A Reply

This is a little belated, but a friend of mine and I were discussing the new American Horror Story, The Conjuring and other horror movies. Originally from Mississippi, he is a horror aficionado and has a masters in history. (He is not Pagan at all). I really enjoyed his response and I thought you might enjoy what he had to say.

He has graciously given me permission to post his long rambling reply back to me, with the understanding that it was not intended for anyone else to see it, nor was it edited.

The Salon article we were talking about can be found here.

The Wild Hunt article we were talking about can be found here.

I am certainly interested in hearing any of your own responses to the articles or to what he had to say!

The Wild Hunt’s review was far superior to Salon. I’m not a fan at all of Salon. I mean, sometimes they do good investigative work, but their cultural haughtiness is sickening. Plus, they are one of the most important participants in modern “travel guides” about the South written by “outsiders.” Meaning, they, probably more than most other media sites, perpetuate this negative image of the backwoods, insidious South, like if Deliverance mated with Mississippi Burning. Talk about shortsighted…

Anyway, I might just have to see the movie. If Salon doesn’t like the complicated cultural politics of the Conjuring, what do they think of the Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or the Omen? They could make a case that two of those are “progressive,” but certainly not the Exorcist if we’re going by Salon’s, or even Wild Hunt’s, rubric. The Wild Hunt’s critique focuses on the hegemonic nature of Christian theology in American culture. That seems more like a political statement than an actual critique. And, I totally understand why and don’t mean to disparage that. It’s necessary. I like that it furthers this critique in discussing how it obfuscates the true meaning of witchcraft, shines a light on the Warren’s bullshit, drums up “reality” to sell tickets, and pigeon holes a historically troubled religion with dualism. But, as it points out, aren’t the Warrens Christian culturalists, self-promoters, and publicity hogs? Hell yeah. Is this their first time to drum up notoriety with a movie? Another Hell Yeah (plus a couple more). (another sidebar: what horror film isn’t dualistic?) I also think it’s shortsighted to suggest it could be anything but a Christian horror film (in the dualistic sense of good v evil). It’s true it’s not a subversive Christian horror film, like those others I mentioned. Thought exercise: what would a pagan horror film look like? I’m thinking it would be similar in a lot of ways.

I’m not sure what the cultural impact of this film will be. Where Salon and Wild Hunt see problems of upmost gravity, I see marketing techniques and horror clichés. I agree wholeheartedly that it sounds like there is nothing flippant, politically revolutionary, or that. But, I’m cautious. People wrote off Saw as a horror film beset by reactionary politics, as if they were totally unaware of the Christian/moral culture wars taking place at that distinct historical moment of the early 2000s. I saw it as a grotesque reflection of the early 2000s. An old white man punishes those he feels are unresponsible drains on society? God damn, did he sleep with Ayn Rand?

The feminist angle is a good critique. It sounds like both reviews hit that point pretty solidly. Once again, I need to see it. Does the female character/witches have a sort of agency? Who is viewing that agency, or what perspective is the film told from? A man’s? The Warren’s? A woman’s? These are big deal questions that should go a long way in establishing, or supporting, the points made in the Salon article. Or they could totally discount those points. Case: Rob Zombie just released another horror movie revolving around a new England town and the Salem Witch trials. It looks to be pretty subversive, a coven of witches reaching through history to empower women to take their revenge on the hegemonic culture… It doesn’t sound like this is the Conjuring.

The Salem Witch Trials thing… Whatever. I mean, getting all in a tizzy over whether or not a horror movie portrays an event in history accurately is like getting mad at the clouds for raining. It’s pointless. Anybody can search Salem Witch Trials in google, go the the Wikipedia page, and discredit any premise put forward by a horror movie about the historical event. You could say the same about a Wikipedia search for “witches.” (Wikipedia the Warrens, it isn’t a favorable “toneless” article). This doesn’t mean that the influence of culture on how people describe horrific events, or supernatural events, doesn’t trickle down to our “enlightened” 21st century. I could see, if I were Wiccan, that this would make me uncomfortable, but it’s pervasive. It’s also pretty campy. So many of American totems, or popular culture figures/stock characters, are so campy. Horror, even at the most horrific, is campy.

I guess I see transgressive and subversive properties in the Christian-American bastardization of the Wiccan religion, especially in some horror movies or just our culture. If a bunch of little girls are dressed as witches and terrorizing the boys, I would like to give them a “right on.” Horror films are all about anxiety, so even when they’re told from the reactionary perspective they’re automatically exposing the faultlines in their own logic thinking by showing where that culture breaks downs, or where the weak points are in the ramparts. The best horror is written like a satire, in a fit of discontent. The Conjuring probably wasn’t coming from that angle.

