ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 16, Number 1 (January 2020)
Author: Martin Schwarzenbacher and Lisa Kottas

Author’s note: We took the phrase “Hyper-Voodoo” in our title from Damian Duffy and John Jennings’ Graphic Novel The Hole: Consumer Culture Vol. 1 (2008). It tells the story of a female Vodou devotee who is tricked by the ‘Vodou god of capitalism’ into commercializing her religion. She founds the Hyper-Voodoo Network which turns elements of her religion into consumer objects (e.g. Voodoo Doll Fashion line, Vootique, etc.) (Duffy/Jennings 2008).

“Face to face with these rites, I am doubly alert. Black Magic! Orgies, witches’ sabbaths, heathen ceremonies, amulets. Coitus is an occasion to call on the gods of the clan. It is a sacred act, pure, absolute, bringing invisible forces into action.” (Fanon 1986, 126)

I. Introduction
Hyper-reality is the indistinguishability between reality and its replication (or representation) (Baudrillard 1978, 24−26). From a social anthropological perspective, perceptual patterns are subject to socialization. This means, perception is not only a product of one’s inner psychic-neurological processes; how and what our senses perceive is trained and shaped through social practice (Prinz/Goebel 2015, 9f). One of the basic cultural functions of media, and in this regard especially mass media, is to pass cultural knowledge down to teach the receiver the cultural norms of a society, and to socialize him or her to those socially shared values (Salzman 2006a, 335).

While mass media shapes our gaze on reality, it actually prefabricates something it may call ‘reality’, which is only a preconception of what the real should look like on screen (Baudrillard 1978, 7f). For example, reality television uses screenplays or reshoots to replicate supposed real situation; the amateur actors perform gestures representing real actions without any real consequences. Yet, those actions are not perceived as products of the imagination, as re-enactments of reality, or representation of the real, but as real events instead (Baudrillard 1978, 9f). The term ‘reality’ becomes a sign without referencing reality. In mass media, ‘reality’ merely signifies ‘authenticity’; the re-enactment―the copy―of reality demands to be regarded as more authentic than the real itself, and succeeds with this postulation (Baudrillard 1978, 15).

As human beings gain their cultural knowledge through television shows, documentaries, movies, and other mass media, their consciousness becomes the basis for hyper-reality, which, in turn, not only affects our notion of reality, but also shapes our anthropology―the way how we perceive other human beings and their culture. The human consciousness is, as a result, colonized by hyper-reality.

In this essay, the approach outlined above will be illustrated by the Voodoo religion. The term ‘Voodoo’ addresses, for this particular case, a semiotic construct which appears on Western screens as a real religion but is, in fact, built upon signs that originated from fiction and popular culture. Voodoo is here regarded as a hyper-real religion. We distinguish this hyper-real religion, ‘Voodoo’, from ‘Vodou’, the Haitian religion1 . This essay introduces a theory on hyper-real religion as a product of hyper-real anthropology. Hyper-real anthropology, here, means the acquisition of cultural knowledge through consumption of mass media. The cultural knowledge in question is narrowed down to ethnology; i.e. knowledge and perception of non-White, non-Western social groups.

We argue in this contribution that the medial representation of Haitian religiosity converts the empirical religion to a simulacrum of a religion; Vodou is turned into the hyper-real religion Voodoo. We are going to show that this hyper-real religion does not refer to a real religion, Vodou, but to the Black sign. The Black sign signifies the anthropological meaning of Blackness. It is, like Voodoo, a sign not based on real Blackness (i.e. on empirical facts regarding Black people), it rather displays pre-assembled notions referencing similar referentless signs. The Black sign is, too, a part of hyper-real anthropology. As hyper-reality replaced reality, Voodoo removed Vodou from historic consciousness. Similar to Baudrillard’s statement, “The Gulf War did not take place” (Baudrillard 1991a; cf. Strehle 2012, 142), we proclaim, Vodou never existed. This erasure of the real led, as we are going to argue with Frantz Fanon (Black Skin, White Masks), and with Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton (Black Power), to the colonization of the human mind by hyper-real signs.

