Last October, I had this crazy stress dream. In it I’m face to face with Maya Deren, the author of a book I’m reading on Haiti. She’s gorgeous, which makes me nervous. “But you’re dead,” I say. It’s true: After only 44 short years her brain had hemorrhaged, in defiance of a new, improperly-prescribed medication. It was 1961, the same year my mother took her first steps.
I put a hand on her shoulder. Her bare skin is hot beneath the pads of my fingers, almost malleable, and I worry I will damage it, leaving sticky prints on her back. She might have been a sculpture in the works: still raw, still clay. I plunge my hand through her sternum, parting her ribs and holding the hot organs in my palm.
I learned about Maya Deren while trying to understand a foggy and confused memory from 2008. I was in Haiti with a friend whose family was involved with a local hospital. She and I were standing outside a small rural house. An adult pulled us aside and told us we weren’t allowed to tell anyone back home about what was about to happen. They wouldn’t like it, she said.
I don’t remember what happened next very well. In my mind it’s a montage of ringing bells, dark rooms, old picture frames and dirty glass bottles. A low creole voice assigning tasks, which our translator explains in a whisper. I imagine colored beads, playing cards, candles, alcohol. Did money change hands? The walls were very thin wood slats: The only difference between inside and outside was the shadow the tin roof cast over the room. Six months later, the infamous earthquake hit.
Sixty years earlier, Maya Deren had touched down in Port-au-Prince with no luggage and no company. At twenty-nine, she was already a legend of the American avant-garde, with two divorces under her belt, one still fresh.
She was there to gather footage for an ambitious experimental film on the ritual dances of Vodou, Haiti’s primary religion. Though politically unrecognized (and frequently repressed), Vodou’s rituals permeate nearly every corner of the country, melding with Catholic beliefs into an organic and persevering tradition. Deren was a newcomer in Haiti, and didn’t know that Vodou leaves no room for passive observation. To be present is to participate: She was yanked from the role of ethnographer, drawn into the religious life of her subjects.
Deren was possessed, at least seven or eight times, by a Vodou spirit or loa called Erzulie, the embodiment of love. Possession, in its most loose definition, is when a divinity or other external animating force takes over a body. The practice is central to Vodou, primarily occurring during energetic communal rituals, but is also common to cultures from the spirit discos of Melanesia to the shamanism of Native Americans to the Japanese folk misaki. Even Roman Catholic doctrine speaks of demons and exorcisms.
For us, possession is the exclusive domain of the horror movie industry. Something about relinquishing self-control rubs us the wrong way. Possession is sensationalized. I’m thinking of the 2002 live-action Scooby Doo movie: Everyone gets possessed at wild group rituals in an underground cave, and demons almost take over the world. Most Westerners just imagine this stuff is like a giant game of Ouija. It’s convenient to put the whole notion of possession in quotation marks, wagging bunny ears in the air like an entire culture is pretending, like the shamans of the world wink at each other when we’re not looking, in on the trick.
Deren’s direct experience put her in a unique position to translate the phenomenon of possession into familiar language. But this was a nearly impossible task: Vodou is experiential, hard to contain in pictures or words. She never finished her film, scared the footage would only further exoticize Vodou. Like Deren, I’m going to attempt to connect with ideas that have no place in our world, and inevitably I’m going to fail on some level.
The serviteur or practitioner of Vodou would not describe possession as unusual. It’s an integral part of ceremonies, a divine gift to the community. The soul or mind or consciousness—whatever you want to call a person’s animating force—leaves the body, forced out by a spirit which “mounts” the person as if she were a horse. The spirit, now materially present, can talk with the serviteurs and participate in rituals. No one can say where the person’s soul goes, but it’s definitely not controlling the body. The “horse” is not held accountable for things said or done during the possession; food she eats while possessed is not felt to have nourished her body. The experience is not discussed with her. She won’t even remember: after all, she was not present.
