Oddities of the Bayou: Religions and the Occult

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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.

Punishment for Grave Robbing Epitomized in Short Horror Film, Toe (2020)

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Featured Horror Mystery and Lore Indie Horror

The culture of robbing graves isn’t as big of a topic these days as it probably should be, but there is something about the entire topic that is just strangely unsettling. Robbing graves has been and is still a problem that plagues every culture–from the Pharaohs who attempted to take their earthly possessions with them into the next life, to ghost marriages in Chinese culture, there always seems to be a reason why certain people want to disturb the dead, but are there any common themes?

One common theme is the fact that these grave robbers are invading the space of the dead, either to acquire an object that belonged to the deceased or the body of the deceased. Indeed there are varying reasons why a grave robber might disturb those laying in their eternal rest. One strange reason can be credited to the extreme fringe practitioners of Santería, where the corpses of deceased babies and still-born fetuses are excavated and used in ritual magic. While it’s not a common practice, it has reportedly been a problem in regions where the practice of the religion is prevalent.

Curse of the Pharaohs

The tombs inside of the Pyramids have a history of causing people to be uneasy, whether it’s due to the legend of the Curse of the Pharaohs, or the simple fact that it’s a tomb and tombs are just pretty creepy in general. It seems there are many movies about mummies but in the case of ancient Egyptian horror, the true story is often more frightening than the movies have captured.

Cursed be those that disturb the rest of Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease which no doctor can diagnose.

Inscription reported to have been carved on an Egyptian royal tomb

There is a lot of history attached to the tombs of the Pharaohs and there is a lot of legend surrounding the so-called curses that befall those who disturb the tombs of these mummified kings of the past. While a curse may seem like a mystical and superstitious method to keep looters and thieves at bay, the Egyptians were famous for placing warnings of curses to ward off these would-be intruders. Those who did not heed the warnings would live a short while to regret their actions.

Ghost Brides Within Chinese Culture

While the practice of trading corpses to use for ritual spirit marriage has been outlawed since 2006 within China, it has led to the uptick of graves being robbed. These robberies aren’t an attempt to find some valuable possession left with the deceased, but to steal the corpse of the deceased itself. In 2015 it was reported that fourteen female corpses had been stolen from their graves to be sold as ghost brides for the ritual ghost marriage practice that is still practiced by some families to this day. For this reason, families of individuals who pass away while single will encase the coffin with cement to make it more difficult or impossible to steal their loved ones from their graves. These robberies continue to plague families of single women who have passed, whose corpses are worth at least $3,000 to the family of a single man who has passed.

ALTER Presents Toe (2020)

One thing that you should do, if you’re a horror lover, is take a look at the animated horror short films that are available on YouTube–they’re not as prevalent as the regular live-action ones, but they’re often spookier and elicit a deeper sense of fear. We highly suggest you take a look at this stop-motion animated short film entitled, Toe which came out a little earlier this month.

This horror short warns us that even starving children are not immune to the punishments that come to those who disturb the graves of the dead.

Santería, The Ones Who Worship Saints

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Lifestyle
Deteriorating skull in a tomb
Photography by Melanie Martin

Santería is another religion that is shrouded in secrecy and often regarded with fear—some deem the practice to be Satanic, but it’s really just Santería. Truth be told, there are a lot of aspects of this religion that may rub people the wrong way—animal sacrifice is not as high on the list as things such as the use of human bones or even dead fetuses during a ritual, but the latter two are considered a rarity among fringe practitioners. Suffice it to say, these practitioners would be less than forthcoming about their uses for ingredients that might label them as evil. Nevertheless, seeing as it’s associated with even a few of the practitioners it’s definitely worth mentioning here.

Another African-rooted religion, Santería is typically combined with Catholicism, as are many religions that made the journey from Africa to America during the days of slavery. Like voodoo and hoodoo, enslaved Africans were forced to convert to a western religion—in this case, Catholicism. Santeras saw the similarities of the Catholic saints to the Orishas which were the deities that they had worshipped before being taken from their own lands. Aside from the Catholic influences that are found within the religion, Santeras believe in only one god, Olodumare, but the Orishas are the deities that represent different aspects of nature, there are said to be over 400 orishas within the religion.

Much like voodoo, ancestor veneration is a huge facet of the religion, this is done to honor those who have passed on and recognize them as guides that can help influence their lives for the good or for the bad. During traditional rituals, there is an abundance of drumming, dancing, and interacting with spirits. Unlike traditional western religions, these rituals are not confined within the walls of a church or temple, they can occur nearly anywhere.

What’s with the Animal Sacrifice?

Rooster, potential animal sacrifice
Photography by Kazi Faiz Ahmed Jeem

Animal Sacrifice is actually a common theme within Santería, but it’s not just about killing for the sake of killing. Santeras use animal sacrifice as an offering to the Orishas during major ceremonies. The blood is considered an important offering to the Orishas, where the actual animal is eaten after the ritual—so while some may consider it awful, it actually serves a purpose to them in their religious activities. It’s definitely a sore subject for those who may not understand the practice and indeed caused quite a stir when a man in Texas decided to fight for his freedom to practice his religion without undue burden from the law.

Is Santería Dangerous?

Mural, Santeria the worship of Saints
Photography by Gerhard Lipold

It really depends on who you ask, as can be expected, Santeras would likely not agree which is fair. They’re a federally recognized religion as of 1993 after a case to ban animal sacrifice was overturned as it was said to specifically target Santeras and their religious practices. There are however some aspects of the religion that some may construe as dangerous—as well as other practices that are indeed dangerous to the health of those who partake. One of these dangerous aspects of Santería is that at one time it was considered a fairly common practice to use liquid Mercury in ritual, which as can be expected led to Mercury poisoning and has since become a less frequent ritual substance.