 

**Have you seen House of the Devil?

American Horror Story Coven promo shot

American Horror Story Coven promo shot

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Compair Lapin at the Laura Plantation

My mother is visiting me and so of course, we went out to tour the plantations. While we roamed about my favorite, the Laura Plantation, our very colorful guide regaled us with several Br’er Rabbit stories.

The Laura Plantation

The Laura Plantation

As a very little girl, my grandmother used to let me go to my grandfather’s book cabinet and bring out  her antique book of children’s stories. We read these stories again and again. Somewhere, that book still lurks in my grandfather’s book cabinet at my parent’s house, even though both of my grandparents are long gone.  One of my favorite memories remains that of my grandmother reading “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby” to me from that book.

My grandmother was one of those teeny tiny old ladies with perfectly coiffed hair who always wore a fifties style house dress. She went to church twice a week, wore her high heels to do the housework and when she died, she was the oldest living Avon Lady in Ohio. I was the only grandbaby that lived nearby and was spoiled rotten accordingly.

Looking back on it, picturing my grandmother acting out Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox is more than a little bit hilarious, but at the time I was simply delighted and would help her act the story out.

Fritz-Eichenberg Uncle Remus Illustration of the Tar Baby from The Wren's Nest

Fritz-Eichenberg Uncle Remus Illustration of the Tar Baby from The Wren’s Nest

If you don’t know the story, Br’er Rabbit is a Trickster and he manages to annoy Br’er Fox to no end.

Br’er Fox comes up with a way to get back at him though. Fox mixes some tar and turpentine and makes a tar baby that he leaves in the road where Br’er Rabbit will find it. He then hides in the bushes to see what will happen.

Sure enough, Br’er Rabbit comes along and greets the Tar Baby. When the Tar Baby doesn’t answer him, Br’er Rabbit threatens bodily harm if the Tar Baby isn’t going to be polite. When the Tar Baby still doesn’t answer, Br’er Rabbit hits the Tar Baby and gets his hand stuck deep in the Tar.

Br’er Rabbit demands that the Tar Baby let go of his hand and when he doesn’t, hits him again with his other hand. This goes on until Br’er Rabbit is entirely stuck in the Tar Baby.

At this point, Br’er Fox pops out of the bushes:

“I’ve got you this time, Brer Rabbit,” said Brer Fox, jumping up and shaking off the dust. “You’ve sassed me for the very last time. Now I wonder what I should do with you?”

Brer Rabbit’s eyes got very large. “Oh please Brer Fox, whatever you do, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

“Maybe I should roast you over a fire and eat you,” mused Brer Fox. “No, that’s too much trouble. Maybe I’ll hang you instead.”

“Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please,” said Brer Rabbit. “Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

“If I’m going to hang you, I’ll need some string,” said Brer Fox. “And I don’t have any string handy. But the stream’s not far away, so maybe I’ll drown you instead.”

“Drown me! Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please,” said Brer Rabbit. “Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

“The briar patch, eh?” said Brer Fox. “What a wonderful idea! You’ll be torn into little pieces!”

Grabbing up the tar-covered rabbit, Brer Fox swung him around and around and then flung him head over heels into the briar patch. Brer Rabbit let out such a scream as he fell that all of Brer Fox’s fur stood straight up. Brer Rabbit fell into the briar bushes with a crash and a mighty thump. Then there was silence.

Of course old Br’er Rabbit was thinking on his feet and escapes, “Then Brer Fox heard someone calling his name. He turned around and looked up the hill. Brer Rabbit was sitting on a log combing the tar out of his fur with a wood chip and looking smug. ‘I was bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox,’ he called. ‘Born and bred in the briar patch.’” (To read the full story, go here).

Br’er Rabbit is a character from Joel Chandler Harris’ collection of stories that were gathered from slaves at the Turnwold Plantation near Atlanta right before the Civil War. While Harris himself supported slavery (and in fact interpreted Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be a “wonderful defense of slavery”), the stories themselves are an interesting collection of a mix of Yoruba and Native American folklore and myth. I love the Br’er Rabbit stories because they show how much the many different cultures mixed down here in the South (which of course also resulted in things like Spiritualism, Hoodoo and Voodoo).

Most people are familiar with the Trickster Coyote, but Coyote belongs to the Western side of the United States. In the East, the Trickster is usually regarded as the Hare. The lessons that Br’er Rabbit teaches are about thinking on your feet and using cunning over strength. He doesn’t fight fair and he usually gets away with it.

While Harris himself strongly believed in slavery, Br’er Rabbit is usually seen as a character of defiance against slavery. Br’er Rabbit challenged the social order and stood up to authority. It’s more than slightly ironic that Br’er Rabbit is probably the most remembered character from Harris’s Uncle Remus stories.

Harris’ early folklore is well known; what is less well known is that he was not the first person to translate these stories in the U.S.

