How Pentecostal Preachers and Satanic Panic Helped Launch Nollywood

Nigeria’s homegrown film industry has always loved horror. Its early occult films sprang from a surge of new Christian movements in the country

How Pentecostal Preachers and Satanic Panic Helped Launch Nollywood
Film still from “Living in Bondage: Breaking Free.”

Down on his luck, Andy Okeke, a middle-class Nigerian trader, is desperate to make money and improve his impoverished circumstances. When a bogus investment goes awry, Andy slips into near-depression. Merit, his wife and the breadwinner of the family, remains an infinite source of encouragement. Walking down the road one humid afternoon, Andy stumbles into Paulo, his friend from high school, who pulls up in a yellow Mercedes-Benz. Andy’s frumpy suit contrasts sharply with Paulo’s flowing white agbada, the traditional robe of the Yoruba people. As the old-time pals exchange pleasantries, they drive in Paulo’s pricy car to a posh restaurant, where Andy bares his soul to his friend. Listening to Andy’s miserable tale, Paulo reassures him, “I’ll show you how to make money and how to spend it, but you must promise me that you will be strong-hearted.”

Andy does not grasp the full import of Paulo’s statement until he is brought, weeks later, before a satanic cult whose members sacrifice their loved ones in exchange for fortune. Once initiated, Andy is commanded to sacrifice his gracious spouse for “inexhaustible wealth.” After a foiled attempt to use a commercial sex worker as a decoy, Andy grudgingly submits his wife, whose blood is drawn with a large syringe into a calabash gourd and shared among cult members, including Andy. Finally rich, Andy becomes a major importer and exporter, dealing in designer belts and suits. But his newfound fortune sets off a sequence of disturbing events — occasioned by Merit’s apparition — that lead to Andy’s eventual insanity. Meanwhile, the prostitute Andy attempted to sacrifice in lieu of his wife has submitted her life to Christ after her near-death experience. When she spots Andy atop a rubbish pile in the street, she summons her pastor and church members, who conduct fervent prayers for his deliverance. After emerging from his satanic stupor thanks to their prayers, Andy becomes a born-again Christian.

Andy Okeke, played by Nigerian actor Kenneth Okonkwo, is the protagonist of the 1992 two-part supernatural thriller “Living in Bondage,” directed by Chris Rapu. Although filmed in Igbo, one of Nigeria’s major languages, spoken by its eastern tribes, “Living in Bondage” struck a chord with the diverse populace, who clamored for the release of its second installment. Video rental shops, frustrated at the storm of requests from the public, were forced to put up banners that read: “Living in Bondage II is not yet out.”

As the first Nigerian home video, “Living in Bondage” is considered the genesis of Nigeria’s film industry, generally referred to as Nollywood. After the film’s blockbuster success, a deluge of horror films followed. Colloquially called occultic films, these movies explored the tensions between Christianity and traditional African religions, and between materialism and faith, that were simmering in Nigeria at the time as certain real-life cults dramatically made the headlines. Similar notable epic horror dramas of that era include “Nneka: The Pretty Serpent” (1994), in which a femme fatale holds sway over the souls of wealthy married men; and “Narrow Escape” (1999), involving a titanic struggle between an embattled Catholic priest and his father’s cult. These movies sparked a sensation in 1990s Nigeria, in the same fashion as Hollywood movies like “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby” in the 1960s and ’70s.

A common plotline of Nollywood’s horror cinema involves a fraternity of evil-minded men killing humans as a sacrifice to grab fast money or achieve business success. As well as living in opulent houses and managing a fleet of expensive cars, the cult members depicted in the films are notorious for their ostentatious displays of wealth at public gatherings. But the prosperity is only short-lived, for the cult members soon face mysterious illnesses and imminent death as a consequence of their ill-gotten lucre. Sometimes, as in the case of Andy in “Living in Bondage,” one cult member manages to evade the repercussions of death by seeking help in a church, thus portraying the supremacy of Christianity. It was common practice for these films to end the last scene with the phrase “To God Be the Glory.”

The horror cinema brought notoriety to actors like Kanayo O. Kanayo, who was typecast in “Living in Bondage” as the philandering chief who murders his mother for money in a ritual. Kanayo’s name has become synonymous with the genre, where he ha earned the moniker “nna ayi sacrifice” (the father of human sacrifices) — a Nollywood parallel to the “scream queens” of Hollywood.

