I was originally planning to write about Kenneth Anger’s abstract celluloid blasphemy Lucifer Rising for the first 20JFG of 2013, but, post-NYE, I think our souls are all a little more ripe for the saving.
So while Lucifer may still have all the best Moogdrones (Jimmy Page’s previously unreleased soundtrack for Lucifer Rising was finally released in 2012), here we look at Peter Adair’s Holy Ghost People. Holy Ghost People is a profound piece of cinema verite, and the first documentary to deal with the niche Pentecostal phenomena of snake handling, faith healing, and speaking in tongues. Throughout the following decades, European film-makers looking for a quick ‘Americans! LOL’ gagfest would send a cameraman about the working class Deep South to see what weirdness they could root out in church sermons where rattlers slither around the ankles of sick children hoping to be healed by the holy ghost.
Adair filmed Holy Ghost People in 1967, but the grainy film stock and clattering, lo-fi sound seem more redolent of films from 30 years earlier. But maybe that perception is because we’re viewing West Virginia in a world at least three decades away from the internet, where culture shifts at a slow generation-by-generation pace rather than the hyper-accelerated revisions in knowledge and consensus we’re now accustomed to.
Rather than just a time capsule curio, though, Holy Ghost People resonates now mostly just as a lovingly-made document. Adair doesn’t patronise the people he interviews or observes, and the overall narrative seems refreshingly free from judgement. Similarly, the protagonists don’t seem to be hamming things up for the camera, like the more media-savvy preachers in much later documentaries like the Paradise Lost trilogy might.
Instead, for all of the incredible literalism in their reading of the gospels and the life-endangering rituals that accompany this interpetation, the sermons in this West Virginia Pentecostal church seem almost well, down to earth. It means that when the parishioners do erupt into rapture – speaking in tongues and falling to the floor as their ecstatic dancing fires transcendental portals in their brains – it’s somehow unaffected and so weirdly beautiful.
Holy Ghost People is now part of the public domain, so we’ve ripped a particularly stomping section of off-key hymn from the film and made it available for you to download.
The full film is also available on YouTube: