The Fear

An anthropologist now in his forty-third year, JOHN GILLIN has made ten expeditions south of the border. He knows the jungles of South America, and in his investigations has lived with natives “ranging from jungle savages to local high society.”His book The Ways of Men has been widely read. “San Carlos" is the pseudonym of a real Guatemalan community where Dr. Gillin spent several summers and where he encountered the true story which follows. He is today Research Professor of Anthropology in the University of North Carolina.



AMONG large sections of the Latin American population magical fright (susto, espanto) is a recognized ailment which corresponds roughly to the notion of “nervous breakdown" as this is held by non-medically-trained North Americans.

When a rural Latin American finds himself in psychic difficulties, he may “lost his soul” and seek out a medicine man to “cure" him. As a situdent of folk culture, I have observed the treatment of a considerable number of cases of magical fright or soul loss, and I know that a pattern underlies them all, both in the symptoms of the patient and in the procedures of the medicine man.

Alicia was an Indian woman who lived in a little house with grass roof and cane walls, on the edge of San Carlos, whore the mountains begin to rise in folds toward Guatemala City. The milpa or corn patch surrounding the dwelling was only about half an acre in extent. It and two pigs were the responsibility of her old, henpecked husband, Aparicio. Their one son, Francisco, was married and lived elsewhere in his own house. Alicia insisted that her soul was lost. And she was rapidly wasting away. One day I went to see her and brought with me Gabriel, the leading local practitioner of witchcraft curing.

“Look,ˮ I said to Alicia, who was sitting apathetically on a mat in the middle of the dirt floor. “I have brought Gabriel, the famous curer, little comadre. He is to rest ore your health.”

Alicia looked at me sadly and passed a hand dow n her thight to smooth her wrap-around skirt, resistdyed in the style that is called jaspe.

“May God pay you, Don Juanito,” she mumbled. “But it is of no value. Perhaps I have lost my soul. Perhaps I have been bewitched. Life is not possible. The fever, the pain in the stomach, the loose bowels, the aches. Oh, and the lerrifying dreams at night. Also, my head no longer wants to work. ...”

Alicia s recital of her complaints continued in a low whine. Her face was screwed up into a piteous mass of corrugated wrinkles, amid which a wet channel from the corner of each eye wound its way to her chin. Alicia was “the worrying type” anyway, and her present anguish, although real enough for her, had its comical aspects, as is so often true with neurotics. I turned the case over to Gabriel with due solemnity.

Like myself, he was sitting on the dirt floor, He was sell-contained; his beardless, Mongoloid features were composed, his small dark eyes seeking and holding Alicia’s. Gabriel wore a Huropean-lype suit and a factory-made straw hat, and he had something of the manner of a successful physician called in for consultation, despite the fact that he had no necktie and that his feet were shod in sandals made from an automobile tire. He said something in Pokoám, and began the diagnosis.

The curer took Alicia’s wrists in his two hands and laid them on her lap. “Let us see what the pulses say,ˮ he murmured in Spanish. Then he placed his thumb, not his fingers, on each pulse in turn for perhaps twenty seconds.

“Ah-hah,”he said. “As I thought.”His tone bespoke confidence and omniscience.

For the first time a flicker of interest lighted Alicia’s face. “Little Gabriel, little doctor,”she wheedled, “what is it that you feel?” Her puckered face, somewhat like that of an ancient, hairless monkey , showed an absurd mixture of anxiety and hope.

“Where is Aparicio?” asked Gabriel. Alicia went to the door and shouted, “Come in here, you vagabond. The old man had been hoeing corn a few feet from the door and now came dogtrotting into the house with his eager, ineffectual smile. He wore the while pajama-like suit that Indians use for work, and he sat himself on the rustic bed frame, Gabriel fell the pulses once more. He emitted a long “ Uh-huh “ in his most polished tones and in what seemed to me to be a decidedly quackish manner.

“What is it?" asked Alicia breathlessly.

“ It is soul loss, an old and ancient espanto, a truly venerable fear,”replied the doctor. His voice and manner were calm, yet at once confident and confidential.

