This essay was originally published at Huffington Post and is republished here by kind permission of the author Saumya Arya Haas.
Do you like horror-themed entertainment? I do, and this is a great time of year for it. Universal Studios Orlando has what looks like an exciting experience called Halloween Horror Nights. Part of this event is Bayou of Blood, a “Louisiana voodoo” themed “scare zone.” When I read the description and saw the images online, my enthusiasm faded.
I am a Vodou Mambo; a priestess. Vodou (also spelled Voodoo) is a religion. It was brought to the Caribbean and the Americas by enslaved people from Africa. This “New World” religion has since evolved its own traditions and practices; adherents today are of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. When spelled with a lower-case “v,” voodoo is a primarily non-religious folk/ healing tradition associated with New Orleans and the American South. In pop culture and entertainment media, neither my religion nor the folk tradition are distinguished from concocted “voodoo” involving real or imagined communion with malevolent spirits. Bayou of Blood uses this portrayal; their “voodoo queen” is called Mamba. Look at my title and you will see the similarity.
I contacted Universal Studios Orlando for this article and to express my concerns about using a living religion as horror entertainment. Tom Schroder, Universal Studios Orlando spokesman, responded:
Halloween Horror Nights is an entertainment event that has no basis in reality. We believe our guests understand that. We tap into popular films, TV shows, and other pop culture concepts, myths and legends to create our event. We are always reviewing what we do and we certainly listen to feedback we get from guests and others. And so we absolutely appreciate your thinking.
I see his point but I still felt ambivalent, so I asked scholars and practitioners of Vodou to share their thoughts [full disclosure: I have personal connections with everyone interviewed from the Vodou and Harvard communities].
Funlayo E. Wood is an Iyanifa, Olorisa and doctoral candidate in African studies and religion at Harvard University. She is founding director of The African and Diasporic Religious Studies Association (ADRSA) and executive director of The Orisa Community Development Corporation. She specifically responded to the assertion that these entertainments have no basis in reality.
Universal seems to believe that ‘guests are able to make [the] distinction’ [between fiction and reality], the reality is that for the vast majority of guests, abhorrent representations like these are the only exposure they have to African and Diasporic religions, which strips [viewers] of the ability to make such a distinction.
Wood believes that “Halloween is no excuse for promulgation of imagery and ‘experiences’ that denigrate any religion, race, ethnic group or culture… This representation… helps to buttress racist, anti-African sentiments which cast African-descended peoples as primitive, murderous savages.”
Wood’s observations are supported by others in the academic community. Dr. Adam McGee earned his PhD in Black Studies from Harvard for his work on Haitian Vodou and pop culture voodoo; his website has a good summary of the crucial differences between the two. Dr. McGee explained that:
In popular culture, ‘voodoo’ is almost always depicted as something that blacks use against whites, and linked therefore to white fears that black Americans desire nothing so much as violent revenge. In ‘Bayou of Blood,’ this stereotype is on display, with all of the main ‘voodoo’ characters depicted by black actors… who brutally sacrifice a white innocent who pleads for help from a primarily white audience of onlookers.
Wood and McGee are both scholars. I was curious what ordinary practitioners thought. Judging from the comments on Bayou of Blood articles shared on social media Vodou forums, most agree with my mentor Mambo Sallie Ann Glassman, who stated:
I hoped Universal Studios Orlando would have found a respectful, non-exploitive way to help people cross over their fears and discover the life-affirming beauty of Vodou. I am ashamed of an industry that continues to exploit the great human tragedy that the slaves endured. The real evil was the institution of slavery and those who continue to benefit from the exploitation of [Vodou].
If scholars and adherents of Vodou are to be believed, consistent portrayals of “voodoo” practitioners as barbaric, violent, and most of all as African-American not only influence public perception of our religion, but perception of African-Americans. This expands the concerns well beyond our (admittedly small) American Vodou community. We are living in a time when race issues in America are, once again, part of public debate. For minority communities, daily life is such that these challenges seldom fade from our consciousness.
There is no easy solution to discrimination and prejudice, but we can change the way racial and religious minorities are portrayed in entertainment media. Wood believes that horror depictions of “voodoo” have “been permitted to continue largely due to the lack of voices calling for [their] cessation,” and that “the entire [Bayou of Blood] installation should be removed and an apology issued immediately.”
Cessation of racist depictions is the end goal, but in the meantime, there has been at least one attempt to balance the portrayal of voodoo in entertainment. The website and DVD extras of the 2005 Universal Studios film The Skeleton Key include educational information about the history and practice of Vodou (to view this section of their website, click on “Folklore”). While the information is slightly sensationalized and easily overlooked, this could be a model for others. It’s a start.
The public is far more likely to encounter Bayou of Blood-type “voodoo” than our religion. Can this change? I hope so. Twenty years ago, it’s doubtful that a movie like The Skeleton Key would have featured educational material. When I reached out to Universal Studios Orlando, I mentioned this as an option; their spokesperson did not directly respond to my suggestion. I can only hope that engaging with entertainment media representatives will help direct their future choices. Either way, my community will continue to live our religion, as we have done for hundreds of years.
Update: The next Halloween season after this article was published, the “voodoo”-themed Bayou of Blood scare zone was no longer part of Universal Studios Orlando’s Halloween event and has not returned in subsequent years. While I can’t be sure that my article had anything to do with this, it gave me hope. I didn’t write the article believing that anyone, much less Universal Studios, would care. I wrote it because I cared. This Halloween season, if you see costumes or activities that mock, demean, or demonize marginalized groups, call it out. Talk to your friends and family. If you see it at a major company or retailer, contact your local news station and ask them to cover the story. We never know what impact we might have. Society is changed, little by little, by our collective words and actions.
Saumya Arya Haas has an ALB in Religious Studies from Harvard University. She was an early adopter of social media for interfaith and social justice outreach and has been nominated as a Twin Cities Titan in Social Media and for a Shorty Award. As director of Headwaters / Delta Interfaith, she facilitated interfaith / intergroup dialogue and advised organizations on diversity, inclusiveness, and intergroup cooperation; this work has taken her everywhere from West Africa to the White House. She is a contributing scholar at State of Formation and writes for Huffington Post and assorted publications online and in print media. A priestess of both Hinduism and Vodou, Saumya has volunteered to coordinate social media for Agape Editions, and we are delighted to have her represent our interfaith literary family on the internet.