Voodoo has had an interesting relationship with popular culture to say the least. Often, it’s portrayed as an archaic cult, with depictions of an evil witch doctor performing esoteric rites or transforming people into zombies. Even Baron Semedi, one of the key figures in its pantheon of deities has become an identifiable part of the horror cannon, normally depicted with a black brimmed hat and makeup in the form of a human skull. These stereotypes have existed for decades, and still manage to be at the forefront of popular misconceptions regarding the religion.
The origins of these falsehoods began during the American occupation of Haiti, which lasted from 1915 to 1934. During this time books such as Cannibal Cousins and Black Baghdad emerged from the servicemen stationed on the island. They were full of wild embellishments about the faith and its practitioners. Stories of savage tribes and voodoo dolls circulated among readers in the United States, serving as propaganda that Haiti was inhabited by heathens needing to be tamed by civilization. Aside from falsifying the truth about the country and its population, it also fueled the belief that a military occupation was completely necessary.
Films such as I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and White Zombie (1932) brought the tall tales from the pulp magazines to life on the screen. Theater audiences from the time reveled in the fictional world of zombies, magic, and wildly inaccurate tribal garb. On the opposite end of the spectrum, avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren had spent a lot of time filming voodoo ceremonies, much of which was featured in her book, Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti. Focusing on the spiritual aspects instead of sensationalism, her accounts treated its practitioners in a dignified light. Despite this, voodoo continues to be somewhat of a mystery to the average person, and many of the old preconceptions still exist. As the old saying goes however, the truth is always stranger than fiction.
That’s where anthropologist Wade Davis comes into the fold. A modern-day Indiana Jones, his studies have taken him from the Amazon to New Guinea and just about everywhere in between. His extensive research on Haitian Voodoo and the search for a powder used in actual zombification was chronicled in his 1985 book, The Serpent and The Rainbow. Davis covers a wide variety of subject matter, from his day-to-day travels, the history and theology of the religion, as well as how voodoo is closely tied to life on the island.
He also examines the case of Clairvius Narcisse. While it’s still a subject that is up for debate among researchers, Narcisse’s story is considered one of the few accounts of someone returning from the grave. While his claims of being turned into a zombie by a Bokar (voodoo sorcerer and practitioner of black magic) and forced to work on a plantation seem far-fetched, there’s no denying that he was once declared dead, only to resurface later being very much alive. Davis’ hypothesis for the occurrence centers on the use of Tetrodotoxin. A poison found in puffer fish, it has been known to induce a trance-like state similar to death, as it disables essential brain activity and motor functions.
Davis shares a great deal of insight on many misconceptions, such as the ceremonies where practitioners allow themselves to become possessed. While the concept of possession is often associated with films such as The Exorcist (1973) and the spiritual battle between good and evil, its purpose within voodoo is something entirely different. In what can only be described as a holy communion, the willing participant turns his body over to the spirits and completely surrenders to them. Practitioners enter a trance that allows them to communicate with an unseen world. Described by Maya Deren as white death, it’s a phenomenon that is as foreign to western cultures as everything else that lies at the heart of the religion.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) found its way to theaters just three years after publication. While Davis’ colleagues criticized him for selling off the rights to his book so soon, he maintains to this day that he was “A graduate student who didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” At the helm was Wes Craven, who by this time had become a household name due to the popularity of A Nightmare on Elm St (1984), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and the highly controversial Last House on the Left (1972). While The Serpent and the Rainbow makes for an interesting political satire, it’s hardly the commentary on the Vietnam conflict that he had achieved with Last House. Some of the basic elements from Davis’ book exist in the form of characters and events, though much of the story is heavily exaggerated. Although Craven was certainly adept at turning suburbia into a landscape of nightmares, here he seems slightly out of his element. If there’s one opinion I hold strongly about this film, it’s this—it had potential to be something far greater than the end results were.
