The Serpent and the Rainbow: Dissecting the Truth of Voodoo in Movies

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Reviews Scary Movies and Series
The Serpent and the Rainbow Movie Poster
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Even if you’ve never been buried alive, rest assured, this movie cannot hope to capture the terror that one must feel waking up to the darkness and heart-stopping fear of waking up in a coffin, with no possible hope of being rescued. If you have not yet seen The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), then perhaps it’s time—this movie has aged well, at the time of this posting, it’s nearly thirty-two years old, still relevant and pretty terrifying through the right lens. Given the fact that this movie was created in the late eighties, it stands to reason that if it were remade, it could be given new life, it definitely has the potential with a higher-rated actor and better cinematography to be a more nail-biting journey to have a glimpse into what zombification in the voodoo culture is truly about. The Serpent and the Rainbow was based on a book with the same name and directed by Wes Craven—a highly regarded thrill-maker in his heyday—and is given the attribute of being inspired by a true story, which is believable considering the attention to detail that was paid to even the most insignificant aspects of the story.

“In the legends of voodoo
The Serpent is a symbol of Earth.
The Rainbow is a symbol of Heaven.
Between the two, all creatures must live and die.
But because he has a soul
Man can be trapped in a terrible place
Where death is only the beginning.”

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Set during the political unrest of Haiti in 1978, Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman), an anthropologist turned field-researcher has just come back from exploring for medicinal herbs and plants; he’s hailed as a hero at the biological research company, at which he works because he’s brought back medicines that no one before has ever been able to collect. No rest is given for the weary though and he’s immediately asked to go investigate the mysteries of zombification in Haiti—they have just come across evidence of a case eerily similar to that of real-life Clairvius Narcisse. Christophe was a man who died and was brought back to life. So, Dr. Alan sets off to find this mysterious zombification powder, something his bosses hope to find useful in their medical research.

Surprisingly, much of the lore of voodoo is represented quite faithfully, which has a lot to do with the fact that most of the movie was filmed on location during a time of political and social unrest; the scenes in which voodoo rituals occur, they were actually filming voodoo practitioners who were in a trance state. The authenticity of these scenes sets this movie apart from any other movie about voodoo that is out there, it can’t get more realistic than this without being an outright documentary. The whole movie was based loosely around The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) a non-fiction book was written by Wade Davis. The author is to this day, an anthropologist who initially made himself famous by his research in the field of psychoactive plants; he was one of the first outsiders to gain access to the secrets of zombification and how the powder was created, which are highly guarded secrets in the community of voodoo in Haiti.

So, while simultaneously staying true to much of what voodoo is about and not intending to create a horror movie, director Wes Craven was somehow able to make the movie a psychological experience that kept it both interesting and entertaining, long enough to get to the meat and bones of the plot. Insights into the poorly staffed insane asylums and the psychological state of a person who had undergone the trauma of being drugged, declared dead, buried alive and then being dug up and made to serve a master, created an environment early in the movie that this entire expedition was going to be a dangerous one for Dr. Alan. Like a well-trained and eager anthropologist, our antagonist goes above and beyond what any sane field researcher would do, finding himself in graveyards searching for a mentally unstable resurrected Christophe, attending voodoo rituals in which he witnesses men chewing on fire and women eating glass, and running into an evil witch doctor, Peytraud, who does not want him to be successful in finding the secrets to zombification. It’s important to watch this movie without any lens of bias, as far as what valid religion and spiritual practice are, it requires people to be open to what is possible when belief in the strange and unnatural is strong and unwavering.

Possessing the knowledge that Wes Craven never intended this movie to be a horror flick, it’s quite easy to see past the dated effects and experience Dr. Alan’s nightmarish visions with the depth of fear that someone that has had the superstition of the land seeded into his brain. With an added element of complexity, Dr. Alan falls for the beautiful psychiatrist who aids him in his journey to the highly sought-after zombification powder, which allows him to be more easily manipulated by Peytraud who later has Dr. Alan in his clutches. The cinematography in the torture room of Peytraud is intense, especially considering the time in which the movie was made, the gore wasn’t a necessary element to induce fear in audiences. We know what is going to happen to our antagonist when we find him being strapped into a chair, with his underwear around his ankles, when Peytraud reveals a coffin nail and tells Dr. Alan that he wants to, “hear (him) scream.”

Dr. Alan drowning in blood in a nightmare
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Not to be deterred, we see the effects that Peytraud has had to Dr. Alan’s mental state, his nightmares and visions get worse—he’s being buried alive in his dreams, he screams as blood begins to fill the coffin and quickly consumes his body. Political tactics are taken to scare Dr. Alan into leaving Haiti without what he came for, which nearly works if it weren’t for his hidden ally who ends up sneaking it to him after he has been forced into a plane that will take him home. Threats of being arrested and executed have been levied on him, which means he has to leave his lover, Marielle (Cathy Tyson), behind despite the danger she would be in for her associations with him. The brief time back in Boston is punctuated with the powder having been researched, which the movie is also incredibly true to its source, noting that the subject would be aware of everything that was going on, while still appearing clinically dead. Peytraud shows himself through magical means, making it clear that he can reach Dr. Alan wherever he may be—his visions have not ceased since arriving back home. Dr. Alan returns to Haiti in order to make sure Marielle is safe, he finds the ally that gave him the powder has been executed for what he has done—this is where things truly turn bad for him.

