The Low Country Boo Hag

Savannah at Night

Haunted Savannah

Lucy called it an early Saturday night. On the first Sunday of every month, she made the 100-mile drive from her home in Savannah to her Grandmother’s house in Charleston. This had been her ritual for almost five years. She looked forward to Sunday brunch with her Nanna. Some visits were just the two of them; other times, ladies from the church would pop by, or a neighbor would knock on the door with something sweet for everyone to enjoy. 

November in the Low Country offers cooler and less humid nights. Lucy double-checked the locks on the doors as her hot tea steeped. Then she grabbed Nanna’s custom bedtime blend in a cup and headed upstairs. Before she crawled into bed, she opened her two bedroom windows to let the night air in. Only it wasn’t just a cool breeze that would visit Lucy that night as she lay sleeping. 

At 3:13 AM, Lucy began coughing and gasping for air. She turned her head to the bedtable, saw the time on the clock, and realized she couldn’t lift her arms. She couldn’t move any part of her body below her neck. In the darkness, she lay there with an invisible weight on top of her, holding her down. Her breaths were short and frantic. In between gasps, she blinked her eyes rapidly and asked herself if she was dreaming when suddenly, the bed began to shake, and all the items on her nightstand fell to the floor. 

Lucy took as deep of a breath as she could and flung her arms up. She felt all of the weight and pressure that had been pressing her body down release. She rolled over and flipped the switch for her bedroom light. On the floor beside her were her phone, clock, book, empty but not broken teacup, and hairbrush. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and gathered herself. As she stood up, she felt a wave of vertigo. Or maybe it was just pure fear…

She knelt down and began to put everything back on the side table. That’s when she saw the clock: 4:44. 90 minutes had passed, But it felt like seconds. Confused and frightened, Lucy rushed over to the windows and slammed them both shut. She grabbed a flashlight and headed down the stairs to bravely inspect her home. 

The doors were still locked. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. She headed back upstairs and into her bedroom. As she sat on the edge of her bed, feeling nervous, anxious, and frightened, she felt a gust of cool wind blowing through the room. She jumped up – One of the windows was open – “but I shut them both,” she said to herself out loud. She found herself standing in front of the window, about to slam it shut again, when she saw her hairbrush was now sitting on the windowsill – without one single strand of her auburn hair in the bristles.

A Cup of Tea

Haint BlueThe next morning, Lucy walked up the steps to her grandmother’s wrap-around porch. She looked up at the blue ceiling and rubbed her tired eyes. At the door, she was greeted by Nanna’s oldest and dearest friend, Miss Delia. Miss Delia opened the screen door and wrapped her arms around Lucy. “We’ve been waitin’ for you, child. Come to the kitchen.” 

Nanna was setting the cups on the tray but stopped to hug Lucy and kiss her 3 times on each cheek.  “We knew you’d be early, darlin’.” 

Lucy was confused and still rattled by her unsettling night. “Nanna, Miss Delia, y’all aren’t going to believe the crazy night I had.” 

Her grandmother poured her a cup of tea and said, “Tell us about it, Shoog.” 

As Lucy recounted every detail, pausing to catch her breath at certain recent memories, she noticed that neither Nanna nor Miss Delia had changed their expressions on their aging faces. “Obviously, I wasn’t going to get any sleep, so I just got dressed and headed your way. That’s why I’m here for breakfast and not brunch.” 

“Boo Hag. Isn’t that right, Miss Delia? Lucy got a visit from a Boo Hag,” Nanna said with certainty. 

“Without a doubt, child, that was a Boo Hag.” 

Lucy rolled her eyes, “Nanna, I haven’t heard you talk about that since I was a little girl.”

Nanna looked up over her cup of tea and, with a twinkle in her 80-year-old yet still crystal clear blue eyes, she said through a smile, “Well, that doesn’t mean it stopped being true.”

Hoodoo & Haints

While the bayou has Voodoo, the Low Country has Hoodoo. Hoodoo is Voodoo’s cousin, and it is still practiced in the Gullah Geechee region of coastal Georgia and South Carolina. These terms are frequently used interchangeably, but mark my words, they are very different 

Hoodoo began in the marshlands of the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina in the early 1800s. Unlike other enslaved Africans and their descendants in the South, the Gullah Geechee people were isolated on islands. They eventually emerged with their own language and customs, which remained tethered to African traditions. 

Hoodoo doesn’t try to open a doorway to the spirit world like Voodoo does. Hoodoo practitioners try to work in harmony with the spirit world. And the Boo Hag is one of those mysterious otherworldly entities that they just live with, or try to, at least…

Gullahs believe that people have both a soul and a spirit. Souls leave human bodies upon death; if they’re good, they ascend to Heaven. A person’s spirit is different. A good spirit stays behind to watch over their family, like a spirit guide. A bad spirit is called a Haint—sounds a little bit like “Haunt,” doesn’t it? 

Haints are shape-shifters, witch-like spirits. The Boo Hag is a Haint who steals energy from the living while they sleep.  Gullahs sometimes bid each other good night by saying, “Don’t let de hag ride ya!”

Boo Hags are skinless – Some say they take the skin of the living, others say from the freshly dead and wear it like clothes so that they can move amongst us without suspicion.  At night, they shed the skin and go looking for a victim to “ride.” They enter homes through very small openings—a cracked window, a keyhole. Once inside, they perch on their victim’s chest as they sleep and suck out their breath, consuming their energy.  

