The Safe Negro Travel Guide to Lovecraft Country: 'Holy Ghost'

Four youngsters play with a Ouija board in Episode 3 of ‘Lovecraft Country.’
Four youngsters play with a Ouija board in Episode 3 of ‘Lovecraft Country.’
Screenshot: HBO (YouTube

If you watched Episode 3 of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, you already know: This was a damn near perfect episode. I sincerely believe that the horror genre is where Black folks get to tell truths that otherwise aren’t safe to tell. Horror is an imaginative space for us because so much of our history and experiences in America are horrific. Accordingly, horror is not as foreign a genre as we so often make it out to be, and Lovecraft Country brings Black horror into even our most intimate spaces: our bedrooms, our bathrooms, our relationships.

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There was a lot to unpack in this episode (spoilers to follow)—Lawd, these folks are a mess! But I believe Misha Green and her team are using classic elements of Black horror to continue her conversation on Black trauma, its aftereffects, and offer possible solutions through Black spiritual practices. This week’s drama revolved around the feint of Black folks as monstrous when they might simply be the victims of medical experiments—or trauma—both of which reflect our lived history in America. The actual evil was whole and appeared normatively white, whether in the menacing form of Dr. Hiram Epstein or the abusive cop, Lancaster, or the unwelcoming committee that terrorized Leti and her boarders in their new home on the North Side of Chicago in 1955.

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Tellingly, the ghostly Black folks were juxtaposed against the casual monstrosity the Black folks in the house showed to each other: Leti in her manipulation of her sister, Ruby; Ruby in her cold judgment of other Black folks struggling to survive just like her; and Tic & Leti’s’s inability to wade through their own personal trauma to fully communicate with each other in ways that don’t involve jealousy, emotional emptiness, or rage-sex.

The climactic scene in which Tic, possessed by Epstein (later revealed to be a follower of the Sons of Adam, and based upon the Lovecraft character Joseph Curwen from the novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), spews hate to Leti works on so many levels. This is not simply a matter of ghostly possession, but a larger commentary on their relationship; Tic’s rage and Leti’s yawning emptiness. Admittedly, I still haven’t fully processed it but this scene has deep implications for Black gender relationships, heterosexual and beyond.

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My book, Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror insists that Black folks do horror differently and that it is often grounded in our own cosmologies and spiritual practices. Broad categories of horror, such as zombies, ghosts, and demonic possession are flipped and remixed once Black folks get a hold of them. The concept of zombies is a bastardization of the Haitian Vodun process of zombification, which is often read as a soulless body but was also used by healers as a type of medically induced coma. The idea that we should fear ghosts or the living dead is preposterous, as our ancestors comfort and protect us in our daily lives.

Finally, possession is not always demonic in our lived experiences as we are often ridden by spirits in our weekly worship practices, Black church folks shout when they are possessed by the Holy Ghost, olorishas are ridden by their tutelary orisha, and horses are mounted by the loa in Vodun. This is why our horror hits different. The reality that the misshapen and malformed Black ghosts that occupied the house were actually victims of the true evil that possesses the house demonstrates the layers in which Black horror operates.

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Dr. Nicholas Jones is both a scholar of Early Modern Iberia at Bucknell University and an obá oriaté in the Afro-Cuban Lucumí tradition (colonized name: Santería). He explains that Leti brings in the Mambo, (the spiritual practitioner; in this case, a Vodun priestess) to perform what is known in the Palo/Kongo tradition as “rompimiento”—or “breaking” (in Ifà, a Babalawo performs a “paraldo”). To translate: It is a series of ceremonies that are done to forcibly break the connection of malevolent or evil spirits. The ceremonial killing of the goat (often referred to as a “feeding” or “matanza”) offers blood in preparation for the egùn (or spirit) work to be done. There is a distinct mixing of African diasporic religious traditions in Lovecraft Country’s world-building; I believe this to be purposeful as there is an interest in highlighting that there are so many traditions Black folks have that are powerfully and wonderfully complex and able to supersede the natural philosophy of white supremacy.

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The juxtaposition of Shirley Caesar’s “Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down” against the final exorcism of the house via Oya and the eight other spirits was absolute perfection. The Black Church™ practices an Africanized Christianity rooted in liberation theology and filled to brimming with remixed African spiritual practices, including shouting, the presence of a percussion section, and many others found in the work of scholars such as Albert J. Raboteau, Theophus H. Smith, and Yvonne P. Chireau. It is no mistake that this episode opens in the church and ends in the exorcism.

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It is the presence of Oya that helps us analyze the exorcism scene. Dr. Jones reminds us that Oya is an orisha of the dead who is intimately connected with the egùn; not only does she own the very last breath we take, but it is she who receives the bodies and souls of the dead in the cemetery, as she is responsible for all who enter her cemetery gate. The Oya connection had a lot to do with the spiritual realm, channeling her symbolism to exorcise malevolent spirits. The use of channeling is key as Dr. Jones explains that this episode does not present a faithful representation of all that she is.

