An Accursed Place: Haiti and the Depictions of Dark Magic in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog
by Charlie Benny
Polyphony, Volume 3, Issue 1
First published December 2020, Manchester
This essay investigates America’s peculiar relationship with Haiti, and how that relationship is conveyed through popular culture — including an in-depth reading of Disney’s 2010 film The Princess and the Frog. Cultural anxieties between the U.S. and Haiti are perhaps embodied by the villain of the piece, the voodoo witch doctor Dr. Facilier. Moreover, the darkness present in many Disney films manifests itself this time as voodoo — or at least a stereotypical and grossly misappropriated version which satisfies an American audience’s desire to other a nation with a turbulent past. Haiti is relentlessly treated with contempt, cultural influences from the island are depicted clumsily and with vast inaccuracy, such that the film produces an astonishingly Gothicised image of Haiti, which reaffirms and legitimizes colonial perspectives. This essay seeks to interrogate these sensationalised depictions of Haiti, and consider why images of the island as an accursed place are still present in American popular culture.
American depictions of Haiti have been consistently sensationalised, the use of provocation closely tied with the Gothic — from early writings on the island, with titles featuring terms like ‘bloody’ or ‘horror’ to captivate curious readers (see note 1), to more recent manifestations of Haitian culture in cinema and popular culture. In this essay, I will explore how this culture has been grossly misappropriated by analysing Disney’s 2010 animation The Princess and the Frog alongside a history of racial and cultural unthinkability. I will also consider how Haitian culture has been subsumed into the American Gothic genre, such that prejudices and colonial concerns surrounding the isle are present in mainstream American art.
It is important to establish the historical context behind such cultural manifestations. Somewhat inevitably, it is long-held anxieties surrounding American slavery that prompt the demonising and misappropriation of Haitian culture with the astonishing 1791 revolution as a catalyst for paranoia and fear in the newly formed United States. The most famous indication of this horror is Thomas Jefferson’s damning assessment: ‘We may therefore, expect black crews’ (see note 2). Violence and mutiny were considered to be very much on the horizon, emphasising the guilt and confusion behind America’s position. Upon the discovery that enslaved people were in fact wholly capable of military organisation and execution, mythologies providing the rationale for slavery at this time began to wilt away. This contradictory terror at insurgent slave uprisings is further demonstrated through Jefferson’s action to withdraw recognition of Saint Domingue’s sovereignty despite previous president John Adams’ acceptance of this sovereignty even before independence was officially declared (see note 3). This was founded on a fear that Haiti’s story would encourage slaves on American soil to resist, a fear so strong that many southern states ‘instituted an embargo on slaves imported from Saint Domingue after the rebellions, fearing that the spirit of revolution would be transmitted on their own shores‘ (see note 4). The use of the term ‘transmitted’ relates black autonomy to a disease, which emphasises America’s racist position that slavery as an institution must be protected at all costs, even if under threat from uncertain dark forces. Therefore, Haiti may be considered as an obvious inspiration for the American Gothic, an isle producing panic and horror from its very inception, by disturbing white supremacist ideologies upon which the United States was founded.
Considering this, I would like to analyse the implications of Pat Robertson’s claim that Haiti had ‘compacted with the Devil to gain freedom from slavery and independence from France’. Following Haiti’s dramatic fight for emancipation, the telling characteristic of this slave rebellion was its unthinkability. I argue that America goes out of its way to emphasise the impossibility of slave rebellion, so as to explain and justify colonial endeavours. That is, therefore, the significance of Haitian Vodoun to Americans — that dark magic and devil-worship are the only explanations as to how Caribbean slaves were able to organise themselves to achieve freedom. This concept is explored by Julio Capó: ‘Throughout the nineteenth century, Western European and North American sources wrote countless tales of savagery, barbarism, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and sorcery in Haiti. Oftentimes, they cited Vodou as evidence of this. After all, there had to be a “reasonable” explanation for Haiti’s founding. How did former slaves, free people of color, maroons, and others successfully defeat the powerful French, British, and Spanish forces? (see note 5)’ One example of this is the 1884 book by St. John, Hayti or the Black Republic (see note 6). This literature set in motion much of the misconception and fear surrounding Haiti today. Tiffin asserts that St John depicts Vodou as a religion of decadence, with broadly evil practices including cannibalism and devil worship (see note 7). Essentially, the production of literary and cultural works to discredit Haiti’s origins are primarily framed through the supernatural, thus allowing the United States to maintain hegemony over such an ‘accursed isle’.
