Because the night belongs to lovers: Intersecting Perspectives on “Creatures of the Night” BETWEEN the Caribbean and Japan
In this essay, a combination of personal experience and anthropological reflection, Philippe Charlier takes us to the uncanny world of the night in two non-European cultures: the Haitian and the Japanese. Beyond a description of the non-human beings populating the night and interacting with sleeping humans (usually against the will of the latter), the dimension of what is usually called the «supernatural» and its manifold aspects shows some specific features that seem to establish a link between the two cultural spheres and their respective world-configurations. A text of transcultural relevance with subjective overtones.
Since at least an hour, night has fallen on Port-au-Prince. We have spent the day scouring the cemeteries around the capital, looking for vodou rituals: dolls with pins stuck in them, curses (uanga) tied to gravestones, coffins disinterred, cut-up playing cards at the foot of the Baron Samedi crosses, bones covered with oil and cheap rum, etc. My notebook is full of sketches, and I have been able to collect numerous samples and photographic details.
On the hotel terrace, beside my beer, a plate contains a score of red beans with chili: very appetising. My driver (Jean-Richmon) blocks the movement of my hand, laughing, and explains, “Thank goodness this isn’t a romantic meeting! You know, don’t you Philippe, that you mustn’t eat red beans on your first date?” Seeing my ignorance, he continues (while letting me eat just one), “Because it appears that some girls soak their panties in it to bind a man!”
“But only with red beans?”
“No! anything: rice, pasta, coffee, soda, just everything!”
“So, actually, before a romantic encounter, you must neither eat nor drink! And what do men do to bind a woman?”
“I don’t know for men. But a girl told me that her Daddy had caught her Mummy. He went to visit witch-doctors [sorcerers], and he put a pont (a magic spell) in his wife’s vagina, so that she wouldn’t go looking elsewhere. And as soon as she left the house, she felt bad. If she had gone too far, she would have vanished. If she had deceived him, her lover would have fallen deathly sick, and perhaps she would too…”
At the next table, a young girl is listening to us. She’s Haitian, a nursing auxiliary in Martinique, not indifferent to my driver’s charms: she wishes to make a contribution: “One of my colleagues at the Trois-Îlets hospital told me that a patient (at the cuts and scars department) had lacerations near his penis. He told me it was a pont. He was 50 years old.”
Then I asked her whether she had seen any practices concerning corpses, whether in the mortuary or elsewhere in Martinique.
“In the cemeteries, people sometimes come with bottles of wine or grape-juice. They say it’s to make a zombi or to invoke a spirit. On occasions, the earth on the graves is dug up: they seek body parts to soak in wine or juice and then drink it. Their aim is to make the person return, or to kill by drinking the poisoned drink…”
But the phenomenon that seizes her whole attention, and concerns her directly, is that of the dorlis, “man of the night”: these phantoms rape women while they are asleep, now invisible, now taking the form of an animal (toad, god, rabbit). Entering the bedroom through the keyhole, or sliding under the door, they have only one desire: to slake their insatiable sexual appetite.
“They are male spirits, rarely female (in which case they are called succubes). They say that to prevent it, you have to sleep with your panties inside out, or place a pot of salt or sand just inside the door, so that it will take him a long time to count the grains. They say that when it happens to you, you wake up, but just afterwards, when it’s too late. Sometimes people wake up in the morning with scratches, without knowing why. It’s a dorlis that has passed over you. Sometimes humans take this form, with the aid of a witchdoctor, using magic formulas from ancient books of spells (vié liv): and the first person you see in the morning is him.”
I asked her whether it had happened to her personally:
“Yes, I was sleeping, and I heard a noise. I wanted to turn over, but I couldn’t move. I tried to cry out, but couldn’t manage to. Everyone said it was a dorlis. My brother told me that it couldn’t be that, just a paralysis in my sleep. Could it be? It happened to me twice. The second time, I could neither speak nor move; I felt someone standing near me. I felt that the person was laughing. It was my brother, of course. I asked him what he was doing there. He was getting dressed again… Girlfriends have told me that at night the same thing had happened to them. They couldn’t move: one of them felt her bed sink, as though someone were sitting on it. Another girl heard somebody walking around her.”
“So, do you follow your Mummy’s directions? Do you turn your panties inside out before going to bed?”
“No. My Mummy tells me that it’s best to put a rosary under my pillow, with a pair of open scissors.”
Night is the realm of dreams… and creatures of nightmare. It is the very moment when a certain porosity occurs between two worlds, as it does in some isolated places conducive to such permeability (wells and cisterns, marshes, capes, mountain peaks, etc.). The ethnologist-orientalist Laurence Caillet provides a very good description of this nocturnal ambiguity, facilitated by the “derangement of the senses” (metaphysical rather than poetic): “The night, owing to the cognitive incertitudes that it rouses, contributes to the dramatisation of a surrealistic event. The plays of light and shadow, real special effects, support the ritual effectiveness”11.
