“Then how do you explain the doll?”
“We were in a little village in Brazil,” says Gerard Stiles, “up the river.” He’s looking back on an experience he had with his friend, Quentin Collins, on an unspecified business trip in South America. “One of the crew members got very ill, suddenly. Quentin had heard of a witch doctor who could perform miracles — or so Quentin said.”
God-fearing buttinsky Lamar Trask recoils. “You let him take a Christian soul to a pagan?”
“It wasn’t my decision!” Gerard swears. “When the witch doctor was doing his incantation, Quentin mentioned the ring that he was wearing. When the ceremony was over, I could see plainly that Quentin wanted that ring very much, but was afraid to ask for it. So I bought it for him.” End of anecdote.
Several questions spring to mind. First: did the crew member get better? Why wasn’t Gerard afraid of the witch doctor? And — most baffling of all — what the hell were you doing in Brazil?
I mean, Quentin and Gerard are poised New York City actors who wear frilly shirts and stand around in drawing rooms for a living. Gerard is supposedly a villainous pirate and gun-runner, but all we’ve ever seen is the period of his life when he’s the unpaid companion of an elderly female novelist, pretending to cure her headaches by standing behind her and wishing. Quentin, as far as I can tell, is a make-believe mad scientist who holes up in the basement, constructing a staircase to nowhere. Consider the lilies; they toil not, neither do they spin.
So what these two were doing in the Amazon jungle is anybody’s guess. Apparently it was a shopping trip.
The symbol on that ring doesn’t look particularly Brazilian; if anything, it’s a steering wheel from Detroit. But the voodoo doll they spend all of today’s episode fussing over doesn’t look Brazilian either; it’s obviously an African voodoo doll, except there isn’t really such a thing. The voodoo part comes from Haiti and the doll part comes from medieval Britain, and that’s not what they meant by “witch doctor” in 1840 anyway.
They’ve done voodoo dolls plenty of times on Dark Shadows, but they’re usually made of clay, except the crocheted one from 1897 and the cloth one from 1795 and the little stone bust from Parallel Time. We’ve never had an African one before, because as I said, they don’t have them there, and the expectation that the audience would immediately jump to the conclusion that this perfectly friendly souvenir from the Congo is a) a voodoo doll b) Brazilian and c) Satanic is pretty much the last word on Dark Shadows cross-cultural insensitivity.
“You know as well as I do that it’s a creature of the black arts!” Trask screams, and it certainly is, in the sense that it was made by a black artist. This is what happens when you make a television show that has a difficult time leaving the house. Dark Shadows is designed by, for and about shut-ins, from Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on down, and everything past the front lawn is basically South America.
Voodoo dolls as we know them don’t really have a lot to do with Haitian Vodou, which is an actual religious practice held by non-white people living outside of the United States, so obviously we figure it’s mostly about stealing money and hurting people.
The religion started as West African Vodun, which is practiced in Nigeria, Benin and Togo, and it was exported to Haiti in the 18th century, when the French brought West African slaves to the Caribbean to work on sugarcane plantations. The French also dragged some other slaves to Louisiana, where they called the religion Voodoo. There’s also Hoodoo, which is another mix of religious practices from the Congo, Nigeria and Benin, which developed among the West African slaves in the Mississippi Delta.
None of these religions involved making clay dolls of enemies and being unkind to them, because on the whole people have more useful things to attend to, but Vodun does include the use of gris-gris, an amulet that protects the wearer from evil. In Haiti, the gris-gris is considered good luck, but in Louisiana, slaves developed the practice of using the gris-gris to bring bad luck on their owners. This is what happens when you kidnap and enslave people, so if they stick pins in you and choke you with an ascot then it’s all your own fault, next time try leaving people where they are and not bothering them.
But sticking pins into a little rag doll to cause harm actually comes from the cunning folk in medieval Britain, who would break witches’ curses by making a doll of the witch, and they stuck pins into the doll to hurt the witch, and encourage them to break the bewitchment. This stuff usually ends up being white people’s fault eventually.