These ideas are also reinforced in contemporary popular culture, with Americanised misappropriations making voodoo appear demonic or evil. For example, in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, the antagonist is a scheming bokor, Dr. Facilier (see note 8). The most obvious link to Haiti is the character’s similarity to ‘Papa Doc’ François Duvalier, the despotic dictator of Haiti throughout the 1960s. Co-director of the film John Musker revealed in an interview that, in fact, "Dr. Facilier was originally Dr. Duvalier but we didn’t want to confuse him with the ruler of Haiti with that same name (see note 9)." Whilst Musker stresses that they didn’t want to present Duvalier himself as the villain of the piece, it is evident that the character was heavily influenced by the former president. For example, the iconography of Dr. Facilier bases itself very closely with the Vodou loa Baron Samedi, stylised with a dark coat and top hat. Facilier also frequently appears with his face masked like a skeleton’s. In Figure 1, Facilier — who is also referred to by other characters as ‘Shadow Man’ — clutches an idol as he performs an evil enchantment, his face depicted as a skull alongside a background of skull imagery. This imagery was also used by Papa Doc as a means to tap into Haitian religious beliefs and consolidate his power, depicting himself as the physical manifestation of the Baron Samedi by dressing in the same dark clothes, imitating his sinister nasal accent, and even overseeing cabinet meetings with white powder poured over his face to represent the loa of death and resurrection (see note 10). Dr. Duvalier may be considered especially nefarious by the United States, on the basis that beyond his misuse of American aid and his oppressive rule, he also claimed to have been responsible for the death of John F. Kennedy by putting a Vodou curse on the popular president (see note 11). Therefore, America’s negative perception of Haiti is upheld by this characterisation, referencing both Vodou and Duvalier’s power-crazed corruption to act as an enemy to the American way of life. For example, while manipulating the prince’s servant in Machiavellian fashion, Facilier claims that “the real power in this world ain’t magic — it’s money.” This reflects American anxieties about Haiti which convey the island as backward and destitute, with the film caricaturing a greedy and sinister voodoo master desperate to hijack the capitalist American Dream through the use of dark magic. The narrative centres around protagonist Tiana’s wish to open her own restaurant and achieve her American Dream, with the scheming but financially struggling ‘Shadow Man’ employing deceit and making deals with his ‘friends on the other side’ to get what he wants. In this way, Vodou is misappropriated to deconstruct Haitian autonomy. Just as the slave rebellion out of which the nation was born has been defined by unthinkability, The Princess and the Frog identifies dark magic as the only means by which Haitian culture may succeed, and thus upholds the mythology that the island is ‘an accursed place’.
Figure 1, The Princess and the Frog (2010)
Of these misappropriations, Kameelah L. Martin asserts that:
Voodoo could not be any more manufactured for public consumption than in Disney’s characterization of Dr. Facilier [...] The film reifies a false association of Voodoo with evil, self-motivated materialism, and base emotions like jealousy and envy. Dr. Facilier is vilified simply to cast him in the role of antagonist, understandably; though doing so inaccurately, confirms the false dichotomy between good and evil that does not exist within African spiritual epistemologies (see note 12).
Not only is Facilier himself representative of American ignorance and fear of Haitian culture, the film’s portrayal of the loa is also inaccurate. An entire musical number is dedicated to Facilier’s connection with the undead or supernatural, the bokor boasting: “I got Voodoo, I got Hoodoo, I got things I ain’t even tried - and I got friends on the other side.” This demonstrates the extent of commodification that the film employs, satirising a legitimate religion as another of Disney’s catchy and theatrical villain songs. As Martin points out, the film depicts an oversimplified dynamic of good and evil, where the loa are shown to be vengeful and sadistic (see note 13). For example, when bargaining with these spirits, Dr. Facilier offers them “all the wayward souls your dark little hearts desire”, implying that they claim or feed on the souls of the living. This directly relates to Pat Robertson’s accusation that Haitians had compacted with the devil, the loa with whom Facilier negotiates carelessly grouped together as ‘evil voodoo’. Furthermore, these ‘friends on the other side’ are portrayed in a variety of forms: as masks, as shadowy creatures and as eerie dolls, all of which are an inaccurate amalgamation designed to promote a Gothic image of voodoo, thus crediting the notion that Haiti is fundamentally connected to the occult. This practice of utilising Gothic conventions in reference to Haiti begins in the early nineteenth century, so ‘to excite and gratify a laudable curiosity’(see note 14), and similarly, the ‘Disneyfication’ of Haitian traditions owes its origins to an imperialist agenda (see note 15). Sensationalised depictions of Haiti consumed in the United States act to reinforce conceptions of the island as sinister and superstitious, in order to uphold American supremacy and legitimise uncomfortable histories of slavery and rebellion.
