Nigerians are drawn to the spectacle of horror. It’s not conscious, maybe not entirely voluntary, but it’s still there. This is where law enforcement failures create macabre glasses vigilante revenge. It is there when an oil tanker explode Thanks to reckless driving or bad roads, passers-by are speechless at hell until the firefighters arrive, if ever they do. This is where the elderly send WhatsApp broadcasts from strange events to their friends and family, saying the world is about to end.

This same sense of horror gave birth to the Nigerian film industry. Nollywood – a term coined in the early 2000s – started with low budget, do-it-yourself horror movies in the 1990s. It was season of the witch. At the producer Zeb Ejiro Nneka the pretty snake (1994) and Sakobi: the girl with snakes (1998), transformed femme fatales condemn gullible men. In the director Christian Onu Karishika (1996), the titular succubus sows misery on earth. Directors Fred Amata and Sunny Collins’ Witches (1998) has a swarm of witches.

A weeklong series of horror and folklore from across the world that examines what popular stories and tropes can tell us about the greatest fears, sinister challenges and darkest fantasies of a company.

Nigerians are drawn to the spectacle of horror. It’s not conscious, maybe not entirely voluntary, but it’s still there. This is where law enforcement failures create macabre glasses vigilante revenge. It is there when an oil tanker explode Thanks to reckless driving or bad roads, passers-by are speechless at hell until the firefighters arrive, if ever they do. This is where the elderly send WhatsApp broadcasts from strange events to their friends and family, saying the world is about to end.

This same sense of horror gave birth to the Nigerian film industry. Nollywood – a term coined in the early 2000s – started with low budget, do-it-yourself horror movies in the 1990s. It was season of the witch. At the producer Zeb Ejiro Nneka the pretty snake (1994) and Sakobi: the girl with snakes (1998), transformed femme fatales condemn gullible men. In the director Christian Onu Karishika (1996), the titular succubus sows misery on earth. Directors Fred Amata and Sunny Collins’ Witches (1998) has a swarm of witches.

While Christian themes were implicit in some of them, there were also explicitly evangelical horror films like that of director Teco Benson. End of the wicked (1999) and director Mike Bamiloye The ultimate power (1994), where witches sided with the devil in doomsday struggles.

The occult horror of director Chris Obi Rapu Living in bondage (1992), the industry’s inaugural offering, did not focus on witches but mythologized the acquisition of wealth through blood sacrifices. Ritual killings were fears that ripped through the ’80s and’ 90s, resulting from the need to make money fast because people lived quite poorly. It has become a part of the Nollywood horror lore, inspiring movies.

But gender also played an important role. In an industry dominated by men, the wicked had to be tamed and conquered, beset by disaster in the end. Every now and then, witches show up in a better light, like director Chico Ejiro Full moon (1998), where women with lunar powers take revenge against evil men.

While there have been male occultists and fictional men who have done horrible things, the gender of women as witches did not allow much complexity. They were often flattened to their evil and hooked-up desires in relation to these men, who were always allowed to be family patriarchs, business owners, or valued 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 example, witches are creations of Olorun, the supreme deity, existing to make sure people are loyal to him. They were blamed for famine, misfortune and strange diseases, but also sometimes revered as healers, herbalists and diviners.

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

These churches have waged a spiritual war against imaginary witches. A new spiritual economy combined faith and capital, with the good church seen as a path to prosperity, whether through supernatural blessings or through connections permitted by the congregation. As a result, accusations of witchcraft were rife, as financial success and spiritual fortune were deeply intertwined – and if you were not successful, someone else had to be blamed.

While women are scapegoats for being older, childless and single for too long, children were also a target. Witch hunts left thousands of children behind abused and ostracized. Sometimes the panics are communal, in a country where local and ethnic politics are deeply intense. In southeast Nigeria, an anti-witchcraft crusader Akpan Ekwong fueled the panic in 1978, blaming the witches for the bad things that happened to the Ibibio people.

Christian-led anti-witchcraft hysteria would bleed into Nollywood cinema in the 1990s. But that was not the only factor 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 neoliberal shock doctrine of the World Bank. Children, in particular, have been warned not to accept food cooked by strangers. It was believed that if ingested, one could be initiated into witchcraft. Local stores displayed garish posters of mysterious events, from triple-breasted women to shapeshifting monstrosities. Unclaimed paper money on the street was left alone for fear that picking it up could turn one into a yam. A rapidly changing world has brought new fears and legends with it.

Today, the witches of Nollywood are gone, although witch hunts still take place in real life.

The horror mirrored the country’s fears and anxieties, but when these got too overwhelming, the industry shifted. From the mid-2000s, a cycle of failing political leadership, rising inflation, rising unemployment, insecurity and episodes of violent extremism meant abandoning horror.

The assumption was that audiences no longer wanted to see onscreen what they too often experienced in real life. Directors and producers began to push for comedy, using the genre to soften harsh political and economic realities. Cinemas have become sheltered spaces, of escape. It was the marketing of Nollywood and the box office rule. The horror was seen as too serious, too foreign and forensic.

The misogyny of primitive horror has not gone away, but it has largely shifted to another medium: music. Rapper Falz on his 2015 song “Karishika”Expressed male paranoia about falling prey to women with evil motivations. Singer Cruel Santino’s scary music video in 2019 for “Raw dinner»Portrayed a young woman with a malicious presence. In the 2017 haunted house clip for “ConnectBy rapper YCee and singer Reekado Banks, women are portrayed as belonging to a cult.

While there have been small attempts to rekindle the horror, a bigger bet came with actor Ramsey Nouah’s directorial debut in 2019, Living in bondage: freeing yourself, a sequel to the 1992 film. It came alongside another blast from the past, the hard reboot of Zeb Ejiro’s femme fatale horror Nneka the pretty snake by director Tosin Igho. But the movie was rather bland and disappointing, shattering hopes of a revival of horror in Nollywood, at least in the mainstream.

But there are independent filmmakers taking on the genre, like the Surreal 16 collective, especially with their recent three-part anthology film. Juju Stories, which has toured at international film festivals. Founded by directors Abba Makama, CJ Obasi and Michael Omonua, these independent creators are nicknamed the “anti-Nollywood” suppliers.

“Suffer the Witch”, the story of Obasi in the anthology, tells a story of a witch with surprising subtlety. A young woman suspects that her college roommate is a witch, which then takes their relationship to scary places. Unexpectedly, it adds a touch of quirk, delicately balancing the sensibilities of Nigerian witches with modern undertones. Another story, “Yam” by Makama, revitalizes the creepy myth of scooping money off the ground and turning into an edible tuber.

These films are unlikely to produce a mainstream revival. Nollywood horror movie witches have served the industry well, contributing to the boom in home video rentals and mainstream success. But in already scary times, they might just be too scary to think about it.


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