We all know the story. A white man is guided in the art of an “exotic” culture only to become the best of all time. It’s a story that’s been prevalent in Hollywood from the very beginning, even causing controversy as recently as Doctor Strange and Iron Fist in the last two years. The White Savior journeys to a foreign land, adopts their ways, is taught their native skills, until he is better at it than those to whom it belongs. That’s the way it always goes, and it has been going on for a long time. The only reason something like Iron Fist caused so much of a stir earlier this year is because that premise—simply taken on its own—is so outdated that it’s not something we necessarily expect to see in 2017.
It’s a difficult balance to maintain when a story involves a character adapting to a culture that is unfamiliar to them, because it will fundamentally mean different things to different people watching it. Dracula, for example, is on one level the story of a foreign invader, it’s the leader of an outdated, archaic (in this case, literally dead) culture imposing himself on well-to-do Victorian sensibilities. But it’s also a story that kicks off with one of said well-to-do Victorians visiting a land that is foreign and scary to him, scoffing at the locals and their beliefs and—as a result—not heeding their warnings about the danger he is blindly and willingly racing towards.
That’s the beauty of horror: it is constantly the first to point out and subvert tropes, even when it’s largely seen as nothing but a collection of worn-out stereotypes. While the genre is certainly not immune to tropes and clichés, nor to viewpoints seen as outdated or even offensive, it often manages to twist and subvert them in ways that are entirely unexpected.
Strange as it may sound, Child’s Play (1988) is a perfect example of this. The White Savior is front-and-center in this film, even if it’s almost never really acknowledged or pointed out. One of the things that separates Chucky from other major horror icons of his era—other than the fact that he’s a doll—is the fact that his mythology is very clearly explained, right in the original film. We know exactly how serial killer Charles Lee Ray came back as a doll. It’s made crystal clear. He was looking for a body to possess as he was dying, and all he found was a Good Guy doll, so he recited a voodoo chant to pass his soul into the doll’s body.
The Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises didn’t attempt to explain their central killer’s supernatural natures until the sixth entry of each. We still don’t know exactly what happened to Jason to make him so indestructible. Not only is Chucky the only one to make his origin clear right out of the gate, he’s also the only one of them who did this to himself. He’s not the victim of a curse, he wasn’t selected by dream demons, he was dying and said a chant to put his soul into a doll.
That does seem like Chucky has mastered this foreign talent at first, until taking two things into account: he didn’t know it would work and he didn’t plan on putting himself inside of a doll. It was a last minute decision, an act of desperation and as soon as he does it, he has absolutely no idea what to do next. Throughout a good portion of the series, Chucky’s motivation has been defined by his inability to do a single spell. He got himself into a body he didn’t want to be stuck inside of and through the first four movies, he’s scrambling to get out of it until ultimately giving up and resigning himself to his fate.
For the purposes of Chucky’s relationship to voodoo, the most important scene is when he confronts his mentor, John. However he came to meet Charles Lee Ray in the first place, John seems like a pretty decent guy. He clearly practices voodoo in a way that is harmless and safe. It’s spiritual for him. When he sees Chucky, he refuses to tell him how to get out of the doll’s body because Chucky has—in John’s own words—perverted what he’d taught him and used it for evil. That’s what this entire point boils down to. It could not be more clear that Chucky is the furthest thing from a white savior.
He took something that was very spiritual to someone else and used it to save his own ass. He’s not reaching a master status after casting his first spell, he’s not doing any of the things he was taught to do as directed—we can gauge that much from their conversation. Chucky is the Great White Disappointment. He was taught in a practice that was foreign to him, attempted to use it without understanding the connection someone like John would have to it, and wound up being the worst person to ever practice voodoo.
This is resonant throughout the entire franchise, but particularly noticeable in the original, in which the rules to the mythology are clearest. Chucky has no idea how to get out of that body until he goes to visit John. When he kills John, he uses a voodoo doll to do it. After however long they worked together, Chucky literally goes for the very first thing a white person would associate with voodoo. Throughout the series, we never see Chucky use any other kind of spell, only variations of the same soul transference he initially performed. In fact, he spends the first four movies trying and failing to attempt to perform the same spell for a second time.
But at the same time, performing that spell just once allowed him to take on, essentially, a new identity. As a doll, he’s by no means a bumbling idiot. He’s cunning and ruthless and has racked up an impressive body count. Chucky has a clear skill set that’s demonstrated over and over again throughout the franchise, but it rarely has anything to do with voodoo. It may have gotten him into his predicament, but it’s not by any means his strong suit. His decision to stay in the doll’s body in Seed of Chucky (2004) is an intriguing one, one of the rare moments of character growth for a modern horror icon, but from a voodoo standpoint it definitely looks like he’s just making things easier for himself.
Part of that is due to the fact that Don Mancini, the franchise’s major creative force, always hated the voodoo elements of the series. It was never in his original script and was instead added by Tom Holland when he drastically rewrote the story. Writing each sequel, Mancini attempted to move further and further away from the voodoo elements of the story, which definitely helped to create the anti-white-savior motif of the ongoing narrative.
Under Mancini’s direction, it becomes clearer and clearer that Chucky represents a worst-case-scenario when it comes to a white stranger embracing practices that are foreign to him and attempting to assimilate that culture for his own purposes. He corrupts it. He uses it exclusively for evil means, he doesn’t understand it, and is ultimately pretty bad at it at the end of the day. He’s not rescuing anyone from their plight, he’s not becoming the very best, he’s removing the spiritual aspect of voodoo entirely to further his own agenda. And it’s his lack of understanding, his lack of connection, that makes him so unable to master it in the first place.
Chucky’s relationship to voodoo bears heavy similarities to Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, released the same year. While not about someone using voodoo themselves, that follows a man traveling to Haiti to research zombism without really believing in its power, without understanding it until he is subjected to it himself. Chucky, similarly, points out in Child’s Play that he did not know—or it seems, even expect—that the spell would work until after he had performed it. This skepticism is deep-rooted in both films, something that carries through the Child’s Play series even up to the point that when Chucky uses the spell on Tiffany in Bride of Chucky (1998), he still has a moment of defeat and embarrassment, believing that it didn’t work.
Even when Chucky does seem to show an accomplished talent for voodoo—as he often does in the new film, Cult of Chucky (2017)—it’s immediately cut down by the fact that he’s using a spell he learned online, or in the case of Bride, literally reading from a Voodoo for Dummies book. Even if it’s just a humorous aside, that humor still comes from a place of Chucky’s attempts at adopting this culture for his own purposes, looking for the easiest and quickest method. However successful he may or may not be, there’s no denying that Chucky’s use of voodoo is built on self-interest alone.
These themes of skepticism, selfishness, doubt and exploitation run deep in Chucky’s relationship to voodoo. They don’t make him a bad or problematic character—he already had that ground covered being a serial killing evil doll—if anything these things only make him a little more of a complicated antagonist. As the franchise has shown many times, that lack of care or understanding of what the magic actually represents always leads his self-interest toward self-sabotage, and Chucky is never any wiser for it.