II. We All are Anthropologists: On the Hyper-Real Ethnography
Our essay is an attempt to add to the discussion on the theory of hyper-real religion, initiated by Adam Possamai in 2005 (cf. 2007; 2012). Unlike his approach, we view hyper-real religions neither as lived religions mainly pursued on the Internet or through consumer culture (Possamai, 2007; idem 2012, 2; idem 2015, 789f), nor as “cultural resources” (Geoffroy 2012, 25) “provid[ing] inspiration at a metaphorical level” (Possamai 2012, 20). A hyper-real religion is, arguing from Baudrillard’s Precession of the Simulacra, rather a simulation of signs ‘pretending’ (Baudrillard 1978, 10) to be a religion while masking its indiscernibility (ibid., 15)—like a simulator who ‘produces’ real symptoms of an undiagnosable disease in order to appear sick (ibid., 10f).

As anthropologists of religion, we do not maintain Baudrillard’s position on religion as “an illusion of modernity” (Geoffroy 2012, 24). We strongly oppose this Marxist discourse on religion as ‘false consciousness’ (cf. Marx/Engels 2001, 68f). Anthropologists do not, “[u]nlike other social sciences”, take the measurement of cultures, or cultural concepts, from a Western perspective; they, instead, “fix[] each case within the widest co-ordinates – all social formations, globally, through human history” (Sanjek 2006, 195f). Though, we do agree “that all anthropological accounts are political” (Salzman 2006b, 366). The anthropologist Talal Asad rightfully criticizes the notion of religion being reducible to human practice and belief, whose essence is strictly separated from the essence of politics (Asad 2002, 115f). The definition of religion “as a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon […] may be a happy accident that […] converges with the liberal demand in our time that it be kept quite separate from politics, law, and science – spaces in which varieties of power and reason articulate” (Asad 2002, 116). This universal definition of religion is an agreement struck between secular liberals and liberal Christians. Due to post-Reformation history, religion appears, in modern Western understanding, as strictly separated from power (ibid.). Religion maintains political power though.

The two Black Power activists Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton define, borrowing from Hans Morgenthau, political power as “the psychological control over the minds of men” that includes the implementation of signs by those who have the power to define (Ture/Hamilton 1992, 35).

When the French colonization of the Western part of the island Hispaniola, today’s Haiti, began in 1697, one of the early steps of the takeover of the hyper-real was made. One of the first (hyper-real) ethnographies on Haitian religiosity emerged a hundred years later, in 1797, with Moreau de Saint-Méry’s early descriptions on the ritualistic behavior of the Black slaves:

“He describes Vodou dances as frenzied, convulsive, and at times so impassioned that the dancers would literally be killed.” (McGee 2012, 237)

Such descriptions wielded, from the beginning, an enormous fascination, paired with derision (McGee 2012, 237), with European consciousness; these “[i]mages of orgies and naked black bodies writhing with sacrificial animals” (McGee 2012, 240) were the first throes of the modern spectacle. Ethnology is, as much as other sciences (Baudrillard 1978, 21), an attempt to recreate the real by resurrecting signs of difference (ibid., 18f). As soon as the anthropologist captures observations, like those described above, in his or her ethnography, it becomes a recreation of moments before the anthropologist made his or her subject different (ibid., 17f). An ethnography, a written product by anthropologists (Sanjek 2006, 193), is an “independent, literary work partially accorded with original events” (Kremser 2001, 140; our translation2 and italics); it is not an objective report, but a copy (“Abbild”), a recreation of the anthropologist’s perspective and experience (ibid.). An ethnography does not represent reality in its full detail, but recreates the ‘ethnic’ reality. Colonial descriptions influenced “the psychologies of both the colonized and the colonizers, deeply affecting their views of the world, of the other peoples, and of themselves” (Licata 2012, 159). The colonial spectacle made its way to human consciousness, and took over the perception of ethnological signs. This means, for the passages below, that every representation dealing with ethnological Otherness is a hyper-real ethnography capturing simulacra of cultures; this includes documentaries as well as horror movies, or videogames, and so on. Contrasting Baudrillard’s claim, “[we are all […] Indians” (idem 1991b, 448), we think that, we all are anthropologists in hyper-reality, always resurrecting the signs of difference.