Don’t let them bury me. I’m not dead.

Dr. Alan – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

After having zombie powder blown into his face by one of Peytraud’s associates, Dr, Alan stumbles through the village and eventually falls to the ground, pale and apparently dying–he utters the words that the movie is famous for, “Don’t let them bury me. I’m not dead.” The fear in his eyes is not overplayed, in fact, this part was incredibly well done. After being declared dead in the hospital, we see Peytraud has taken control of his body and is seeing to it that Dr. Alan is put in the grave.

“When you wake up, Dr. Alan—scream.
Scream all you want, there is no escape from the grave.”

Peytraud – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Before watching this movie, I read reviews of it, so this is always where I was led to believe that the movie ended—our hero, the noble anthropologist, seeking secrets for the future of medicine gets buried alive and that’s that—the ultimate fear of someone who is claustrophobic, meeting their demise in a cramped box with severely limited oxygen. Except, this isn’t where we end—Christophe, comes to Dr. Alan’s rescue when he awakens from his drug-induced trance and begins to scream. In a moment of unexpected vulnerability, Christophe consoles the anthropologist, “You’re alive. You see things the living can’t see. In a daring rescue of his lover, Dr. Alan squares off against Peytraud where he encounters several setbacks and finally overcomes the mind control of his nemesis, defeats the bad guy, rescues the girl, and saves the day. His visions cease and we’re led to believe that he goes on to live a happy and full life.

All in all, this movie has stayed relevant over the past three decades and is highly recommended for being both unique and authentic in its representation of zombies. You’ve got to check this one out!

Vilified Voodoo Dolls: Can They Really Cause Harm?

Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore

The Origin of Voodoo Dolls

Voodoo Market in Bohicon, Benin
Photography by Jean-Baptiste Dodane

While the exact origins of the Voodoo doll aren’t known, it can be tracked down from the Fon people of the region that now Benin. When slavery brought the voodoo religious practice to the Southern United States—specifically Louisiana—it brought along with it the practice of imbuing dolls with magical intent. Many sources say that voodoo dolls are not actually a practice associated with legitimate voodoo, but actual practitioners would disagree. Doll magic is a part of many magical spiritual paths, including European based folk magic, wherein people would create poppets much for the same reasons that are seen in the modern voodoo practice.

Although slaves were forbidden by slave owners to practice voodoo, it was still an extremely common practice. These dolls were frequently used in secret as a means of self-defense, it’s been speculated that this history of trauma is where the dolls originally obtained their reputation for being instruments of revenge. These days it’s not uncommon to see voodoo dolls being marketed specifically for harmful intentions, which contributes to their already dark reputation. It’s unfortunate, as many people are unaware of the common belief that the practice of darker magic ultimately brings around its own darker consequences for the user—depression, conflicts, bad luck, and overall negativity are things that using such methods can bring back. Glossing over details like this are reasons why dark and devious magic practices are often still the source of fright and horror. It wouldn’t look as good to have the main villain of a story worrying about their own comeuppance for using magic that might harm another individual.

During the reign of Marie Laveau, the Queen of Voodoo, the use of Voodoo dolls rose exponentially. Veering from the original practice of carved wooden figures, used to house spirits of those who have passed, the modern-day voodoo doll is typically a small, soft fabric doll used to represent a person who has not passed. Physically, voodoo dolls vary in the extremes, from the type of fabric, color, and pattern, the basic idea is that a hand-constructed doll is a representation of the intended target.

The Importance of Color

Voodoo dolls in the Voodoo Museum
Photography by Claudia Brooke

Color carries incredible meanings that differ from culture to culture, where love, anger, sadness, infidelity, and more can be expressed merely by the color of an object. Even the culture of flower arrangements had a huge impact on western culture, in which it combined the shades of flowers along with the type of flower being added to the bouquet. Departing from everyday meanings of color, it’s widely believed in many different metaphysical communities that different colors represent different aspects of life and the voodoo community is no exception.

Fabric and Pin Color

When it comes to the actual intention of the Voodoo Doll, one of the most important aspects is the color of the material the doll is made out of, as well as the clothing that the doll is dressed in. The colors with which the doll has been crafted directly correlate to what the doll is meant to be used for. As an example, a doll made of, or clothed in yellow fabric represents things like success, confidence, and attractiveness. Using black fabric for the doll would represent dispelling negative habits, grief, poverty, and bad luck—keeping in mind that a doll made from and fully clothed in black fabric would be used in what is considered “black” magic, which would result in the kind of magic that is often over-represented in television, movies, and books. So what about the pins that you stick in the doll? Well, unbeknownst to many, the color of the pins also holds significance, and the meaning of pin color actually varies more than you might suspect.

