ENG 450


Historical Misrepresentation of Voodoo in Hollywood


People often think they know what voodoo involves. Like me, most people relate it to spells, dolls, potions, and magic. Voodoo has been grossly misrepresented in the media leading people to be fascinated with it today. Going on with my research, my goal is to ultimately find how it evolved as a religion and came to New Orleans and became what it is today. Additionally, I will be hitting points on the history and the religion of voodoo and stereotypes Hollywood has presented to the world.

So what is voodoo? It’s been practiced in different places of the world like Africa and the Caribbean, mainly in Haiti. It is supposed to be a mixture of different traditions like those of the catholic, African, and Native American religions. It mostly community-centered and supports individual empowerment and has little to do with dolls and zombies.(Voodoo 2.0) It has developed into people believing it to only being a spiritual possession practice. Due to Hollywood’s films and shows today, its led people to view it as something scary and dangerous. Movies like Disney’s Princess and the Frog has even led children to believe it is all bad magic. Furthermore, my intention for this research paper will be to answer the questions I have came across in my research and to hopefully help clarify the stereotypes that films have led people to believe in.



Voodoo, a folk religion of the Haitians, has over the history of Hollywood been misrepresented through the development of cinematic. A study of the indigenous tradition reveals that the current understanding is laced with massive misconceptions and ill-formed depictions. In essence the culture is now associated with witchcraft, barbaric sacrifice and Satanism. The popularity of voodoo in western culture first took effect in the 18th century. However, it is important to understand that initially, the tradition is indeed a spiritual practice that was essentially a mechanism of unity that brought about independence in the Caribbean’s through the Haitian revolution. This paper explores how voodoo has been misrepresented in the western culture while at the same time depicting the essence of voodoo as a product of transnationalism.  Also the paper will demonstrate how the voodoo culture has impacted the inhabitants of New Orleans through history. Ultimately the essay will be the explanation of rediscovering voodoo as one of the most misunderstood religions in the world.  Contemporary images of voodoo in the film industry portrays it as black magic with stereotypes comprising of general physical, emotional and cultural practices. In other cases voodoo has been symbolically used to pass across various social and political undertakings that were perpetrated by western sumpremacists.

Existing Scholarship On Voodoo

            The origin of voodoo is believed to be West Africa with the traditional practices being originally African before the arrival of the Europeans. Once the French explorers enslaved the Africans, transporting them to the shore of Domingues, they attempted to replace the tradition with Christianity. However, the slaves progressed with the practice under the disguise of Catholicism. In this regard as opposed to the popular belief that voodoo is black magic and pagan cult, the tradition is indeed a religion that originated from Africa and is regarded as a way of life and mode of survival.  Those who practice voodoo attest of its potency to heal various maladies including both historical and social-economical misfortunes.

Following the Haitian Revolution, the reign of horrific reign of the French came to an end. However, the population continues to suffer from ill-treatment of the following rule of dictators being subjected to both environmental and economic exploitation. Therefore, the poor and oppressed invoked the voodoo spirits for guidance and salvation to withstand the medical, economic and social-political maladies. In return the spirits required a sacrifice which could be in the form of a simple act such as lighting a candle. However for more severe problems, the people would conduct a more intricate sacrifice for several spirits including animal sacrifice, dancing and even drumming. Mostly, the voodoo tradition was democratic and functional incorporating allowing both women and men to assume the roles of leadership. Also, the authority of the priests and priestesses is limited to the people who voluntarily submit to the initiation to the tradition. Voodoo in present-day Hollywood demonstrates negative US cultural discourse with little or no scholarship on nature and scope.

Misrepresentation of voodoo in literature film and television

The voodoo rituals were meant to demonstrate the interconnection between humans, nature and the spiritual world. However, following colonialism and introduction of Christianity, the harmonic balance between humans and nature was destroyed by the introduction of destructive human practices. Still voodoo culture insisted on the sacredness of nature that provided a conscious approach to the natural world. Additionally in voodoo culture it was believed that after death, the remains of the people remains trapped in the world and it requires the priest to carry out the purification process that that releases the body from the waters. In this regard the voodoo culture promoted intricate engagement with nature unlike how it is portrayed in Hollywood today.