III. White Gaze, Black Signs: Blackness as Spectacle
Signs are not stripped from all historical references, as Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotic theory may indicate. What is perceived as a sign depends, as above mentioned, on cultural practice, and, therefore, deeply rooted in social history. Every sign, even a single gesture, refers to a growing corpus of internalized history (cf. Zips 2001, 227f). Frantz Fanon, a French-Martinican psychiatrist, characterizes this effect in his work Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (1953) by showing how his Black skin color evokes fear in a White child (Fanon 1986, 111−114):

“’Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!’ Frightened! Frightened! Now they were beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself to tears, but laughter had become impossible. I could no longer laugh, because I already knew that there were legends, stories, history, and above all historicity[.]” (Fanon 1986, 112)

Fanon explains that, in colonialism, White people define the meaning of Blackness, while Black people, the colonized, take this meaning, and accept it unchallenged. They internalize this meaning in their speech patterns, body language, and consciousness (Kastner 2012, 87). Given that Blackness is usually constructed in negative ways3 , they also unconsciously assume their socially constructed inferiority (Licata 2012, 161) beginning to think themselves as “White”:

“[T]he Antillean does not think of himself as a black man; he thinks of himself as an Antillean. The Negro lives in Africa. Subjectively, intellectually, the Antillean conducts himself like a white man. But he is a Negro. That he will learn once he goes to Europe; and when he hears Negroes mentioned he will recognize that the word includes himself as well as the Senegalese.” (Fanon 1986, 148)

They themselves do not perceive their own skin color as a sign; though they cannot escape from the White gaze detecting, what we will henceforward call, the Black sign. Roland Barthes illustrates this White gaze in Mythologies (1957), where he disassembles the many connotations Blackness may imply:

“I am at the barber’s, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting […] the tricolour. […] I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire[.]” (Barthes 1991, 115)

“[But,] the Negro who salutes is not the symbol of the French Empire: he has too much presence, he appears as a rich, fully experienced, spontaneous, innocent, indisputable image. […] this presence is tamed, put at a distance, made almost transparent; it recedes a little, it becomes the accomplice of a concept which comes to it fully armed, French imperality[; …] here [the Negro giving the salute] is again tied to the totality of the world: to the general History of France, to its colonial adventures, to its present difficulties.” (Barthes 1991, 117−118)

The Black sign serves under the White gaze as a “laudatory monologue”, as a “self-portrait of power”, as a spectacle (Debord 1970, 24). Colonialism was, in our opinion, an early stage of the society of the spectacle which turned living people into representations (cf. Debord 1970, 1), into Black signs. When the French massively deported Africans to Saint-Domingue (i.e. Haiti) in order to abuse their labor force, they also imported the spectacle. Or, as Austrian social anthropologist Ulrike Sulikowski has put it, “the gaze of the slave traders transformed humans into ‘ebony’ – goods as marketable as any other” (2000, 78).

The White gaze is, deductively, neither a biologically racial, nor an essentially cultural pattern of perception inherited by people of European descendants. It is an emic perspective interpreting signs in cultural patterns; those are socially gained over the course of one’s life (Barnard 2006, 182), and draw their interpretation power from a collective unconscious which is the “sum of prejudices, myths, collective attitudes of a given group” (Fanon 1986, 188). This unconscious is refreshed by products of popular media (Kastner 2012, 88). The age of colonialism, with its memoirs, travel books, and adventure novels, shaped a ‘spectacular’ consciousness, which “extracted an imagery of the slaves as other than human” (Sulikowski 2000, 80) creating the Black sign.

The Black sign stands for “childlike primitives lacking emotional control, intelligence, and morality” (Licata 2012, 160). This signification was no mere self-illusion, a simple mistake of intellectual reasoning, but a welcome justification based on economic interests. Ture and Hamilton emphasize, “slaves were brought to this land for the good of white masters, not for the purpose of saving or ‘civilizing’ the blacks” (1992, 24; our italics). The Black sign is, in the context of this essay, understood as a “colonial ‘instrumentalized perception’” (Sulikowski 2000, 80) of Blackness that “fabricated and embellished a legend of terror which was expressed strongly by the obsession with certain specific elements of Haitian religion” (ibid.). This perception gave, in turn, birth to the hyper-real religion ‘Voodoo’. This Black hyper-real religion is, to appropriate Fanon’s words, “Black Magic, primitive mentality, animism, animal eroticism, [o]r, if one prefers, […] humanity at its lowest” (1986, 126; our italics).

