Thursday, March 23, 2017

Terror & Horror: Eve's Bayou As A Revered Black Women's Genre Text


Eve's Bayou opens with establishing history. A tale rooted in the southern United States legacy where Africans brought with them modes of healing. Despite the egregious methods taken to suppress their ways of worship and spiritual practices, many of them have prevailed and been passed on to their descendants. Due to this history, many texts adapt historical fact and blend it with mythical fiction. At times, this fiction, particularly in film tends split concepts of good and evil into separate characters which blatantly and unfairly disservices the humanity of their personhood and motives. This is all too common amongst Black characters in those "voodoo movies".

But Eve's Bayou is an examination of a prestigious Southern family's more fragile foundations. It is a Black film that often applies the supernatural to tell the amazingly layered stories of southern Black American women and girls grappling with grief and searching for, in a very unconventional way; growth.

Both a woman from the South and a horror fan, I had to talk to author and beloved contributor to Graveyard Shift Sisters Eden Royce as someone with first-hand experience with the content and imagery crafted by writer and director Kasi Lemmons in this bittersweet tale.

What are your initial memories of viewing Eve's Bayou? How did it resonate and stay with you after all these years?

What resonated most with me when I first watched it—I must have been 24 or 25 at the time—was that there were only people of color in the movie. It was so rare for me to see that.

It was also rare for me to see only people of color in a movie set in the South. It spoke to me of where I was from—mighty oaks draped in Spanish moss, kids running alongside swampy marshes, clients coming to the house for ‘news’. It was a revelation to me that these stories would be on the big screen.

What sorts of spiritual practices, African in origin have been passed on in your family that is still practiced today?

Dream interpretation is a big one. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s bed and telling her my dreams (and my nightmares) and listening to her tell me what they meant. Something impactful I noticed in Eve’s Bayou was the spider imagery, which can mean the power of the feminine.

Divination—throwing bones or shells to determine someone’s fate. Even just going to the local wise woman for advice.

Herbalism is prevalent as well. I rarely took store-bought medicine growing up; my grandmother always had a home remedy for what ailed you.

Death always comes with ritual—the dressing of the dead, wakes, homegoing services. You also have to bury the dead with one of their favorite possessions, or risk them not moving on.

My family still eats the traditional Hoppin’ John and collard greens on New Year’s Day, a meal of peas and rice derived from Central and Western Africa. Sometimes even after midnight on New Year’s Eve, so it’s the first meal of the year. It’s to bring good luck and financial fortune. (Don’t use black-eyed peas. They aren’t the same as the Carolina red cowpeas, which have a meatier texture.)

How would you describe "root work" to someone with little to no knowledge of it?

Root work is one of the terms used under the catchall heading of Southern Conjure, along with hoodoo and tricking, to refer to African-American folk magic. I’m a huge geek, so if you’re like me and have ever played Dungeons and Dragons, you’ve inevitably come across a character that had “hedge magic” as a skill or ability. Same thing.

Conjure magics have been a part of every culture on the planet, each of which has specifics on ingredients, spells, and incantations. Southern Conjure is a mélange of African, Native American, and yes, some European magic systems. (There goes that D&D terminology again.)

The main reason for the European influence is that when slaves were brought to the Americas, the tools and ingredients root workers—or root doctors, as they were sometimes called—were used to did not exist and substitutions had to be made. In many cases, they were also not able to perform traditional ceremonies and practices with any freedom and had to adopt methods that could be activated in a more clandestine manner.

In Eve's Bayou, there is a distinct contrast between Mozelle and Elzora as conjure women. How have women in the south with "the gift of sight" utilized their gifts throughout history as we see represented in the film?

Mozelle (Debbi Morgan, left) & Elzora (Diahann Carroll, right)
“Seeing” can be revered and feared in equal measure, so most people with that gift are cautious about who they share it with.

Many of these women kept their acquaintances to close family and friends or lived alone as they do in Eve’s Bayou; but they felt the need to connect with their communities, in some cases holding them together. They were advisors, giving guidance and wisdom, even going so far sometimes as to mediate arguments. Quick to caution, but just as quick to praise. Definitely people who would clap when you win.

You’ll have to ask for their input, and before you do, ensure it’s something you want to know. And pay the seer for their efforts. (Unless of course, you have a family member that feels an obligation to speak their knowledge, then you can’t escape it.)

When I was in college, one of my best friends came by the house to introduce us to her fiancĂ©. My grandmother received them both with kindness and hospitality we Southerners are known for. Once they left, she stared at where they’d sat and said, “That aine gon’ last five years.”

They divorced after four and a half.

Why would you describe Eve's Bayou as a "horror film" or would you classify it as something else?

I would call it Southern Gothic if I had to categorize it. The strange and unusual, the use of magic and portents, draped in the mores and practices of the South is a classification unto itself. Not unlike the magic realism Latin America’s writers are so known for.

However, some may want further clarification because Southern Gothic may not be a choice when you’re searching online for films. If you’re looking for Eve’s Bayou, you may be tempted to search under ‘Drama’ or the ever-popular ‘African-American interest’ categories. (I found my copy on a shelf labeled “Black History Month Movies.”)

But slating it under a more broader genre is a challenge. There’s crime, mystery, family secrets, magical practices, coming-of-age, infidelity…the list goes on. Even so, we remain in the young Eve’s point of view for the majority of the film, and we recognize the gentle flutterings of her budding awareness that something is wrong. That what made her feel safe—her family dynamic—is changing.

And that is terror.

Nowadays, people tend to use the words “horror” and “terror” interchangeably, when they’re really quite different.

Terror is the feeling of dread, anxiety, and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience.

Horror is the feeling that occurs after something frightening happens—aversion, shock, fear, etc… It’s the response to seeing or hearing or feeling the awful thing.

Terror is walking down the darkened hallway alone. Horror is hearing footsteps, breathing that is not your own, then feeling wet, slack flesh graze your arm. Stephen King describes the difference in his book Danse Macabre:

"I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."

Eve feels her uncle’s death. She hears her parents arguing late at night when they think she isn’t listening. She sees her sister’s attitude and body language shift to something closed and alien. Her safe world, along with the ideal image of her father, is crumbling.

Eve’s anxiety pushes her to make choices that further alter the tide of the film in a way she thought she wanted, but in reality, is afraid of.

Why do you think Eve's Bayou is important in the 'genre film' canon?

Eve’s Bayou shows people of color, specifically African-Americans, defying Hollywood movie tropes and media definitions of “the Black experience.” The Batiste's are well-to-do, respected in the community, and yet have their secrets. The epitome of the Gothic family. It’s well-paced, well-acted—especially by the child actors—and provides a welcome break to the slave narrative so prevalent in films with Southern settings.

Strong women, young and old, abound in this tale and it is their choices that drive the storyline. It brings quiet chills to the genre film canon, showing that we as people of color can master the subtleties of Gothic. Its imagery reflects the nature of root work and conjure magic—doing much with little.

Eve’s Bayou also portrays Southern conjure magic and its practitioners in a way that many other movies don’t—as regular people with families, and homes, and hopes, and dreams—not as one dimensional McGuffins to service the plot. It shows conjure magic as not evil in and of itself, but as the product of its wielder and their intent, which is as true to magic as we can ever be.


Follow Eden on Twitter and grab her book, Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror now.
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