Toward the end of her stay in Haiti, Deren purchased a set of drums and commissioned a ritual to have them “baptized.” She was planning to film the rare and complicated ceremony, one which she had never seen and knew little about. From the drummers’ first beats, the spirit Erzulie installed herself in Deren’s head. She woke up to find the ceremony concluded: Erzulie, in Deren’s body, had performed the entire baptism herself.
The taxi leaves us in an austere residential neighborhood, half-an-hour from Cambridge. Unlabeled number 19 is squeezed between 15 and 25. The windows are dark.
We’re here to see a possession. It’s Saturday night, and part of the local Haitian community is throwing a party in honor of the divinity of death and fertility. My friend, who spent a year in Haiti, has been trying to get to know the local Haitian culture. She heard about the event from a local mambo, or priestess, who cordially invited us with one caveat: serviteurs aren’t blind to popular opinion. Make sure you have an open mind, she warned.
I’m doing my best. My half-Haitian roommate stopped me as I ran out the door this evening, frowning hard. For a generally disaffected Lana del Rey devotee, she looked more concerned than usual. “Don’t let yourself get too swept up,” she warned me. I asked her what she meant. “That shit is real,” she said, shaking her head.
I already feel like a cultural voyeur, seeing something I wasn’t meant to see. I spoke to my mom about Vodou while researching this piece: “Oh, I have an angle,” she said. “You should write about how they have Vodou because they don’t have science.” My mother is a science writer who occasionally gets hate mail from creationists. In my house, we found PubMed research papers on healthy habits for childhood development on our desks, and went to bed on time without argument. I was raised to discredit everything that didn’t come packaged with empirical proof.
We knock and are greeted by an unsmiling man in white robes, who informs us that the drummers have not yet arrived and deposits us on a couch. For two hours, we sink into the leather sofa, life moving around us. Girls in white dresses are bustling in the kitchen, which is now producing all manner of smells. A woman reclines in the corner with a disgruntled infant. The man who greeted us, who has added a baseball cap studded with skull-shaped rhinestones to his white robe ensemble, coos at the child. There are two more babies on the glass coffee table. A couple eerily reminiscent of American Gothic sits stiffly by the window. The flat-screen television blares Zoey 101 reruns on mute. I discover I’m sitting on someone’s bottle, full of warm baby formula.
This ceremony is in honor of Ghede, a loa who is master of life and death. He’s known to wear a top hat, request cigars and swallow great gulps of a fiery liquor no human can stand.
Imagine your grandmother. Think about her personal quirks, favorite recipe, strangely-shaped birthmarks, matronly wisdom, etc. Now stick all of this information onto a slide transparency, the sort grade school teachers use with clunky projectors. Do the same for your whole ancestry—for every member of every generation that worked and played to hand down their precious DNA to you. Stack your family’s dead in neat piles of slides. When you lift the stack to the light, common forms appear. These are the loa: archetypal personalities, a dynamic cast of distinctive characters representing timeless commonalities. They are your guides and your predecessors, your legacy, your spiritual inheritance, the summation of human learning at the time of your birth. As families encounter each other and cultures blend, the pantheons merge and change, loa appear, change, and disappear to fit the spiritual needs of the communities.
The loa are full of apparent contradictions. They are not gods, but divine intermediaries between the creator and mortals. They serve the people and are served by the people. They are “intelligences,” ways of understanding and appreciating the world inherited from one’s parents. As Maya Deren puts it, “the serviteur learns love and beauty in the presence and person of Erzulie, experiences the ways of power in the diverse aspects of Ogoun, [the warrior loa,] becomes familiar with the implications of death in the attitudes of Ghede.”