An evaluation of the appearance of voodoo in film, television and literature in the western world indicates several misconceptions about the religion. Referring to H.P. Lovecraft’s story a tale ‘‘The Call of Cthulhu.’’  Is developed describing the cult of Cthulhu. From the description, a horrific mystery is told of the cult and the statue of Cthulhu that was based on one of the blackest of the African voodoo circles (Mcgee 241). From the story the initiates of the cult are portrayed as men who are ignorant, degraded, mentally aberrant who are either Negroes or mulattos.  Further the literature continues to describe their rite as primitive and connected to satanic motives.  For instance, he states that the beings were making sounds, writhing around a bonfire devoid of clothes. In the middle of the bonfire stands a great monstrous statue with bodies of marred and mutilated bodies around (Mcgee 241). The essence of this representation is that Lovecraft draws a connection between voodoo and Satanism.

Additionally, contrary to the actual nature of voodoo, the story also draws a connection between mental inferiority of blacks and mixed-race groups to the belief in voodoo. The religion is portrayed as emanating from diseased, inferior and primitive people. More so the general perception is that voodoo is a mere superstition that is merely suited for the inferior. Similarly from the Lovecraft story one can perceive the connection between voodoo, violence and base sexuality (Mcgee 242). For instance from the rite described, naked people dance and jump around a bonfire of their aimed fellow victims.

Association of zombies with voodoo tradition

Zombies are a minor concept in the Haitian voodoo tradition.  The history of the zombies is based on a combination of political historical and cultural environment. considering that Haiti is a land characterized of hybridity following infusion of Christian religion into a culture that already had exotic mystic values the resulting religion became the voodoo culture.  this culture has since the beginning been maligned and misunderstood as a culture that is associated with death and the spiritual world incorporating the use of dolls, voodoo dolls, charms and most importantly the zombies. The concept of the zombies has struck the westerners with fear and fascination resulting in the what is seen as popularity of the zombies in the Hollywood cinema.

With regard to this tradition zombies referred to dead bodies that have been captured either in the form of the body or soul by a sorcerer who then becomes the master of the zombie. In ancient voodoo cultures, the zombies were used to work in the fields tilling land and harvesting crops and all the other work that was designated for slaves. Similarly the zombies were believed to be sent in the form of spirits to drive other victims of the master mad. From this idea of zombies, several theories have been developed towards the meaning and existence of zombies. Inspired by the voodoo idea of the zombies Hollywood film industry has created films that have propagated voodoo culture into international fame. The first film that featured voodoo culture White Zombie (1932) integrated the concept of using a particular tonic that led to creation of enslaved men who worked in a sugar mill (Gelder 91).

Zombie films that were created after White Zombie (1932) focused on the idea of sexualized females. Afterwards, the concept shifted towards creating zombies by the use of biochemical means. With later developments, the concept of zombies changed without incorporating any essence of voodoo culture. Instead, zombies are only created by the use of contagion, disease, isolation and most importantly unregulated science. Additionally the ideas of zombies in the recent movies codes the zombies a distinctly black bringing the question of the person behind the object of aggression. The erotic appeal of the zombies was lost in the 1970s with the creation of the La Rebellion de las Muertas (1973).

Following the popularity of the first horror movie, Hollywood became interested in identifying the next monster to be portrayed in the screens. According to Bishop (141) filmmakers considered the exotic literature of the Caribbean’s that led them not only o the Caribbean’s but to the island of Haiti where they identified powerful voodoo spirits. They became interested in the exotic African mysticism that enabled priests to kill their enemies and then convert them to mindless servants. This concept acquired many people’s interests and therefore led to invention of the notion of the zombie. Initially in the very first movie based on this discovery, White Zombie was based on the exotic setting of Haiti portraying the primitive stereotypes of the natives and at the same time accentuating the superiority of the western imperialists. Similarly apart from the voodoo culture the film focuses on the portrayal of the post colonial society depicting the danger of the white protagonists becoming zombies in themselves. in essence the films present the horror of the westerners being colonized by the pagans through domination of Hollywood cinema by voodoo zombie culture. all in all, the white Zombie sets the pace for the negative stereotyping of Hollywood cinema propagating the imperialist paradigms of the west and negatively portraying race differences and class struggle of the natives (Gelder 91).