IV. The Evocation of Voodoo: Making of a Hyper-Real Religion
Hollywood cinema has an “enormous influence on modes of perception in general” (Sulikowski 2000, 77). Voodoo is used as an aesthetic in consumer culture; it can be, contrary to Possamai’s lived and popular religion approach, mainly assembled by icons, such as drums, dancing, possession, sacrifice, and Zombie (Sulikowski 2000, 94), etc. Popular media, advertisement, and consumer goods can, therefore, virtually evoke ‘Voodoo’ in consumers by using one of the dimensions of the Black sign.

“[T]his evocation is done in such a way that, depending on the consumer’s situatedness and personal beliefs, the response can be one of curiosity, awe, fear, shock, good-natured humor or derision. The consumer chooses out of this range on the basis of his or her own life experiences, personality and priming.” (McGee 2012, 237; our italics)

In popular music, to use an example, the ‘Blackness in Black music’ evokes desire, whereas the ‘Blackness of Voodoo’ induces fear and terror in moviegoers (Sulikowski 2000, 95). Due to Hollywood’s general preference for narrative cinema (ibid., 77), the Black sign in Voodoo as plot element function as the evil dimension in a storyline (ibid., 78).

“‘His body is black, his language is black, his soul must be black too.’ This logic is put into daily practice by the white man. The black man is the symbol of Evil and Ugliness.” (Fanon 1986, 180)

By using this kind of ‘Voodoo spell’, Hollywood Voodoo became, under the White gaze, a Barthesian myth (cf. Sulikowski 2000, 82f)—a master’s trope assembling frozen imagery from colonial literature (ibid, 82).

“[B]ecause the [Voodoo horror] films take most of their codes quite direct from the literature, the medium film with its sensory complexity – image, sound, movement – adds the quality of simulated reality.” (Sulikowski 2000, 82; our italics)

The old nightmare of slave owners, dreaming of their slaves “wielding a kind of monopoly on magic power” (ibid., 80), converts, under the effects of cinematic simulation, “into [an] universal[] […] put on a metaphysical plane, where the other is forever a manifestation of evil” (Sulikowski 2000, 83). Voodoo is, in fact, the Hollywood’s first original horror topos without drawing from European mythology (e.g. Vampires, Werewolves) (Sulikowski 2000, 78).

Hollywood’s first Voodoo movie White Zombie (1932) is based on one of many books authored by William B. Seabrook, Magic Island (1929). His works are travel reports based on his Haiti experiences; therein, Seabrook blends them together with bizarre, magical elements to tell various stories. His books are presumed to be very influential to the popular ‘Voodoo belief’. Seabrook associates Voodoo with human sacrifices, sorcery, and necromantism. His White gaze also strongly describes ritual ceremonies with ungodly, bestial sexuality:

“[S]creaming, leaping, writhing black bodies, blood-maddened, sex-maddened, god-maddened, drunken, whirled and danced their dark saturnalia … couples seizing one another from time to time fled from the circle … into the forest to share and slake their ecstasy.” (Seabrook 1929, 47 acc. to Sulikowski 2000, 82)

Seabrook also introduced the Zombie in its modern design as human flesh-eating, dead eyed, absent-minded, slowly walking dead man (Sulikowski 2000, 82; Wendl 2006, 278). Even though he claimed he had encountered them in Haiti, other (later) accounts on Haiti did not mention this creature at all, despite exerting fantastic elements (Sulikowski 2000, 82).

White Zombie uses Seabrook’s Zombie lore and descriptions (Sulikowski 2000, 82f), and formalizes and arranges the Voodoo iconography. It becomes the visual blueprint for Voodoo imagery including drums at night-time, unintelligible dances and rituals at crossroads, white makeup on vacant Zombie faces, and ‘Voodoo-dolls’ (Wendl 2006, 279); whereas the narrative structure was established by the 1943 Zombie movie I Walked with a Zombie (Sulikowski 2000, 84).

