Divine Horsemen

by Simon Collings

A friend’s recent move to Haiti brought to mind an amazing documentary about vodou I saw several years ago. It was shot by the experimental film maker Maya Deren between 1947 and 1953, completed after her death by her third husband, and released in 1981 as Divine Horsemen.

Deren became personally involved with vodou and as a result gained access to ceremonies other film makers would not have witnessed. There are extraordinary scenes of people assuming the personalities and characteristic gestures of the spirits which possess them. The same spirit can be seen taking over different people. Each spirit has a name and is easily recognised. Towards the end there is a fantastic carnival parade, a procession of people in the most macabre and grotesque fancy dress. The homemade costumes and masks display phenomenal creativity and originality.

The same vitality and inventiveness is present in the photographs reproduced in Haunted Air, by Ossian Brown, Jonathan Cape, 2010. These amateur photographs of children and adults in Halloween costumes, some dating from the 19th century, were collected by Brown over many years. Some are comic, some ghoulish, others simply bizarre. One of my favourite images is a group of five girls, of different ages, standing against the outside wall of a clapboard house somewhere in the US wearing masks made from paper sacks. The contrast been the evil faces and the diminutive bodies beneath is exquisite. In another picture five characters in theatrical costumes and comical masks pose against a curtain backdrop like figures in a nightmare. My neighbour Geoff Cox wrote a piece about the photographs, which is included in the book. Geoff also introduced me to Deren’s work.

What is striking about the pictures in Haunted Air and the scenes Deren filmed is the way the wearers of masks and costumes seem to adopt a different personality, to be inhabited by another identity. Halloween, as Brown explains in the notes at the end of his book, has its roots in an old Celtic festival marking the end of summer. On this day the veil between the spirit and earthly worlds was believed to grow thin, allowing the dead to revisit the living. These pagan traditions were subsumed into Christianity (All Souls Day) and later, in the mid-1850s, carried from Ireland to the US where they were enriched by traditions from Europe and Scandinavia.

Vodou is similarly a product of cultural cross-fertilisation. Its origins lie in West African religions, carried by slaves to the Caribbean where they absorbed influences from Christianity and other religions. Though popular Hollywood films associate both Halloween and vodou with evil, the spirits celebrated in Deren’s film and in the photographs in Brown’s book are more often riotous and playful. The gods and the souls of the dead, it seems, want to have fun.