For executive producers Joanna Lewis and Kristine Songco, the iconic religion has nothing to do with sticking pins in dolls to exact revenge on your enemies; creators Eli Roth and James Frey’s 2D animated show about a group of misfit teens trying to save New Orleans from a demonic threat hits Hulu and Peacock on October 2.
Contrary to popular belief, and what’s been showcased in many films and TV series, the Voodoo religion isn’t all about sticking pins in handmade dolls to exact revenge on one’s enemies. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“The Voodoo doll is where you pin your own wishes and intentions to put positive things out into the universe for yourself,” explains Joanna Lewis, TV writer and producer known for Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts as well as Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous. “I also learned the ‘Lwa,’ or ‘Loa,’ aren't Voodoo deities. They're more like spirit guides who help you in magical ways. It's kind of akin to Catholics having patron saints. Quite frankly, the Voodoo practices I learned about were truly very beautiful.”
Lewis had just returned from a trip to New Orleans when DreamWorks Animation approached her and Kristine Songco about signing up as executive producers on the studio’s first animated kids’ horror series, Fright Krewe, which debuts today, Monday, October 2 on Hulu and Peacock.
There was plenty to love about the script; the 2D animated series was set in the colorful city of New Orleans, with a diverse group of kids that start out as strangers – even enemies – and eventually become friends, bonded by their supernatural abilities, newly bestowed upon them in order to save their town from a centuries old demonic threat.
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But it was the Voodoo backdrop that had Lewis and Songco intrigued.
“I came back from my trip having done the vampire tours, the graveyard tours, and the Voodoo tours,” said Lewis. “So, when DreamWorks came to us and said, ‘Hey, we want to do a horror show with Voodoo,’ I got extremely excited because I was like, ‘I just learned all this stuff!’”
The series was created by Eli Roth and James Frey after Frey, who has two young children, went on a mission to find a series for his kids that was the next step up after Scooby Doo. Frey reached out to Roth, the two developed the concept, then Lewis and Songco were brought on board to executive produce with Frey and Roth, alongside Shane Acker and Mitchell Smith.
“Anytime we get to do supernatural stories and world building, that's very exciting,” says Songco, who worked with Lewis on Kipo and Camp Cretaceous, as well as Fast & Furious: Spy Racers. “Like Joanna, I had never known very much about Voodoo, but I learned a lot about what the practice really is about after being on this project and found out that a lot of my perceptions about it were very wrong.”
Voodoo ultimately arose through a process of syncretism between several traditional religions of West Africa, Central Africa, and Roman Catholicism. In the early 18th century, enslaved West Africans were brought to the French colony of Louisiana, where their traditional religions began to merge, by necessity, with the Roman Catholic beliefs of the French. This continued as Louisiana came under Spanish control and was then purchased by the United States in 1803. In the early 19th century, many people fleeing the Haitian Revolution arrived in Louisiana, bringing with them Haitian Vodou (pronounced the same as “Voodoo”), which contributed to the formation of Louisiana Voodoo as many know it today.
“At one point, if you were a practicing Voodoo believer, and you were brought to New Orleans, you had eight days to convert to Catholicism,” notes Lewis. “So, what they did was look at the patron saints and matched them with their lwa, so that they would be able to practice in secret and keep their religion.”
She continues, “To me, the story of Voodoo in New Orleans was that of bravery, resilience, and cunning intelligence. They kept their faith alive when everything around them was trying to crush it and take it from them. There's something inspiring about that kind of dedication.”
As inspiring as Lewis found Voodoo’s origin story, she and Songco knew there would still be hurdles to jump over, even within the realities of the religion.
“Blood sacrifices, for example, sound scary, but when you offer a rare, bloody steak as a way to implore a spirit, things make a bit more sense,” notes Songco. "And, depending on who you are, the practice of Voodoo can be very different. New Orleans Voodoo is very different from Haitian Vodou. It involves a bit more gris-gris, which is an amulet believed to protect the wearer from evil or bring luck.”
Originating from a need to adapt, New Orleans Voodoo is naturally eclectic, and it was impossible to pack every viewpoint and practice into one show. So, Lewis and Songco adapted themselves.
“People were brought to New Orleans from all over, so this Voodoo has a bunch of different shades,” says Lewis of the Voodoo represented in the show. “We tried to be more general in our approach to Voodoo in the show and tried not to portray a very specific type. This show should feel more like dipping your toe into Voodoo education, not like a Master’s level course.”
The Voodoo religious practices the team did include in Fright Krewe, however, meshed wonderfully and wholesomely to kids animated storytelling.
“Each kid in our show is partnered with a lwa, and each of those lwa have specific areas of life that they are suited towards helping,” explains Lewis. “The kids have a working relationship with their spirit guides, which is true to the faith. You provide an offering, ask the lwa your favor, and you work together in order to achieve a desired outcome.”
Similar to a teacher and student relationship, the kids have to put their best foot forward with their lwa guides to maintain favor. But once trust and respect is established, the Iwa are loyal, dutiful companions and put in equal amounts of work alongside the kids to make sure their hopes come to fruition.
“For example, the character Soleil is partnered with Ayida-Weddo, alongside Damballa, and together they are the lwa of creation, so they have dominion over most natural elements, like weather,” notes Lewis. “Then you have Maman Brigitte, who is the female counterpart to Baron Samedi, and they help people transition from life into death and then from death into new life. So, these kids have their own partners in navigating each of these concepts, some which would be really scary to go through alone.”
To make sure they were representing the Voodoo religion and New Orleans in the most authentic way possible, Lewis and Songco worked with writers that either lived in New Orleans or had family from there. DreamWorks also brought in consultants – like current Voodoo practitioners - so the producers could make sure they were accurately telling a very complex, very real, story with some very supernatural and less real content.
“New Orleans is ripe with all kinds of awesome legends,” says Lewis. “You can't talk about New Orleans and not talk about Anne Rice’s vampire lore, ghost pirates, rougarous (New Orleans werewolves), or the Honey Island Swamp Monster. You name it, New Orleans has it.”
Songco adds, “A rougarou or a vampire could probably walk around in plain sight, and you would think it was part of the tour. We haven't had to think about time of day as much as we have on this show. And not just because of lighting, but because there are things like vampires involved and so some scenes have to take place at night, or else those characters would die.”
Voodoo, according to Lewis and Songco, has been a surprisingly useful platform to dissect complex concepts with older kids. All the same, the team still tried not to make the show too freaky and torture free.
“A note we got at one point was, ‘Scary but not traumatizing,” notes Songco. “This has always been an ambitious show. And not just by DreamWorks standards, but by industry standards. There’s lots of lore, and it’s serialized, so events you set up now will have to pay off later, which means you have to make sure everyone is on the same page.”
Lewis and Songco hope Fright Krewe inspires other creatives to push kids animated content and take risks with their content creation (without traumatizing children, of course).
“Similar to how we ended up doing a deep dive into Voodoo for this show, I hope it encourages people to do the same and explore lore and legends from all over the world,” says Songco. “Because there's so much out there. There are so many scary and fun creatures and spirits and deities from all over. And there are a lot of stories that deserve to be told.”