Around ten, we’re led downstairs. The basement, a cavern of groaning pipes, is thickly disguised in dense layers of crepe streamers and shiny purple fabrics. Belated Halloween decorations deck the walls. These are for Ghede, and they are definitely scarier in their new appropriation: Cut-out skulls sport three-dimensional neon eyes, and fist-sized furry plastic spiders dangle from the ceiling pipes. A table is laden with offerings: rum in all varieties, breads, cakes, hard candies, popcorn. We press ourselves into an alcove at the back of the room, treading lightly around symbols traced on the floor in powdered chalk, and wait. The serviteurs pile in—cousins, inlaws, and grandparents laughing racously with kids of all ages, quiet first-timers in ‘70s garb, the pale and well-postured couple from upstairs.
By 2 a.m., the ceremony is well underway. The basement is a wild jumble of bodies transfixed by the rhythm of the drums, which seem to realign the beating of your heart so your veins pulse with the beat. A quartet of long-robed initiates float to each of the four corners of the room, arms full of swords, instruments, and offerings, which they raise and lower and then pause, holding their breath, waiting for the beat. I hold mine too. It drops and they spin together in place—right, left, right. The drums push out the noises of suburbia like a barricade of sound, declaring this modest basement a sanctuary. I’m trying not to be self-conscious, hoping to imitate the intricate sway of the women in white dresses. After four hours, we’re still waiting on a possession, and I’m having doubts. loa are strongly tied to the land, the mountains and valleys infused with the spiritual energy of many generations. I wonder: can Ghede find this house, all the way up here in a Boston suburb, surrounded by the clutter and paraphenalia of American life, the discord of migration? This basement is caught between worlds, between Haiti and the States, between the divine and the mortal.
The drums stop. I look up: A man is seizing violently like an electrocuted cartoon character. He does not seem to have control of his body: He dangles from one leg to the other, swerving like a top off balance, but somehow remains on his feet. The crowd parts hurriedly, giving him space as he careens about in great waves of shuddering. And then his eyes are open—too open. His great round whites, dilated pupils, gaze wildly around the room, and then through the room. He careens through the crowd, gripping shoulders, mouthing giddy greetings, and then the drums are up again. He plants himself backwards on the smallest of wicker chairs and drags it with him, hobbling around the room in a wild, jittery dance. The man or god is magnetic, pulling people one by one from the crowd with the slightest gesture. They twirl and curtsy to the drums, then kneel before him. He presses his bare forehead to theirs, skull to skull, and, eyes wild, mouths words I cannot hear.
Deren describes the experience of being possessed as terrifying, internally violent, with every echelon of intensity you might expect from having your consciousness ripped from your body. The process is so brutal that the role of the houngan, or priest, is mediative: He “arbitrate[s] between the loa and the human self, which wrangle violently over possession of the bodies like two hands might fiercely compete for a single glove.”
I’m not attempting to glorify or fetishize the often harsh realities of Haitian life. So-called primitive spiritual practices are too often sketched as hindrances to Western improvements. Well-meaning NGO workers ask why the villager spends egregious amounts of money on rituals that are “non-essential,” and complain that she ignorantly goes to the houngan for medical care instead of the distant hospital where many of her family members have died. It’s not that simple: The serviteur divides illness into two categories—“natural,” for which they’ll seek Western medical assistance if possible, and “unnatural,” what we would call psychosomatic. For the latter, they’ll seek spiritual help, which is analogous to what the West calls mental health care.
The Western tendency is to think of spiritual beliefs, especially in the developing world, as an outdated tool, preventing society from advancing to premium efficiency. But Vodou is relentlessly practical: As Deren puts it, most serviteurs’ “immediate needs are too insistent… [Vodou] must serve as a practical methodology not as an irrational hope.” The mythologist extraordinaire Joseph Campbell documents this pragmatism: With agriculture, cultures rejected the old, individualistic hunter lifestyle, which prized and depended upon individual prowess. In their place, they adopted communal, ritual-based religions, which bound families and villages together for shared survival.