That person was Alcée Fortier right here in Southern Louisiana. His Br’er Rabbit character was called Compair Lapin and was written down in the patois of Creole French on the Laura Plantation.

As I’ve said, the Laura plantation is one of my favorites to visit. Not only is it beautiful, but it is an excellent example of the differences between American plantations and Creole plantations. It was also run by several generations of wealthy, successful women.

Fortier

Fortier

Fortier himself was the grandson of Valcour Aime, who was the richest man in the South at that time and grew up near the Laura Plantation. While I’m sure that Br’er Rabbit stories were told all over the South, it’s fascinating to be able to the visit the place where they were first written down and translated.  Sometimes I get so focused on European mythology and folklore, that I forget that I’m sitting the middle of some of the most fascinating bits of our very own American mythology and folklore. Compair Lapin is certainly a character you won’t find anywhere else.

Slavery itself was a terrible institution and the working conditions in the sugar cane fields were inhuman, but Br’er Rabbit is an example of a people that refused to be broken. There is a great deal to be learned from Br’er Rabbit and it is important to remember these stories as a part of our American heritage. Not just for their morals, but for the culture they came from. I’m glad that my grandmother took the time to read those stories to me. When times are hard, it’s good to remember that even the thorniest spots can be places of hope and that there is always a way out. And that it is possible for you to take a bad situation and turn it into one that is advantageous for you.

Br’er Rabbit certainly gets in the last laugh at Br’er Fox, and even though we still suffer from issues of racism and hatred, the plantations are a standing testament to the courage of those that abolished slavery and assured freedom for those of all races.

 

* I realized after writing this yesterday that today (9/17) was my grandmother’s birthday as well as the day that she died. She would have been 102 today.

Bottle Trees and the Magic of Glass

Then coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue.

There was no word that fell from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house – by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again.

Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house, and sometimes in the sun the bottle trees looked prettier than the house did…”

-Eudora Welty’s Livvie

Over the holidays, two of my good friends moved into a new apartment. Down here, most people live in what we call “Shotgun” apartments. Essentially the apartment is four or five rooms straight in a line, with doors at each end of the house. If you stood at the front door and fired a shotgun, the bullet would go straight through the house. In New Orleans, one of the reasons that shotguns became so popular is that houses were taxed by their frontage feet. If your house was short in the front, but ran long in the back, you didn’t have to pay as many taxes. They were also economical housing for the immigrants who came to work in New Orleans. Many of whom were from Haiti, where they say the style originated. Over half of these shotguns are duplexes, which we call “Double Shotguns”. My friends moved into one half of a double shotgun.

Double shotgun in the Garden district. Photo by Kenny Klein.

Double shotgun in the Garden district. Photo by Kenny Klein.

While I love our picturesque shotgun houses, what caught my eye about my friend’s, is that their neighbors have a bottle tree.

My friend's neighbor's Bottle Tree.

My friend’s neighbor’s Bottle Tree. Photo by Someone Else’s Diary.

Bottle trees are one of my favorite pieces of folk magic. Bottle trees supposedly catch the spirits that come out at night and hold them until the morning light can burn them up. Bottle trees like this come from the African traditions brought over by the slaves in the South and remain a fixture of Southern folk magic and culture. So many people love them that these days, they are also considered to be folk art, and many companies will simply manufacture them for you. I prefer my bottle trees like the rest of my magic, created and done by myself.

Of the bottle trees found in popular culture, Mama Odie from The Princess & The Frog has my favorite. (And whoever drew that movie knew more than a few things about magic and magical symbolism…take a look at the tarot cards used).

In Northern Europe, this same idea is expressed through witch balls.

Witch Balls

Witch Balls

Unlike the Bottle Tree, Witch Balls are usually hung inside, over windows. The strands of glass inside the Witch Ball are what captures the spirits and unlike the Bottle Tree, where the spirit is burned up by the light of day, a Witch Ball simply captures a spirit and never allows it to escape.

Both Bottle Trees and Witch Balls are made up of glass, which often seems to get overlooked as a magical tool. While glass is most often man-made (don’t forget about fulgurites and obsidian!), I see glass as being the combination of all of the elements, in the same manner as an athame is. It can also exist in more than one physical state, and is excellent for carrying a multitude of different musical vibrations. It is also one of oldest manufactured materials used by mankind. What better material for catching spirits?

The vibrations of the glass itself probably has more of an effect on the energy around it than their supposed spirit catching abilities. So whether or not you believe that Bottle Trees or Witch Balls are actually catching spirits or “haints”…the glass itself is probably affecting it’s immediate surroundings through its vibrations, keeping the energy of your yard or home just a little more charged than usual and that in and of itself is a pretty interesting phenomenon.