True Voodoo: 5 Voodoo Myths Busted!

In this article we bust five popular myths about Voodoo and discuss whether we should even use it as a presentational hook for our magic.

Happy Halloween! To celebrate this spooky holiday, I thought we could discuss Voodoo. Many magic tricks use Voodoo as a thematic device, usually presenting it as a sinister form of dark magic. In this short article, I'll explore the truth behind this representation of Voodoo and dispel five of the most prevalent myths related to it. Is it something to be feared, and should we even use it as window dressing for our magic?

Recently, I've been working on "The Voodoo Card" by Guy Hollingworth. The trick is hidden in his book Drawing Room Deceptions (Hollingworth, 1999)1. It is an impressive demonstration of sympathetic magic. In it, a selected card is torn and burnt by the magician. The mate of the mutilated card is then shown to be torn and burnt, even though the magician didn't go anywhere near it. However, the real strength of the trick is in its Voodoo presentation, which makes it a memorable piece of magic. But is this an accurate representation of Voodoo?

As I was working on a script for this trick, I double-checked the spelling of the word Voodoo (spelling has never been a strong point of mine). To my surprise, I discovered that several distinct religions go by the name of Voodoo and that there are many different spellings. These include Vodun, Vodou, Vudun, Vodon, Vodoun, Voudou, and Vudu! I also found out that the word "Voodoo" is considered abusive or derogatory by some practitioners of the religion. This encouraged me to conduct more research to help with my script for the trick.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I knew very little about Voodoo before doing this research. I had a vague idea that it had its roots in New Orleans. I also thought it involved black magic, human sacrifice and sticking pins into dolls. It turns out that all these things are wrong! Instead, these aspects are myths based on a distorted image of Voodoo created by popular culture.

Myth #1: Voodoo Originated in New Orleans

Voodoo did not start in New Orleans; it originated on the West Coast of Africa. When the slave trade began in the sixteenth century, millions of Africans were transported against their will to islands in the Caribbean, such as Haiti, where they were forced to work as slaves.

Over time, the slaves combined the Roman Catholic faith of their captors with their own religious traditions to form what we now know as Voodoo (or, more accurately, Vodou). The religion then spread to certain parts of the Southern United States, resulting in a similar but distinct religion called Louisiana Voodoo or New Orleans Voodoo.

After the 1791 slave revolt reached New Orleans, the number of followers of Voodoo increased. Subsequently, many free people of colour started to make its practice an essential part of their everyday life. In the eighteen hundreds, Voodoo queens and kings became spiritual and political figures of power in the city. Marie Laveau (1794 to 1881) is probably the most famous of these historical figures. As well as being a celebrated practitioner of Voodoo, she was also a healer, herbalist, midwife and entrepreneur. For example, during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, she provided herbal remedies and prayers to the sick. She also visited inmates in prison, provided lessons to the women of the community, and performed rituals for those in need without charge.

Today, the signs of Voodoo can still be seen throughout The Big Easy and act as a reminder of the city's deep fascination with the spirit world, magic and mysticism. For example, there's the Voodoo Spiritual Temple across the street from Congo Square, a historic meeting place for enslaved Africans. In the French Quarter, you'll find the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, which houses artefacts from Africa, Haiti, and old New Orleans. Or, you can visit one of the many Voodoo shops and botanicas to buy a gris-gris doll, potion, herbal remedy or lucky talisman.

Myth #2: Practitioners of Voodoo Use Voodoo Dolls

The act of sticking pins into a doll (made to look like the intended victim) is another popular myth associated with Voodoo. This myth has made the voodoo doll a popular prop with bizarre magicians and mentalists. The Okito Voodoo Doll is still very popular with close-up performers, and Dan Harlan recently released a very entertaining packet trick called "Deja Voodoo" through Penguin Magic.

However, the only dolls used in Voodoo are the ones found on altars and in graveyards. These figurines usually represent the loas (Voodoo gods or spirits). These dolls act as lucky charms, not tools of vengeance, and are used to bless individuals, not curse them. Moreover, causing harm to another is against the moral code of Voodoo.

This misunderstanding surrounding Voodoo dolls may stem from the Haitian tradition of nailing handmade puppets to trees in graveyards. Rather than cursing a person, these dolls send messages to the spirit world, enabling the living to contact dead loved ones.

The actual origin of such dolls can be traced back to the "poppets" of Medieval Europe. These effigies were used to supposedly cast spells on people or combat witchcraft. Also known as a poppit, pippy, moppet or mommet, these tiny dolls are often found lodged in chimneys and are usually made of carved root, grain or corn shafts, a fruit, a potato, paper, wax, clay, twigs, or cloth stuffed with herbs. Poppets are made to aid sympathetic magic; any actions performed upon the effigy will be transferred to the subject.