Another chronological-cultural context lends itself to anthropological comparison: Japan. Here, night is the moment when what is not human comes to life again, seeps into the daily life of towns and villages, where spaces – now abandoned by a civilisation that has retired into its dwellings or shut in beneath a reassuring covering – are peopled with supernatural beings: the primordial deities of Shinto (kami)2, wandering phantoms, folkloric monsters (yokai), ancestors leaving their tombs or funerary altars, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas roaming the world in search of souls seeking reincarnation or maleficent entities threatening order and justice, etc. Sometimes their release is spontaneous, sometimes facilitated by the rituals of sorcerers, by people’s nightmares, by still-active spells, or the moon’s beams.
Night is a dangerous chasm, the moment when any metamorphosis becomes possible, when the ambivalent darkness facilitates dissimulation and errors of judgement. Woe to him who gets lost or is shut up in ruins, grottoes, abandoned buildings, beneath a bridge, or in a forest. These margins of the world are sacred to creatures of fable that never cease to pester humans: “In daytime, many of them conceal themselves among humans, constantly fearing that their true nature will be revealed. (…) When such beings, through their apparitions, menace the borders between the worlds, it is the task of humans to reveal their presence and to chase them away, in order to re-establish the fragile barriers of species. These categories are reconstructed by metamorphosis, by topographical anomalies, at particularly favourable moments for all transformations and for the most baroque forms of existence”3.
For supernatural creatures, at night everything is permitted. This temporal and spatial fault/warp, a kind of temporary and magical opening between two worlds, is the ideal moment for visiting humans, interfering in their homes by using the most appropriate metamorphosis, and duping them to achieve their ends. Hence the necessity for limits, walls, doors and talismans erecting either physical or magical barriers. Separation means surviving longer, whence the interest in establishing frontiers – and assuring they are respected – in space and time, guarantors of balance and harmony.
Like the dorlis of the Afro-Caribbean worlds, other mysterious creatures come to visit young girls after nightfall in traditional Japan. It’s best not to trust them, because such love stories often end badly.
“Iku-tama-yori-bime received nocturnal visits from a man of whom she knew neither his name nor social status. Since she was pregnant, her parents advised her to take a needle and prick the bottom of her lover’s garment. Next morning, following the thread that passed through the keyhole, the young woman and her parents together reached the shrine of Miwa and understood that their nocturnal visitor was none other than the god of Miwa. Indeed, he often takes the semblance of a serpent to facilitate his passage through keyholes. His real body however is none other than the mountain itself (…). She only met him at night. One day, she asked her nocturnal husband to show his handsome face in full light. After much prevarication, he accepted, telling the princess that he would be in her comb box, but that she should not show any surprise. However, when she opened the little box and saw a magnificent small snake, she could not stop herself crying out. The god, then taking his human semblance, told her that he was leaving her and soared up to heaven. In despair, the princess committed suicide by thrusting a stick into her vagina.”4
Even the procedure utilised for the suicide of this unhappy girl recalls the sexual context of – forbidden – relations between a human and a supernatural creature (in this case a god who excels in metamorphoses to sate his erotic passion).
Night is a dangerous chasm, the moment when any metamorphosis becomes possible, when the ambivalent darkness facilitates dissimulation and errors of judgement.
One evening in Tokyo, it was late when I left the tea-house and I had to reach the station in order to return to my hotel. To save time, I decided to cross a cemetery (a foolish gesture at that time of day!). A man saw me enter and make my way among the tombs, and decided to follow me… to protect me and ensure that I would get out alive from my jump into the unknown. As soon as I reached the other side, without saying a word to me, his mission accomplished, he walked off in the other direction … taking care, this time, to follow the cemetery walls on the outside.
Necropolises are actually the favourite haunts of the gaki, souls badly-reincarnated owing to the lack of complete rites: in the midst of gravestones, to “survive”, they are forced to devour human corpses, small animals or lost children. They beg (useless) prayers from strollers and the devout, grabbing the folds of their kimono with their claws… or apparent bones!