Films like the white zombie did not only exploit the nature of the exotic natives but also focused on the ancient lands that comprised of castes and mysterious figures. In this regard the setting and tone the ancient zombie movies is based on the gothic style. However, been though the real action occurs in the Caribbean’s it is evident that they depict more of the western world. In this regard the zombie horror movies are a blend of the Caribbean’s and the west and not entirely exotic. One feature that is not represented in Hollywood film is the main intention of creation of the zombie. In deed the Haitians would strip off a pagan off their will and subject them to the pagan authority leading to loss of autonomy and control. Therefore, this would be one of the post colonial terrors that this native culture would pose to any invading culture. in essence zombie culture was a manifestation of the superiority of a liberated colony hat would use fear to scare off any invading cultures (Bishop 147). However, the cinematic versions of portrayal of zombies only indicate of the master-slave relationship and the nature of colonialism.

Hollywood has  recreated and misused the concept of zombies in what is seen as imperialist hegemonic model (Bishop 147) the outcome is the portrayal that the people in power can at will enslave  others who are in this case considered to be the slaves. This is a reflection of how the colonialists exerted control on their slaves just as the zombies were commanded by their voodoo masters. In essence, the Zombie provides a retaliation ground enabling the oppressed to oppress the oppressor therefore threatening the western imperialists. Additionally the making of a zombie can be seen as backwardness and uncivilization which is utterly exaggerated in the Hollywood films. One of the misrepresentation in the films is that there s no attempt to civilize the zombies and improve their place in the society unlike in the actual ground where the French missionaries attempted to educate and marginalize the natives of the Caribbean’s. although the first zombie film is direct and melodramatic, it intricately portrays a different time which is the early 20th century which s concurrent with the end of occupation of Haiti by the united states (Bishop 148). one clear depiction is that westerners do not subscribe to any beliefs of the local superstition and are only interested in understanding them and exploiting their backwardness for entertainment purposes. The films also portray the white westerners as superiors to the Haitians in all levels such as wealth class and even enlightenment.

Rebellion as a connection of voodoo with Satanism

Haiti being among the first independent nations is known to have a violent and complex history that incorporates people from three main sources, the natives, slaves from Africa  and European imperialists. In essence as the African slaves outnumbered the imperialists a revolt ensued that was based on voodoo celebrations.  Following the invasion by the united states marines who intended to modernize the island, the voodoo rituals and zombie culture was discovered. Meanwhile the voodoo culture continued to be enriched by the influx of the Africans who were transported from west Africa who were more conversant with the rites and practices. As a result voodoo acquired more part of the Haiti culture. additionally, the growth of the culture was based on the absence of influence from the colonialists. As the west continues to discover the voodoo culture the adoption into entertainment was inevitable as in deemed to be fascinating to the western audiences. However, considering that the first audiences of this cinema would be the westerners it was adopted in such a way that it would suit their beliefs. therefore, the Hollywood entertainment does not entirely demonstrate the native voodoo and pagan ritual practices rather it is developed using the imperialist superiority concept that would suit the believes of the west n the 20th century (Bishop 147).

Most of Hollywood films have feature voodoo culture integrate violent scenes which bring about the essence of Satanism in the culture. In essence, in Haitian culture, the violence was a way of defending their environment from encroachment by foreigners. However, the portrayal of violence in Hollywood films depicts demonic association which is only an imaginary form of voodoo. In connection with rebellion, the Hollywood popular culture has for a long time portrayed voodoo as black magic that is based on African magic characterized with casting spells and placing hexes on individuals who have opposed belonging to the religion (Bartkowski 559).

Princes and The Frog Representation of Voodoo

Among the most popular cultures in the Hollywood recently is the Disney movie. However, contrary to the earlier notion of Disney princesses, the films have incorporated voodoo tradition while depicting dynamic Disney princesses. However the main misrepresenting of facts of voodoo is the portrayal that is only one culture that incorporates the aspects of devil worship. The complexity of the religion is neglected through portrayal of worship of snakes. Additionally, voodoo is mixed up with other traditions such as Christianity. However in princess and the frog voodoo is not shown to be an entirely negative religion, some good is associated with practice of the religion such as acquisition of power.  Therefore, the true meaning of voodoo s blurred through incorporation in the Disney princess movies. All in all it is depicted as only a funny religion that allows the practice of black magic to give people powers.

Movement 3: complications/ rebuttals

In line with the claims that voodoo culture is not based on violence the review of the issues of ethnicity in Haiti reveal that the culture indeed articulates charm that were violent and fatal in nature. In 1804 following the expulsion of the French colonialists in Haiti, the black leader declared the land to be a black republic. According to the constitution that was ratified soon afterwards it was declared that no white man was allowed to set foot in the country as a master or owner of any property. The violence was extended to the Haitian Mullatos who were considered inferior to the blacks.

