The Soucouyant: Presentation of Movement and Embodiment

Last Thursday I participated in a friend’s mas costume presentation for her class (photo courtesy of Joseph Bertrand). It was not something I could really prepare for but I showed up and continued to be surprised that day. Her costume was in honor of “Soucouyant” (pronounced: soo-coo-yah),a fire woman from folklore. After doing some research, I learned that the Caribbean character is actually an old woman by day [Apparently, she can be in other animal forms too] but a skinless fireball by night. She gets into homes via cracks or holes and sucks the blood from humans, taking on the skin of her victim if killed. If salt is thrown on her forgotten skins then she will be destroyed upon trying to re-enter it. There are some written accounts of people encountering the fireball woman, but it is generally known as a Caribbean legend, which is still told in Trinidad.

So the costume I wore for the presentation focused on a grand headpiece to illustrate the character. This included a set of chief feathers, round cage with cardboard flame drawings attached, and was topped with blinking devil horns. The chief-like Mohawk of feathers represented the personality of this specific version to be a warrior. Besides the sports bra and spandex shorts, I had some black paint smeared on my body, and heavy costume makeup on my face. The makeup seemed to resemble a mask, raising my eyebrows an inch above and enlarging my lips. The makeup was a great addition to the headpiece, and I think made all the difference in how my face was to be received by the audience, and hence the costume's effectiveness.

The most demanding part of my participation was the improvisation of a presentation for the class. Given that her costume involved an intricate headpiece, elaborate costume makeup, and little skin covering, I had to bring the rest of the body to life. Of course I did not know all this research before the performance so I only had her advice to work with. She reminded me to stay low to move fluid, look like I’m mad or want to eat the people in the class, and to hiss while saying “Soucouyant” at various speeds or pitches. She asked if I knew “how to be possessed” on the morning of the performance. So I bent, hissed, crawled, glared, and strutted around the classroom, hoping to give the best portrayal of her costume that she wanted. At that moment of immediate encounter, I had to give myself over to the character... or at least the little understanding of it. I had to actually be angry and really glare and scream at the top of my lungs because there is no such thing as ‘pretending’ in improvisation. I did not do a skit because it was not rehearsed and I did not do a dance, but I would call it a presentation of movement and embodiment.

This must be the definition of “mas” in Trinidad when Carnival was thriving. People take on the character of “mas” or their individual traditional characters so deeply that it becomes a second personality. “Mas” being short for “masquerade” is more profound than just wearing the mask.

The best part was not being allowed to wear my glasses for the presentation (photo courtesy of Andrea L. S. Wise). Not only could I not see the floor (in addition to the cage around my head) but I couldn’t see the people in the classroom to read their facial reactions. This made me very internalized on exaggerating the movements and making the effort to make contact with every figure I could make out. I did not even know that I screamed at the professor until after the class was over! It was a great experience to do something so blindly: without knowledge of the folklore details and without my glasses. It is even more valuable to research and reflect on a cultural aspect I knew nothing about before this experience.


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