A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How do I go about making a voodoo doll?

December 29, 2000

Dear Cecil:

How would I go about making a voodoo doll so I can torture my enemies?

For the past month I've been making voodoo dolls of this one jerk from school. I heard that if you have a piece of hair from the person, the voodoo doll will work. Someone also told me that you need one of their personal belongings for it to work. What do I do to make it really work?

Cecil replies:

Voodoo dolls, eh? Well, I guess it beats shooting up the Bible-study group. Nowadays you can get guaranteed-authentic voodoo paraphernalia from a host of entrepreneurs, many of them on-line. Trouble is — trouble from my standpoint, anyway — evidence suggests that, given the right circumstances, voodoo really may work. The medical literature includes several accounts of "voodoo deaths," that is, people in seemingly good health, or at least not fatally ill, who died after being placed under some kind of hex. None of the accounts I saw specifically credited voodoo dolls, but it seems clear the essential ingredient isn't a particular methodology or technique, such as obtaining a lock of the guy's hair. Rather, the victim must believe wholeheartedly in the mystic power of whatever juju you're attempting to put over on him, and so must everyone, without exception, in his social milieu. Call me cynical, but I don't see how you're going to pull this off with a voodoo doll kit you got on the Internet for $19.95.

Voodoo death is the ultimate example of the nocebo effect (the opposite of the placebo effect): because you believe something can harm you, it does. Mainstream science remains skeptical that the nocebo effect can actually kill you, but one doctor (C.K. Meador, Southern Medical Journal, 1992) recounts two interesting cases. In the first, a poorly educated man was near death after being hexed by a local voodoo priest but recovered after his quick-thinking physician performed a convincing (although completely nonsensical) counterritual in which he seemed to cause the victim to vomit up a lizard. In the second case, a cancer patient was told that the disease had metastasized to his liver and he had only a short time to live. The despairing victim died a few months later, but an autopsy revealed that the diagnosis had been mistaken: he had only a two-centimeter nodule on his liver, not normally a tumor of lethal size. Conclusion #1: He died not from his cancer but from fear. Conclusion #2: If you really want to scare somebody to death, forget the local hoodoo artist and bring in an M.D.

Hm, you're thinking dejectedly, guess we're back to shooting up the Bible-study group. No, no, that's not what I meant to suggest at all. We merely need to understand the limits of voodoo in this day and age. (And yes, I realize that voodoo, properly speaking, is a religion, and that rituals involving dolls and whatnot are merely among its tawdrier manifestations. Listen, we're talking about high school revenge fantasies here, not metaphysics.) Sudden death, mysterious crippling ailments? Probably not gonna happen, as a result of voodoo anyway. (The cafeteria is another story.) Creep out your enemies? Sure.

Let's see what we can find on the Internet. Here's one from Phoenix One Enterprises. "Voodoo Doll. Important: This is not a toy. You must be 18 years of age or older to purchase this voodoo doll kit." Well, maybe you can get a fake ID. The kit includes "doll with the same skin color, sex, and hair color as your target," ten "special power needles," a ritual spirit candle, and complete instructions. All you need to do is send $34.95 plus $10.00 shipping and handling to — wait a second. No disrespect, but I refuse to believe that a truly potent voodoo doll can be had from an enterprise located in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Ah, here's an outfit called voodooking.com in Metairie, Louisiana — close to New Orleans, which is the center of modern commercial voodoo, and once the stomping grounds, so to speak, of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, truly a combination to instill the fear of God. Voodooking voodoo dolls, it says here, are "the Perfect Antidote for ALL High-Quality Gift Ideas!" Couldn't have said it better myself. Let's see, we've got the Rope Doll, the Palmetto Doll, and …  goodness, the Vagina Doll. "Once you activate the effective Vagina Doll you will have to cope with a wild woman! In our humble opinion this can be very beneficial. Warning: Be sure you have plenty of rest and eaten all your vegetables prior to activating this remarkable doll." And make sure you've got an ample supply of Viagra too.

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