African American Folk Magic: Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork

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Lifestyle

Voodoo or Hoodoo?

hoodoo kitchen set up, traditional ingredients
Photography by Clem Onojeghuo

There is a lot of confusion between what hoodoo and voodoo are—many believe they are one and the same, but as was discovered through the articles on voodoo, they are two separate entities. Louisiana and Haitian Voodoo are the two branches of the voodoo religion practiced by many, whereas hoodoo is not a religion at all. Hoodoo, conjure, and rootwork are all terms used to describe African American folk magic that originated from West Africa. While folk magic practices are wide-spread among the southern United States, they are highly focused within the state of Louisiana. Practitioners of folk-magic are referenced according to their own personal practice—hoodoo, conjure, and rootwork practitioners are called Hoodoos, Conjurers, and Rootworkers respectively—there are of course variations therein, such Root Doctors and Root Healers.

Another important difference is what can be observed when considering how people react toward either of these practices; voodoo is often regarded with disdain and fear, whereas those who practice hoodoo are more frequently thought of as healers or wise herbal doctors. It’s quite interesting to see the different reactions between the two practices, considering the similarities in origin and practice. Hoodoo is a practice derived from West African, Native American, and European sources; rootworkers often refer to what they do as “working the roots,” as it references the roots, or origin, as well as the significance of plants and herbs in this spiritual and magical practice.

Beliefs and Practices

Woman lighting sage bundle, warding off evil spirits
Photography by Brittany Colette

There is a tendency among rootworkers to believe in the indispensable power of their own being, along with the tools that are used within the practice—religion can be considered one of these tools. Despite not being a religious practice, there are very general prayers and religious symbols that can be found intertwined within hoodoo rituals. Not being bound to any one religious practice, it is worth noting that many rootworkers are in fact Protestant Christians or Catholics, while others may have a broad range of belief systems. Petitioning saints and deities, along with prayer are important tools for many, but not all rootworkers opt to incorporate these techniques into their rituals.

Much like voodoo, hoodoo does occasionally get an association with the darker aspects of the human spirit; punishment, revenge, and justice are all valid reasons within hoodoo to perform rituals, just as much as promoting spiritual wellbeing, healing the sick, and love works. The thing that people don’t tend to see is that practices are not simply good or evil—there is no black and white when it comes to magical spiritual practices, as the very nature can vary as wildly as that of a person. The intention behind all magic-related spiritual practices is to enact change within the world in which they live.

Hexing, Cursing, and Crossing: The Truth Behind Baneful Magic

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Featured Horror Mystery and Lore

In antiquity, the distinction was made between “white,” and “black,” magic (excuse the quotes, those terms are the most recognizable, although I personally reject the concept of colors in magic). In The Book of Black Magic and Pacts, we’re told that, “Esoteric Medicine, which consisted in the application of occult forces to the healing of disease in man, and included a traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties resident in some substances disregarded by ordinary pharmacy, produced in its malpractice the secret science of poisoning, and the destruction of health.” Every witch knows that it’s not always black and white—many times there are shades of gray.

Baneful magic has existed as long as magic has existed—that is to say, as long as we as a species have believed in helpful magic, we have believed in harmful magic. Hexes, curses, and crosses are but a few of the names that baneful spells within witchcraft or magic culture are referred to as. So why is there such a huge culture of misinformation surrounding baneful magic? Why do people label it as being “black” or “dark”? Well—to be quite frank, it’s simply the result of a bad reputation and possibly a little ignorance. It’s unfortunate that noted authorities like Waite are still being trusted when their beliefs and assertions are so far outdated, but they do give us a good idea of how far we’ve come.

To say his belief that, “White Ceremonial Magic is … an attempt to communicate with Good Spirits for a good … purpose. Black Magic is the attempt to communicate with Evil Spirits for an evil purpose,” would be a ridiculous oversimplification.

Traditions of Baneful Magic: What’s the Difference?

There is a common saying within the community of magic practitioners, that “a witch that cannot hex, cannot heal.” This always seems to strike a foul mood in practitioners who are adamant that magical practices can only include fluffy, happy vibes and should only exist to help people and not to interfere with free will, nor should it be used to harm anyone. The overall concept is that magic itself is not good, nor is it evil. Just like a knife is not in itself good or evil. The operator of the equipment decides how to use it—so if a construction worker decides to knock down an orphanage instead of the building set to be demolished, you’re not going to blame the wrecking ball. So, let’s explore the differences between the different types of baneful magic.

