I want to note the continuing relevance of Voodoo as a trope in entertainment cultures by highlighting the historical significance of Voodoo 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 much of the “evil Voodoo” theme as tiresome 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 in any way appropriate, I recently found a 1974 title that caught my eye. The film is called Abby, and it an uncommon horror movie in that it features 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 a deity from West Africa, and originates with the Yoruba religion. Only in this movie the spirit is also 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 (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 a black church, along with all of the violence and immoralized sexual activity that one would expect – the film was a low-budget production from the “Blaxploitation” movie era – but I want to suggest that there is also some educational value here. Abby’s father in-law, played with incomparable intelligence by the veteran black actor William Marshall (Star Trek fanatics recall him as the legendary scientist Richard Daystrom) is not only a theologian in this movie, but also 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 orisha Eshu, the divinity who is most notably associated with sexuality, tricksterism, and chaos in the metaphysics of Africana philosophy and religion.
So in this flick Eshu is presented not only as a legitimate spiritual entity and divine being, but we get a little bit of academic background in a film that depicts both black Christianity and Yoruba religion with a degree of respect. Still, no matter because in the end the Christian side wins, yay! Nevertheless, in her role as Abby, Carol Speed makes a good run of it, and displaying remarkable range as an actress performing as a talented gospel singer and a sexually transgressive woman possessed by a powerful masculine spirit (with the ugly, distorted, croaking voice that was such a common effect in these 1970s 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 the big studio lost, so there. You can look for this film on dvd today, but more significantly, there is an excellent recent documentary on black women in the American horror film industry, called My Final Girl, if scary movies are your thing. We continue to support the study of Africana cultures, and Religion is my thing.