Colored by fascination, fetishism, and even a degree of fear, Hollywood’s portrayal of this enigmatic and little-understood folk faith of the African diaspora throws up cliches about the African seductress, South American culture, etc., and, perhaps unintentionally, highlights certain certain cultural traumas in European-descended society. Racial stereotyping and the issue of racism can float to the surface, partly to be challenged, and yet partly reinforced through the characters themselves. But, more fundamentally, Voodoo in popular entertainment highlights the demise of the traditional European faith of Christianity and latent fears surrounding it.
In the 1987 movie Angel Heart — starring Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel, Robert De Niro as Louis Cyphre, Lisa Bonet as Voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot, and Charlotte Rampling as astrologer and Voodoo practitioner Margaret Krusemark — those of European and African descent largely contrast, and occasionally mirror, each other.
The story unfolds as Louis Cyphre (Lucifer in human form) approaches Harry Angel, a private investigator, to track down a missing person by the name of John Liebling. This figure, it later transpires, was a hardcore devotee of Voodoo, who sold his soul to the Devil in return for fame as a singer. He achieved fame, but at some point the ardent Black Arts magician discovered an ancient “rite” that would allow him to cheat the Devil out of the bargain. Following the prescription, Liebling killed a man of about the same age, and stole his soul.
Angel travels from New York to Louisiana in search of the missing man, becoming drawn into the world of Voodoo. Spoiler alert: Only later does Angel discover that he is himself Liebling, and that he has been searching for his own identity all along, killing people along the way, unknowingly, as Louis Cyphre has periodically taken control of his mind and body.
Voodoo: Sex, Power, Inversion
During his investigations, Angel encounters a number of Voodoo devotees participating in a ritual in the woods.
It’s night and the congregants are illuminated by a fire. Epiphany Proudfoot plays the central role in the ceremony. In a state of possession, she dances ecstatically in the midst of the worshippers, swirling two white chickens above her head, before sacrificing them with a cutthroat razor and covering herself in their blood. Then, gyrating, her movements become overtly sexual.
In a hotel room with Angel later on she explains that there is something sexual about the Voodoo rite. “When spirits possess you, it’s called ‘chevalier’.” It is being “mounted by the gods.” It was the gods, she claims, that were responsible for making her pregnant with her child. “It was the best fuck I ever had,” she says, perhaps partly to shock the private detective.
While there is undoubtedly a degree of fetishism and fantasy in the portrayal of Proudfoot, the ritual is interesting for its inversion of the norms. Instead of a (Christian) priest, we see a priestess. She is the leader of the congregation. It is she who knows and speaks for the gods. Likewise, the astrologer and fortune teller Krusemark also understands the supernatural, and can convey it to clients (who are presumably at least often of European descent), as does the Tarot reader and de facto priestess Solitaire in Live and Let Die.
There is, despite everything, an element of women’s liberation about the priestess figure in these movies. Although the movie makers were probably not aware of it, prior to their involvement with the early Suffragette movement, many of the founding women’s rights campaigners had been leaders in Spiritualism (of a more Christian sort, perhaps).
The Church and the Voodoo Ritual
In Louisina, Harry Angel enters an impressive church building. The few people there are White. We see only an officiant and a couple of altar boys. There is not even one single worshipper, only empty pews. Angel himself has only entered the building to meet, as arranged, with Louis Cyphre. Meeting as one might normally in a bar or cafe, clearly the Devil has no fear of Christianity any more.
The emptiness — one might even say vacuity — of the church building stands in sharp contrast to the ecstatic, sensual, otherworldly, confrontational, and erotic Voodoo ceremony of the movie. It has no building, yet conducted out in expanses of nature, the scene seems crowded. It has attitude and spirit, and knows what it is.
More than two decades since Angel Heart was made, empty churches is something that we find worrying Europeans, in Europe, today.
With mass immigration over the last few decades, especially from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, a new religiosity has come to Britain and other highly secular European states, in many cases changing very significantly the culture of working class areas. However, it is the growth of Islam, not Voodoo, that troubles Europeans. “Christianity declining 50pc faster than thought – as one in 10 under-25s is a Muslim” is just one headline from the British Telegraph newspaper. Again, according to The Express newspaper, “Muhammad” is now the second most popular name for newborn boys. The future of Europe will be different to what Europeans thought a decade ago.
We shouldn’t confuse Islam and Voodoo, however. The former, a monotheistic — and often extremely puritanical — religion like Christianity and Judaism, would condemn, perhaps even more harshly than the other two, the nudity, sensuality, and sexuality of Voodoo. The Christian nun’s vestment is only outdone by the Wahhabi or Salafi niqab, which covers every part of the body, including the face — lest men become aroused by the sight of it. Indeed, part of the hostility many Europeans feel towards Islam is its ultra-conservative manifestations, especially the insistence on women “covering” themselves, and the Wahhabi/Salafi interpretation of the religion which places women in a very subservient role.
