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Nigeria’s Cinematic Witches Were Rooted in Horrifying Reality

Witch hunts against the poor and vulnerable remain a serious problem.

By , a Nigerian film critic.
The movie poster from 2020's remake of "Nneka the Pretty Serpent."
The movie poster from 2020’s remake of Nneka the Pretty Serpent. Play Network Studios

Nigerians are drawn to the spectacle of horror. It’s not conscious, perhaps not entirely willing, but it’s always there. It’s there when law enforcement failures create macabre spectacles of vigilante revenge. It’s there when an oil tanker explodes thanks to reckless driving or bad roads, bystanders gawping at the inferno until firefighters arrive—if they ever do. It’s there when older people send WhatsApp broadcasts of strange happenings to their friends and family, saying the world is about to end.

That same sense of horror birthed Nigeria’s film industry. Nollywood—a term coined in the early 2000s—started with low-budget, do-it-yourself horror films in the 1990s. It was the season of the witch. In producer Zeb Ejiro’s Nneka the Pretty Serpent (1994) and Sakobi: The Snake Girl (1998), shapeshifting femme fatales doom gullible men. In director Christian Onu’s Karishika (1996), the titular succubus seeds misery on earth. Directors Fred Amata and Sunny Collins’ Witches (1998) has a swarm of sorceresses.

A week-long series on horror and folklore around the world that examines what popular stories and tropes can tell us about a society’s greatest fears, grimmest challenges, and darkest fantasies.

Nigerians are drawn to the spectacle of horror. It’s not conscious, perhaps not entirely willing, but it’s always there. It’s there when law enforcement failures create macabre spectacles of vigilante revenge. It’s there when an oil tanker explodes thanks to reckless driving or bad roads, bystanders gawping at the inferno until firefighters arrive—if they ever do. It’s there when older people send WhatsApp broadcasts of strange happenings to their friends and family, saying the world is about to end.

That same sense of horror birthed Nigeria’s film industry. Nollywood—a term coined in the early 2000s—started with low-budget, do-it-yourself horror films in the 1990s. It was the season of the witch. In producer Zeb Ejiro’s Nneka the Pretty Serpent (1994) and Sakobi: The Snake Girl (1998), shapeshifting femme fatales doom gullible men. In director Christian Onu’s Karishika (1996), the titular succubus seeds misery on earth. Directors Fred Amata and Sunny Collins’ Witches (1998) has a swarm of sorceresses.

Although Christian themes were implicit in some of these, there were also explicitly evangelical horror movies like director Teco Benson’s End of the Wicked (1999) and director Mike Bamiloye’s The Ultimate Power (1994), where witches took the devil’s side in apocalyptic struggles.

Director Chris Obi Rapu’s occult horror Living in Bondage (1992), the industry’s inaugural offering, didn’t focus on witches but mythologized the acquisition of wealth through blood sacrifices. Ritual killings were fears that lacerated the 80s and 90s, arising from the need to make fast money because people lived quite poorly. This became part of the Nollywood horror tradition, inspiring movies.

But gender also played a powerful role. In a male-dominated industry, female villains had to be tamed and conquered, beset by a disaster in the end. Occasionally, witches turn up in a better light, like director Chico Ejiro’s Full Moon (1998), where lunar-powered women avenge themselves against bad men.

Although there were male occultists and fictional men who did horrible things, the gendering of women as witches didn’t allow room for much complexity. They were often flattened to their fanged, diabolical desires when compared to these men, who were still allowed to be family patriarchs, business owners, or valuable members of society.

Notions of witchcraft are commonplace in Nigeria. Before colonization, witchcraft was more broadly linked to African spirituality and religious practices. In Yoruba cosmology, for instance, witches are creations of Olorun, the supreme deity, existing to ensure people were loyal to him. They were blamed for famine, misfortune, and strange diseases—but also sometimes revered as healers, herbalists, and diviners.