A study of Haitian culture describes it as one of the richest cultures in the world. In essence Haitians may be considered poor but the voodoo culture makes them unique. Although the western world may be considered to be civilized it is noteworthy that the voodoo culture is an essential culture that holds the entire community together, for instance taking account of the dance, the Haitian voodoo culture can be perceived as a sacred practice. Although considered to be primitive by many, the owners pride in its participation. The tradition is recognized in terms of ethnicity and at the same time the community does not acknowledge hybridity. This means that the ethnicity gives it a sense of belonging. While the Hollywood representation may try to indicate modernity, Haiti continues to be presented as a fatal and promiscuous place in that it has held the practices while the rest of the world has revolutionalized. On the contrary the representation of voodoo in Hollywood may be an attempt to indicate the presence of indigenous culture. However, the changes that have been enacted replace some of the original features of the culture that lead to disorientation of the meaning and deviation from the actual reality of how the traditions were practiced. For instance, voodoo culture was originally practiced by black Haitians but in Hollywood films it has been replaced by white men characters. Being a pragmatic religion, it is evident that voodoo beliefs and ritual practices are a relation of reverence of nature, natural spirits and forces associated with fire and water (Bartkowski 560). However, following colonialism there were massive changes on the ecotheological practices of the religion culminating in ease of dispersion and adoption by the western world.

Criminalization of voodoo

Although western film, television and literature have focused on the use of voodoo to appeal to the popular culture, it has at the same time neglected some of the features of the culture that define its originality. However, Hollywood has also challenged some of the stereotypes that have been set by the same culture. For instance it has challenged the issue of criminalization of voodoo depicting some of the primitive reasons that were perpetrated by the culture. In the same way it has challenged some of the racial anxieties that have been brought forward by the initial initiates of the culture. Imminently religious scholars and spiritual leaders have attempted to erase some of the negative beliefs through public image but it is evident that both imaginary voodoo and original voodoo have become intertwined and have gained international popularity. In this regard, it is expected that the beliefs and traditions portrayed in the media will continue t evolve with new discoveries and adjustments while in essence the original traditions will continue to be practiced by followers of the religion.

Parallel to the notion that voodoo is dangerous; the religion can actually be perceived as a way in which the natives used to resists the gendered and racialized violence that was perpetrated mainly by the colonialists. Just as in Coven, the role of the belief system of voodoo was to make sense of experiences that the people of Haiti and the slaves who were brought from Africa a reality (O’Reilly 36). Various adoption of this religion have been aimed at ensuring that that the practices are used as sites of resistance towards racial violence. Just as voodoo for the Haiti was a means of overcoming oppression, magic for films such as coven have been used to document historical moments and at the same time challenge white supremacy. This way voodoo is given social significance as the characters use it to bring about justice. However, although the traditional re given sensationalizations, it is evident that various misconceptions of the religions are used to bring about derogatory representations of voodoo (O’Reilly 36).

Voodoo not black magic but is an actual religion

Ethnographical study of the Haitian culture reveals that contrary to the black magic stereotypes, the religion is actually based on moral beliefs that the followers have to adhere to. additionally, the belies are in harmony with the gods and, therefore, they facilitate spiritual physical and emotional wellbeing of those that practice the religion. Many scholars including Melville J. Herskovits have refuted the inclusion of the tradition as witchcraft citing the ethnographic characteristics (Middleton 158). She describes the tradition as a practice in which the gods are well known to their worshippers. Additionally, the duties that are owed to the gods are well understood and are fulfilled in a systematic and orderly manner using rituals and rites. In return when the rituals are practiced properly the worshippers acquire benefits such as god harvest, goodwill with other men and good health. n some cases voodoo is considered as the cause of Haiti’s impoverishment (McGee 231).  This notion has however been created for a long time through the imagination. This development is brought about by the blend of Haitian voodoo and imagined voodoo that has resulted in the alteration of the real essence and cultural importance of the religion.

