This post is a little late, considering that Halloween was last night, but I wanted to be sure to make note of the continuing relevance of Voodoo as a trope in entertainment culture by highlighting the historical significance of Voodoo horror films. Well, I would have done that, but I already covered this topic somewhat in an earlier period with reference to jungle Voodoo, and anyway, I find this sort of material to be kind of dreary. To be honest, I see much of the “Voodoo as evil” theme as tiresome, and uninteresting, and not worthy of my time. So why am I writing about this today?
While is is rare that a popular film will make explicit connections to Africana religions that are appropriate in any way, I recently found a 1974 title that caught my eye. The film is called Abby, and it is one of the uncommon horror movies that featured an African American actress in a lead role, but what is most interesting is the part that religion plays in this film. And not just Christianity, either! Abby is about a woman who is possessed by a spirit that is apparently associated with Eshu, a deity from the West African Yoruba religion. Only here, this Eshu is a sex demon who is discovered in Nigeria trapped among a trove of relics inside of a phallus-shaped genie bottle that somehow makes its way into the hands of Abby’s father-in-law, a black Christian minister with a Ph.D (the real kind! he’s an archeologist!) and then winds up wreaking havoc in the pious household of which our heroine Abby is a part. There are some remarkable scenes with gospel singing in a black church, along with all of the violence and dirty sexy stuff one expects – the film was a low-budget production in the “blaxploitation” movie era – but there is also some educational value here. Abby’s father in-law, played with incomparable intelligence by the veteran black actor William Marshall (we Star Trek fanatics recall him as the legendary scientist Richard Daystrom), is not only a theologian, but a scholar of African religions. Before throwing down on Abby in the grand finale with a ritual of spirit removal worthy of an adept, he provides a short lecture on the orisa Eshu, the divinity who is most notably associated with sexuality and chaos in the philosophy and metaphysics of Nature in Africana religions.
So in this flick Eshu is presented not only as a legitimate spiritual entity and divine being, but we get a little academic background in a film that depicts both Africana Christianity and Yoruba religion with a degree of respect. No matter that the Christian side wins, yay! Abby makes a good run of it, and she displays remarkable physical range performing a pious gospel singer and a sexually powerful transgressive woman embodying a male spirit (with the distorted croaking voice that is such a common effect in these films). By the way, Abby was sued by Warner Brothers for copyright infringement as a ripoff of their hit The Exorcist, but in the end they lost, so there. You can look for this film on dvd today, but more significantly, there is an excellent upcoming documentary on the significant role of black women in the American horror film industry, called My Final Girl, if scary movies are your thing. We support the study of Africana cultures. Me, I just like the religion.