One such maleficent being is portrayed in a famous print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861): Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre (1844)5. The plot unfolds in the 10th century, when Princess Takiyasha, living in the ruins of the palace of her father, an old warlord who had led a rebellion, summons a mythical being to frighten the emperor’s envoys hunting out the last conspirators. To do so, she grasps a horizontal scroll and reads its magic formulas, leading to the spectre’s materialisation. With his long bony fingers(!), he physically threatens the two men and forces them to flee …
Careful, though: let us not deceive ourselves: there are phantoms and phantoms. No two yureis are alike6. In their thirst for organising chaos, the religious and the devout have worked out a sort of classification (hierarchy?) of revenants: first are female spirits animated by a desire for revenge for actions committed while they were alive (onryo); then come women who died in childbirth or while pregnant, who never cease leaving their tombs in order to approach living children – which they take for their own – with sweets (ubume); and then that old military or political élite who provoke catastrophes while seeking to re-establish a post-mortem justice (goryo); or those who have drowned, whose bodies have never been recovered (funa-yurei)…
The yokais (literally “bewitching apparition”) are also known by many names, vainly attempting to account for their infinite propensity for metamorphosis and ruse: ayakashi (“strange thing”), mononoke (“demonic spirit”), ma-mono (“true monster”).
And then there are foxes, perhaps the most extraordinary animal in Japanese culture. The fox is deemed to be of great intelligence, endowed with magical powers, the “master of disorder”, reputed to be able to live an incalculable number of lives. From one existence to another, its supernatural power increases and it becomes outwardly visible by multiplying the number of tails it possesses, up to a maximum of nine. Its coat also evolves along its way to perfection, until it becomes golden or white: it is then capable of omniscience, of seeing everything, hearing everything, understanding everything. Its capacity for metamorphosis is infinite, but it prefers to be incarnate in the features of a beautiful young woman, passed in the night in an isolated place, who seeks to seduce a man and lead him to a phantom dwelling or palace of dreams. Physically, an expert eye – that of a priest or scholar – can discover the signs or peculiarities that lead to their supernatural nature being suspected, since there is always something foxy in the body of such women: a narrow face with eyes close together, high cheekbones, triangular chin, thin eyebrows, discreet fluff on the back – a relic of their coat – and, often, their shadow or reflection in a mirror is that of their true essence and not of their human metamorphosis. This is why such beings avoid sources of bright light, great clarity, and whatever can potentially cause a reflection (mirror, metal pan, water surface, etc.).
These foxes can be compared to the dorlis of the Caribbean: they penetrate the intimacy of homes when night has fallen, taking advantage of the inhabitants’ sleep or lowering of their vigilance, and, during a final metamorphosis or momentary lack of consciousness, they pass on to action7. Pregnancies may follow, whose fruit will be a hybrid being, bearing the physical trace of its supernatural parent.
Other creatures such as the buruburu (literally “flicker-flicker” /”tremble-tremble”) more than anything like to get into the gaps in clothing to enlace women and men, making them shiver and, sometimes, even faint from fear … or pleasure.8 In some ways they recall the Polynesian tupapa’u, sometimes announced by a strong odour of putrefaction that occasionally manages to penetrate inside the body of their “prey”, which can be got rid of, after a fashion, by cutting off a cat’s tail, setting it alight and whipping the victim’s nose with it.9
Lastly, the night is also the moment when aged objects become animated: in traditional Japan, the age of objects finally confers on them vitality “by transfer”, “by accumulation” from those who have used them year after year. “Domestic objects often take on life on their one-hundredth birthday. We could mention, in a general way, straw sandals, a lute, a paper lantern, old umbrellas, old sake jars, kettles, a paper screen, etc. Life is given them by the use made of them, by the accumulation of gestures accomplished over them, with them”.10 Such objects are charged, vitalised, animated. They are nourished by that life force until they are “born” on accomplishing a century of existence. Henceforth autonomous (and mischievous), they are capable of everything. •
- Caillet L. Démons et merveilles. Nuits japonaises. Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie, 2018, p. 125.
- Breen J, Teeuwen M. A New History of Shinto. Malden & Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2010.
- Caillet L. Démons et merveilles. Nuits japonaises. Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie, 2018, p. 85.
- Caillet L. Démons et merveilles. Nuits japonaises. Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie, 2018, pp. 24-25.
- Victoria and Albert Museum (London), N° Inv. E.1333:1.
- Charlier P. Autopsie des fantômes. Une histoire du surnaturel. Paris, Tallandier, 2021.
- Hanania C. Si l’Homme-au-Bâton m’était conté : Ernest Pépin et les mystères de Pointe-à-Pitre. Dalhousie French Studies 2004;69:121-131.
- Mizuki S. Yokai. Dictionnaire des monstres japonais. Paris, Pika éditions, p. 59.
- Malmon I. Le tupapau et le génie à capuche : étude d’une figure entêtante dans l’oeuvre de Paul Gauguin. Doctoral thesis on comparative literature (under the direction of Bernard Terramorsi). Université de La Réunion, 2017.
- Caillet L. Démons et merveilles. Nuits japonaises. Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie, 2018, p. 106.