The first stage of the treatment, the diagnosis, was complete. It does not matter, I kept telling myself, that the doctor probably feels his own pulses in his thumbs, He had drawn the patient out of herself to some extent, had established her confidence in himself, had begun to get transference ̶ to use the modern technical jargon. Of course, according to the native theory, diagnosis by the pulses is important, in order to find out what kind of illness is present. There are other types of magical illnesses than soul loss — such things as bewitchment, evil eye, corpse sickness. And every one of these ailments has several forms, each of which has its “signs" in the pulses. For example, when both pulses are felt to be weak and irregular, the patient is suffering from magical fright. When one is strong and the other weak, the trouble is that a certain type of spell has been east, And so on.


EACH stage in the treatment of these magical illnesses can be interpreted either in terms of native theory or in terms of modern psychiatry. Alicia was sick. She had physical complaints, was unusually depressed, had withdrawn from her normal social contacts and family functions. The doctor determined the type of illness and established transference. The next step was to elicit a “confession"— in technical terms, to effect a catharsis. Of course, Gabriel operated only within the framework of his native theory, but long ago the native doctors had worked out cures that in certain wavs paralleled modern psychiatric treatments.

Alicia’s face was blank, as if the doctor’s diagnosis had wiped away all expression, like a wet cloth moved across a blackboard. No one said anything for three or four minutes, Gabriel lighted a black tobacco cigarette and drew several puffs without inhaling. He kept his dark eyes fixed steadily on Alicia’s face. The little house was deathly quiet, but you could hear the dry leaves of the corn plants rustling outside.

“This can be cured,”said the doctor. “But you must tell me exactly where and how it happened.”His eyes rested firmly on Alicia’s. His manner was that of patiently awaiting foreseen events.

The woman cleared her throat uncertainly, pulled her lace-edged blouse tightly over her breasts, felt her necklace of red and blue beads mingled with old Guatemalan coins. Then a Hood of words tumbled from her mouth, some Pokomám, some Spanish.

“Oh, you are right, Don Gabrielito. Your power does not fail you. All my life ...”

Amid the bubbling words of two languages emerged the outlines of a life story, with the help of occasional prodding questions from the doctor. A little Indian girl had grown up into a woman with confusion and anxiety and in a world of frustrations. She was the oldest of six children of which the first three were girls. She should have been a boy. Her mother was a weak female who submitted blindly in a man’s world. From the first her father would fondle her and treat her like his favorite, only to heat her and revile her periodically because she was not a boy. As long as she could remember, just when she thought she had a real place at her father’s side in the field, on the road, at the religious fraternity meetings, he would turn, in one of his drunken moods, and pull the framework of self-esteem out from under her.

When she was a young woman, she ran away with an older man. She was going to show that she could get along without her father. But in a few months her companion deserted her. She had to return to her paternal house, covered with the enormity of her crime. When he was ill, she nursed her father and he would treat her almost as an equal. When he was well he alternated between taking her into his confidence and using her as a whipping boy.

Finally Aparicio started coming around, lie became friendly with the old man. She did not like him. But her father decided she should marry him and one night he tied her to a grinding stone and whipped her until she consented. Aparicio was a happy-go-lucky man who made her happy at times, although he never thoroughly satisfied her sexually. He was also a periodic drunkard. Again the old anxiety.

Her present attack of espanto or soul loss had occurred a few days ago. She and her husband were walking by the river. They came to The Place. Many years ago at this spot, she bad spied on Aparicio, who had started off with their life savings to buy a house and a piece of land. He had been waylaid by a woman. In the course of the dalliance his seductress had made off with the money. Here at The Place, Aparicio bad destroyed what hope Alicia had had of security. Oh, the shame. Alicia shouted and shook as she told the awfulness of it. And then, a few days ago, when they had passed that way, she had reminded Aparicio of his faithlessness. He had picked up a rock and hit her.

“I was espantada, my little Don Gabriel,”cried Alicia through twisted lips. “My soul was loosened.”I noticed her old husband wiping the tears from bis brown, withered cheeks.

“And ?ˮ asked Gabriel, the doctor. Alicia sat silent, twisting fingers in her skirt. “Come now,’ said Gabriel. “In your life this is live eighth time you have lost your soul. Why was the soul so loose? What was The Fear? Speak.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Alicia sobbed.

