Haitian Vodou: A comparison of depictions
From zombies to sorcery to demonic possession, the word ‘Voodoo’ carries with it many pejorative connotations of the occult, but how have we come to these descriptions? Films, television, and newspapers all contribute greatly to public perception, and so their portrayals of Vodou may help answer this question. In these sources, we see that Vodou as practiced by Haitian immigrants is often quite different from how it is publicly depicted. Further, the variation within the religious tradition is reflected in the diverse terminology used, but popular portrayals often ignore contextualizing terminology and instead universalize terms such as Voodoo. In particular, Haitians are thought of as practicing ‘voodoo’ and so become mysterious, dangerous, and even barbaric in the eyes of Americans. While many of these stereotypes arose from popular media sources, such as Hollywood films, the media more recently has also helped increase the visibility of previously secretive Vodou practices in the United States. Consequently, many contemporary portrayals of Vodou contain a tension between stereotyped versions of the religion and more accurate descriptions. This page will compare and contrast the centrality of healing to American Vodou practitioners, as portrayed by Karen McCarthy Brown, with newspaper and popular film or television depictions of harming and possession practices in order to re-evaluate public perceptions of the religion. Additionally, the ability of the media to alter the observation or practice of religion will be explored.
Background and Contextualization
Before beginning an analysis, it is important to clarify the terms used to reference this religious tradition. Vodou is a Haitian religious tradition that both draws on West African cosmology and reflects the socio-political climate Haitians have had to confront. The religion arose after Vodun practitioners from Benin and Togo were brought to Haiti during the slave trade.
Since the French colonists were Catholic, they were against the seemingly pagan religion of their slaves (“The History of Haiti and Vodou – An Overview”). In an effort to maintain their traditions, Vodun practitioners cloaked the spirits under the personas of Catholic Saints. As such, modern Vodou practitioners often identify as Catholics and as good Christians (Brown 1991, 111). During the Haitian Revolution from 1791-1804, thousands of Haitians fled to North America, most notably southern Louisiana, bringing their religion with them (Turner 2006, 121). When Haitian Vodou encountered Louisiana culture, a new tradition of Voodoo was born. Further, Voodoo with a capital “V” is not to be confused with voodoo with a lowercase “v” because the first is a religious tradition whereas the latter denotes the occult and ‘black magic’. Vodou can also be found in the United States but is often connected with recent Haitian immigrants. In fact, Karen McCarthy Brown’s ethnographic work follows Mama Lola, a Haitian immigrant and Vodou priestess in Brooklyn, New York. Since Vodou is a rich tradition filled with variety, it is important to note that Brown’s work is contextualized to one form of lived Vodou in urban New York. Nonetheless, Alourdes’s story demonstrates more generally many of the misunderstandings the public holds towards Haitian religious traditions.
Brown’s work with Alourdes pushes past the secrecy of Vodou and brings readers into the worldview held by modern Vodou practitioners. By contextualizing Alourdes’s practices to Haitian culture, Brown reveals how Vodou cosmology draws from a specific socio-political climate in which practitioners must accept the presence of suffering and use religion pragmatically. As Brown puts it, “It is no exaggeration to say that Haitians believe that living and suffering are inseparable. Vodou is the system they have devised to deal with the suffering that is life” (Brown 1991, 10). Thus, religion is a tool to manage the hardships of life. Moreover, it is important to note that suffering in this context does not arise from an active force, such as Satan, or as a consequence for sin. Instead, suffering and illness are seen as bad luck: “Life, in the Vodou view of things, is characterized by alternating cycles of suffering and transient relief from suffering that is ‘having luck’” (Brown 1991, 345). However, luck is not random and can be increased by properly serving the spirits. Religious practitioners consequently serve the spirits not for the sake or worship but rather to deliberately increase their luck and thereby reduce suffering. Since this method of thought is quite different from the hegemonic discourse in the United States, the ‘othering’ of Vodou is quite easy when its historical context is disregarded. Brown’s work looks to resolve these issues by showing how Vodou practices by nature are healing practices, which more Americans can relate to.
In order to understand Vodou as a tradition of healing, we must analyze how practitioners of the religion relate to the spirits. Unlike the Saints of Catholicism, the spirits in Vodou are not seen as perfect but rather they represent the tensions present in the physical world. Brown argues: “Vodou spirits have emerged as whole, three-dimensional characters. The oppressed are the most practiced analysts of human character and behavior, and Haitian traditional religion is the repository for wisdom accumulated by a people who have lived through slavery, hunger, disease, repression, corruption, and violence – all in excess” (Brown 1991, 98). By working with these spirits, practitioners are able to manage the social tensions they experience in their own lives and thus ‘heal’ themselves or others from various forms of suffering. For example, Ezili Danto is depicted as a strong and independent mother who still longs for connections with men.
