Filmmaker Peter Adair is best known for his seminal queer classic, Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, a 1977 collaboratively directed documentary featuring 26 gay men and lesbians. The film, created with his lesbian sister Nancy, showed a truly diverse array of subjects speaking plainly about their lives and experiences. (The interviews were also later compiled and edited into a fascinating book by Nancy and the siblings’ lesbian mother, Casey.) Adair’s impulse for treating his subjects with sympathy wasn’t totally personal though. Ten years before Word is Out, he made Holy Ghost People, an intense but humane document of a Pentecostal church in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia.
With unembellished, almost flat narration, Adair describes the practices of Scrabble Creek Pentecostals. (Note that minimalist composer Steve Reich was one of the audio recordists on the film.) Adair interviews attendants and records their four to six hour long services, where they sing and play music, pray for divine healing and “speak in tongues.” They jerk, shudder and drop to the ground in religious ecstasy, some of them “paralyzed” by the experience, and of course, there is the most infamous of Pentecostal traditions—snake-handling. Adair even records a non-lethal bite.
As someone with some exposure to Pentecostal churches and environments, it’s worth noting that denominations like this are often considered marginal by the more mainstream flocks, perhaps more so as rural Appalachian enclaves continue to change and (sort of) modernize. At the services I attended, “catching the spirit” (the shaking and convulsing) wasn’t particularly common (possibly because the spectacle interrupted the music). Speaking in tongues was even rarer, and generally gossiped about later in skeptical murmurs. Praying collectively for a “brother” or “sister”‘s health was common, but actual faith healing was done at special services or events, rather than during regular sermons. And I only saw snake-handling a few times at tent revivals—children weren’t allowed to participate, or even witness, but there were snakes, so (obviously) we found a way.
It was also generally accepted that a lot of snake-handling was vaudeville flash, with little risk of actual death. The snakes used were considered “docile,” and it was always rumored they had been defanged, or at least “milked” beforehand to exhaust them of most of their poison. Supposedly, you could make a pretty penny from popping a snake’s fangs through a bit of cheesecloth stretched taut with a rubber band over a mason jar. Many parishioners said that nearby hospitals would purchase the subsequently expelled venom to produce antivenom, adding to skepticism surrounding the “spirituality” of snake-handling. That being said, Pentecostals do sometimes die from snake bites, though when word of a death—or even near-death—reached to our church, it was rare enough to elicit little more than an exasperated head shake—no one ever thought it wasn’t dangerous, most thought it was idiotic.
There are moments of Holy Ghost People though, that will ring pretty familiar with any former Pentecostal. A woman recounts an experience following a series of surgeries where a mysterious child brings sweetened milk to her deathbed for a few days; by the grace of God, she was healed, her recovery the result of her trust in the Lord, an act of God here on earth. These deathbed stories are incredibly common. The poverty and geography of Appalachia fosters a desperate, insular kind of faith, and in the common context of poor health, the spiritual and corporeal congeal into a complex delusion of “miracles” and inexplicable, supernatural forces. While more recent portrayals of Pentecostals tend to resort to smug sensationalism, Holy Ghost People manages a dignified, compassionate look at an all too frequently spurned community.
Via Internet Archive