“Yes, you do,” whispered the doctor. “ You have the Fear of life, the Fear that men will hurt you.” He paused. “But you know that it is not so. You love your father, rest his soul. Look at your husband.”

“I do not hate him, of truth,” she murmured. “But sometimes I do. My heart becomes divided, my blood becomes weak.’ She reached a wrinkled hand toward her husband.

“Good,” said live curer. “It is well to speak. It is well to know. And you must remember. Now, when your soul returns, it must no longer know The Fear.”

Whatever a psychoanalysis or series of depth interviews might have revealed about the nature of Alicia’s basic conflicts, the native psychiatrist had at least given her a chance to get a good deal off her chest, and he had given her some reassurance. The next step was to prepare for the actual recapture of the soul. This can be done only on a Thursday or a Friday night, and the aflair of Alicia was set for the coming Friday. The preparations in effect served as a mechanism whereby the patient was drawn back into the circle of family and society, given a strong motivation for getting outside herself and away from exclusive preoccupation with her ailments. A cure consists not only of the ministrations of the medicine man, but also in the participation and help of a number of guests.

Thus Alicia became the center of activity. She had to invite her closest friends and relatives. She had to persuade a Principal, one of the sixleading Indian men of the community, to lend the Christian religious touch to the proceedings. She had to secure a servant and a helper for the servant. She must supervise the preparation of magnificent repasts for those who would attend. She had to see to it that sixty one-cent candles and four ten-cent candles were on hand, not to mention a whole list of magicherbs, essences from live pharmacy, and special oils; and powders which would be used in the cure. The patient has little time to feel sorry for herself when she has so many responsibilities. Such is the wisdom of the native psychiatry.


IT WAS late Friday afternoon when we arrived at the house of Alicia and Aparicio. The earth floor was covered with fresh, sweet-smelling pine needles. The little one-room domicile was overflowing with guests and attendants, including Don Miguel. The latter was the chief Principal of the community, a very old Indian of saintly mien and the most gracious manners, It was only after everyone else had come and waited for some time that Gabriel, the doctor, appeared, He was in his Sunday clothing, calm and courteous as usual.

We were served coffee and bread and we chatted. The growl of handstone on grinding stone and the soft slap-slap of women patting tortillas accompanied our voices as we conversed. Alicia was in her glory, flitting about among her guests and helpers, giving directions, complaining of her ailments, enjoying her misery. Gabriel spoke a few words of inslrucl ions, and both his words and his manner indicated clearly that he was to be in entire charge of the proceedings from now on. Thus it was that a social group was organized about the patient and the interest of her friends was manifested in the outcome of the cure. Likewise, the social entertainment reduced tensions or feelings of strangeness within the group or between its members and the patient, and a relaxed and friendly atmosphere was created.

After an hour or so the religious part of the cure got under way. Gabriel and the Principal prayed befort the little house altar, made of branches and decorated with fresh pine boughs. Then we set out for the church to “clear” the cure with the saints.

The great church was dark as a cave when we entered. No footstep disturbed the holy silence — only die minute squeaking of bats as they flitted about the seventeenth-century vaulting of the roof. Old Miguel kissed the cross just inside the entrance. Then the assistants set up two candles before each of the fourteen saints’ images around the walls, and five large candles before the main altar, so that the interior was filled with a faint golden glow. Gabriel knelt before the main altar, then began a prodigious series of prayers out loud before each of the images. All his invocations were much the same, explaining to each saint in turn the loss of live soul of Alicia Gomez, calling for aid, asking pardon for the necessity of dealing with certain “devils.”

We left the church’s interior, luminous in the candlelight, and moved back to the house of the patient, It was lighted with burning, resinous splinters of pine. Alicia met us at the door and inquired plaintively about our mission. Gabriel replied wiih comforting words, explaining that the saints had been fully informed. Following this, all present sal down to a banquet.

The trip to the church had served to reassure the patient and the medicine man himself that the Christian powers would not intervene unfavorably in the succeeding aspects of the cure. For soul loss lies outside the realm of Christian affairs, and recovery involves dealing with renegade saints and familiar spirits not approved of by God Almighty. In San Carlos there is no resident priest, and the Prind pales serve as repositories and guardians of Catholic belief. Thus the fact that Miguel, the chief Principal, had taken a benevolent and approving part in the proceedings gave a further bolster to security in this respect.