In essence, Herskovits’s has also demonstrated that voodoo is considered as a religion in that takes into account the holistic health of the followers considering the spiritual and physical condition of the people (Middleton 160). The importance of this religion is documented in various medical records of death caused by black magic.  Hollywood media has not focused on the representation of importance of voodoo and the ethnomedical practices. While these practices are important in the western world due to the spiritual and historical roles that they play, they have been adamantly been defined as mere superstitions disregarding their utmost importance.

A study of voodoo reveals the feature of pharmacosm indicating the power to both heal and harm the users. However, the voodoo is only demonstrated as evil and primitive with the health reveals being neglected. Additionally voodoo is considered to be crude neglecting the need for animal sacrifice for both physical and spiritual illnesses. Considering that the traditions arose from the beliefs and practices of the enslaved people, their masters were not interested in the slaves’ wellbeing but their capacity to provide labor (Middleton 160). Knowledge of voodoo medicine placed the slaves at the top of the social hierarchy conferring prestige and power to the slaves. Those with the voodoo knowledge were allowed to serve others and therefore would practice medicine under their masters conjuring prescriptions for various illnesses exchanged for coins and brass amulets. In addition to conjure medicine the slave healers would engage in other powerful rituals performed in peculiar circumstances. Although the voodoo has had massive impact in the mainstream medicine, it has not been adequately explored in the Hollywood representation. Similarly the benefits of faith communities in Haiti have been left out in the exploration and adoption of the voodoo culture (Middleton 165). contrary to the superficial representation of voodoo culture the entertainment industry does not dwell on the historical, medical and cultural perspective of the traditions pointing out the benefits of the religions to the users rather it focuses on the superstitious nature of the religion and the hams it could cause to the people..


Too many voodoo is a dangerous practice that threatens the lives of those who practice as well as those who do not subscribe to the beliefs.  this is the belief that has been propagated by the mainstream media. Most of the horror and zombie films have borrowed their concepts from the voodoo culture but in so doing the concepts are selectively applied to indicate the dark side of voodoo that incorporates the use of charms, rituals and violence as well as primitive rites against those that do not subscribe to the beliefs of the religion. However, the authenticity and legitimacy of the religion have been neglected in the description resulting in what is seen as selective understanding of the true essence of the religion. More so this notion negatively paints the religion indicating it as dark, primitive and laced with racialized violence.  For this reasons the work that is left to be done includes further study by ethnographic scholars to acquire a full understanding of the religion. The context cultural, historical and social understanding of the tradition ought to be properly studied and documented.  This will play a major role promoting the understanding of the religion as well as promoting the cultural essence and importance of the religion in the whole world. Most importantly, promoting the authenticity will preserve the culture considering that it is under ecological attack threatening its extinction. An understanding of the religion will also reduce the misrepresentation of the culture in the entertainment industry. Since the topic of voodoo representation has received little scholarly attention, it will be essential to study the essence of enduring appeal of voodoo in the popular culture.


























Bishop, Kyle. “The sub-subaltern monster: imperialist hegemony and the cinematic voodoo zombie.” The Journal of American Culture 31.2 (2008): 141-152.

Bartkowski, J. P. (1998). Claims-making and typifications of voodoo as a deviant religion: Hex, lies, and videotape. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 559-579.

Gelder, K. (2000). Postcolonial voodoo. postcolonial studies: culture, politics, economy, 3(1), 89-98.

King, A. K. (2017). A Monstrous (Ly-Feminine) Whiteness: gender, genre, and the abject Horror of the past in American Horror Story: Coven. Women’s Studies, 46(6), 557-573.

McGee, Adam M. “Haitian Vodou and voodoo: Imagined religion and popular culture.” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 41.2 (2012): 231-256.https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/amcgee/files/mcgee-vodou_and_voodoo_in_sr.pdf.

Middleton, B. (2016). Two-headed medicine: Hoodoo workers, conjure doctors, and Zora Neale Hurston. The Southern Quarterly, 53(3), 156-175.

O’Reilly, J. (2019). ‘We’re more than just pins and dolls and seeing the future in chicken parts’: race, magic and religion in American Horror Story: Coven. European Journal of American Culture, 38(1), 29-41.

Roberts, K. (2018). The secret and irreligious doctrines of voodooism: institutionalization versus cultural stigma in New Orleans civil court. Journal of Church and State, 60(4), 661-680.

Weber, A. S. (2018). Haitian vodou and ecotheology. The Ecumenical Review, 70(4), 679-694

Oh, My Pop Culture Voodoo: <em>The Princess and the Frog</em>