Context: The informant is a 51-year-old man who has lived in Memphis, Tennessee for his entire life. When asking him about legends or stories that he was told as a child, he remembered this one. He does not remember who exactly told him about the lady who lived on his street, but he assumes it was one of the kids who lived near him in his neighborhood.
Piece: “There was a woman that lived in a house on my street growing up and, it was different from every house in the neighborhood. It was poorly kept. There was a tree in the corner of the yard, a small wider kinda, wild looking tree. There were these things hanging in the tree. I seem to recall them looking like crudely constructed ghost figures. They were made out of some sack material and they had small distorted faces drawn on them. There were strings tied around them. I was told that they were voodoo dolls. That was the first time I heard about Voodoo dolls. People would say that if you went in her yard, she would make a voodoo doll for you that looked just like you, and she could control you with the doll. She could control you to perform tasks for her. If she stuck a pin in it, you would feel pain. If you lit them on fire, they would burn. There is something very strange about this house, and looking back on the events, I would not be surprised if the woman was actually a practitioner of voodoo. My perception is that most of the area where I lived around was new construction, but I could feel a distinction with this one house.”
Analysis: When I asked the informant what he thought about this story, he immediately responded by pointing out the fact that his neighborhood consisted almost entirely of white families. He remembers the woman being African-America and elderly and thinks this is what led many of the children in the neighborhood to believe she practiced voodoo, of course in addition to the mysterious tree. In much of the popular culture during the 1970s, the customs of voodoo were often presented through a prejudiced lens which deemed it a lesser, more primal practice as opposed to the more popular religions of the time. You would also rarely see a white person performing voodoo in film, tv, or literature. Oftentimes when a community or group is presented with something that they are unfamiliar with, they will create some explanation in order to fill the void of uncertainty. In this case, children may have seen the mysterious figures on the tree which did look very similar to the voodoo dolls presented in pop culture (confirmed by the informant) and immediately assumed that was what they were.
Annotation: For another version of voodoo dolls see:
Reuber, Alexandra. “Voodoo Dolls, Charms, And Spells In The Classroom: Teaching, Screening, And Deconstructing The Misrepresentation Of The African Religion.” Contemporary Issues in Education Research (CIER), vol. 4, no. 8, 2011, p. 7.