Hexing

Hexing, when it comes right down to it, is a baneful spell—this is a spell cast by a practicing witch—that is intended to cause a specific, non-beneficial result on an intended target. In metaphysical literature, it’s quite common for the word “hex” and “curse” to be used interchangeably, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll be using the word “hex”. That is to say that hexes are inherently evil, as many witches who practice baneful magic typically have a good reason for casting such spells.

An example scenario that a witch might cast such a spell for, is when a mother is fighting for custody of their children through the court system, but the father (and intended target) has a history of domestic violence, drug abuse, or worse. The mother has done everything within their power to secure the safety and future of their children, but somehow the father still has a pretty good chance at winning custody. In this circumstance, a witch could target the father’s lawyer to do poorly in his court performance, which might help turn the tables in the favor of the mother—or—the witch could target the father to have all of his lies exposed.

What is a curse to one person is a blessing to someone else. It just depends on where you happen to be sitting. That’s why the ethical lines are so blurry.

Hexing is a tool that a witch can use to interfere with free will in situations that call for it—of course, there are also individual witches out there who are just nasty people and love nothing more than to watch people suffer. Overwhelmingly, people generally fall into the good category and don’t go out of their way to ruin people’s lives. There is also the lesser-known fact that practicing baneful magic takes an incredible amount of energy and will often leave a witch feeling exhausted, irritable, or even sick. I can tell you from personal experience that the worse the intended hex is, the worse a witch will feel afterward.

Dark Witch in the Woods
Dark Witch in the Woods

Cursing

There are two schools of thought when it comes to what a curse is. Some people believe that a curse is simply, wishing bad things upon someone who has slighted you in some way. This could be as silly as, “I hope you step in water whenever you put on fresh socks,” in an effort to ensure the person is forever uncomfortable—or it could be something much more serious. As a general rule, however, curses are not actually spells—they are manifestations of intentions, with no specific ritual attached to it. Now, some witches may disagree with this definition, but I’d like to reiterate that hex and curse can be used interchangeably. Most often, the layman knows curses as they relate to the grievous incidents that surround certain objects, projects, or historic events.

Famous Curses

There are also curses that have played significant roles in history; we can look at practically any culture on earth and find a curse that is commonly believed to be true. These curses can range from the ridiculous to the significant, but one thing is certain, they get a lot of attention by those who believe in the supernatural and paranormal.

The Curse of King Tut (or the Curse of the Pharaohs)

Tutankhamun is famously known to have been a pharaoh of Egypt during the 14th century, but when the tomb at the base of his pyramid was opened in February 1923, no one could have known the tragedy that would follow. Perhaps this curse is a result of a hysteria over the death of the archaeological team’s lead sponsor just two months after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s mummy. At the time, it was believed that he had died from King Tut’s curse, when the reporters from Britain made the baseless claim—as it was found that he had actually died from an unidentified bacterial infection. However, when other members of the archaeological team died soon after, the curse was revived; ever since there have been movies inspired by the terrifying prospect of being cursed by the mummy of Tutankhamun.

The Curse of the Hope Diamond

When French gem dealer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier purchased a large diamond in the 1660s it was believed that the 112-carat monstrosity had been stolen from the head of an idol in India. The legend followed that the priests of the temple where the idol had been vandalized cursed the precious stone upon its theft. Some believe that it was Tavernier himself that had stolen the diamond from the Hindu goddess’s statue, and the legend of its curse was spread by newspapers and jewelers alike. Its original owner after Tavernier acquired it, was King Louis XVI of France, who gave it to both Princess de Lamballie and Marie Antoinette to wear. Both women along with King Louis XVI were met with the guillotine during the French Revolution and so the curse of the Hope Diamond was born.

After the first three to possess the jewel met such a gruesome death, it was believed that anyone who was unlucky enough to possess it would also die in mysterious ways. Allegedly even jewelers who kept it at their shop met this unusual fate. Henry Philip Hope came into possession of it in 1839 and died the same year, but eventually, it came into the possession of American heiress Evelyn Wash McLean in the 1910s. McLean ended up dying and ownership defaulted to a jewelry company in the U.S. that sold it to the Smithsonian in 1958. To this day, the famously cursed jewel remains on display in the United States through the Smithsonian Institution. Many who want to be more logical about so many deaths would believe that this curse was actually a product of greed, an attempt to make the jewel that much more valuable.

