Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Skeleton Key and "Po' Sandy"

When I first read Charles Chestnut’s “Po’ Sandy”, I was instantly reminded of one of my all-time favorite horror films, The Skeleton Key.  They both revolve around slave/servant culture as well as the supernatural, chock full of Gothic imagery and thematic elements.  While the two stories contain several parallel plot details, there are various other ideas that are twisted and seem to run perpendicular to one another.  The foundation of supernatural conjuring and the torture of slaves is strong for both works, while the intent of such conjuring and the determination of the tortured slaves work at cross-purposes.  And as always, the Gothic symbol of the mirror is alive and well.

In “Po’ Sandy”, slaves Sandy and Tenie, husband and wife (in the common-law sense, as most slaves were not permitted to legally marry, as they were not considered full/real human beings), just want to be together.  In an effort to protect him, and to accomplish their goal of staying with each other, Tenie (a conjure woman) turns her husband into a tree, “rooting” him with her, literally and figuratively.  But they are ironically torn apart when Sandy is cut down to be used for lumber.  Her good intentions have inadvertently killed her husband, whose moans and groans are heard in the buildings made by his lumber.  His physical torture, hers mental and emotional, even those remembering the story years later are tortured by the memories left behind.  Julius, a black man in the present time of the story, can barely handle retelling the story to a young white couple.  Chestnut’s work illuminated the slave culture and shed light on the torture they endured.

The Skeleton Key, on the other hand, is set deep in the bayous of Southern Louisiana, a land overrun by hoodoo.  Hoodoo, as opposed to voodoo (more of a religion), is an Afro-American folk witchcraft, relying largely on the idea that “hoodoo cannot hurt you if you do not believe in it”.  A young nurse accepts a job as a private hospice caregiver at an isolated plantation home surrounded by swampland in the coastal Terrebonne Parish.  The house, as it turns out, has a sordid past.  A past of mistreated servants and hoodoo conjuring, one that is not so easily forgotten.  So hostile is the energy of the home that no mirrors are hung anywhere, for when you look into a mirror, you are confronted by the ghosts of the house.

Forgive the trailer, it's a bit campy and kind of makes it look like a terrible movie.  I promise it's not, and I highly recommend it!

I digress.  The past servants of the house in New Orleans, Mama Cecile and Papa Justify, grow weary of the constant mistreatment by the affluent white folk.  As conjurors, they devise a powerful conjuration, the conjure of sacrifice.  Essentially, they get to live forever by taking people who believe in hoodoo (hint: this part is very important) and stealing the years they have left, otherwise known as switching bodies.  And their first victims?  The two children of the family they work for.  They are discovered practicing magic on the children and are taken by an angry mob to be lynched.  The children watch from the house, Mama Cecile and Papa Justify now inhabiting their bodies, as the souls of the young girl and boy are hanged and burned.  Once they’ve had their revenge on the family that so mistreated them, they continue this practice with strangers.  As their current bodies age, they find fresh, young victims and maliciously take their lives for their own selfish purposes.
For Tenie and Sandy, the situation is entirely different.  Neither of them want to hurt a soul, all they want in the world is to be together.  Even when the love of her life is ripped away from her, Tenie does not seek revenge.  It is almost ironic to think about how the slaves (Tenie and Sandy) were less bitter and angry than the servants.  Even if Tenie and Sandy were the best-treated slaves in the world, they still would’ve been treated worse than the servants.  Yet Cecile and Justify are the ones wreaking havoc and taking revenge.

These stories bring up an interesting question about race and hauntedness.  Is that even a word?  Well, it is now.  Anyway, in "Po' Sandy" the white couple is told of the hauntings by a black man.  And as he relays the story, he reveals that the others servants, the other black servants are the one's upset by the hauntings by Sandy.  Similarly, the young people chosen by Justify and Cecile are all white.  It is even hinted at that the black people they've tried to trick always run before the switch can be made, because they are more likely to believe in hoodoo sooner and realize the situation was not safe.  There is a difference, however, in who is doing the haunting.  In "Po' Sandy" the ghost is that of Sandy, a black man.  But in The Skeleton Key, the ghosts of the house are those of the lives stolen by Justify and Cecile, all white.  I think with "Po' Sandy" the idea is simple.  In the days of slavery, blacks were haunted every day but the horrors they were put through, all the friends, family and loved ones who were lost.  They were haunted by freedom, or the idea of it, as they had never had it to begin with.
The Skeleton Key, on the other hand, is more complex.  While they were not quite slaves, Justify and Cecile were mistreated and oppressed.  Perhaps a sign of what minuscule progress had been made since the times of "Po' Sandy", the two servants were able to escape their lives.  They took the lives of those who had placed them in the shackles of inferiority, in turn trapping them in the very house where it all began.

Just as a little endnote in case you need more convincing to see the movie, this happens:

And if you need more than that-oh, what's that?  Stop?  I'm making it worse?  Well alright then. If you do in fact wish to experience these stories:
"Po' Sandy" can be read online, I believe it's the first result on Google
The Skeleton Key is available on Netflix streaming, Amazon Instant Video to buy ($9.99) or rent ($2.99), and on YouTube for $2.99


  1. Im working with a similar concepts as you in my blog so it's going to be interesting to see what you come up with for defining the new modern gothic as well. Did the Skeleton Key present any new ideas about the gothic? What elements of the gothic were left out or changed in the film?

    1. I don't know about new ideas, but the whole theme of the blog is the Gothic with a modern twist. I think that's exactly what this movie does in a very adept way. For example, the "supernatural" element is still there, it's just modified from plain ol' ghosts to the hoodoo of the swamps of Louisiana to fit with the times and the setting of the film.

  2. I love the Skeleton Key! "CAROLINE, I DO BELIEVE YOU BROKE MY LEGS"
    I can't believe I never made the connection with African American magic and this movie.