The arrival of Christianity demonized these practices, but witches remained a real and malevolent force in popular imagination. And while the initial wave of Christian missionaries largely dismissed witchcraft as paganism and fiction, the Pentecostal churches that emerged in Nigeria in the 20th century took supernatural evil much more seriously.

These churches waged spiritual warfare against imagined witches. A new spiritual economy combined faith and capital, with the right church seen as a route to prosperity—whether through supernatural blessings or the connections enabled by the congregation. Accusations of witchcraft were rife as a result because financial success and spiritual fortune were deeply tied together—and if you weren’t succeeding, someone else had to be blamed.

While women are scapegoated for being older, childless, and unmarried for too long, children have also been a target. Witch hunts have left thousands of children abused and ostracized. Sometimes, the panics are communal—in a country where local and ethnic politics are deeply intense. In southeastern Nigeria, anti-witch crusader Akpan Ekwong fueled panic in 1978, blaming witches for the bad things that happened to the Ibibio people.

Christian-led, anti-witchcraft hysteria would bleed into 1990s Nollywood filmmaking. But this wasn’t the only element contributing to Nigeria’s climate of horror. In the 1990s, the Nigerian economy was going through painful changes, having adopted the structural adjustment program, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank’s neoliberal shock doctrine. Children, especially, were advised not to accept food cooked by strangers. It was believed that if ingested, one could be initiated into witchcraft. Local shops showed garish posters of mysterious events, from triple-breasted women to shapeshifting monstrosities. Unclaimed paper money on the street was left alone out of fear that picking it up might transform one into a yam. A rapidly changing world brought new fears and legends with it.

Today, witches in Nollywood are extinct—even as witch hunts still happen in real life.

Horror reflected the country’s fears and anxieties, but when those became too overwhelming, the industry switched. From the mid-2000s on, a cycle of failed political leadership, rising inflation, increasing unemployment, insecurity, and bouts of violent extremism meant an abandoning of horror.

The assumption was audiences no longer wanted to see on screen what they experienced too often in real life. Directors and producers began to push toward comedy, using the genre to soften harsh political and economic realities. Cinemas became sheltered, escapist spaces. This was the commercialization of Nollywood and the rule of the box office. Horror was seen as too serious—too foreign and forensic.

The misogyny of early horror hasn’t disappeared, but it’s largely switched to a different medium: music. Rapper Falz on his 2015 song “Karishika” expressed male paranoia about falling prey to women with devilish motives. Singer Cruel Santino’s creepy 2019 music video for “Raw Dinner” featured a young woman with a malevolent presence. In the 2017 haunted house music video for “Link Up” by rapper YCee and singer Reekado Banks, women are depicted as belonging to a cult.

Although there have been small attempts at reviving horror, a bigger bet came with actor Ramsey Nouah’s 2019 directorial debut, Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, a sequel to the 1992 movie. It came alongside another blast from the past, the hard reboot of Zeb Ejiro’s femme fatale horror Nneka the Pretty Serpent from director Tosin Igho. But the film was rather insipid and disappointing, shattering the hopes of a Nollywood horror renaissance—at least, in the mainstream.

But there are indie filmmakers tackling the genre, like the Surreal 16 collective, especially with their recent three-part anthology film Juju Stories, which has been touring international film festivals. Founded by directors Abba Makama, C.J. Obasi, and Michael Omonua, these indie creators are dubbed ‘‘anti-Nollywood’’ purveyors.

“Suffer the Witch,” Obasi’s story in the anthology, tells a witch story with surprising subtlety. A young woman is suspicious of her university roommate being a witch, which then takes their relationship to frightening places. Unexpectedly, it adds a dollop of queerness, delicately balancing Nigerian witch sensibilities with modern nuances. Another story, Makama’s “Yam,” revitalizes the scary myth of picking up money on the ground and changing into an edible tuber.

These films are unlikely to produce a mainstream revival. Horror movie witches in Nollywood were useful to the industry, contributing to the boom of home video rentals and mainstream success. But in already frightening times, they might just be too scary to think about.

Bernard Dayo is a Nigerian film critic.

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