Furthermore, the term "Voodoo doll" was coined by an American writer. After hearing it was akin to witchcraft, he wrote a fictional story about Voodoo, hence the misunderstanding. 

While effigies stuck with pins appear in the magical traditions of many cultures worldwide, such dolls are not used in Haitian or Louisianna Voodoo. In fact, the practice of inserting pins into an effigy has been denounced by the High Priesthood of Louisiana Voodoo and declared irrelevant to the Voodoo religion.

Myth #3: Voodoo Involves Human Sacrifice

This myth is entirely false and began in 1889 when the book Hayti: Or the Black Republic was first published. Written by Sir Spenser St. John, British chargé d'affaires in Haiti, the book was highly inaccurate and used sensationalism to sell more copies.

Voodoo is based upon the principle of healing, not harm, and is used to cure anxiety, addiction and feelings of loneliness or depression. In addition, it is used to help the poor, hungry and sick. In fact, Voodoo strictly prohibits harming others and does not promote human sacrifice or cannibalism. 

Myth #4: Voodoo Priests Can Bring the Dead Back to Life as Zombies

This myth took root in the nineteen thirties after Voodoo became a popular theme for Hollywood movies. Films such as Kongo, White Zombie and Black Moon depicted an inaccurate image of a "Voodoo Master". These characters were able to reanimate the dead and force these "zombies" to perform evil deeds. The James Bond film Live and Let Die reinforced this misconception in the nineteen seventies. This one film was chiefly responsible for my own naive view of Voodoo.

This myth is based on the practice of zombification (the act of turning someone into a zombie), which is actually a type of social control employed as a form of extreme punishment. Although zombification sounds like something out of the pages of a comic book, it does have a scientific basis. During a zombie creation ritual, toxins (such as tetrodotoxin extracted from puffer fish) are administered to the victim. This, along with psychological suggestion, cause the individual to alter their behaviour and act like a brain-dead servant.

It is also interesting to note that the Haitian understanding of a zombie is very different to that of a Western one. In Haiti, the fear is not of zombies themselves but of becoming one.

Myth #5: Voodoo is Pure Evil

Many people still wrongly believe that Voodoo is an evil cult similar to Satanism. The portrayal of Voodoo by Hollywood is the biggest reason for this misconception. In truth, Voodoo is very much like any other organised religion, such as Christianity.

Voodoo supports the idea of a single god and has a creation mythology based on a group of deities that govern the natural world, similar to Hinduism. Voodoo is a highly spiritual religion based on healing; practitioners work towards achieving a higher state of consciousness, which makes it similar to Buddhism. 

Ancestor worship is also a key element of the religion, which makes it comparable with Japanese Shinto. And as you already know, Voodoo is a combination of tribal religions from Western Africa and Roman Catholicism, so it also shares many practices from the Catholic faith.

Final Thoughts

Like any other religion, Voodoo does also have a darker side. For example, a bokor (male) or a caplata (female) is a Voodoo sorcerer or witch who is said to "serve the spirits with both hands". This means that he or she can practice both benevolent and harmful magic. However, this kind of "black magic" is uncommon and actively discouraged by actual practitioners of Voodoo.

Recently there has been a campaign to adopt the word "Vodou"—meaning "pure light"—as the official term for the Haitian religion to distance it from the negative connotations of the term "Voodoo". More than anything, this movement demonstrates how badly the Western world has damaged the reputation of Voodoo as a legitimate religion. Unfortunately, along with Hollywood, the world of magic is also partly responsible for this distorted image of Voodoo.

Does this mean we shouldn't use Voodoo as a thematic device during our magical performances? No, but I do think we have a responsibility, and a golden opportunity, to debunk some of these damaging myths. So, while I still plan to perform "The Voodoo Card", my script will highlight that the Voodoo doll is primarily a false construct of Holywood, based on the poppets of Medieval Europe.

Want to learn more about Voodoo? I strongly recommend watching the following video featuring sacred Voodoo locations in New Orleans and a fascinating summary of Voodoo practices from Robbie Gilmore, a Voodoo High Priest and tour guide from the city.

Learn "Twodoo Voodoo"

The script I'm working on is for a two-person version of "The Voodoo Card". The effect is the same as the one in Guy's book, but it involves two selected playing cards. You can learn it by answering a simple question about Guy Hollingworth.

Learn "Twodoo Voodoo"


  1. Drawing Room Deceptions is published by Mike Caveney's Magic Words. It is currently out of print. You can also find Guy Hollingworth's "The Voodoo Card" in The Art of Astonishment (Book 3) by Paul Harris. There is a modified version called "Half Moon Voodoo" in the True Astonishments Box Set by Paul Harris (recently re-released as a digital download product rather than a set of DVDs).