Such a scenario would have been predicted by few Europeans until recently, not least of all as non-European cultures have always been thought, by the “intelligentsia,” to be more “progressive,” not ultra-conservative.
Voodoo as the Faith of the Aristocracy
But why, as the European tabloids say, is Christianity dying right at the moment that religions from outside the West are growing within it. The empty church of Angel Heart hints at the spiritual fossilization of European faith into magnificent, shell-like buildings, empty of life, that contrast in every way the groups of Voodoo practitioners.
Notably, in Angel Heart, it is the aristocracy — and the beautiful Europeans — that have adopted Voodoo. When we see a group of Whites baptizing a woman in a river, they are all noticeably overweight, unattractive, and, in some cases, appear inbred.
It is the beautiful Margaret Krusemark (played by Charlotte Rampling) that has adopted Voodoo, astrology, and the occult arts. These were introduced to her by her father when she was a child (he tells Angel that she understood the Tarot before she could read). As Christianity was in previous eras, Voodoo is the hereditary religion of the “old money” — the caucasian aristocracy — in Angel Heart. Voodoo and occultism are their faith.
Similarly, in Live and Let Die we find another attractive, caucasian diviner. In this case it is the prophetess Solitaire, played by Jane Seymour, who informs a criminal mastermind and heroin lord of African-descent about the future, and what actions he should take to secure his interests (“death” seems to be disproportionately advised). As with Krusemark, she, we learn, inherited this ability, in this case from her mother.
The subtext of Angel Heart is the search among those of European descent — at the more elite end of the spectrum — for an authentic and vigorous faith. (In the interest of full disclosure, I myself adopted Sanatana Dharma (“Hinduism”).)
In Live and Let Die secularism vies with belief in Voodoo. Not only is the sophisticated Mr. Bond a skeptic of the Tarot (and makes facial expressions that reveals ridicule of Solitaire’s beliefs), but the organization that he works for (the spy agency MI5) might be regarded as operating on a scientific (think of all the inventions and gadgets that Bond is given to aid his missions) and rational basis, while the criminal empire acts on the advice of the Tarot.
Nevertheless, the makers of Live and Let Die recognized the appeal of the Voodoo and the Tarot even within secular Britain, not only making it the theme of the movie, but also, afterward, cashing in on the “James Bond 007 Tarot Deck,” designed by Fergus Hall. Modeled on the deck that appeared in the movie — with some alterations — the 007 set was later repackaged as “The Tarot of the Witches,” which is still available through U.S Games Systems, Inc.
Voodoo in popular culture appears as the absolute inversion of normality. Not only is it the realm of spells, of unknown forces, pacts with the Devil, and of dreams and possessions, but, here, women take the role of ritual officiants (priestesses), becoming leaders partly because of their sexuality, in contrast to the male officiants of Christianity of which, in Catholicism at least, celibacy is required. Instead of Christianity as the hereditary faith of the old European aristocracy, Voodoo is discovered to have taken its place.
From a conservative perspective, Voodoo in popular entertainment would represent a warning about women’s liberation, sexual freedom, and dabbling in the supernatural.
From another perspective, though, it illuminates the decline of Christianity as a European faith — a faith which has enormous churches, but not the number of faithful required to fill them, and ceremonies that fail to excite like those of its adversary, whether that is Voodoo, Islam, Hinduism, or something else.
It is curious, though, that in Live and Let Die we find a caucasian prophetess divining for an African-American criminal organization. It is as if they, like the Christians of Angel Heart, have lost their heritage (they clearly respect and need Solitaire’s power — which is, in the movie, implicitly linked to Voodoo — but cannot perform the rites, and cannot connect to the gods themselves.) The suggestion that Solitaire needs to be a virgin to read the Tarot may draw on popular nonsense about “sacrificial virgins,” but the movie suggests, nevertheless, that the embrace of materialism — in a sexual encounter between Solitaire and Bond, and the cartel’s criminal pursuits of profit — is incompatible with deriving power from supernatural forces.
The popular image of Voodoo is, then, part dream, part nightmare, and, yet, a mirror in which the decadence of contemporary “Western” society can be clearly seen. This is not the decadence of abandonment to “sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” but (in Angel Heart) of a society strictly observing its rules and rituals while no longer conscious of them inwardly, or (Live and Let Die) manipulating them for purely selfish and materialistic reasons. Voodoo, with its exuberance and energy, is the picture that shows the fossilization of traditional European faith, and hints at the confusion and fear that we see in Europe today.
Perhaps Voodoo in popular entertainment tells us one other thing: turning the clock back won’t work. The future belong to those with vision.