit acts against their will, often acts they would ordinarily oppose, or not have the ability to perform. In this way possession is closely associated with zombies, somnambulists, and voodoo dolls. Again it is an issue of self-consciousness and self-determination being overridden by another’s will. Possession involves the involuntary relinquishing of subjective agency and calls into question the western notion of subjectivity as a fundamental, singular, authentic domain of the self. The characterizing of possession as a psycho-pathology in the west (as in multiple personality disorder) depends on this emphatically singular ideal of subjectivity. Like zombies, possession raises uneasy questions about the relationship between soul, consciousness and the body, and the relationship of self and other.
Possession is not a state peculiar to African and African diasporic religious traditions but, like the fetish-doll, it is racialized by the voodoo prefix. Popular representations of voodoo possession are often highly sexualized. An exotic and erotic construction of cultural difference is apparent here. Often it is white women who fall under the hypnotic spell of the witch-doctor. No doubt part of the enduring appeal of possession fantasies is involves the transgression of prohibitions which ordinarily constrain interracial sexuality. A recurrent trope in Hollywood voodoo is the heroic interruption of the induced trance by a jealous lover (The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Believers).
In White Zombie, the heroine is possessed by the witch-doctor through the agency of the voodoo doll. As she slips into a fugue the witch-doctor projects words through her which foretell of a dark foreboding events in the future. The association of somnambulism, trance, possession and clairvoyance is in keeping with White Zombie‘s representation of voodoo being of European origin. In I Walked with a Zombie, which represents voodoo as African in origin, the second of the two plantation owning brothers is possessed by the witch-doctor and made to kill the zombie heroine. As the witch-doctor puts a knife into her effigy, the brother puts a knife into the zombie. In The Serpent and the Rainbow, possession is repeatedly associated with sexuality and violence. The female doctor who is the director of the clinic in Port-Au-Prince is possessed by Erzulie at a voodoo night spot, and dances provocatively with Dr. Allen, the ethno-botanist. When the witch-doctor arrives he taps out a new rhythm with his glass and another of the dancers becomes possessed by an aggressive spirit and attacks the doctor. Later, at a dinner party in back in Boston, Dr. Allen is suffering from the voodoo curse. As he sits down to dinner a decaying hand reaches out of his bowl of soup and touches his own hand. The voodoo curse is carried back to the west as a psychological contagion. The hostess asks if there is anything wrong with his soup. “I’ve been having some problems with my stomach” he says. A black servant takes it away. “Occupational hazard”, his mentor suggests, ” dysentery, botfly, malaria…”. Then, in a sequence reminiscent of the possession scene in White Zombie, the hostess then proposes a toast to Dr. Allen. As she taps her glass she too slips into a fugue and is possessed by a spirit sent by Captain Petro from Haiti. She bites into her glass after garbling some incomprehensible words then leaps across the table attacking Dr. Allen. “You’re going to die” she tells him, “you’ve been warned, you’re going to die”. Then she slashes him across the face with a knife. In her convulsive writhing she looses all trace of her modest, civilized composure. Finally, a possession scene from The Believers brings us back to Deren’s footage of ‘apparent religious hysteria’. The evil witch-doctor who has arrived in New York from Africa gets possessed at a fundraising event organized by a powerful New York millionaire. The witch-doctor’s eyes roll into their sockets as he rears up to look at the audience. It is a scene remarkably similar to the footage shot by Deren and used by the Ito’s to illustrate possession in The Divine Horsemen. Women in the audience begin to drift into trance-like swoons as he dances wide-eyed before them. Even the wife of the police psychologist falls under the witch-doctor’s hypnotic spell. Once again there is a shot-counter-shot face-off sequence as the witch-doctor moves closer and closer to the psychologist’s wife’s smiling menacingly as her eyes begin to flutter and her head falls back revealing her exposed neck. As the witch-doctor’s claw like hand reaches for her necklace, her husband steps in and pushes the witch-doctor away
I have used examples from popular, mainstream movies to illustrate the voodoo-construct. In so doing it may seem that I have contradicted myself regarding the relative unimportance of Hollywood, or other popular forms of cinema, in producing it. By making the link between the possession scene in The Believers and Deren’s footage for The Divine Horsemen I am trying to suggest that popular representations of voodoo do occasionally refer, in a variety of ways, to the living vodou culture of Haiti. But this referencing is the exception rather than the rule. The voodoo-construct may find representational support in Hollywood voodoo but the source its ubiquity and longevity should not be sought there because the next step in that analytical direction is Haiti. It is this tendency to return voodoo to vodou that must be reversed if we are to resist the compassionate continuation of vodou’s suppression, effected by a misguided will to authenticity. Instead we should look to the cultural conditions which give the voodoo-construct life in the popular imagination of the west, and use it as to intensify the epistemological and ontological crises it is able to provoke.
White Zombie, Victor Halperin, United Artists, 1932
I Walked with a Zombie, Jacques Tourneur, RKO, 1943
Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Freddie Francis, Amicus, 1965
The Witches, Cyril Frankel, Hammer, 1966
The Serpent and the Rainbow, Wes Craven, Universal, 1987
The Believers, John Schlessinger, Orion, 1988
The Last of the Medecine Men, Benedict Allen, BBC, 2000
John Cussans 2000
4 Replies to “Voodoo Terror (or the Voodoo-Construct)”
Very nice story! Keep up the good work.
I enjoyed that, I just need to watch the believers as that is one I haven’t seen. There is a good posession theme in Peter Sykes “to the devil a daughter” 1976 and an interesting film I saw recently which refers back to Haiti slave Zombies but in a rural Cornish town is John Gillings “the plague of zombies” 1966. Roy Carson in Dr Terror – genius.
I will continue to read on.Keep up the good work.
Glad you’re enjoying it Liam. Thanks for the recommendations.