The gory visual representations of blood sacrifices seen in these occult-themed films were helped by the power of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Where Western horror flicks used special effects and sophisticated makeup to transform actors into horrifying monsters and villains, as in “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” antagonists of Nollywood’s horrors were particularly striking in their traditional red or black apparel, which, together with props like calabashes and scary masks, evoked an otherworldly sense. Replete with ritual scenes, these films employed eerie chord sounds — bass guitar twangs — to portend danger or communicate a sense of dread. Compared to fast-paced Western horrors laden with gore and jump scares, Nollywood’s horror cinema employed slow-moving shots, building character through long dialogues rather than action.

While most of the horror films produced in the early days of Nollywood were dark fantasy aimed at titillating and entertaining the audience, to a large degree they were also didactic, sending a message of caution about the pervasive lust for money that characterized the hugely unequal, winner-take-all “lottery economy” of the 1990s. Their messaging was shaped too by another cultural upswell of the ’90s, a boom in new Pentecostal churches that emerged during a prolonged downturn in Nigeria’s economy. The anti-occult, prosperity gospel Pentecostal fervor, claiming that lasting security came only from evangelical Christianity — and the video technology that helped spread it — spurred a wave of uniquely Nigerian horror films that shaped the industry for decades to come.

Long before Nollywood, the supernatural had been a favorite narrative device in some of Nigeria’s earliest homegrown films. In the 1970s, the country experienced an oil boom that boosted disposable income and made cinema a national pastime. Many households bought television sets for the first time and made moviegoing a regular outing. Such was the glut of petrodollars, in fact, that the military president at the time, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, famously quipped: “Money is not the problem of Nigeria but how to spend it.” Hundreds of movie houses sprouted in major Nigerian cities, including Lagos and Ibadan. Hubert Ogunde, the doyen of Nigerian theater, who had produced numerous stage plays exploring Yoruba mysticism, latched on to the wave of cinema mania and began adapting several of his stage dramas into films. “Aiye” (“Life” in Yoruba), perhaps his most popular play, which drew on traditional notions of light and darkness, premiered as a film in 1979.

This boom in the creative industry didn’t last long. When the global oil market weakened in the early 1980s, Nigeria’s oil export revenue dipped from $23.4 billion in 1980 to $9 billion by 1983. Successive military regimes introduced a slew of austerity measures to reverse this downturn, including a structural adjustment program beginning in 1986, which precipitated the devaluation of the country’s currency.

Changes to the exchange rate proved disastrous for Nigerian celluloid filmmakers, who were confronted with astronomical costs for importing production equipment. Unlike their francophone African counterparts, who received technical and financial aid from France in the 1970s and ’80s, Nigerian filmmakers struggled to keep cinema afloat after the country’s Indigenization Decree of 1972 (later revised in the Nigerian Enterprises Promotion Decree of 1977), which had enabled the transfer of exclusive rights to 300 film theaters from foreign owners to locals. Hence, for these indigenous filmmakers, the cost of importing film stock spiraled, as did the costs of managing post-production and editing abroad. Attendance at most cinemas dwindled rapidly. As the crises compounded, film production became a grossly unprofitable enterprise, and by the 1980s, celluloid film production in Nigeria reluctantly ground to a halt.

Government austerity measures in the 1980s brought a wave of harrowing socioeconomic strains to the Nigerian public and fostered a wave of neo-Pentecostalist revival that swept across the country, at least in part as succor to the disaffected populace. Before the 1980s, Nigeria’s Pentecostal fold comprised both the indigenous Aladura (or Practitioners of Prayer) bodies and foreign denominational churches that were spreading by way of Britain and the U.S. The founders of the Aladura movement, claiming to have been inspired by heavenly visions, took a radical approach to Christianity, walking barefoot in loose white robes and shunning medicine.

But the 1980s saw a fresh upsurge of Pentecostalism. The new crop of interdenominational churches were offshoots of campus fellowships, composed of like-minded undergraduates worshiping together. Anchored in the baptism of the Holy Spirit, these Pentecostal churches emphasized divine healing, deliverance from supernatural curses and the prosperity gospel. For these preachers, Holy Spirit baptism meant launching into a strange rhythmic babble — referred to as speaking in tongues, after the Apostles on the day of Pentecost.

This new elite of university-trained pastors modeled themselves after preeminent American televangelists like Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts. Usually, a small flock of adherents would congregate at the home of the pastor to watch videotapes of these televangelists, imported from the U.S. Following that lead, the young Nigerian pastors would record their sermons and songs on videocassettes, which were then copied and sold to members of their congregation. All it took was an inexpensive, handheld video camera to produce videos and a VCR to copy them for distribution. Converts were exhorted to watch these videotapes for divine inspiration and to boost their faith in God’s word. In addition, these converts were christened “born-again Christians” and warned against associating with “unbelievers” to avoid reverting to their old lifestyles. Among this class of Pentecostal groups were Christ Embassy, with a suave evangelical style; and Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, given to endless bursts of aggressive prayers and frequent fasting.