While White Zombie tells a horror-love story among White people, in which two plantation owners plot to zombify a beautiful, yet reluctant love interest by the means of a ‘Voodoo-doll’ (Sulikowski 2000, 83), the danger that Voodoo poses on White people is less desire-fulfilling in I Walked with a Zombie. In it, a Canadian nurse discovers that her patient, the wife of a rich plantation owner who suffers from an unexplainable mental fog, was cursed by the local Voodoo priest. He zombified her at the suggestion of her mother-in-law, who is herself a cult member, in order to punish the victim for falling in love with her husband’s half-brother (Sulikowski 2000, 84; Wendl 2006, 280).

Voodoo may not appear, for the common reader, as a hyper-real religion, because they may think the representation rests, nonetheless, upon on some reality—namely Haitian Vodou―, but Voodoo is, in fact, a ‘syncretism’ of several Black religions molten together through the White gaze. It uses elements of diverse Afro-Caribbean religions such as Vodou (Haiti), Santeria (Cuba), or Obeah (Jamaica) as signs, generalizes them and presents them on screen as one religion or magical practice (Sulikowski 2000, 93). Or, to use another example, the famous Voodoo-doll, an artifact which represents Black Magic ‘per se’, originates in fact from European folk belief, and was imported to North America by European settlers (Wendl 2006, 279). To create Voodoo on screen, the producers and creative teams mingle facts with fictional elements to fabricate an uncertainty if something is real or not:

“[P]rops and stage setting are quite sophisticated sometimes; so accurate information is always blended with invention […]. For the audience an It-might-be-true feeling is thus created.” (Sulikowski 2000, 93)

For the common viewer, there is no objective reality to determine. In this case, every small detail in every Voodoo movie―even if in sum contradicting―is simultaneously true (Baudrillard 1978, 31f). As Baudrillard explains:

“We are in a logic of simulation which has nothing to do with a logic of facts and an order of reasons. Simulation is characterized by a precession of the model, of all models around the merest fact − the models come first[.]” (Baudrillard 2001, 178)

Behind all models of Voodoo, behind the sign of drums at night, the consciousness fed by hyper-real signs erases all of colonial history, as the Black sign appears in timeless dimensions; it does not refer to any history―like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once influentially said, the Black sign “is not capable of [historical] development and education, and as they [i.e. the Negroes] appear to us now, has always been their appearance” (Hegel 1924, chapter 2; our translation4 and italics). The Black sign is, through the White gaze, unable to generate or to keep hold of any history. It is, as we mentioned above, a product of colonial perspectives that still shapes the consciousness. “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life”, as Marx and Engels insisted (2001, 69), the same goes for hyper-reality. Our consciousness relies, by now, on hyper-real signs, appropriates them as cultural knowledge, and reproduces them, in turn. The hyper-real mind disgorges Voodoo dolls, love potions, amulets, or curse magic; it adds ‘Voodoo’ to the Rolling Stones’ “Voodoo Lounch” tour. Voodoo is, consequently, deeply enrooted in marketing culture (Kremser 2000, 9). Behind this ‘spectacular colonization’, reality disappears from the people’s mind leaving a desert of social reality (cf. Baudrillard 1978, 8).

“The whole of European thought developed in places that were increasingly arid and increasingly inaccessible. Consequently, it was natural that the chances of encountering man became less and less frequent.” (Fanon 2004, 237)

In European colonial thought, the narcissism of the spectacle―the permanent laudatory monologues―“paved the way for a virtual delirium” that turned “reality of man as a living, working, self-made being into words”, into signs (Fanon 2004, 237). Hollywood images of Black people being man-eating cannibals have, as Ture and Hamilton point out, no roots in reality. Those hyper-real signs serve as an attempt to ‘cloud’ Black people’s awareness of their own history and to inhibit political self-determination (Ture/Hamilton 1992, 38f). According to hyper-real representations, the history of Blacks begin when “they landed on the slave auction blocks” (ibid., 38).

Voodoo, as a hyper-real religion, serves the same function―to cloud the awareness of historical, political depth dimensions of the Black sign. In the hyper-real consciousness, Voodoo breaks into reality; not to erase any trace of Vodou, the real Haitian religion, but to cover the fact that there is no reality of Vodou in Western consciousness. It simply disappeared in a shroud of colonial trauma, and, therefore, never existed in Western minds.