For Deren, possession begins here, with the transfixing unity of ritual. She is drawn by “some pulse whose authority transcends all of these creatures and so unites them.” In Vodou dances, each individual hears and responds to the beat separately and independently, turned in, but “moving in common to a shared sound, heard by each of them singly.” The experience overloads our carefully constructed models for handling beauty, and becomes all-consuming. Joining the dance, Deren feels acutely vulnerable: She, too, is capable of losing herself in ritual.
The music is drowning her, and her body will not listen. Her limbs stick to the ground, threatening to ignore the steps of the dance; her muscles contract and the drums beat inside her chest. She internally begs for rescue, for the ceremony to end: Why don’t they stop? she thinks. Then she is calm. She describes a sense of depersonalization, of watching herself dance, of watching the rest of the serviteurs retreat to a distance to watch her dance, of realizing with renewed terror that it is not herself she is watching.
Even for the remarkably articulate Deren, possession escapes description. She experiences what she calls a white darkness. The whiteness: a divine, blinding glory she cannot handle. The darkness: viscous, concentrated terror. It consumes her, and then there is nothing.
Deren describes Erzulie, the loa of love and beauty who possesses her, as the manifestation of the dream, as the “capacity to conceive beyond reality, to desire beyond adequacy, to create beyond need.” She is the loa of the unattainable, a reminder that perfection must remain out of reach, the embodiment of the necessary gap between human and divine. Erzulie is the symbol of the white darkness, so bright Deren cannot bear it. She is terrifying, illustrious, unsurmountable by the boldest stab at analysis.
Anthropologists once earnestly endeavored to understand this so-called “epitome of Otherness.” Scholars sought medical explanations, casting possession as folk psychiatry dependent on the reduced consciousness of the trance state. It’s tempting. I keep hoping to find an article where researchers take an fMRI scan of a possessed person, but possession resists rational explanation. Pre-eminent possession scholar Janice Boddy suggests we flip the question on its head: Instead of asking “why them?” we ought to ask “why not us?”
Think about the last time you saw a magician. Maybe it was your kid brother’s seventh birthday party, where some guy split your friend in half and put him back together, and you can’t, for the life of you, get him to tell you how he did it. This is profoundly irritating: There’s a secret you don’t know, a trick you’re missing. The whole Western world is subject to analysis, to the process of breaking something down into smaller pieces so that it might be more easily digested. We parse texts into symbols, know the precise size and function of each cog in a wristwatch, study the respiratory system in order to feel a little kick of awe every time we inhale. This sort of analytical understanding, in Western culture, is prerequisite to complete appreciation. But to analyze is also to strip the object of analysis of its power over us. Vodou refuses to be divided and conquered: It is bigger than any individual, bigger than every ounce of logic a single person can muster.
Vodou is a different, subjective, and experiential way of knowing. There is no Archimedean point, no objective space safe from the subjectivities of rapture. Knowledge is not arrived at by analysis but through physical experience. What is known (the loa, and through them, the universe) and the knower exist in a dynamic and interdependent relationship, so intimate that that the knowledge literally possesses the knower. Have you ever known anything that intensely? Westerners value self-control, and so we work hard to maintain distance from experiences, afraid to be swept away. Museums and galleries remove art from the real experience of our day-to-day lives and isolate it in the idealized, austere world of the blank wall, filtering out any visceral provocation with white walls and cold distance. But distance, which they claim lets us see objective truth, shuts us out of the full aesthetic experience.
Musicologist Judith Becker claims the Western conception of the self not only prevents possession, but fosters mistrust of the entire practice. Possession requires permeable boundaries between self and environment. To quote Bourginon, “spirit possession is clearly dependent . . . on the possibility of separating the self into one or more elements.” Tellingly, we call ourselves individuals—a word which literally meant “indivisible” up until the 15th century. This is the difference: Westerners have indivisible, concrete insides—personal universes—and an external world analyzed into miniscule pieces. Vodou serviteurs share a single, collective universe and a multiplicity of fragmented selves. Of course Deren was afraid: She was literally splitting herself into pieces.