A Boo Hag will “ride” its victims all night long, then sneak away before dawn to return to its skin.  If it can’t get back to its skin before the sun comes up, it will be destroyed.

The Gullah Root Workers developed a few things to keep folks safe from shape-shifters and Haints – each specifically aimed at the type of Haint it’s targeted to thwart.

Boo Hags have a weakness: They have an obsessive-compulsive disorder that compels them to count. If they run across your broom or hairbrush, they will count the bristles over and over again. Throw a handful of sesame seeds or rice on the floor, and the Boo Hag will count ’till day-clean run em.’ Many people go to bed with a strainer or colander hanging from their doorknob; the Boo Hag will count the holes for hours. Salt on the floor helps dehydrate the shed skin and makes it impossible for the Boo Hag to put it back on. Boo Hag Shape Shifter

But the most visible and powerful form of defense against Haints is the color blue, derived from indigo. The indigo plant has been prized for centuries across cultures for its spiritual power and as a symbol of wealth. Extracting the blue from the indigo plant required a laborious process, one that the colonizers ruthlessly assigned to the enslaved. 

So, the Gullah used the dregs from the indigo vats, mixed with lime, milk, and other pigments, to create a shade of Robin’s egg blue they called “Haint Blue.” The blue paint tricks the Haints into thinking they’ve stumbled into water or tumbled into the sky. Haint blue doors, windowsills, and porch ceilings created a safety barrier against the shape-shifters that lurk in the night, looking for souls to haunt or steal.

Goofer Dust

Lucy gathered the new tea blend, tiny burlap bag of herbs, and goofer dust her Nanna and Miss Delia had made for her. “I’m still confused about this bag of goofer dust. I thought this was used on people, not hauntings.”

Miss Delia grabbed Lucy’s hand and held it. Lucy could feel the glycerine and smell the rosewater Miss Delia had slathered on that morning.  “Don’t think that Boo Hag found you on her own, child. Sometimes they sent by someone.”

Goofer Dust usually includes graveyard dirt, powdered sulfur, and salt. It might also contain some sprinkles of the powdered remains of a black cat’s bones, powdered snakeheads or snakeskin, powdered lizards or scorpions, cayenne or black pepper, and crushed dried herbs. It’s used to cripple an enemy. 

Miss Delia shoved a stray gray hair back under her royal blue head wrap and reminded Lucy of an old Savannah Boo Hag story, “Just you remember Jack and Evie Wilson…” 

Lucy’s mind wandered back to that legend.

The Boo Hag Legend

Nobody knows when Jack’s story takes place; they just know, “It was a long time ago in Old Fort.” Old Fort is on the East Side of Savannah, near Fort Jackson, which is where Jack lived. 

Jack was courting two women, Evie and Malinda. He knew he wanted to marry and settle down and decided that Evie was the one. This left Malinda more than heartbroken. She was devastated. After Jack and Evie’s wedding day, Malinda disappeared. 

A few months into their marriage, while having breakfast, Evie told Jack that she felt weak and tired. This happened three mornings in a row, with Evie progressively getting worse. Jack got worried—he knew about Hoodoo, and he believed in witchery. 

So, that night, as they crawled into bed as usual, Jack hid a large axe handle next to his side of the bed. He watched as Evie dozed off to sleep. As Evie lay beside him, he heard their bedroom window begin to slide open. 

Jack slowly reached for the axe handle and put it under the covers next to him. Nervous and in their pitch-black bedroom, he began to feel something crawl onto the bed. Slowly, he turned his head towards his bride and saw a large black cat on the bed between him and Evie. He watched the feline slink on top of Evie and sit on her chest with its neck stretched. The whiskered face, almost nose to nose with Evie. 

Shape ShifterEvie began to choke and cough in her sleep. Jack jumped out of bed and swung the axe handle at the cat. The handle landed on the animal’s side, and the big cat let out a scream that rattled Jack’s bones. He had never heard a cat make that sound before, he had only heard a scream like that come from a woman. 

The cat jumped down from the bed and leaped out of the window. Jack grabbed the axe handle and his hunting dog, then headed out into the night to find the big black cat he was sure he had wounded. About half a mile from their home, the pup began to growl and bark at some bushes. Jack pushed the bushes aside and gasped! There was Malinda lying on her side, naked, groaning, and holding her ribs. 

When Malinda saw Jack standing over her with the axe handle and his big angry dog on a short leash, she began to plead, “Please don’t hit me again. I promise to leave you and Evie alone!”

Some children were read fairy tales before bed; Lucy was told the stories of Low Country Hoodoo.

Hymns and Hoodoo

Lucy smiled at Miss Delia adoringly and kissed her 3 times on each cheek. Then she moved over to her Nanna,  “Salt in the corners and rice on the floor, darlin’,” her grandmother reminded her. 

“I know, I know.” Deep down, Lucy was grateful for the elders in her life. 

“And be sure you place that Goofer Bag next to your hairbrush. Don’t hang it on a door or window; it needs to be beside your hairbrush next to your bed.” Nanna was beginning to nag a bit in between the triple kisses. 

“Yes, ma’am.” Lucy gazed into her grandmother’s eyes as she time traveled and caught glimpses of her future self. 

As Lucy walked out the front door, she looked up again at the haint blue ceiling on the only front porch she had ever known her Nanna to have. Down the wood porch steps, she could hear the old women humming, “Passing Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior.” 

The safety she felt inside her grandmother’s home slowly escaped her as she opened her car door. 

“Don’t let da hag ride ya, child!” Miss Delia called out as Lucy drove away.