She therefore mirrors the social tensions faced by urban Haitian women because Haitian women more easily adapt to the urban environment, but men are still expected to wield the authority in the community (Brown 1991, 235). Through relationships with Ezili Danto, Haitian women are able to explore and navigate the contradictions they face in their own lives. In another example, Brown herself required the spirits to alleviate suffering. At a time in her life where she was very angry, she told herself “Stop trying to make the anger go away. It only makes it worse. It’s yours. Marry it!” (Brown 1991, 134). Shifting from an outsider to an insider, Brown realized that Vodou spirits and rituals heal by giving practitioners a way to relate to their emotions and suffering.
Healing, then, in Vodou traditions carries a specific connotation in which social problems and relational issues are healed rather than various physical illnesses. When Alourdes heals clients, she distinguishes between natural illnesses and supernatural illnesses. She argues that natural problems are from God and so she cannot help them. As Brown puts it, “A problem that comes from God is natural; like a rock, it simply is. You cannot plead with a rock to change or coerce it into another state of being” (Brown 1991, 347). Supernatural problems, however, have a spirit component, and so Alourdes can mediate those relations and heal the client. Healing, moreover, is not a passive process for the client but rather the client must work with Alourdes. In fact, Alourdes’s involvement does not ensure the client will be healed, but rather Alourdes gives the client tools that they must then work with to solve the problem (Brown 1991, 350). Although Vodou rituals are becoming increasingly visible, we will see how these healing criteria have changed in public portrayals of Vodou.
Media Depictions of Vodou
With the growth of modern media, Haitian Vodou as well as its stereotypes have become increasingly accessible to the public. Vodou has been practiced as a secretive tradition largely due to the persecution Haitians faced under Duvalier’s rule as well as the negative connotations Vodou carries in the United States (Brown 1991, 110). When Alourdes holds Vodou gatherings, she frequently closes her windows to protect practitioners from the views of their neighbors (Brown 1991, 94). The secrecy of Vodou may have contributed to its classification as mysterious and dangerous in the eyes of Americans. The majority of negative associations, however, arose from media portrayals that combined racism with political goals. After the Haitian Revolution, the United States actively denigrated Haiti in an effort to protect itself from slave uprisings.
The U.S. relied on the policy that slaves were incapable of self-government because they were fundamentally barbarians and needed the guidance of white Americans. Haiti as a black republic, therefore, directly challenged this philosophy and consequently the entire institution of slavery in the U.S. (Brown 1991, 111). To uphold their philosophy, the United States depicted Haiti “as a place of barbaric and demonic rituals, zombies and black magic” (Boutros 2011, 191). Further, the success of this movement relied largely on the dominant Christian discourse in America that helped propagate Vodou as devil worship (191).
Unfortunately, the racist undertones of this argument are present in modern media representations as well. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the U.S. was forced to review its perspective on Haitians. Some, like televangelist Pat Robertson, attributed the crisis to a “pact to the devil” (qtd. in Boutros 1991, 192) that Haitians made to win their revolution. Ramsey argues that treating Vodou as a threat has allowed for “scapegoating” (Ramsey 2013, 36). Although many disapproved of Roberston’s claims in 2010, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both included articles shortly after the incident to support Robertson. According to these writers, Haitians were partially responsible for their situation because ‘voodoo’ contributed to the overwhelming poverty in the nation (Ramsey 2013, 36). The opposing side, however, should not be ignored. Samuel Freedman of The New York Times later added an article that refuted the negative connotations of Vodou and pointed out for its social significance to Haitians (Freedman 2010). The tensions reflected in these articles mirror those found in film and television portrayals of the religion. As Vodou becomes more visible to American society, the media struggles with depictions of Vodou as dangerous and Vodou as a legitimate religious tradition. Nonetheless, more often than not, Vodou is generalized to non-Haitian traditions and villainized as a demonic religion.
Due to the widespread popularity of films and television, I focus my analysis on The Princess and The Frog and The Mindy Project. While the first source uses Louisiana Voodoo rather than Haitian Vodou, it is relevant because these terms are used interchangeably in most media sources and so both reflect commonly held perceptions of Vodou. The Princess and The Frog features two scenes in which Louisiana Voodoo plays a large role. In the first scene, Prince Naveen encounters a malicious and demonic sorcerer, Dr. Facilier, who transformed him into a frog.
In this scene, not only is Voodoo seen as malevolent but those who try to use Voodoo are also seen as weak and depraved. Prince Naveen approached Dr. Facilier because he wanted an easy way to obtain excessive wealth and so is morally corrupt. The second scene, however, seems to rectify some of the negative stereotypes portrayed in the film. In this scene, Tiana and Prince Naveen meet Mama Odie, known as the “Voodoo queen of the bayou”.
Mama Odie lectures the two on using Voodoo for petty desires and shows them how to undo the curse. Nonetheless, the Christian underpinnings of the scene and lack of possession rituals is worth noting. Although Mama Odie is a ‘good’ character, she is arguably benevolent because she resembles the dominant Christian discourse in America. Mama Odie is paralleled to a Christian preacher and the song itself corresponds to Christian gospel music.
