Representations of Vodou have been important fixtures in Western popular culture since at least the 18th century. Such representations served on a number of fronts during slavery. First, slavery was marketed in part as a soul-saving venture, so falsified depictions of Vodou as degenerate superstition served as propaganda for the Christianization of Africans. Additionally, portrayals of Africans and blacks as reduced to a bestial state by Vodou practices allowed writers to argue that they lacked civilization–perhaps were not even entirely human–and therefore slavery was no great crime. As the 18th century progressed, black religiosity, and Vodou most of all, became a tremendous source of anxiety as it was feared to possess revolutionary potential, a suspicion that was proven correct by the Haitian Revolution. Afterwards, attempts to crush Afro-American religiosity redoubled throughout the Americas.
Subsequent centuries have seen the continued villainization of Vodou. During the twentieth century, Vodou became a regular feature in novels, particular horror novels, and was embraced by the new medium of film. Vodou has been a feature in literally hundreds of films and television shows. These films have been made by people of almost every imaginable nationality, in numerous languages. Yet almost all have been aimed at evoking fear and revulsion.
These films, novels, and television shows have, in essence, invented an entirely imaginary religion which I call “imagined voodoo.” Imagined voodoo has proven to be so compelling to its audience that many people now believe that it actually exists. This imagined religion of voodoo frequently appears in the news, and in every imaginable pop culture product, ranging from toys to beers. It is partly the focus of a many-million dollar tourism campaign for the city of New Orleans. Beneath its entertaining surface, imagined voodoo serves numerous purposes, of which these are but a few:
- Imagined voodoo allows people to express racial anxiety–especially about the presence of blacks in America–while appearing to do something else, thus avoiding the charge of racism (perhaps most especially disguising it from themselves).
- It allows for the continued denigration of Haiti and Haitian culture as barbaric, uncivilized, in the thrall of demonic powers. This is a way of continuing to punish Haitians for being the only people in the hemisphere to successfully free themselves from slavery. Through supposed affinity, this denigration often extends, in varying degrees, to all circum-Atlantic black cultures.
- Imagined voodoo provides an opportunity to continue to present blacks as hypersexualized–as well as whites (race traitors) who are under the spell of imagined voodoo (a.k.a. black culture). Furthermore, this sexuality is not only heightened but prone to turn violent: Most of the crimes that are attributed to voodoo–whether in fiction or in real news media–tend to be of a sadomasochistic, psychosexual nature.
- Stories of imagined voodoo allow racial anxieties to be displaced. Rather than depicting the reality that blacks have been, and continue to be, horrendously mistreated by whites, imagined voodoo suggests that blacks possess occult power that they are eager to use against whites. Whites are almost always the victims of imagined voodoo, blacks (or racially ambiguous people) almost always the perpetrators.
For the most part, imagined voodoo remains largely in the domain of fiction. However, imagined voodoo sometimes crosses over into real life, confounding categories between what is real and what is imagined–and in so doing, arguably fulfilling its destiny. Here is a recent example.
In Miami on Saturday, May 26, a Haitian-American named Rudy Eugene, likely high on the drug known as “bath salts,” violently attacked a homeless man named Ronald Poppo, gnawing at the victim’s face for nearly 20 minutes before being fatally shot by Miami Police. When the story first broke, it was briefly pitched by the news as a cautionary tale of drug use, particularly the use of “bath salts,” a synthetic amphetamine known to provoke transient (or sometimes permanent) psychosis, extreme violence, insensitivity to pain, and extraordinary physical strength.
However, in subsequent days, a more sensational angle was picked up, with the story being dubbed “The Miami Zombie.” Posts began to circulate on the internet claiming the attack as a sign of the so-called zombie apocalypse. And then, as if by magic, the news story transformed into the plot of a zombie movie. The anonymous homeless victim became a real person with an improbable story: former brainiac tormented by decades of alcoholism. Ubiquitous side-by-side mugshots of Eugene and Poppo, found as the header of nearly every news story, emphasized that the victim was white and the perpetrator black. The nudity of the attacker was accentuated, and the fact that he first stripped the victim before gnawing his flesh, intimating unsavory sexual undertones. No longer did Eugene simply gnaw at the victim’s face; he was a “cannibal.” The security footage was released so all of America could watch a real-life zombie snuff film. Eugene’s Haitianness was played up. And finally, Eugene’s girlfriend came forward with the dramatic accusation that her boyfriend was suffering from a voodoo curse. She insists that Eugene was a good Christian who left the house that morning carrying his Bible, and was either drugged or cursed by as-yet-unnamed voodooists. There is no explanation for why Eugene would have been targeted for a voodoo curse, but in some ways his innocence makes for an even better story of evil preying upon good, if flawed, people. When (I say when) the story is turned into a Hollywood film, the Tampa Bay Times already wrote the tagline that will appear on the poster: “She has never believed in voodoo, until now.”
So the story came to highlight many major elements long associated with voodoo: curses, cannibalism, zombies, perverse sex acts, nudity, black-on-white violence, mind control, etc. etc. etc.
Allow me to say that I feel very sad for Eugene’s girlfriend. No one wants to be the woman on the news insisting that her lover was not a monster. She is in a horrible situation, and I understand why she feels the need to propose a narrative, however improbable, that explains how the person she knew and the person who ate a man’s face are somehow the same person. However–and it is a weighty however–if she were pointing the finger at any religion other than Vodou/voodoo, the headlines would be very different. For example, if the media interviewed a grieving girlfriend of a man who had committed a heinous crime, and she said, “Jews made my boyfriend kill,” public sympathy would quickly turn to dismay and outrage. The woman’s story would become entirely about latter-day antisemitism, or perhaps mental illness.
But from the media’s perspective, Vodou/voodoo is good for business, especially in Miami, a city that has even more claim to being America’s Vodou/voodoo City than does New Orleans. Miami has the largest population of Haitians living anywhere outside of Haiti, and also one of the most vibrant Vodou communities in the world. Of late, this Vodou community has increasingly been the subject of softball “human interest” news stories, which typically take a ambiguous-to-tolerant stance on Vodou. Let us call the Miami Zombie the counter punch, then. Lest anyone forget, as far as the popular media is concerned, the real story about Vodou is not communities of immigrant struggling to live prosperous, dignified lives. It is zombies, it is thrill-kills, it is black-on-white violence, it is curses that turn good to evil as casually and abruptly as the flipping of a coin. If, in the same story, it is possible to adopt a somewhat mocking tone in relation to Eugene’s girlfriend–that she could believe such a preposterous notion–then so much the better. They will mock even as they chide, caution, and horrify.
Recalling that the Greek word “apocalypse” means “revelation,” I propose that if there is a zombie apocalypse–that is, a zombie revelation–it is this: In the supposedly post-racial America of Obama, racist tropes remain more alive than ever, judging by the ease with which a tragic news story can be converted by a few news cycles into the script of a zombie film. Saying that this story was reformatted to conform to a racist trope is not the same as saying that news agents are racist. If anything, it is more alarming to consider the opposite: Namely, racist narratives remain so comfortable and deployable, come so readily to hand, and compel such visceral responses from their audiences that they get told and retold even by people who should know better. And so imaginary voodoo strikes again, and we are all the victims of its spell. But those whom it wounds most deeply are those for whom Vodou is a way of life or intimately associated with their culture, for they must live with the curse of being yet again cast as boogiemen.
If you are interested in reading more about my theoretical approach to imagined voodoo–in particular the way it is used in popular American films and novels–please read my essay “Haitian Vodou and voodoo: Imagined religion and popular culture,” either online or forthcoming in the June 2012 issue of Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses.