Monday, January 21, 2013

Holy Ghost People, 1967, film review and commentary by me

Last night H and I watched a 1967 documentary about a snake handling church. It was called "The Holy Ghost People," and apparently there is going to be a movie of the same title coming out in 2013 sometime. I do not know how much it will have in common with the documentary, which was weird. It was partly weird because it was very low budget with extremely poor quality cameras and cinematography, but that somehow lent an eeriness to the filming that was an atmosphere all of it's own. It was black and white and stilted and occasionally shaky. There was very little commentary. A brief introduction as to what snake handling churches even are was unemotionally narrated, while filmers in a car "snaked" through a small town in the Appalachian mountains, on the way to the destined church service. It was a small country church with about thirty people, maybe less. Several old folks, several babies, there was quite a mix. There were  a few brief interviews and then the service got started.

It was the strangest blend of the familiar and the bizarre. The country church, people engrossed in worship, the group energy (hysteria?) that builds, "manifestations of the spirit", the peculiar little cliches and catch phrases of charismatically spun fundamentalism-- these are elements I've encountered  in various combinations before. **spoilers** All together in one room it seemed a bit much, and yet I sympathized somehow with their purpose, feeling, and fervor. But I would not have felt at ease there at all. When they started tossing snakes around as part of their worship, it was as if the world tilted slightly, that blend of the familiar and the bizarre I mentioned above. Still I found myself devoutly hoping no one would be bitten. And someone was, the preacher himself, quite spectacularly.

He was swinging a rattlesnake around saying that even if it bit him, the Word of God still stands, even if he died (I think he said that, am I embellishing now?) the Word of God would still stand. It bit him. On the hand, quite suddenly and with a vicious hiss. He dropped it and his hand was bleeding. Someone tried to clean up some of the blood that spilled, but he said something to the effect of, "Leave that blood on the floor sister, that's all right." He was obviously shaken and in pain, but he bravely continued to address his congregation, swaying a little. He said sometimes we ask ourselves why these things have to happen, and that he just didn't know. He didn't know why these things happened.  There seems more than a bit of ludicrousness in this assertion of ignorance under the circumstances, but that was completely overshadowed by the pathos of a man who thought to be following God beyond common sense, left alone with the natural results of his folly.

It happens.

He kept talking, they kept praying, his hand kept swelling, the movie ended.

It was one of those moments that I think you don't forget, even if seen second hand. I wonder about the children that were there then, what they are like now, what they think of those things, how they have made sense of their experiences. A follow up on all that would be an interesting study. 

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