Furthermore, as much as Dr. Facilier has been produced as a popular villain figure emblematic of American fear of Haiti as an ‘accursed isle’, I believe it is useful to consider how Haiti’s colonial origins are also inserted into the American consciousness through depictions of the ‘Hollywood Zombie’. The concept of the zombie as it is recognised in American popular culture does not originate in the United States. Sarah Juliet Lauro expresses that ‘the lack of zombies in the U.S. South may also confirm what we know about the demographic diversity of slaves, the confluence of African American cultures, and concern about the influence of the Caribbean on the American plantation’ (see note 16). As discussed previously, there were substantial fears of revolution on American soil upon hearing the impossible had occurred in Saint-Domingue, which were and continue to be justified by the dark forces of voodoo. As part of a Gothic myth which has survived through literature, film and other art forms, ‘dark magic’ provides the rationale for not only historical slave rebellion on the island, but the capacity of black people to exist outside of white control more broadly. In relation to this, Saint-Domingue appears as the birthplace of the zombie, with enslaved people fearing that even suicide would not free them, as Vodou magic could raise bodies from the dead and return them to slavery (see note 17). This mythology survived post-revolution. Within a nation consisting heavily of former slaves, it evolved to symbolise the most horrific fate a person could face (see note 18). Since transitioning into mainstream American culture, the zombie acts as a means to look upon slavery with nostalgia and reinforce white supremacist ideologies. As Raphael Hoermann puts it: ‘the zombie amounts to little more than a white racist revenge fantasy of re-enslavement and re-subjugation of black people. This seems the principal reason why the zombie has been claimed to originate in Haiti, which through its revolution has contributed majorly to dislodging slavery, colonialism and white supremacy’ (see note 19). In this way, Haiti’s reputation for the occult is extended as canonical horror figures that are cultivated as part of the American Gothic, concepts that legitimise a colonialist agenda and treat it with nostalgia.
Another relevant example of how Haitain culture is demonised is The Princess and the Frog’s curious use of blood. After tricking Prince Naveen with devilish wordplay, the anti-American villain of the piece sets his evil plan in motion by piercing Naveen’s finger and allowing his royal blood to flow into Facilier’s magic talisman, transforming the prince into a frog. This emphasises Facilier’s practices to be primitive and demonic, and stresses that voodoo is designed for evil. Moreover, the Gothic connotations of blood addresses an American audience primed for fear and disgust, thus accentuating a sensationalised, sadistic image of Haiti and its culture. In Dr. Facilier, the film cultivates a Disney villain based entirely on stereotypical tropes and racist misappropriations, the fixation on blood only another encoded racial aggression towards Haitian people. This depiction echoes America’s terror surrounding the AIDS crisis, where Haiti was readily vilified as the cause of AIDS in America and quickly grouped into the ‘Four-H Club’ (see note 20), referencing homosexuals, heroin-users, hemophiliacs and Haitians as high risk for contracting the nation’s most brutally stigmatised disease. Thus The Princess and the Frog may be considered to be employing highly problematic tropes: an evil bokor drawing blood on American soil, and bewitching it in secret to gain illicit power, highlighting American anxieties surrounding voodoo practices and Haiti’s occultist reputation.
American persecution of Haitian culture is not only reflected in popular art, but demonstrated in practice. In amidst the AIDS panic, Glick-Schiller details the racism and mistreatment faced by the people of Haiti:
Haitians, however, were rounded up and placed in federal "detention centers" that were in fact concentration camps. Haitians were portrayed as ragged, wretched, and pathetic and were said to be illiterate, superstitious, disease-ridden and backward peasants. They became visible scapegoats for the failure of U.S. capitalism (see note 21).
