Holy Ghost People

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Pentecostal Christians are among the most extreme – or, if you prefer, devout – Christian sects, having an unswerving faith in the Bible as the unerring word of God, and taking literally that which others might see as metaphor. Based primarily in backwoods America, it’s a religious that has long been the subject of suspicion from both more mainstream believers and the wider public. Unsurprisingly, these remote, isolated and extremist religious communities have often been the subject of horror films, either directly or symbolically.

Peter Adair’s 1967 documentary Holy Ghost People is a fascinating, and often unnerving study of these fundamentalists – in this case the congregation of a church in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia. Adair interviews the believers (some of whom speak in tongues on camera), and then follows a church service that lasts several hours, and concludes with holy convulsions, more tongue speaking, and snake handling – all inspired by the Book of Mark, which says:

“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deady poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands upon sick people, and they will get well.”

Unfortunately, faith only gets you so far. As the cameras roll, the pastor is bitten on the hand by a snake that he is handling. Later, off-camera, he died. This seems to be an occupational hazard for snake handlers.

As a study of religious madness, this is a fascinating anthropological study by a director better known for his pioneering gay documentary Word is Out: Some Stories of Our Lives, made between 1975 and 1977.

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