Two “supernatural” fires made news in recent days. Why? Photo by Flickr user Ferdi’s – World.
The newspapers are full of nothing if not mockeries of serious situations. If something seems weird, we like to poke fun at it. It makes us uncomfortable, so we laugh it off. Ha ha ha.
Except that when a woman is killed in a fire that injured 11 others and left 47 families homeless, it’s not funny. Not even when the fire started during a voodoo ceremony. Not even when the Voodoo priest in question claimed “he could turn people into ghosts, move buildings, turn people into buildings.” But reporters covered it with an air of humor nonetheless.
There were definitely some over-the-top versions of this story, which coined phrases like “Voodoo sex candles” and “Voodoo sex ceremony,” whatever those are. Let’s face it; putting the words “voodoo” and “sex” in the same headline are sensationalistic gold. Who wouldn’t pick that up to see what it’s about? At the same time, it’s disrespectful to people who legitimately practice Voodoo (which may or may not have included Mr. Pierre, implicated in this particular fire) to parade their religion around like a sparkly baton. As The Wild Hunt’s Jason Pitzl-Waters aptly put it:
Can you imagine this story being written in this sensationalist manner if the couple were evangelical Christians?
“Betty and Robert, despite being properly married and bible-believing Christians, were unable to call down the Lord’s aid in ending the blaze. Neighbors have wondered if it was the judgment of the Lord.”
A sentence like that, even from a tabloid, would have provoked a storm of controversy.
As a journalist, I’ve covered plenty of house fires, and almost all of them ignited due to carelessness. Food forgotten on the stove. Candles left unattended near a curtain or towel. Exposed electrical wiring. A barbecue too close to the house. Candles — any candles, not just “voodoo sex candles” — are a particular bugaboo, because there’s just so many ways they can go wrong. Just as they did in New York last week.
But that wasn’t the end of the fires. In Lincoln Heights, near Cincinnati, Ohio, a woman started a fire and then allegedly told the police it was “part of a Satanic ritual”. Then — no, wait — it was actually an attempt to remove Satan from her belongings. Fortunately, it appears that nobody was hurt in this particular blaze. The woman, Charmaine Ranford, has been arrested on arson charges and is apparently undergoing psychiatric evaluation, which is entirely appropriate.
That said, it isn’t automatically a psychiatric issue if someone believes in Satan (if it were, plenty of people would be cah-razay), not even if they believe that Satan is somehow living in their possessions and that burning those possessions will purify them. These are fairly standard ideas, both in Christianity and in pagan religions. I’m not saying it was wise for her to attempt this particular purification ritual in her apartment. In fact, that aspect alone suggests it was really less about Satan and more about her state of mind. Satan — the actual figurehead of evil — had little to do with this woman’s arson. When people start intentionally lighting fires in their own homes (not in fireplaces, I mean), that’s when you have to wonder what’s really going on.
Again, if this woman had said it was some kind of Christian act, would that have made the news? That seems unlikely. So, as with the Voodoo story, it’s more about what sells papers than about respect for spiritualities that are, for lack of a better word, demonized in our culture.
When you see headlines about crimes or accidents that mention the occult, does it make you more likely to read the article? What does it make you think about the occult? What does it make you think about the person or people at the center of the story? And what does it make you think of the reporter or news outlet that reported it?