Through the sheer volume of their religious videocassettes, which had become a medium for evangelism, these charismatic young pastors set the stage for the video culture in Nigeria. Taping church events on a VCR, including those of American televangelists, and distributing copies among congregations stimulated interest in the new video technology and in films. A great number of low-income Nigerians would get their first experience of VHS and television from these evangelical cassettes.

This new form of evangelism was radically different from the older, mainline churches, stereotyped for their tepid form of Christianity. In fact, the neo-Pentecostal elite opposed the gospel of the early Aladura bodies, which were perceived as sharing ties with traditional African religions.

Meanwhile, the country’s political landscape took a turn for the worse. Protracted military dictatorships under Gen. Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (1985-1993) and Gen. Sani Abacha (1993-1998) brought about further mismanagement, oppression and social unrest. Nigeria’s economy slid into a meltdown, with sanctions from the West. The effects were disastrous — inflation spiraled, unemployment rose, social infrastructure cratered, violence was rife, and crime flourished. Amid the chaos emerged a class of nouveau riche citizens, particularly in the country’s eastern region, whose source of wealth was largely suspicious and who used their money to buy highly coveted chieftaincy titles. In 1996, riots broke out in the city of Owerri, in southeastern Nigeria, over the murder of 11-year-old Anthony Okoronkwo by members of a cult known as Black Scorpion. The Otokoto Riots — named after the hotel in which Okoronkwo had been decapitated, his penis severed and his liver extracted — ignited widespread outrage, as several more mutilated corpses were discovered, murdered in the same savage fashion and buried by cult members. The story made national news and left an indelible mark on the country. Following the protests, families admonished their children not to spend time with strangers. To deter them, mothers told stories of children who transformed into yams after picking up unclaimed money on the sidewalk.

This confluence of factors — an economic downturn, increasing hardship and prevailing violence — steered many people toward the Pentecostal churches, which promised a sense of security. Such was the appeal of these pastors, brimming with evangelical zeal, that their followings soared by the turn of the century. More Pentecostal churches sprouted up across the country’s south like mushrooms on a damp morning.

The spread of videotapes in Nigerian homes via the neo-Pentecostal pastors, along with the low production costs of video, unlike celluloid films, heralded the dawn of Nollywood. It was this social and political background that inspired the production of “Living in Bondage” and other such films that pioneered Nollywood’s horror cinema. These blood-soaked narratives were often visual representations of the widespread belief in the 1990s that wealth was largely concentrated within a tightknit circle of dangerous men who sacrificed humans on the altar of money. “Last Burial,” a 2000 horror thriller by Lancelot Imasuen, was a prime example of how these films reinforced the Christian tenet that lasting prosperity came only from God and deliverance from submitting to Christ and meditating on his word. In “Last Burial” Ogbuefi Nnamani (played by Clem Ohameze) joins the fictional Shankiki Brotherhood, whose members sacrifice their souls for “good life” and “unimaginable wealth.” Famous for his philanthropy, Nnamani receives a chieftaincy title from his community and is crowned a knight in his church. However, he faces abrupt death when the period of his occult vows elapses. Nnamani’s funeral unleashes a tug of war between his church priest and the Shankiki brotherhood, who demand possession of the corpse. After a long, protracted struggle, the Catholic priest defeats the dreaded cult and administers the last rites to the deceased. “Last Burial” is based loosely on the life story of Ogbuefi Nnamani, an affluent Nigerian businessman in the 1990s, who reportedly died in mysterious circumstances. As in the movie, Nnamani’s burial was marred by disagreements between his family and members of his community.

Indeed, most of the filmmakers had been charmed by the growing appeal of the Pentecostal movement. In a 2000 interview with the Nigerian Guardian, Okey Ogunjiofor, producer of “Living in Bondage,” said he had received inspiration for the movie after his pastor had ministered to him to return to his first love. Some of these pivotal films even honored Jesus Christ as the executive producer in the credits.

Following the success of these early occult releases, the film industry promptly became a viable tool to spread the message of Pentecostalism to wider audiences. A number of Pentecostal groups began delving into Nollywood, with pastors taking on directing and even acting roles. By the turn of the 21st century, almost all of Nigeria’s Pentecostal churches had become involved in commercial film production, carving a deep niche for Christian home videos.