The popular culture interest in Vodou powers started with the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, when the African slaves on the sugarcane plantations rose up and defeated their French colonial rulers. This was the only slave uprising that led to the creation of a free nation run by former slaves, and a legend developed that the slaves beat the French thanks to the intercession of their Vodou deities, because obviously they must have had some kind of supernatural assistance, right?
Then in 1915, the United States invaded and occupied Haiti, for complicated reasons that basically boiled down to gold and sugar. The US held on to Haiti until the Great Depression, when it got too expensive and we didn’t really want it anymore, finally pulling out in 1934.
In 1933, a Marine captain named John H. Craige who was stationed in Haiti for a while wrote a book called Black Bagdad: The Arabian Nights Adventures of a Marine Captain in Haiti, which popularized the American stereotypes of Haitian Vodou. Here’s an utterly repugnant quote from the book jacket:
“No one has seen Haiti more intimately than Capt Craige of the U.S. Marine Corps. For a number of years he was loaned to the Haitian Government and served as a white officer of the black troops of that republic. His first duty was in a wild & mountainous interior district nearly half as large as the State of New Jersey. Here the inhabitants shuffled on the sides of their feet. Some of them had peanut-heads and could not straighten their knee-joints.
“Captain Craige learned their language, on which he is an authority. He went to their dances, attended their funerals, studied their weird, primitive religion — the voodoo. The natives called him Papa Blanc, White Father. Then he was called to take charge of the Police Force of Port au Prince, capital of Haiti. He found the city a black Bagdad full of happenings & tales as fantastic, exciting & beautiful as any Scheherazade related of the days of Haroun al Raschid. Voodoo rites, cannibalism, black magic, and ‘wangas’ were all part of his daily routine.”
So fuck Captain Craige is my basic point, and that’s why Lamar Trask looks at a carved figure from Africa and says it’s a Haitian voodoo doll from Brazil. This is how the White Father thinks.
Oh, and in 1840 “witch doctor” didn’t mean what you think it means either; that’s a whole other terrible story. The original meaning of witch doctor wasn’t a doctor that used Satanic witchcraft; it was a doctor who protected people from witchcraft. It’s the same as the cunning folk in Britain who stuck pins into rag dolls to defeat the witches. I don’t know why everybody gets everything backwards like this; they just do, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The first use of “witch doctor” in print was in 1718, in a British book by Francis Hutchinson called An Historical Essay concerning Witchcraft, with Observations upon Matters of Fact; Tending to Clear the Texts of the Sacred Scriptures, and Confute the Vulgar Errors about that Point. Hutchinson used the phrase in a chapter defending someone accused of being a witch, and asserted that the “Witch-Doctor” himself was the one practicing sorcery:
“Notwithftanding this, confider how very few Things they could prove that were real Facts of the fuppofed Witch’s doing. One fingle Witnefs, Dorothy Durent, confeffed of her felf that which was a more criminal Act of Sorcery than all that they could prove againft the accus’d Parties.
“For of Facts, of their doing, I fee little befides giving a Child an empty Breaft feven Years before to quiet it, and giving another a little Water, which is ufually done in Vapours; and by a Conftruction that feems very unaccountable, they would make thofe innocent Actions to be employing of Spirits, and working by the Devil; but the faid Dorothy Durent, having been with a Witch-Doctor, acknowledges upon Oath, that by his Advice fhe hang’d up her Child’s Blanket in the Chimney, found a Toad in it at Night, had put it into the Fire, and held it there tho’ it made a great and horrible Noife, and flafh’d like Gunpower, and went off like a Piftol, and then became invifible, and that by this the Prifoner was fcorch’d and burn’d lamentably.
“Now, I own I do not believe this Witnefs; for fhe muft be a filly loofe Woman, or fhe would not have gone to the Witch-Doctor.”
So it wasn’t Brazil that had witch doctors; it was Britain, and they made frogs explode in the fireplace. Now you know.