The Kennedy Curse

The assassination of President Kennedy was the lynchpin that marks the beginning of the curse of the Kennedys. Robert Kennedy was also assassinated five years later, Senator Ted Kennedy somehow survived a plane crash only to drive off a bridge later on. Robert Kennedy’s son died as the result of a drug overdose and his second son died in a skiing accident. Then, JFK Jr. died in a plane crash with his wife and sister, and finally the wife of RFK Jr., Mary Kennedy committed suicide. Talk about a family curse!

The Curse of Rosemary’s Baby

Often when movies like Rosemary’s Baby are said to be cursed, it’s typically as a result of a marketing strategy; a means to boost ticket sales and they’re later found to be a simple publicity stunt. There are many who believe that all the negative happenings surrounding the production of the movie wasn’t just a little bad luck.

Ira Levin Reputation Tanked

Despite the book’s adaptation into the feature film and lingering popularity over the last five decades, author Ira Levin’s reputation, career, and personal life were all but ruined. Religious institutions around the world were not pleased at what they perceived to be Levin’s attacks on organized religions, with the Catholic Church even asserting his book was blasphemous. Levin’s wife left him the same year that the film was released and as a result of his poor luck, he became more terrified and paranoid as time passed. Not just that, but due to his reputation as a blasphemer, he had to publicly denounce Satanism on a regular basis and his later attempts to salvage his career with a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby failed miserably.

The Fall of Castle

William Castle, the man who initially picked Levin’s novel up to purchase the rights to the film ended up becoming the producer for the project. Unfortunately for Castle, not only did he develop severe kidney stones, but his mental health also suffered due to the volume of hate mail he received as a direct result of being associated with the film. He later made claims that he hallucinated demonic scenes from the movie while he was under anesthesia during his surgery. His reputation never recovered.

Death, Substance Abuse, and Assault

Numerous other stories are related to the curse that is believed to have surrounded Rosemary’s Baby, one truly famous story involves the film’s composer Krzysztof Komenda, who fell into a coma after a falling accident. Some link his coma to that of Rosemary’s friend within the film, Hutch who was targeted by a witch’s curse. Like Hutch, Komeda never recovered from the coma but instead died the following year. John Lennon was another popular death associated with the curse of the film, since he was assassinated just outside of The Dakota in 1980, the building featured as Rosemary’s prison within the film. Another famous story that is linked to the curse, is the murders of Roman Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, as well as their unborn child. Victims of the Manson Family and their leader, Charles Manson.

Crossing

Crossing comes from a separate tradition altogether—it’s not technically considered part of the witchcraft tradition, since voodooisants, hoodoos, and folk magic practitioners don’t generally consider themselves to be “witches”. Being cursed with Zombification might not exactly be something that conjure, one wishes for, but as opposed to other ways in which folk magic practitioners practice baneful magic it might be one of the least painful ways to suffer. Crossing within folk magic cultural practices might be similar to curses and hexes in theory, but it’s wellknown that regular “black” magic doesn’t hold a candle (pun intended) to the type of crossing that is done within voodoo, conjure, hoodoo, and folk magic. This is in part due to the fact that crossing often involves personal talismans, like blood, hair, and fingernails which amp up the power of any magical working.

Final Thoughts

As in the article presented by the Scientific American, what really makes people wary of so-called “black” magic, is the “bad is black” effect. “[It] only underscores the importance of finding ways to combat the various ways that our inherent biases can influence perceptions of guilt and innocence.” This essentially submits that anything with the label of “black” is automatically associated with being bad. What should really be taken away from this article, is that hexing, cursing, and crossing are used (much of the time) in a way that vindicates the practitioner of any wrongdoing.

As a witch that practices baneful magic, I don’t often advertise the fact, I prefer to not have to debate, argue, or even calmly explain my own beliefs and practices. Nor do I feel that anyone outside of the practitioner has much of a right to know the whys or hows. I would never divulge on whom these practices might be focused! Witchcraft and any other magical practice is a very personal thing—so, if you’re the target of someone who is claiming that they’ve done black magic on you, or that they’ve cursed you, you can in most cases, discount their claims. No magical practitioner worth their salt goes around telling their targets that they’ve done work on them. You can rest assured that those who claim they’ve cursed, hexed, or crossed you simply want you to believe they have and effectively scare the shit out of you.

