The Caribbean Books Foundation, which has deemed October Caribbean Folklore Month, has been celebrating the occasion for some time now. This year, the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago, which, under a 1991 Act of Parliament, is charged with protecting and preserving the country's natural and built heritage, also got involved by hosting an event (ending on October 31) aimed at exposing more people to the allure of folklore.
Called Kay Mistè (the Mystery House), the Trust's headquarters at Mille Fleurs, a heritage building that is one of the Magnificent Seven residences that line the western end of the Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain, has been transformed into an eerie, Halloween-esque mansion, populated by artwork that features traditional Carnival characters like Blue Devils and Midnight Robbers, as well as live representations of folklore characters.
To get my spook on, I chatted with a few of them — Papa Bois, La Diablesse, Gang Gang Sarah, and a lone Douen. The actors were from the local theatre group Eh Bien Oui Don Don — a Patois phrase meaning, “Listen to this, it's a good one” — but in interviewing them, they held true to their characters, offering a real sense of what Halloween would look like if Trinbagonians chose to pay tribute to folklore characters with their costume choices.
Patois for “Father of the Forest,” this beloved character is the protector of nature. Half-man, half-goat, he is fast and strong, and carries a staff and a hollowed-out bull's horn, which he uses to warn animals when hunters are near. He has mastered the art of transmutation, often turning himself into a deer and, in so doing, luring hunters into the depths of the forest until they are lost. It's common knowledge that if you are ever to meet Papa Bois, it is poor form to stare at his hooves. Instead, you must be polite and greet him like the revered elder he is.
The Papa Bois I encountered looked quite young (though he assured me in his deep, booming voice, that he was about seven centuries old), and did not take offence when I asked to photograph his hooves. He talked to me about other folklore characters, such as the Soucouyant, who he assumed was in a village somewhere trying to keep herself alive by feeding on human flesh. As for his own mission, he said he was selected by Nature herself to protect the forest because he always had great respect for it — a respect he believes many humans lack.
“Some are intelligent,” he tells me. “But others? It's as if stick break in their ears!” He is referring to issues like deforestation, bushfires, littering and other forms of environmental abuse. “Mankind is not learning,” he says, “and nature is unforgiving.” As for the climate crisis? “Imagine,” he laments, “it's so hot it's bothering even me!” Then, without skipping a beat: “Humans will learn. If you don’t care for the earth, the earth will not take care of you!”
According to regional folklore, this “Devil Woman,” believed to have been enslaved, made a deal with the devil: in exchange for providing him with souls, she would become irresistibly and eternally beautiful. However, the trick is that she hides her demonic face under a large brimmed hat, and a full skirt covers her legs, one of which forms a cloven hoof. She casts a spell over victims — typically wayward men who are drunkards or philanderers — and lures them into the forest; they are never heard from again. To escape her clutches, men are advised to turn their clothing inside out and walk home backwards, away from the area in which they spotted her.
Not being in any danger from La Diablesse, I spoke to her candidly. “I understand why I have the reputation I do,” she told me, “but I think of myself as a hero. I do right by people. The men I trap are abusive.” She views herself as a champion of wronged women, saying, “You have to take back your power,” and was thrilled about the idea of local Halloween celebrations beginning to encompass costumes that are more representative of Caribbean folklore: “Embracing us in this way makes it easier for us to blend in.”
Gang Gang Sarah
A character that is specifically tied to Tobago, Gang Gang Sarah is a powerful African woman, skilled at what colonisers would have considered “witchcraft,” who, in flying to the region from the continent, was blown off course by a strong wind and ended up in the village of Les Coteaux. From there, she travelled to Golden Lane in search of her family, who had been forced there as slaves. When she was finally ready to return home, she discovered that she had lost the power of flight.
I asked Sarah to tell me her story. She married a man called Tom and, through her healing powers, helped countless enslaved Africans, tending to the beaten and injured. “It was a vital role,” she tells me, “but after Tom died and I was ready to go back to Africa, I fell to my death from a silk cotton tree, because unbeknownst to me, having eaten salt, my powers were neutralised. I fell to my death.” Gang Gang Sarah is one of the Caribbean's folklore characters who is known for her kindness and courage.
How do you recognise a douen? Their feet point backwards, heels towards the front of their body, and they have no face, which they try to hide by wearing large straw hats. This is enough to send most people running in the other direction, yet the speciality of douens is ensnaring children — especially those who don't heed warnings, and go wandering in the forest on their own. Douens’ special skill is to be able to call to children in a voice that they recognise and trust, like that of a parent. The irony, of course, is that douens themselves are mischievous creatures, playing pranks and getting in trouble just like the children they lure into the woods.
The douen I met called himself Ray-Ray, and claimed his capturing of children — usually those who were not baptised and believed to therefore carry less protection –was motivated by a desire to not be lonely. “I show them the beauty of the forest,” he tells me. “We play games like Ring Around the Rosie, and Hide and Seek. I'm not wicked, just playful.” The children who douens abduct, however, turn into douens themselves and must forever frolic in the forest, doomed to roam the earth backwards. Far from being a curse, Ray-Ray tells me, “It feels like freedom.”
Much of the region's folklore tales are rooted in West African oral tradition. Some of the stories, like the douens, have the effect of frightening children into obedience and good behaviour. Others, like Gang Gang Sarah, honour the bravery of people who fought back against the transatlantic slave trade in whatever ways they could. The La Diablesses of the world remain controversial figures, with some seeing her as evil and others viewing her actions as balancing the scales of injustice against women, while timeless characters like Papa Bois represent wisdom, vision and reverence for nature. A mixed bag, to be sure — but isn't that what Trick or Treat is all about?