By Julia Clements
Voodoo dolls. Zombies. Rituals. Sacrifice. Spirits. These are all word associations with a typical American’s perception of the syncretic religion Vodou. The term “voodoo” has been exploited for spooky storylines in movies, television shows, books and comics. There are even extremely misguided “voodoo” themed music festivals, restaurants and attractions. But many don’t know that the voodoo doll logo that they use for their edgy, punk band or as a mascot for their all-women hockey team in Philadelphia, belongs to a religion that has been maligned for ages.
“The term takes off and takes on a meaning in English as being diabolical and backwards and spooky,” said Dr. Terry Rey, a professor of anthropology and history of African and African diasporic religions at Temple University. “This term has taken on a life of its own and now it’s a word in the English language that constitutes anything that’s dark, spooky, stupid and nefarious and that to me is profoundly unfortunately and regretful.”
This misconceptions about the religion permeate American culture, even to the extent where families are ashamed or fearful of their own heritage.
Nicholas Gunderson’s earliest memories of his grandmother came from family gossip and whisperings about her association with Vodou. The 22 year-old, North Philadelphia resident had always been in the dark about his family roots because of the lack of relationship he had with his Haitian mother and grandmother.
“I mean I never met her. And then she died,” Gunderson said of his grandmother. “People just told me she was evil, that they could just feel and sense the evil.”
Nicholas’ grandmother was a Vodou practitioner. Due to the mysteriousness and ignorance surrounding the Vodou religion, it is not a surprise that Nicolas’ family feared a relationship with his grandmother so much.
“Vodou is one of the most maligned and misunderstood religions certainly,” said Dr. Rey. “Largely because of the manipulation of Vodou symbols and Vodou tropes in Hollywood the term takes off and takes on a meaning in English as being diabolical and backwards and spooky.”
This manipulation of Vodou symbols can be seen widely in media and entertainment, which contributes to the misunderstandings of the religion. Some examples include episodes of the popular children’s television show “Scooby Doo” like “Scooby Doo on Zombie Island.” As children we learn from American entertainment that Vodou is nefarious and spooky and people who practice it are not to be trusted. It is rarely presented as an actual religion but more of a superstition or myth. More recently, the popular TV anthology “American Horror Story” released a season called “Coven” where they explore the Vodou religion portraying it as witchcraft and black magic. The spread of misconceptions about Vodou can be traced back to the earliest days of Hollywood.
“The history of voodoo’s representation in Hollywood is one that is fraught with problems,” said Dr. Rey. “The earliest voodoo films were from the 1940s, but even before that there were people returning from the first US occupation of Haiti that didn’t understand what they were observing because they didn’t understand ancient Creole. And they return and they write these fantastic accounts, short stories, they’d appear in comic books that portray voodooists as bloodthirsty, as cannibalistic and as savages. And that misses entirely what the religion is truly about which again is primarily healing and fullness of life and harmonious relationships with the spirit world.”
But is Hollywood completely responsible for ignorance of the Vodou religion? Similar feelings towards the Vodou religion are expressed even in people that have had firsthand experiences witnessing the religion before Hollywood got its word in.
Medgnie Altidor was born and raised in Haiti until she was 13-years-old when she moved to the United States. Altidor is the current president of Project Haiti at Temple University, which fundraises and raises awareness for the Saint Francis Xavier Orphanage in Artibonite, Haiti. Altidor regularly visits her birth country through her organization Project Haiti and has impressionable memories from her childhood there, including her perception of Haitians and Vodou.
“Growing up I always knew it was a bad thing. I was raised in a Christian household where they strongly believe Christianity is the best religion. They’re not welcoming when it comes to Vodou and things like that,” said Altidor. “After the French moved to Haiti, they convinced them to practice Christianity, which is Catholic. And had them throw away their religion, their cultures, and their spiritual beings and throw away anything that belonged to them as Africans. Nowadays, a lot of Haitians practice Vodou but they use Christianity to cover up their Vodouism because it’s not as welcoming as I mentioned.”
Even when the influence of Hollywood’s misrepresentation is removed and the exoticism is removed, there is still a lot of misinformation compared to other religions. Medgnie’s status as a born and raised Haitian made her a witness to the religion’s culture and community, yet her beliefs as a Christian still influence her perspective.
“It is also rooted in a history of colonialism and racism,” said Dr. Rey. “In the US occupation of Haiti 1915 to 1934 we occupy another nation and stories about what the people occupying Haiti see without understanding what they see return and that is what sets in motion this infatuation with voodoo and zombies as well.”
The exclusivity of the religion allows for a lot of uninformed speculation by outsiders. Vodou has a certain sacred secrecy that prevents true understanding, so the storytellers of Vodou end up being people who are not a part of it and don’t fully understand it.
“There are certain secrets that you need to be initiated at a certain level in order to obtain. But there’s a reason for that because there is a certain body of knowledge that is extremely important and there is an effort to preserve it and it is transmitted orally and it is not written down in a text that anyone can open up and study,” said Dr. Rey. “In order to safeguard that knowledge and to preserve its beauty and its power, it needs to be guarded by people who are generally committed to the religion. But otherwise it is quite open.”
Unfortunately, this sacred exclusivity makes it hard to learn much more about Vodouism. In Philadelphia, there is only one official Vodou sanctuary called Le Peristyle Haitian Sanctuary. And even as the only active sanctuary, the establishment does not do “student interviews.” It also doesn’t help that in the news media, only negative stories of the religion can be found. Typing “voodoo Philadelphia news” into a search engine, top stories include: “Detective: Alleged killer said ‘voodoo spells’ spurred stabbing of transgender woman” and “Group: Remains of more than 500 animals found at Philadelphia home.” But is this just bad press or is it a representation of the religion?
“I definitely feel like there is a stigma in the media around Vodou culture. It warned me that Vodou is a bad thing and that I had to stay away from it,” said Gunderson. “And it stopped me from having a relationship with my grandma.”
Despite all of these myths and misconceptions, those who truly know about Vodou know that it is actually a very healing positive religion.
“In ancient voodoo, people enter into relationships with reciprocal service with spirits. And there is a creator God but the creator God is considered to be somewhat distant in ancient voodoo. Therefore, your religious life is more about the spirits and the spirits are associated with the forces in nature. You also have relationships with the dead so then your ancestors are venerated,” said Dr. Rey. “So, living a full life and living a healthy life and a whole life is what the religion promotes. It is really positive overall.”
“Now that I have more knowledge, I see that there’s other things when it comes to Vodouism. Vodou is not always the negative aspect of it,” said Altidor. “There is something positive like the healing aspect. Some people use it to build wealth, which confuses me. And some people use it to improve their community.”
The only answer to this problem of Vodou myths and misconceptions is seeking more knowledge and understanding the history behind every aspect of an element of culture or religion before using it as a plotline in a story or a theme at a party. Not everyone will feel obligated to explain their religion or culture to dispel these misconceptions but that does not excuse the ignorance that follows.