The serviteur experiences this quite literally: Illness, for him, is discord between the different parts of the self. Its converse, health, is harmony and connectedness with his environment. This is not abstraction: Vodou is immediate and experienced as real physical sensation. Deren explains that existential and emotional despair is channeled quite readily into bodily trauma; psychosomatic illness occurs with much higher frequency.
Deren repeatedly marvels at the physicality of the experience: Her body’s participation in the dance and the drums bridge the material world with that of the loa. Possession is dependent on your ability to engage with your surroundings, on how much of a response music and dance can provoke from your body. Westerners talk about the representative, symbolic, figurative, but serviteurs experience these things quite literally, probably with much more intensity.
Westerners identify not with their bodies, but with the executive branch of themselves that controls and reigns in their emotions, passions, and aesthetic experiences: the particular part of ourselves we must let go to allow a loa in. The Haitians call this the gros-bon-ange, a fusion of the soul, heart, and self. We compulsively and unconsciously hold so tight a grip on our gros-bon-ange that no spirit, if we could fit a divinity into our worldview, would dare attempt to wrench it from our grasp.
Haiti’s language has no word for our notion of belief: As Deren puts it, “a Haitian does not think of himself as ‘believing in’ something; he thinks it it so.” There is nothing to “believe in,” only practice and ritual, and these are indubitably real. You serve the spirits, so by extension, they exist.
Back in the Boston basement, the possession ends as it began. A metaphysical switch flicks, and the spirit is gone. “It was Agwe,” a canzo tells me in a hurried whisper. Agwe, loa of the sea, is supposedly important to a number of the house’s serviteurs. The man, spent, slumps against a white-clad initiate, who grips his shoulders firmly and tilts a bottle of water into his mouth.
We’re also exhausted. It’s time to go. I thank one of the canzos and tell her we’re leaving, and she frowns. “But you didn’t even get to talk to a spirit,” she says.
How far I am from Cambridge, I think. And then I take it back almost immediately. Do Erzulie, Ghede, Agwe, not appear in masked, subtle forms in our own worlds? I think of eating disorders, which Boddy calls “pathological forms of embodied aesthetics.” Anthropologists wonder about the psychological connections between spirit possession and our own pathologized version: multiple personality disorder. And what about falling in love? We aren’t exempt from the divine. But their calls are personal, whispers in our ears. We follow them alone, in our private universes.
Soon we won’t be the only ones. Possession is on the decline, threatened by what Boddy calls the “quiet revolution of capitalist reification.” Deren clarifies: Industrialization eliminates much of the need for cooperation, for the thick social networks co-dependent with spirit possession. In some ways, you could say the reductionists were right: Modern technology eliminates much of the practical need for Vodou. But they miss perhaps the most crucial function of all. Losing possession is losing wonder.
We flee the drums to sit upstairs with sleeping infants and a few canzo while we wait for our ride. Some of them, like Deren, have no Haitian ancestors, but stumbled upon the community and never left. I like to think I can empathize.
“Does it normally take this long for the loa to possess someone?” my friend asks. “Do they ever just not come at all?”
A canzo laughs. “They had better come,” he responds, “It’s their party.”
So here I am in the dream again, holding Maya Deren’s liver. “There is enough room in my skull,” I hear myself say. “I have gathered the parts of myself together and slid down into the cerebellum. You are free to inhabit my frontal lobe, my parietal lobe, my temporal lobe, my occipital lobe.”
She smiles, but I’m not sure she’s heard me. My voice is submerged in the whirring of the air conditioner, the mechanical tick of an analog clock, the smack of many pairs of shoes on many distant floors, every leaf crunched under my foot in the past 19 years. She reaches out a hand for her liver. I want to ask how she let go of herself enough to be possessed, how I could do it. After all of this, she’s still a mystery. Maybe it’s better that way.