V. Vodou Never Existed: On the Disappearance of the Haitian Revolution
Haitian Vodou is a religion which uses dance and drums to call and worship their gods (or spirits), the loas (or lwas). The goal of most rituals is to become possessed by a loa (Kremser 2000, 11f). According to Michel Leiris, Vodou rituals function as a ‘lived theater’; when someone gets possessed by a loa, he or she will act out specific gestures, dance in specific movements, and talk in specific speech patterns, depending on the god who possessed him or her (Kremser 2000, 10). Dancing and sacrificing serve then as communicational tools between this world and the spiritual (Kremser 2000, 11). “Performances may be comic or dramatic, suspenseful or gay, establish order or invert them” (Lambek 2006, 440) depending on which god(s) manifest(s).

The god mounts the believer like a horseman a horse (cf. Deren 2004), and people are then able to ask him or her for advice in case of ‘everyday problems’ or healing when someone suffers from spiritual, psychological malaises. In this sense, the ritual space maps the collective unconscious in which the gods arise as specific archetypes (cf. Kment 2005, 209). Like many Afro-American religions, Vodou provides character development by placing an individual on a cosmological map (Kremser 2005, 13); for example, the cults integrate ‘Others’ excluded or stigmatized by society, such as women or homosexuals (Nabhan 2005, 48), and give their ‘Otherness’ meaning within the cosmological mapping.

Vodou was, however, not only a tool of spiritual or psychological matters, but also an instrument of political affairs. It provided the enslaved the opportunity to communicate and organize, either. Vodou rituals, and any other form of religious gathering of Blacks in colonialism, were not feared by colonial powers because of their ‘Black sorcery’, but because of political means: its potential to ignite resistance and rebellion against their condition. Across the Caribbean, gathering, dancing, and unusual verbal communication among Blacks were forbidden or strictly regulated (Sulikowski 2000, 79). Justin Lhérisson suggests that Vodou is both a religion and a political association, and “the former created the latter” (acc. to Hoffmann 2000, 49).

When a slave revolt arose in 1791 which evolved into the Haitian Revolution (until 1804) (Wendl 2006, 278), its initial point was, as the national myth of Haiti indicates, a Vodou ritual called the ‘Bois-Caiman ceremony’ (Hoffmann 2000, 35). The Black revolutionists establish, under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe, the Black nation Haiti as second republic in the new world as a result (Wendl 2006, 278; Long 2001, 19f).

The White plantation owners fled with their remaining slaves to Louisiana (Long 2001, 19f), and Vodou migrated, as a result, to the American continent (Long 2001, 37f; 41f) transforming into the New Orleans Voodoo community. Some Voodoo priests and priestesses, so-called doctors and queens, became objects of journalistic reports; the most influential Voodoo queen was Marie Laveau (Long 2001, 43ff). When those early leaders, the doctors and queens of the New Orleans community, had died, Voodoo became the magical practice Hoodoo. As esoteric and magical therapy of illnesses were ruled illegal at the turn of the twentieth century, Hoodoo was stigmatized as demonic and primitive (ibid., 52f). Americans were, in fact, afraid of the “disease” spreading from Haiti, as Adam M. McGee illustrates:

“Those fleeing from the Haitian Revolution were treated as though they carried a dangerous disease. Many places, including New Orleans, attempted to control the influx of blacks from Haiti, who, like pathogenic agents, might spread the spirit of rebellion.” (McGee 2012, 238)

The colonial powers struggled, during the 19th century, to evoke all horrendous connotations of the Black sign to suffocate, similarly to Baudrillard’s claims toward the Gulf War (Baudrillard 1991a, 36), the image of an opponent who fought and won the revolutionary wars. The outcome of the lost war, the notion of free Blacks, was turned into a spectacle on paper.

One of the most influential books was Hayti or the Black Republic, published in 1884 by Spencer St. John, former British consul in Haiti. St. John’s memoirs represented cannibalism as the center of Vodou rituals, and mentioned an ostensible Haitian recipe which circulated in travel reports until the middle of the 20th century (Sulikowski 2000, 80):

“[A]ccording to Haitian connoisseurs human meat tastes best when boiled with congo beans[.]” (St. John acc. to Sulikowski 2000, 80)

Haiti was not recognized as an independent nation by the USA, except for Civil War years, which was afterwards retracted (Sulikowski 2000, 79). St. John’s descriptions of Haiti and Vodou were meant as warnings of independent Caribbean nations (Kremser 2000, 12f), which were regarded as potential regressions into barbarism (Wendl 2006, 278). St. John also prepared the cognitive framework that would later generate the hyper-real religion Voodoo on screen. During the course of the 19th century, any reality of Vodou and of the Haitian Revolution faded away, as if it never existed. Only Haiti as a simulation of the Black sign was left.