And with that, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes…

A witch ought never to be frightened in the darkest forest … because she should be sure in her soul that the most terrifying thing in the forest was her.”

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

Work Cited

Dhruv Bose, Swapnil. “Dissecting the Curse of Roman Polanski’s Horror Classic ‘Rosemary’s Baby’.” Far Out Magazine, 24 Nov. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “A Voodoo Practice: Mysteries of Zombification.” Puzzle Box Horror, 2 Apr. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “African American Folk Magic: Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork.” Puzzle Box Horror, 12 Feb. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “Oddities of the Bayou: Religions and the Occult.” Puzzle Box Horror, 12 Feb. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “Punishment for Grave Robbing Epitomized in Short Horror Film, Toe (2020).” Puzzle Box Horror, 5 Apr. 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “Rosemary’s Baby Review: Terror in Plain Sight.” Puzzle Box Horror, 24 Jan. 2021.

Freuler, Kate. Of Blood and Bones: Working with Shadow Magick and the Dark Moon. Llewellyn Publications, 2020.

Farnstrom, Mary. “The Utterly Wicked Truths About ‘Dark’ Magic.” Puzzle Box Horror, 11 Sept. 2020.

Grewal, Daisy. “The ‘Bad Is Black’ Effect.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 17 Jan. 2017.

“The Distinction between White and Black Magic.” The Book of Black Magic and Pacts: Including the Rites and Mysteries of goëtic Theurgy, Sorcery, and Infernal Necromancy, by Arthur Edward Waite, Weiser, 1984, pp. 13–15.

Hoodoo, Horror, and The Skeleton Key

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Horror Mystery and Lore Scary Movies and Series
The Skeleton Key Movie Poster

A tragically underrated Southern Gothic style horror movie, The Skeleton Key (2005) has been given a bum reputation; a movie that is often overlooked movie within the horror genre, it’s actually worth watching at least once. Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a confident, yet sweet-natured hospice nurse living in New Orleans who grows frustrated with the general lack of compassion and care that her patients receive from the home at which she works. This frustration leads her to find a new opportunity wherein she becomes a live-in nurse for Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), an elderly man whose health has rapidly declined directly following a stroke. The wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands) seems reluctant to have Caroline there, insisting that she isn’t the right fit for the job.

After a discussion with the family estate lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), Violet finally agrees that since no one else will take the job, she’ll just have to settle for Caroline. After moving in, it becomes evident that there are disturbing things going on within this neglected mansion in the Bayou. Caroline only becomes aware of these peculiarities after the mute, wheelchair-bound Ben is found trying to escape the house during a storm. She begins to explore the house and comes across strange artifacts in the attic, where she was told Ben had been when he had the stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Suspicions further rise after she learns of the house’s mysterious past from Violet—that it originally belonged to a family that had lynched two African American servants that had a hoodoo room in the attic where Ben supposedly had his stroke.

Violet tells Caroline that the house still belongs to them, insinuating that their ghosts punished her husband for going into their sacred space, but that she refuses to let anything happen to herself. Caroline seems to never fully trust what Violet has to say and decides to investigate further by going to an authentic hoodoo shop to see what it’s really all about and find out if it’s possible for someone to recover after they believe that they’ve been cursed. Her distrust of Violet leads her to perform her own secret hoodoo ritual to try to reverse the state that Ben is in—which results in Ben regaining some ability to speak, immediately asking Caroline to help him get away from Violet.

Caroline walking down the hallway in The Skeleton Key
The Skeleton Key (2005)

It becomes increasingly clear to Caroline that Violet has been performing hoodoo on Ben and her growing belief that hoodoo is real causes her to try to rescue Ben from Violet’s evil clutches. When she’s unable to flee with Ben, she’s caught by Luke and it’s revealed that he has been Violet’s accomplice all along. The culmination of the movie comes when Caroline is somehow able to call 9-1-1, then her friend, where she proclaims that the hoodoo is, “all real,” before the line is cut. She inadvertently traps herself inside of a magic circle where it’s made clear that Violet is actually the female servant Mama Cecile and shortly thereafter, she turns on the recording of the Conjure of Sacrifice, which effectively switches their bodies.

