Holy Ghost People

This is a 1967 52-minute cinema verité film or folk documentary of a Pentecostal church located in the small community of Scrabble Creek, West Virginia. In 1967, Scrabble Creek’s income centred around an all-but-shut-down coal mining industry that was in a decade-long slump. It was classified as a “depressed area” economically, with members of this congregation making on average about $3000 a year. Average American salaries were twice that at the time. None of this is mentioned in the film, I am just setting the stage for the community this movie documents.

This Pentecostal group takes literally the New Testament passages from Mark and Luke that talk about casting out demons, speaking in tongues (what skeptics know as glossolalia), handle snakes (usually Copperheads and Timber Rattlers) and drink deadly poison (usually strychnine), and it will not hurt them. They do these things as tests of faith. If their faith is strong enough, then they will not die from the snake bite or poison. If someone dies, well, then their faith just wasn’t all that strong. They also believe themselves to have a miraculous healing gift.

The film has a very raw feel to it. The black-and-white camera work is almost all hand-held, the audio during loud portions can get muddy, as it seems it was recorded with a single microphone. Most of the film is a straight-up recording of one of their 4-6 hour services that happen several times a week.

The director and narrator, Peter Adair, opens the film with a description of the church and what they believe, while the camera shows us around the streets of the small, destitute village of Scrabble Creek. Adair’s narration sounds impersonal and detached, but that is because he is presenting facts about these people without judgement. We only hear the narrator in the introduction. The rest of the documentary is edited for length, but presented as an unobstructed view into the Appalachian Pentecostal churches. Adair is also known for the documentary ‘Word Is Out’, considered to be the first mainstream documentary about the gay community.

After the introduction, several testimonials are delivered in the film, recited with a practiced, evangelical rhythm. You get the feeling that many of these stories have been told many times, and there is probably a lot of embellishment, which is what happens when you tell a story over and over again.

The service begins demurely enough, with singing and guitar accompaniment, but it rapidly moves to people “getting drunk in the spirit” – that special kind of flailing, randomly spastic ‘dancing’ that some evangelicals do.

Concerned Pastor cradles his snake-bitten
hand as it swells and his congregation prays.

With about 14 minutes to go in the film, they bring out the snakes while there is singing and dancing going on. The snakes are dumped out of a bag onto the floor and it is obvious that one snake in particular is not appreciating the treatment of being swung and tossed around passed from person to person.

The movie concludes with snake handlers doing their thing, and the pastor ends up getting bitten by what appears to be a juvenile Timber Rattlesnake. It is difficult to tell with the quality of the lighting, but you can definitely hear the rattle when the snake doubles back on the pastor and strikes his hand.

Ironically, just seconds before the snake bite the pastor says “If God don’t want me to die with a snake bite, he won’t let me die that way”. After throwing the agitated snake to the floor and grabbing a handkerchief for the bleeding, he reinforces the message to the congregants, “If I die with this snake bite, it’s still God’s word, just the same”. They have set up a “heads I win, tails you lose” scenario with their god. If he lives, it proves the scripture, if he dies, it just means it was god’s plan.

Of course, not all snake bites are fatal. While he is talking through this, dabbing at the bite wound with an increasingly bloody handkerchief, you hear the congregants starting to murmur prayers. The prayers grow in volume and intensity as the pastor turns more and more of his attention to his rapidly swelling hand. One of the congregants steps in and leads a closing prayer after which you can hear the male church members discussing which one of them will drive the pastor home, because he is in no shape to do it himself. He will not get a ride to the hospital,

The documentary has been referred to by American Cultural Anthropologist Margaret Meade as one of the best ethnographic films ever made. The film also served as an inspiration for the 2013 indie thriller film by the same name, with the modern film borrowing excerpts from the 1967 documentary for artistic effect.

You can watch The Holy Ghost People at the Internet Archive.

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