In this blog I want to note the continuing relevance of Voodoo as a trope in media and entertainment cultures by highlighting the historical significance of horror films. 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 dumb and uninteresting. To be honest, I see so many of the “Voodoo” memes as tiresome and unworthy 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 in any way accurate or appropriate, I had recently found a 1974 title that caught my eye. The film is called Abby, and it was an uncommon horror genre movie in that it 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 deity that apparently originated with with West African cultures, an orisa, from the Yoruba religion. Only in this movie, the thing is also conceived as a sex demon, discovered in Nigeria, trapped among a trove of relics inside of a phallus-shaped genie bottle that somehow makes its way back to America and into the hands of Abby’s father-in-law, a black Christian minister with a Ph.D (hell yeah! he’s an archeologist!). Eventually the naughty spirit winds up wreaking havoc in the pious and conservative household of which our heroine Abby is a part. There are some wonderful scenes with gospel singing in an African American church, along with all of the violence and inappropriate content that one would expect – this horror film was a low-budget production from the 20th century era in the style of “Blaxploitation” movies – but I want to suggest that there is also some educational value here too. Abby’s father in-law, played with incomparable dignity by the veteran black actor William Marshall (Star Trek fanatics like me recall him as the legendary scientist Richard Daystrom), is not only a theologian in this movie, but also a scholar of Africana religions. Before throwing down on the demon-possessed Abby in the grand finale with a ritual of spirit removal worthy of an adept, he provides a short lecture on the orisha Eshu, the divinity who is most notably associated with sexuality, tricksterism, and chaos, according to the metaphysics of Africana philosophy and religion.
I have written about this extraordinary being in his various forms in the diasporic imagination. In Abby, Eshu is presented not only as a powerful spiritual entity with a divine pedigree, but we get a little bit of academic background about him too. All this in a film that depicts both black Christianity and African Yoruba religion with an unusual level of respect and intelligence. Still, no matter because in the end the Christian side wins! yay! Nevertheless, in her starring role as Abby, Carol Speed makes a good run of it, displaying remarkable range as an actress performing the role of a talented gospel singer and a sexually transgressive black woman who must struggles with her own psychic displacement by a sinister masculine spirit (with the ugly, distorted, croaking voice that was a common effect in 1970s horror). By the way, Abby was later sued by Warner Brothers for copyright infringement as a ripoff of their hit The Exorcist, but in the end the big studio lost, so there. You can still find this cult film on dvd today, but more significantly, there is an excellent documentary on the history of black women in the American horror film industry, called My Final Girl, if scary movies are your thing. I hope you continue to engage the study of Africana cultures, because black religions are my thing.