The first time the term “witch doctor” was used to describe an African practitioner was in Robert Montgomery Martin’s 1836 opus The British Colonial Library. In Volume III, Martin describes the trial of a South African witch. This is more White Father type stuff.
“The most heinous offence in the opinion of a Kafir is the crime of witchcraft, and under this plea are the most dreadful cruelties practised, and the grossest injustice exhibited. When the plot is ripe for execution, and a suitable opportunity occurs, such as the illness of a person of rank, or any unusual mortality among the cattle, the party denounced is immediately seized by the ministers of vengeance, and led away in a state of indescribable horror to the spot where it is intended he shall undergo the dreadful ordeal.
“All this time the witch doctors, who are not unfrequently females, continue their frightful incantations, until the assembled multitude are wrought up to such a pitch of phrensied excitement as to lose entirely all self-control, and thus they are prepared to execute, without the slightest demur, the appalling demands which are from time to time muttered; and to inflict the most excruciating pangs upon the trembling culprit which cruelty ever devised, or which it is possible for diabolical malice either to contemplate or to suggest.
“Like all barbarous people, the Kafirs are lamentably superstitious; and hence they have the most implicit dependance on these wretched impostors; and though in causing rain by their incantations, and in many other respects, their impositions are so frequently exposed, yet so credulous are the people, and so infatuated in a belief of the infallibility of the wizard or witch doctor, that they will readily admit the most flimsy excuse as a sufficient plea for the failure.”
Martin is right, of course, when he says that superstitious people are barbaric and stupid when they believe everything they’re told, like for example that Port au Prince is full of cannibal sorcerors, or that “Kaffir” is an appropriate way to refer to black people.
So all of this gets mixed up together — cunning folk and healers and priestesses and Marines and cranks of every type and description — and it all becomes a kind of 20th-century gumbo of vague unfocused racism, where everybody with skin darker than Lara Parker’s has their own version of primitive aboriginal voodoo magic, whether they’re parking a gypsy caravan outside Boston, leading an insurrection in the French Caribbean, or doing incantations up the river in a Brazilian jungle.
Africa and South America and the Caribbean and Macau are all the same place when you see them through the window of the Collinwood tower room, and it makes you wish that the Collins family stepped off property a little more often. The past is a foreign country, but it shouldn’t be the only one you ever visit.
Tomorrow: A Thanksgiving Day pre-emption treat:
Night of Dark Shadows: The Haunted Horse!
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In act 1, when Quentin turns from Daphne to run out the door, there’s a quick flash of the boom mic at top left.
Gerard tells Trask, “Somebody could have planted this doll in Quentin’s laboratory, in the hopes that the blame would be — fall on Quentin.”
When Quentin enters the room at the start of act 3, you can see one of the studio lights.
At the beginning of act 3, Quentin tells Trask, “I’m going to give you one more warning, and that’s all. Now, you stop all of this talk about witchcraft, and you stay off of Collinwood!” A few lines later, Quentin admits, “I do happen to have a so-called voodoo dool.”
As he did yesterday, Trask says that earlier in the evening, he found Desmond and Quentin in the middle of a “violent quarrel”. This is not really true — he’s talking about the scene in Monday’s episode when he saw them briefly snapping at each other. Randall asks what the quarrel was about, and then there’s a tape edit that skips over Trask’s reply.
A minute later, there’s another weird tape edit that jumps from Trask leaving Randall at Rose Cottage to Daphne reading to Gerard in the Collinwood drawing room.
In act 4, when Randall says, “Then that’s the argument that Trask overheard,” somebody in the studio sneezes.
There’s a third tape edit that cuts off the end of Desmond and Randall’s scene, which causes a strange gap in the story logic. Desmond tells Randall, “There is more to Gerard Stiles than meets the eye!” and then suddenly Randall’s out the door, off to ransack Gerard’s room just on the basis of that line.
Tomorrow: A Thanksgiving Day pre-emption treat:
Night of Dark Shadows: The Haunted Horse!
— Danny Horn