This void was later filled, when, during and after the US occupation of Haiti (1915–1934), Marines perceived the island-like Black sign and their experiences as ‘Voodoo’, the American orthography of ‘Vodou’ (as illustrated above). They renewed strong interest in the Afro-Caribbean religion in the USA, and became the main source of public knowledge, as they “published […] memoirs, wrote books and articles and gave interviews to newspapers and radio stations” (Sulikowski 2000, 80), and spread sensual stories of “Djinnis”, “obscene gestures”, blank stares, “human sacrifices”, and “inferno of noises”, etc. (Sulikowski 2000, 81). Those experiences directly paved the way for the emergence of Voodoo on Hollywood screen.

“When the film [White Zombie in 1932] was made, all kinds of informations about Haiti publicly existed and the Marines were still there, which played a role in assuming the topic [Voodoo] could be commercially successful.” (Sulikowski 2000, 82)

By erasing the Haitian Revolution behind hyper-real signs, “[t]he colonial power structure clamped a boot of oppression on the neck of the black People and then, ironically, said ‘they are not ready for freedom’” (Ture/Hamilton 1992, 23). Thus, the Haitian Revolution, the self-emancipation of Blacks, was reversed and suffocated on Western screens in the shadow of the Black sign. Voodoo is the curse of the White gaze; it is “the sensory trace of th[e] disappearance” (Baudrillard 1997, 116) of Black history and culture with eyes open.

About the Author

Martin Schwarzenbacher is an anthropologist of religion and currently degree candidate at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Vienna (Austria). His current research interest includes the use and transformation of myths in existential mythology (i.e. “mythology without God/s”) and the history of Consciousness in African-American spirituality.

Lisa Kottas is a PhD candidate at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Vienna. While preparing her doctoral thesis on spirituality in Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), she currently reworks her master thesis, “Ghetto of the Mind” (2017), an ethnography on religion in Afrofuturism and Conscious Hip Hop, for the upcoming publication.


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1 – The orthography of the Haitian religion is not static. It can be, for instance, written as ‘Vodu’, ‘Vodun’, ‘Vodou’, ‘Vodun’, ‘Vaudou’, ‘Vodu’, ‘Wudu’, ‘Wodu’, ‘Vodoun’, ‘Voudoo’, ‘Voodoun’, ‘Voudaux’, ‘Vaudoun’, ‘Vaudoux’, ‘Vodu’, etc. The spelling depends not only on the language of the respective author; it also indicates various regional differences and ethnographically distinguishes them (Kremser 2000, 9). We chose ‘Voodoo’ as the most well-known term to describe the Hollywood ‘religion’, or rather the depiction of a religion in popular culture, as a hyper-real religion. ‘Vodou’, on the other hand, is the official Haitian Creol orthography (Kremser 2000, 10). The root of the word ‘Vodou’ derives from Fon (or Fo) (Kremser 2000, 10; Browning 2014, 280; McGee 1997, 13), a West African language, and means ‘spirit’ (Browning 2014, 280), ‘god’ or ‘image’ (McGee 1997, 13).

2 – The original quotation in German language: “[…] sie [die Ethnographie] ist ein eigenstaendiges literarisches Werk, das nur partiell mit den Originalereignissen uebereinstimmt” (Kremser 2001, 140; original italics).

3 – “The Negro is something else. Here again we find the Jew. Both of us stand for Evil. The black man more so, for the good reason that he is black. Is not whiteness in symbols always ascribed in French to Justice, Truth, Virginity? […] The black man is the symbol of Evil and Ugliness” (Fanon 1986, 180).

4 – The original quotation in German language: “Dieser Zustand [der Neger] ist keiner Entwicklung und Bildung faehig, und wie wir sie heute sehen, so sind sie immer gewesen“ (Hegel 1924, chap. 2).