Vampires from the Caribbean: the Soucouyant

Posted by Giselle Anatol on December 04, 2009 in Guest Blog, Prof Giselle Anatol tagged with

When I was a little girl, several of my female relatives regaled me with tales of vampiric soucouyant. This figure from Trinidadian folklore is an old woman by day.  At night, she sheds her skin and transforms into a ball of fire to move from house to house.  She sneaks through cracks and keyholes to suck the blood or “life-blood”–the human soul, or essence–of her neighbors.  Protection can be gained by scattering rice or salt on doorsteps, windowsills, or around the beds of potential victims:  the soucouyant must count every grain before leaving, and thus risks getting caught by the residents of the house she has invaded.  People who find her discarded skin are urged to sprinkle it with salt or hot pepper:  when a soucouyant re-enters the skin, she will perish in a frenzy of unscratchable itching, or her shrieks will reveal her identity to the community. According to some versions of the tale, being caught entails a severe beating.  In others, it results in death—often by conflagration in a vat of tar or oil.

According to these folk narratives, “good” children are rewarded by spiritual protection from soucouyant attacks, while “bad” children might be victims of all types of punishments, from those doled out by parents to those inflicted by the soucouyant or other supernatural forces.  Most interesting to me, however, as I grew up and started thinking about these stories again, was the fact that in an overwhelming number of tales about the soucouyant, the creature is never male–she is always female.  The soucouyant (some alternative spellings and names are soucriant / soukougnan [Trinidad, Dominica, and Barbados], Old Hige / Old Hag [Jamaica, Bahamas, Guyana, and the U.S. South], volant [Haiti and Guadeloupe]) are all women who shed their skin at night and stealthily attack their neighbors, sucking their blood before returning home to re-don their slippery outer coverings.  Because the soucouyant is typically characterized as the epitome of evil, I argue that stories about her effectively socialize women to obey patriarchal mandates, and condition men to expect women to do so.  Unlike the “good” woman who marries, is faithful, bears and nurtures children, and anchors the domestic space, the soucouyant of conventional tales is a woman who satiates her individual physical needs (including the sexual desires associated with bloodsucking).  She is all the more frightening for completely abandoning her physical body, rather than embracing its alleged limitations (physical weakness) and purposes (childbirth).  She is not just a potential source of danger to individual subjects; she is an active agent in society’s destruction.

In sharp contrast, the contemporary writers whose work I explore in my current research adopt the vampiric she-demon and attempt to comment on women’s prescribed roles in society.  Writers like Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Nalo Hopkinson, David Chariandy, and others explore the ways that these expectations can bind and restrict female “flight,” much like the soucouyant’s skin. 


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