How Are They Used?

The concept of these dolls isn’t lost on most people, but the intention of them is frequently confused with how they are portrayed in movies and popular culture—diverse as this spiritual practice is in reality, Hollywood loves to vilify practices that are outside of what is deemed the normal scope of religious practices. This isn’t necessarily meant to be an affront to such practices, the practice of painting it with such broad evil strokes is because of how deeply submerged the actual spiritual practices are in mystery. Modern media portrays voodoo dolls being used by witch doctors, black magic practitioners, and pins that cause pain when placed, but the truth is far more interesting. When exploring this practice in-depth, we see that these dolls are meant to convey the intention of the user, for a full spectrum of uses—not just the dark aspects.

Voodoo doll resting against a book
Artwork by Mary Farnstrom

When the user is attempting to manifest their intent, they can use various personal objects for the target. Handwriting samples, locks of hair, a picture or piece of clothing, and even bodily fluids can be pinned to, or stuffed into the doll in an effort to pinpoint the target person—whether that person is alive or dead. To further manifest the doll as a representation of the target, the user may focus upon the intended person during meditation or spells, either by placing it upon their altar or while holding it. Additionally, specific herbs are often stuffed into the dolls and oils are also used to anoint the doll before use.

What is done with voodoo dolls once they have been used for their purpose? The final step when using a voodoo doll is as much of a variable as what the doll is made of. There are a few methods for finalizing, some elect to toss it into a river, or lake if available to them, others bury them in the ground, where still others may burn them. Each of these avenues is a symbolic reference to ending a particular spell—to give the doll up to a rushing river would be helpful in sweeping everything the doll represents away with the moving water; whereas burying would imply wanting a solid result, allowing the doll to disintegrate slowly and over time in the earth that surrounds it. Burning a doll has be the most profoundly symbolic way of disposing of the doll, where it is literally turned to ash and the manifestation is carried away into the air through smoke.

It’s not difficult to understand the illustrious dark connotations that voodoo dolls carry outside of the spiritual practice, as it’s steeped in mystery and misunderstood history.

Voodoo on the Bayou

Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore Lifestyle
Spiritual Speaker in the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana
Photography by Nico Bhlr

Anyone can practice voodoo in New Orleans—embraced by people no matter their race, creed, or origin—there are no standard worship practices, in this flexible and inclusive spiritual and religious practice. A religion so immersed in mystery, voodoo is often mistaken for something much more sinister. First introduced to the United States through the repugnant practice of slavery, it originated from the Fon people of West Africa and was then intermixed with European cultural influences, as well as Native American herbalism and spiritual practices.

In Denise Alvarado’s The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook, it’s explained that voodoo and hoodoo are not the same, despite the how often they are confused for one another. Incredibly complementary in nature, voodoo and hoodoo in New Orleans are melded together in a practice endearingly referred to as voodoo hoodoo, something that is distinct to the region—elsewhere, voodoo is strictly a religion and hoodoo is strictly a folk magic practice. New Orleans is a mixing pot—multiple cultures converging together, the influences of voodoo are so incredibly diverse that it’s no wonder why those who aren’t involved in the religion would be confused about the whole thing.

The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook

Well, here is where the confusion clears—like it was mentioned before, voodoo is a religion, while hoodoo is a practice. Voodoo practitioners believe in a single supreme creator, known as Bondye, which in French Creole stands for “good god.” There is no mention of only good or only evil beings in the religion—instead it is a practice that embraces the good and bad in all situations, where spirits known as the loa act as messengers for Bondye. Despite there being a single god, the loa, also known as lwa, are the ones that practitioners communicate with. Frequently likened to the saints in Catholicism, there is a loa to contact in regards to nearly every aspect of normal life.

Popular media insists that New Orleans voodoo is an ominous, evil tradition—this is based on the demonization of the unique practices within the religion. During the reign of the infamous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau, the use of voodoo dolls came into common use, like gris gris (gree-gree), as a form of talismanic magic. There is an odd tradition of depicting voodoo dolls are objects of revenge—ways for malevolent practitioners to send destruction and pain into the lives of their targets. The majority of Voodoo practitioners have been actively working against this negative media presence, showing that most voodoo dolls are centered on healing, finding true love, and obtaining spiritual guidance. Just like Marie Laveau, it seeks to help those in need—to feed the hungry, help the poor, and curing ailments such as anxiety, addictions, depression, and loneliness are mainstays of this religion.

Skulls deteriorating in the jungle
Photography by Christian Grecu

All in all, it seems that those who are a part of the voodoo religion actually prefer to keep their beliefs and practices to themselves, you won’t find any legitimate practitioners displaying their rituals in public, as this would be considered disrespectful to the spirits. This is fair, considering the amount of public bile that spills over into their culture whenever it is brought to light anywhere else in the United States. Privacy is often more pleasant than negativity when it comes to personal beliefs.