Thursday, January 15, 2015

Horror in the African Folktale

By Praxilla of Sicyon (@PraxillaSDP)
The history of the African continent, its peoples and their cultures have often loosely and inaccurately been invoked as reference material in the horror genre. It is an enduring stereotype that we have come to associate malicious sorcery as the sole narrative worth of “African Horror”. While the appeal of evil is a necessary feature of the horror film, any reference to Africa in the genre has tended to be one-dimensional in scope; aimed at developing individual (stereo)(arche) types rather than complex storylines that rely on novel ways to interpret darkness. The lack of reference to Africa in horror outside of a stereotypical framework (i.e. “voodoo savagery”) is ironic, considering the extent to which African culture and mythology have utilized the horror narrative since time immemorial.

First and foremost, an element of horror is a necessary feature of the African folktale. It is a prerequisite of the morality tale, which can be said to encompass the majority, if not all of African folktales. Essentially, there are certain moral lessons that an audience is expected to take away from such tales. Horror is present to remind them of the consequences of failing to heed the warning. 

From the people of the Congo there is a story about a young fisherman named Anguza. One day he discovers the secret underworld abode of the Lake God Jokinam. As a gesture of friendship, the god makes him his shepherd; to tend the flock of goats that live at the bottom of the lake. In addition, the Lake God allows Anguza to keep the pearls which fell into his boat, disguised as water droplets. The only stipulation that the god required is that the fisherman tell no one about the place. But of course, Anguza couldn't keep a good thing to himself. The outro to the tale sees the fisherman “At once [fall] down, as dead as a stone”. Later, the elders consult a diviner in the village regarding the sudden death of Anguza. The “Lake God spoke through the mouth of the diviner” and recounted the promise the fisherman had made to him; and ultimately broke.

Perhaps the greatest significance of this story harkens upon the importance of making a promise. The element of horror simply heightens the moral importance behind the story. One must be able to be counted on to keep their word. Or else.

In addition, African storytelling has always had a flair for the dramatic. Regardless of whether the performance is taking place around a campfire or at a funeral, drama itself is an integral part of storytelling.

Among the Yoruba, the Egungun festival celebrates the “spirits of the dead through masquerade”. An individual is covered head to toe in fabric and then acts out the mannerisms of a deceased relative. The festival evokes joy as well as dread; for the spirit of a loved one is also the embodiment of death.

Popular in both the old world and the new, Elegbara (known as Esu-Elegba in Yorubaland, Elegua in Santeria, Legba in Vodou, etc.) is a trickster god who feeds upon strife and discord. He is a devil-like figure; a tempter. But one who ultimately guides people to self-discovery and self-actualization. According to one story, upon arriving in a town and wearing a hat with one side painted red, the other black, villagers began to argue amongst themselves over what they had saw. For surely, villagers on one end of the road were seeing things one way, while those on the other side had seen them in a completely different way. Thus, it is in the nature of the trickster god to create division amongst people. However, while he is mischievous, he is also neither good nor evil.

The vampire myth is also a staple of the African folktale. Like the horror industry today, there are many alternate versions to the original tale. There is the bloodsucking tsetse fly and a human vampire tale comes from the Betsileo of Madagascar; where a “caste of servants known as the ramanga were made to eat all nail parings and blood lost by members of the upper classes in order to prevent adverse magic”. Neither is representative of the classic vampire that we know of from European tradition. However, the evolution of bloodsucking and blood-drinking (or life and essence draining, as well) mythology in Africa, whether perpetrated by humans or animals, and whether real or imagined, is in essence vampiric.

Such is also the case with the the tale of the Werehyena; a human who transforms into a hyena and who usually belongs to a pack. A pack of werehyenas is associated with a trade such as being a blacksmith. 

Horror is an integral element of African culture. As is the (dark) fairytale in stories such as the one about the fisherman and the Lake God (and most do not end happily). We have to search no further than African mythology to see the darker side of nature and philosophy at work. In a cinematic sense it is a long-forgotten and time-worn bestiary that has not received the attention it deserves. African mythos is ripe with stories of humans, animals, gods, goddesses, and demons cast in narratives that are not uncommon to us.

It should be said here that “demon” does not always have the same meaning in indigenous African belief systems as in Abrahamic religions. For example, one demon may both curse and cure an individual with/of the same ailment by virtue of their being associated with a condition. In addition, demons are not necessarily evil. Sometimes you invoke one demon for the sole purpose of getting rid of another, for instance.

One person's good is another person's evil (and vise versa) is a mantra of cultural relativism, and it applies here as well. Rather than simply appealing to the age old dichotomy of black and white, good versus evil, the African horror narrative has its own creative voice that transcends the linear model of storytelling as we know it today.  

In closing, the big screen has yet to see the full range of African-inspired horror. To the cauldron of Hollywood voodoo spells, I'd like to see indigenous alchemy, herbal medicine, occult societies, misunderstood rituals, spirit possession and other cultural fanfare used as the inspiration for horror film narratives that transcend the “dark continent” archetypes that we have grown familiar with.  

About the Author

Praxilla of Sicyon is a gothic horror screenwriter and photographer based in New York City. She is the writer of two short horror films, Stranger and Coma. Both are directed by Jeremiah Kipp and star Lydia Darly (Exorcist: The Beginning) (@PraxillaSDP)