The film focuses on Dr. David Allen (Bill Pullman), an anthropologist dispatched to Haiti to obtain a zombie powder for a pharmaceutical company. Much like Davis’ actual journey, the financial backers have hopes of developing a new form of anesthesia. The catalyst for the trip is the discovery of a man named Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts), the film’s fictional representation of Clairvius Narcisse, who has been found alive being declared dead several years before. Alan soon finds himself on the shores of the island country, immersed in a world of poverty and oppression, as the Duvalier regime and their armed police, the Tonton Mocoute tighten the grip on their fleeting power. Assisted by a local psychiatrist named Marielle Duchamp (Cathy Tyson), he begins his search for both Christophe and the elusive powder. To the film’s credit, most of the first act loosely follows much of Davis’ accounts. A local houngan (Voodoo priest) named Lucien Selene (Paul Winfield) runs a nightclub for tourists who can witness a real Voodoo ceremony, albeit a small cover charge. Like many houngans, he’s depicted as a pillar of the local community, and the spiritual leader to its people. The process of creating the potion with Louis Mozart, (Brent Jennings), based on real bokar Marcelle Pierre, is similar to what was described by Davis as a mixture of natural ingredients and ritualistic ceremony.
While Davis mentions very little about politics in his book, Craven utilizes the main antagonist of the film, Derganet Paytraud (Zakes Mokae), to serve as the main vehicle for political satire. As chief of the Tonton Mocoute, and a Bokar, Paytraud is the living embodiment of an oppressive police state and the dark side of spirituality. Stealing the powers from other houngans and keeping others in line through intimidation to maintain order, his character elevates the Duvalier regime to a malevolent supernatural force. His outlook and intentions are best illustrated when he tells Allan that Haiti walks a thin line between order and chaos, and that he doesn’t want to see his country fall into slavery, specifically referring to the French colonization. In an example of Craven addressing growing American interests in the third world, Paytraud mentions the involvement with the Grenadian coupe of 1983, and how the United States would “love to have anarchy here.”
The link between the Duvalier regime and the world of the supernatural is one that is intriguing, and certainly not without precedent. Although the events in The Serpent and The Rainbow take place during the reign of Jean François “Baby-Doc” Duvalier, for decades, his father, Francois “Papa-Doc” Duvalier, ruled Haiti. His rise to power had been firmly aligned with voodoo. By embracing the past, Duvalier had elevated the religion into a new form of nationalism during his presidential campaign of 1957. Seeking endorsement from many houngans, it wasn’t long before rumors began to circulate about Duvalier’s practices. He soon adopted a look mimicking Baron Semedi, complete with a black bowler hat and matching wardrobe. In an article for TIME magazine much was made over the president’s public persona as a figure of the underworld:
“The look of him makes every tale seem possible – including hopeful talk that he really is one of the walking dead. His eyes are icy and hooded. His walk is measured by a robot rhythm, his voice a rheumy whisper. He keeps his hands hidden, and he dresses in zombie black. His features are chilled into a graveyard mask that makes him seem the very spirit of evil.”
In an interesting turn of events, the United Sates would never intercede and depose Duvalier, as he was overthrown in 1986. The same could not be said for Panamanian president Manuel Noriega. The despotic leader was a practitioner of a religion similar to voodoo called Palo Mayambe. Items included in Noriega’s possession at the time of his arrest included a crude altar and names of enemies written on scraps of paper and sewn inside a severed cow tongue.
Political undertones aside, the movie offers up some unique imagery, and attempts to show voodoo in a way that is similar to the truth and entertaining at the same time. However, this is also why Davis’ book has trouble being adapted into horror. In order to make something palatable for an audience, a great deal of liberties have to be taken, and the film’s third act really proves this point. It degenerates into an over-the-top spiritual battle. Although it reflects the fall of the Duvalier regime with Paytraud descending to Hell, it contradicts much of what was established beforehand. If anything, the film appears to be in conflict with itself in what it’s trying to accomplish.
While not one of Wes Craven’s best efforts, The Serpent and The Rainbow remains an interesting entry in the canon of 1980’s horror. One of the most unique films to deal with Voodoo, it brought something new to the card game, but it wasn’t the full house some might have expected. Craven returned to his old stomping grounds a few years later, this time to examine race and gentrification in the inner city with The People Under the Stairs (1991), which remains the most underrated title in his filmography.