To understand the place of spirit possession and exorcism within the context of Ozark folk beliefs, we first have to explore where this belief in the spirit world comes from. Now, before I continue I want to clarify some possible misunderstandings about folk traditions like this. These are not to be considered “pagan” or “witchcraft” traditions, because, from the context of the people who belong to this tradition these words would be considered heretical and directly against their orthodox religious beliefs. While it could be said that these folk beliefs represent remnants of much more ancient pagan practices, from the standpoint of studying a living folkloric tradition we must use the vocabulary given to us by the people who are from within this tradition.
Therefore, this worldview in relation to spirits and the spirit world is completely within the context of Christian, specifically Protestant Christian, values and doctrine. That’s to say that the “spirits” are divided into the categories of angels, demons (which includes the Devil, or “Old Scratch” as he’s sometimes called), or ghosts (also called “haints”, which often represent long dead relatives).
The settler families in the Ozark Mountains were mostly descendants from Appalachian Mountain folk who were descendants of Scots-Irish and German immigrants, with a few exceptions of families of immigrants who mixed with either the Native American populations or with Africans brought over in the slave trade, or some combination thereof. My own family is of mixed racial heritage. This means that for the Ozarks there is a uniquely rich folkloric heritage that can be claimed by several different traditions, that’s to say that there are many different sources for beliefs on the spirit world, all of which have added their own ingredients to the common folklore stock.
For people in the Ozarks (at least for the old timers) the world of spirit and this world were uniquely intertwined with one another, so that in certain places, or at certain times of the day/year, the veil between the spirit world and this world is a little bit thinner. Much of this belief system was influenced by Irish and Scottish beliefs in the otherworld and the “Fair Folk” or “People of the Hills”. Still to this day, in many of the more rural places in the Ozarks, Halloween is seen as a time of the year when spirit activity is more active and certain precautions, such as leaving out food for passing ghosts, or lighting a candle in the front window, are taken as a way of not offending the spirits of the land.
Remedies against this spirit work can be seen in the use of herb packets, charms, or other ingredients that are placed inside the sole of your shoe as a way of safeguarding against any tricks that are laid down. There’s also an important tradition of keeping a watchful eye on the landscape when walking or hiking. Certain trees or rocks that seem out of place or ominous might contain a spirit that if angered could cause harm to anyone near it. I’ve seen old timers wear various charms to safeguard from spirits like this, and on more than one occasion I’ve seen farmers refuse to cut a lone tree in their fields for fear of causing any harm to its spirit.
But as we see, these are just preventatives of spirit work or spirit possession. What can we do when the harm has already been done to us?
This is where exorcism or spirit healing would come into play. Now, I will reiterate what I said earlier on, that we must use the vocabulary of the people within this tradition. Here I am using the word exorcism, when in fact that word is very rarely used in this folkloric tradition, mostly because of its connection to Catholicism, which was often condemned by Protestant hillfolk. Many of the Ozark families still pass on stories of their Protestant ancestors who were arrested, killed, or driven out of their homelands by the established Church. I myself have ancestors who were Huguenots, Dunkards, Quakers, and Brethren, all of whom immigrated because of religious persecution. So, when talking about this subject it’s perhaps more appropriate to approach it from the standpoint of spirit healing or faith healing, rather than exorcism.
In the Ozark folk magic tradition there are many categories of healers or folk magicians. Some of these are the “yarb doctors” who mostly work with plant based cures and charms, “power doctors” or “goomer doctors” who heal with the use of prayers, verbal charms, and physical talismans or amulets, and “witch doctors” who specifically focus on the healing of certain bewitched or “goomered” conditions. It should be noted that in no case do hillfolk themselves call these people witches, magicians, shamans, sorcerers, or any other term that may be wrongfully applied to them today. You may occasionally hear people refer to “white witches” in the case of healers, or “water witches” who are able to find water sources deep below the ground, and sometimes “conjurer” will be used, but these are rarities.
The faith healer or local pastor and the power doctor were often one in the same, and it shouldn’t be thought that there was always a distinction between the two occupations. In the Ozarks the healer is usually always seen as a person of strong faith, and oftentimes the pastor or preacher is sought in cases of healing where herbal remedies are not working or there’s a powerful spiritual dimension to the sickness. There are a variety of ways that this spiritual healing might happen. I always like to say that the folk magic tradition has as many practices as there are healers, but one practice of particular interest to me is the use of animal products in spirit healing.
Three examples of these animal products are: skulls, eggs, and chicken/bird feet. Skulls are used mostly in the case of mental illness or severe head pains/wounds. This form of sympathetic magic works on the principle that a magical animal skull is used to draw out a malicious spirit (sometimes referred to as poison) from a person’s head, and then the skull is cleansed in water or other liquids or sometimes set on fire as a way of destroying the sickness of the patient. Eggs (specifically eggs laid by black hens) are used much in the same way, where the egg is drawn along a patient’s body, drawing in all evil spirits or poisons, and then the egg is either buried or cracked open, thereby releasing the illness and healing the patient. There are variants of the egg cure in cultures all over the world, but one living tradition that still heals with eggs is Curanderismo. A black chicken’s foot (or black bird’s foot in general) can be used to scratch out an evil spirit from inside someone’s body. This is more sympathetic magic, the idea being that a bird that scratches out in the yard, is going to be good at scratching up evil from out of a person’s body.
There’s an interesting folk disease that probably deserves its own article, called “live things” or sometimes just “things” and it can be seen in the Ozarks as well as in a lot of different traditions from around the world. It involves a person who feels like they have living reptiles, insects, or sometimes small mammals, inside their body. These critters were put there by a witch who fed the person some part of the animal, or made them step on it. The goomer or power doctors are able to exorcize these spirits through various different ways, most of which involve a strong purgative.
The Ozark folklore tradition is rich with stories and practices relating to the spirit world. There’s no way that one article can fully explain the significance of these spirit beliefs to the people who hold this worldview. I can only hope to give a small glimpse of these beliefs to people who might not have otherwise known they existed, and in my own way I hope to change the view many people have of the Ozarks and its peoples.