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Oya is a warrior and rides to battle with nine egùn or ancestral spirits, hence nine being the number of both Oya and the egùn. And nine becomes incredibly powerful in the house exorcism as Leti invokes the practice of “nommo,” or the naming of ancestors. It is Leti who goes beyond simply seeing the spirits as nameless victims. It is she who seeks out their faces and finds each name and calls them out: “Betsey...Phillip...Lucy...Jasper...Anarcha...Rufus...Grover...Olivia”; one by one, asking them to “Help me cast him [Epstein] out” and get him “the fuck out of her house.” The act of naming is powerful. Note that she does not name Epstein while in the house, only in the back of the bar during her research and exposition to Tic.

It is also during that conversation that Leti names herself a ghost, reminding us that she died and was resurrected in last week’s episode, stating: “And I died too. And honestly, since I’ve been back, I’ve felt like a ghost.” And it is ultimately she who joins with the other eight ghosts to become the nine egùn and go to war with Oya to defeat Epstein. She proclaims: “You are not dead yet. You can still fight!” She is purposely unclear in who she is referencing: them...or her own self. And just as the spirits regrow their limbs and become whole again in their victory against the evil doctor, Leti is renewed in her faith, her life and has “staked her claim” in this newly discovered world with not one lick of fear.

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Glossary: Here’s a list of terms and descriptions to help you along your journey into Lovecraft Country.

“Bobo” - This was Emmett Till’s real-life nickname, and the name used to identify one of the youngsters featured in the Ouija Board scene with Diana Freeman, who is dressed identically to Till’s best-remembered living photos. He asks the board if he is going to have a good time on his trip (remember, this is the summer of 1955 in Chicago), the board answers back: No. (h/t Decider) Coincidentally (or not), the 65th anniversary of Till’s Mississippi murder on August 28 was commemorated two days before this episode aired.

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Realtist - During Jim Crow, Black folks were excluded from being certified realtors. Black folks within the real estate profession were instead allowed to become “realtists.” They brokered many deals for Black people to (eventually) own property when they were otherwise unable to secure a mortgage. Many Black folks entered into installment contracts that were incredibly precarious due to high-interest rates, and minor issues were often used to declare the contracts null and void, allowing the owner to retain all previous payments. This was a common way to defraud Black folks interested in purchasing a property.

Oya - female orisha of the storm and of the dead. Dr. Jones explains that Oya means “The mother who roars, rips, tears” in Yoruba. She is also known as Iyansan, or “the mother of nine.” She was worshipped in continental Africa as a goddess of the Niger River. She is the secretary of Olofi and Orula as she writes the name of the dead down in the Book of the Dead. Oya is a female orisha who represents pure air. Oya owns the lungs, the respiratory system, she is represented in the last breath of every living being. She, along with Obba Nani, checks off the list of the souls and bodies being brought into the cemetery. Babalú Ayé brings the bodies to the cemetery; he is the hearse that transports the body where Oya is waiting with her checklist. Oya is deeply involved with the processing of the souls. She is known to be sweet and fearsome at the same time.

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Maman Brigitte - A powerful Ghede, or loa of the dead in the Haitian Vodun tradition. The consort/wife of Baron Samedi is syncretized with Saint Brigit. She is foul-mouthed, hot-headed, hot-tempered, and is usually represented by a blonde, light-skinned Black woman or white woman. Leti calls upon a Mambo, and Maman Brigitte is the loa she would have called upon instead of the orisha Oya, from the Afro-Cuban tradition. Also, Beyoncé embodies Maman Brigitte in her “Formation” video.

Recommendations: If your interest is piqued and you would like to take a deeper dive, here are some media suggestions that will help you better understand the Lovecraftian universe and other horror themes (possession, medical experimentation, traditional African religious practices) in this episode.

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Film:

The Resurrected (1991), Dan O’Bannon

The Inheritance (2011), Robert O’Hara

JD’s Revenge (1976), Arthur Marks

Sugar Hill (1974), Paul Maslansky

The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia (2013), Tom Elkins

Dead Birds (2004), Alex Turner

Novels:

The Black God’s Drums (2018) by P. Djeli Clark

Mama Day (1988) by Gloria Naylor

Short Stories:

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward  (1941) by HP Lovecraft

Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror (2015) by Eden Royce

Reference:

Orishas, Goddesses, and Voodoo Queens: The Divine Feminine in African Religious Traditions (2020) by Lilith Dorsey

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Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (2015) by Wilda C. Gafney

Mojo Workin’ The Old African American Hoodoo System (2012) by Katrina Hazzard-Donald

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Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk Tales from the Gulf States by Zora Neale Hurston

Queering Black Atlantic Religions: Transcorporeality in Condomblé, Santería, and Vodou  (2019) by Roberto Strongman

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Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South (1978) by Albert J. Raboteau

Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (1983) by Robert Farris Thompson

Kinitra Brooks is a New Orleans native who writes about conjure women, monsters...and Beyoncé.

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DISCUSSION

I got the Till reference with the tie, too!

I also caught that overheard comment about MLK changing his name from Michael and his marriage to Coretta being arranged because he was in love with a white woman up North. This show goes deep.

This is not simply a matter of ghostly possession, but a larger commentary on their relationship; Tic’s rage and Leti’s yawning emptiness.

I cringed at that episode because I knew that there would be a deep dive in how only a black man can be possessed by a evil ghost and somehow it would be more about black male rage instead of, you know, his being possessed by the ghost of a racist serial killing monster