Among this group of Christian dramatists was Helen Ukpabio of Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries. Born in 1969 in eastern Nigeria, Ukpabio trained as a midwife before she began her stint in filmmaking. Ukpabio claims to have been betrothed to Lucifer as a teenager and has been on a quest since the 1990s to expose the secrets of Satan and exorcise people possessed by demons. In 1992, she founded the Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, headquartered in Calabar, a state capital in southern Nigeria. She was fond of preaching against children, claiming, “If a child under the age of 2 screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan.” Her extremist views, together with her witch-hunting campaigns, led to her banning in 2014 by the U.K., where she had regularly hosted church services.

Working with secular directors and actors in the 1990s, Ukpabio produced films that derived inspiration from biblical verses and depicted a sinister underbelly of demonic enchantment, as seen in “Highway to the Grave” (2000), directed by Teco Benson. The erotic thriller features Sonia Cacchus (played by former beauty queen Regina Askia), who lures promiscuous men to their deaths with her seductive charm. When Sonia targets wealthy Chief Tarkon as her next victim, she faces resistance from his virtuous wife (played by Helen Ukpabio), who seeks help from her church as her husband’s life spirals into chaos. As in other quintessential film noirs, Sonia is ultimately banished to the underworld after fervent prayers, and the film closes with a verse from Proverbs.

“Highway to the Grave” became a cult classic in Nollywood thanks to its strong theme of supernatural fantasy and Regina Askia’s portrayal of Sonia. Following this passionate reception, Ukpabio co-produced and starred in more than a dozen horror spectacles that distilled her superstitious cultural views about traditional religions and witchcraft — particularly among children — on screen. But not all of them were as widely embraced. “End of the Wicked” (1999), a spine-tingling drama, depicts children possessed by the devil and led to wreak havoc upon their immediate families. The movie drew wide criticism for “blurring the line between fact and fiction.”

The years from 1992 to 2002 saw a proliferation of films exploring the supernatural, which was a staple genre of the industry at the time. According to data from the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB), Nollywood’s regulatory agency, at least 3,723 home videos were approved and released from 1993 to 2002. In 2001 alone, the NFVCB approved and released 1,035 films, a staggering uptick from the 750 films sent to home video in 2000. The glut of films seemed to parallel the exponential growth of Pentecostalism in the country. Drawing together congregants from diverse ethnicities, church grounds became a prime marketplace for these films. At the same time, a hostile view of alternative religious beliefs as evil and occult started to take root in the minds of the viewers.

The era of “Living in Bondage” and its accompanying horror cinema now represents a past golden age. With more professional production values and Nigeria’s growing internet usage, the film industry has reoriented itself and the legion of movies made before the late 2000s are considered relics of a naive, improvisatory era now colloquially called Old Nollywood, despite the lingering anxiety about the occult in Nigerian society. Tales of blood sacrifices continue to spread like wildfire. Pictures of young Nigerian women butchered by their boyfriends, with their vital organs traded for fast money, are broadcast on WhatsApp and Facebook almost every week. Children are still victims of witch-hunting campaigns.

While New Nollywood has upped its production value and broadened its range — directors spin intricate narratives in every genre from crime thrillers to romantic comedies — horror is also staging a comeback.

This Halloween, “Madam Koi Koi: The Origin,” became Nollywood’s first horror series on Netflix. The two-part supernatural thriller draws on the popular urban myth of Lady Koi Koi, who was so named after the click-clack of her heels. In Nigerian folklore, Lady Koi Koi was rumored to haunt public school dormitories at night. Accounts of Lady Koi Koi’s life vary, yet each story depicts her as a faceless teacher with a red handbag and shoes, thirsting for revenge, as portrayed in the Halloween series. After she is raped and murdered by some village youths, Lady Koi Koi is possessed by a vengeful spirit, stalking an isolated college and often killing sexual abusers.

Even Andy Okeke has managed to reemerge with a 21st-century sequel titled “Living in Bondage: Breaking Free,” released in 2019. Twenty-five years after surrendering to Christ, Andy, still played by a now-aging Okonkwo, is a renowned man of God. But his past torments him, and he has come for his only son, Nnamdi. Young and desperate, like his father once was, Nnamdi faces a crisis when his desire for wealth leads him into the occult. Andy joins forces with an independent investigative journalist to rescue his son and bring down his former satanic cult, now called the Brotherhood of the Six.

Directed by Ramsey Nouah, “Living in Bondage: Breaking Free” preserves the essence of the original film but in a different form that adroitly balances millennial sentiments about wealth and class with historical Nigerian crises, such as the Otokoto Riots. Andy may have renounced selling his soul for quick cash, but the “Living in Bondage” reboot managed to hit the jackpot — like its prequel, the film made a splash at the box office, becoming one of Nigeria’s highest-grossing movies of all time.

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