Considering this, Haitian identity has been defined in the U.S. almost entirely through fear and aversion, and this is reflected by The Princess and the Frog’s menacing depiction of Vodou and, specifically, the motif of blood. Facilier’s talisman (as shown in Figure 1) is highly significant to the plot, gifted to the bokor by his ‘friends on the other side’ and capturing the prince’s blood as part of a primitive and grotesque ritual. This narrative supports inaccuracies surrounding Haitian religious practices and plays on American anxieties around Haiti as both unholy and unsanitary. Of these prejudices facing Haitian culture, Farmer remarks that ‘North American scientists repeatedly speculated that AIDS might be transmitted between Haitians by voodoo rites, the ingestion of sacrificial animal blood, the eating of cats, ritualised homosexuality, and so on-a rich panoply of exotica’ (see note 22). Despite these suggestions being entirely false, these mythologies surrounding Haiti have survived and continue to be perpetuated in popular culture. The film heavily utilises the supernatural, from the appearance of shadowy loa spirits to Dr. Facilier’s own conjuring, but a specific fixation on blood appears to invoke more concerning connotations of savagery that work solely to discredit and demonise Haitian traditions. For example, the film’s proxy Baron Samedi commands his army of dark spirits: “Bring him [Naveen] to me alive! I need his heart pumping, for now.” Repeated reference to blood and the use of the body within the context of dark magic characterises Haiti in its entirety as a trope of the American Gothic canon. The nation’s spiritual identity is misappropriated as a way to do others harm, an ignorance which is elaborated to wrongly shame Haiti for the spread of AIDS and its backward and intimidating culture: ‘Public perception along the eastern seaboard seemed to have added "AIDS" to the folk model that had previously relied so strongly on voodoo imagery’ (see note 23). This in turn has reinforced perceptions in the U.S. of the island to be in league with the occult, and thus damaging stereotypes of Haiti and voodoo evolve to include Haitians as unclean, either morally or literally.
In conclusion, as a result of colonial tension, American popular culture treats Haiti with intrigue and disgust in equal measure, creating a Gothic image of the island. Consequently, this sensationalism has condemned Haiti to be considered as intrinsically connected with the occult, defined through American film, literature and culture as an upstart nation in league with the devil.
Matt Clavin, ‘Race, Rebellion, and the Gothic: Inventing the Haitian Revolution’, in Early American Studies, vol. 05, no. 1, (2007), p. 13.
Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of James Madison, vol. 17, 31 March 1797–3 March 1801, ed. by David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne K. Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), pp. 230–233.
Laurent Dubois and John Garrigus, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean 1789-1804 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006), pp. 159-162.
Sarah Juliet Lauro, ‘“American” Zombies: Love and Theft on the Silver Screen’, in The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion, and Living Death (Rutgers University Press, 2015), p. 71.
Julio Capó, UMass Amherst Department of History (2014), <https://umasshistory.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/a-distorted-haiti-or-the-real-american-horror-story/> [accessed 19 October 2019].
St. John Spencer, Hayti or the Black Republic (London: Smith, Elder and co. 1884).
Helen Tiffin, ‘Among Head-Hunters and Cannibals: Spenser St. John in Borneo and Haiti’, in Journal of Postcolonial writing and culture, vol. 23, no. 2 (2001), pp. 18–30.
The Princess and the Frog, dir. by John Musker and Ron Clements (Burbank, CA, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2010) [on DVD].
Jérémie Noyer, Animated Views (2010), <https://animatedviews.com/2010/the-princess-and-the-frog-directors-john-musker-and-ron-clements-take-us-to-the-other-side-of-animation/> [accessed 14 October 2019].
Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, ‘Under Ground Realms of Being: Vodoun Magic’, in Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, ed. by Donald Cosentino (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995), p. 411.
Rolland Murray, ‘Black Crisis Shuffle: Fiction, Race, and Simulation’, in African American Review, vol. 42, no. 2, (2008) p. 215–233.
Kameelah L. Martin, Envisioning Black Feminist Voodoo Aesthetics: African Spirituality in American Cinema, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Press, 2016) p. 168.
Martin, p. 168.
Marcus Rainsford, An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti, (London: James Cundee, 1805), xi.
Jonathan Matusitz Lauren Palermo, ‘The Disneyfication of the World: A Globalization Perspective’, in Journal of Organisational Transformation Social Change, vol. 11, no. 2, (2014), pp. 91-107.
Lauro, p. 70.
Elizabeth McAlister, ‘Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies’, in Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 85, no. 2, (2012), pp. 457–486, (p. 459).
Lauro, p. 76.
Raphael Hoermann, ‘Figures of Terror: The “Zombie” and the Haitian Revolution’, in Atlantic Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, (2017), p. 152–173, (p. 167).
Paul Farmer, AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame (2nd ed, University of California Press, 2006), pp. 208–228, (p. 211), JSTOR, <www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp3p4.26>.
Nina Glick-Schiller and Georges Fouron, ‘Everywhere We Go, We Are in Danger: Ti Manno and the Emergence of a Haitian Transnational Identity’, in American Ethnologist, vol. 17, no. 2, (1990), pp. 329–347, (p. 337).
Farmer, p. 224.
Farmer, p. 212