It turns out that Papa Justify had previously been inhabiting Ben’s body and had taken over Luke’s body and after switching bodies with Caroline, Mama Cecile force-feeds Caroline (now in Violet’s body) a potion which induces the paralytic state that Ben had been in. The whole thing had been a trick to get Caroline to believe in the power of hoodoo—because after all, you must believe in hoodoo for it to work on you. Once emergency services arrive in the morning it’s also revealed that Violet had left the house to Caroline so that Mama Cecile and Papa Justify could remain in the home and continue their body-swapping plot as long as they desired.

Oddities of the Bayou: Religions and the Occult

Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore Lifestyle

The Voodoo Religion of New Orleans

Zombie standing in a dark cornfield
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

The roots of voodoo run deep with the sordid history of slavery in America, originating from the traditional West African religion of vodoun (also vodun), it further evolved once it reached Haiti and Louisiana. Louisiana voodoo—properly known as vodoun—the queens and priestesses hold the highest position within this matriarchal religion. Something that may surprise those unfamiliar with vodoun, is that it’s actually a monotheistic religion which centers around the supreme creator, Bondye (French Creole for “good god”) who controls life and destiny. Bondye manifests his will through the many loa (also lwa) present within this belief system.

Loa: Spirits of Vodoun

The loa are spirits who connect the followers of vodoun to their deity—through the use of vèvè, symbols which serve as visual representation of the loa during ritual, practitioners are able to call upon the loa for their assistance in personal matters. Despite many people not having any formal knowledge of loa or their role in the religious practices of vodoun, they would easily recognize the visage of popular spirits such as Papa Ghede and Papa Legba, if not just as cultural references that they associate with New Orleans in general.

Assortment of voodoo dolls
Photography by Wian Juanico

Misconceptions of Voodoo Dolls

Misrepresented time and time again, voodoo dolls have come to represent something far beyond the reach of what they were originally used for. Hollywood would have us convinced that they’re instruments of evil, used to control the actions of people, or otherwise wreak havoc, and destroy their lives. Except voodoo dolls are not traditionally used to cause people harm in any sense of the word. These dolls are indeed used as a physical representation of the person who is the focus of the ritual, but instead of harm, they are often used for among other things, love, success, and healing.

The Mystery of Zombification

A far cry from the stereotypical walking dead that has made the horror genre of international cinema so powerful, the origin of zombies is quite a bit more disturbing than we’re used to these days. When it comes to the origin of zombie lore, the fear isn’t derived from the idea of being the main course of a zombie feast—instead it’s the idea of being turned into a zombie. The short and sweet version? Zombies as derived from the Haitian vodun practice are actually living people, who have been chemically induced to have no free-will.

New Orleans Voodoo Display
Photography by Jane Hawkner

Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork: African American Folk Magic

Many people believe that hoodoo and voodoo are interchangeable—it’s not a tough concept to explain that while they’re similar, they’re not the same, but it still seems to be an ongoing issue of mistaken identity. Voodoo, as has been explained now, is actually a religion that utilizes the folk magic practice, whereas hoodoo is actually just a folk magic practice with no hard and fast religious affiliation, although most practitioners identify as Protestant Christians. To be clear, hoodoo is but one of the most common types of African American Folk Magic, with other practices such as conjure and rootwork being nearly interchangeable with minimal differences, other than the region in which they are practiced.

Mural, Santeria the worship of Saints
Photography by Gerhard Lipold

Santería: The Worship of Saints

Another religion that is commonly mistaken for voodoo, is Santería—a religion that also has West African origins, but was further developed in Cuba among West African descendants. One of Louisiana’s best kept religious secrets, this Yoruba based religion merged with Roman Catholicism and embraced the Catholic saints, referred to often as orishas who act as emissaries to God—Olodumare.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster

Dark and spooky swampland
Photography by Anthony Roberts

A legend known in the Bayou is that of the Honey Island Swamp Monster—a bipedal cryptid that is likened to bigfoot, but described physically as being quite dissimilar other than its stature. This grey-haired, yellow (or red, depending on the source) eyed monster is said to be a creature that was born from chimpanzees that escaped from a circus train that wrecked on the tracks, and the local alligator population.