The comedy series The Mindy Project is slightly subtler in how it approaches the religious tradition. In the episode “Take me with you”, Mindy goes on a camping trip with her coworkers to practice for her upcoming trip to Haiti. During the drive, Mindy’s coworker tries to convince her to stay by mentioning the presence of Vodou in Haiti. When asked what she would do if a voodoo priest casts a spell on her, Mindy responded with “Morgan, that’s racist. Voodoo is all make-believe”. Her boyfriend then corrects her by saying “Actually, the cultural practice of Voodoo is very real” to which Mindy responds with “Are you kidding me? I am so the kind of person that a gypsy gets a vendetta against”. Another character then tells Mindy that Voodoo isn’t all curses but that spirits may also possess humans, potentially to the benefit of the human. The possession Christina mentions, however, isn’t for spiritual healing but rather for sexual pleasure. While comedic, this scene reveals many of the common perceptions the public holds towards Vodou. Initially, Vodou is seen as illegitimate and make-believe. When it is acknowledged as a “cultural practice”, Vodou becomes dangerous and closely related to magic or gypsys. In an effort to be more politically correct, one character alludes to the possession practices of the religion, but the possession described misconstrues the nature of Vodou spirits because the spirit only serves a physical purpose. Thus, this scene demonstrates the tensions present in modern media in which religious pluralism and cultural tolerance is expected but underlying racism and prejudice towards Haitians remains.
Perhaps the most unique portrayals of Vodou arise when lay Americans grow interested in the religious tradition through popularized depictions and then resolve to either observe or practice the tradition personally. Such was the case with Rod Davis, the author of American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World. Although he asserts he is working with Vodou, Davis is truly working with Louisiana Voodoo and Cuban Santeria. According to Davis, the word used to describe the tradition is somewhat arbitrary, and he only uses Voudou because it is less riddled with pejorative connotations (Davis 2000, 9). Davis first learned about American Voodoo through films and popular portrayals and concluded “To me, ‘voodoo’ was mostly a weird name. It wasn’t even real and certainly was nothing to take seriously” (Davis 2000, ix). However, after a romance with a Louisiana graduate student, he learned more about Voodoo as a counter-mainstream tradition and grew more interested in it. He found that many Americans would identify with Voodoo because “Voudou was not white and it was not of the ruling class, and if you wanted to try to distance yourself from all that suffocation and decay and slow, steady corruption, you would attach to the new perspective of your black-clad, white-lipsticked, alienated freedom anything that could identify you as not being Them” (Davis 2000, x). Davis thus resolves to immerse himself in New Orleans culture and observe the religious tradition firsthand. His conclusions, interestingly, mirror his initial portrayal of Voudou as primarily a counter-hegemonic tradition. For instance, he compares healing in Voodoo to older medicine and “home remedies” that don’t necessarily focus on relational healing but rather on physical ailments (Davis 2000, 112).
Although he remarks on the importance of healing practices, the form of healing he describes is not similar to Alourdes’s healing in Brooklyn. If the contemporary practitioners Davis studied truly aligned themselves with these views, the point is not to say that one practice is correct and one is wrong. Nonetheless, it is important to point out, as Hjarvard puts it, that mediatisation can alter the manifestation of a religion (Boutros 2011, 190).
Therefore, the depiction of Vodou by Karen McCarthy Brown can be seen as radically different from portrayals of the religion in other media sources, such as newspapers and film. While media portrayals continue to show mostly negative images of the religion, we are currently seeing a trend towards a more politically correct and tolerant description of Haitians. However, these contrasting views create a tension and ambiguity in film and television portrayals. Moreover, Rod’s work shows us how the media can change how people participate in a religious tradition or analyze it from a more scholarly perspective. It would be interesting to see how pushes towards more insider views of the religion, such as seen with VICE, interact with these tensions. Perhaps, with time, the negative stereotypes of Vodou will dissipate as newspapers and film sources publicize more appropriate depictions of the religion.
- Boutros, Alexandra. “Gods on the Move: The Mediatisation of Vodou.” Culture and Religion 12, no. 2 (2011): 185-201.
- Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1991.
- Davis, Rod. American Voudou Journey into a Hidden World. Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, 1998.
- Freedman, Samuel. “Myths Obscure Voodoo, Source of Comfort in Haiti.” The New York Times, February 19, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/20/world/americas/20religion.html.
- Ramsey, Kate. “Vodou, History, and New Narratives.” Transition 111 (2013): 31-41. Web. Accessed December 6, 2015.
- “The History of Haiti and Vodou – Overview.” The History of Haiti and Vodou – Overview. 2010. Accessed December 16, 2015. http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/specials/2010/vodou/history.html.
- The Mindy Project. Directed by Mindy Kaling. Performed by Mindy Kaling, Chris Messina, Ike Barinholtz. United States: 20th Century Fox Television, Hulu, Fox Network, 2012. Film.
- The Princess and the Frog. Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2009. Film
Turner, Richard Brent. “The Haiti-New Orleans Vodou Connection: Zora Neale Hurston as Initiate-Observer.” In Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers, edited by Claudine Michel and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, 117-134. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2006.