After we finished eating, Gabriel gave instructions for the preparation of the herbs and essence. ; which were to go into the magic mixtures, all of them powerful cleansers of the body and the spirit. Among the essentials is Florida Water (Agua Florida), a sort of Eau de Cologne, an aromatic, alcoholic concoction which is a fundamental part ot magical curing from Guatemala to Pern. This and various other materials, including the Seven Essences of Fear, had all been purchased from the local pharmacy and had to be properly mixed with the magic herbs. My friend Don Pedro, the pharmacist, was accustomed to inveigh heavily against magical curing, but he was not above supplying the necessaries.

Gabriel stood his patient before the house altar and look two eggs from a previously prepared gourd plate of curing materials. He rubbed her head, arms, body, and legs, then returned the eggs to the gourd. This, he said, removes some of the bodily sickness. ’Then he took a ball of beeswax from his pocket and started fashioning with his fingers two small dolls, each about three inches high, He knew the shapes by hearl, for he finished in about live minutes. These represented Don Avclín Caballero Sombrerón, the chief of the soul-snatching evil spirits, and his wife. The little figure of the woman held a needle in her hands, and Gabriel explained that if his appeal to Avelín for the return of the soul went, unheeded, he would speak to the wife, who might prod her devilish spouse with a “lance.ˮ

“We now go to The Place,” Gabriel announced.


WE went out of the house in single file, with Gabriel in the lead as before, followed by the Principal swinging a handmade clay censer smoking with copal, the sacred incense of the Mayas, Behind him came Francisco, Alicia’s son, and another young man bearing digging sticks and gourd plates.

The night was dark with an overcast sky, and il had rained a short time before. We threaded our way to the riverside and followed a path upstream through the bushes, avoiding the town and the outlying houses standing dark with sleep. Only a barking dog noticed our passage, and a few fireflies flitted among the overhanging branches.

Suddenly we came to a stop in fairly thick brush on stony ground. One of the boys struck a match to a pine splinter, and in the eerie light I could see that we were on a rocky hank about ten feet above the river.

“Here,” said Gabriel in Spanish, “is The Place. Here is where the soul of Alicia Gomez escaped through her mouth to he captured by the devils.” With his usual air of quiet confidence he turned to the boys and spoke to them in Pokomám. One of them held the burning pine splinter while the other began to pry with his digging stick rn the ground. Gabriel and old Miguel, censer in hand, turned their backs and stood on the lip of the bank, facing west into the darkness over the water. All previous prayers had been in Pokomám, but now, while Miguel swung the bowl of smoking incense, Gabriel began to talk in Spanish, using a familiar tone to call his compadres, the “devils” or spirits. Each curer is on familiar terms with a certain number of these powers.

“Compadre Don Avelín, Caballero Sombrerón,ˮ said Gabriel. “Forgive me for molesting you. Here” — gesturing toward the prepared gourd plate — “I bring you some good bread, some good food, a dinner, a drink, a fine cigar. In this place has occurred a susto, an espanto, to our friend and comadre, Alicia Gomez. Now she is ill, now she lives with death, because of the susto you have brought her at this place. She is without her soul; her body wishes to die for want of her spirit. I have come to recover this lost soul.

Gabriel paused and sighed affectedly. Old Miguel continued swinging the censer in silence.

“Oh, compadres,” said Gabriel. Raising his voice above the murmur of the river, he called out sixnames. “You are the ones who have carried away the spirit and who know where it now wanders. I am here as I he representative of the aforement ioned seuora. She suffers from pains in the head, her body is in bad shape, her bones ache, and her bowels are loose because in this place long ago she lost her soul. In these two eggs are evidence of the evil which has entered her body, that you may examine it.

“Avclín! With you I speak and with your distinguished lady spouse. I call the name of the sick one — Alicia, Alicia! In what rock is the spirit of the sick one? In what river is her spirit ? And now we await the return of this soul as we go back to her house to cleanse the body of the sick one.

A roll of thunder rumbled through the mountains as the storm moved off toward the west, and the reflection of a flash of lightning behind a pinetopped ridge silhouetted the slope across the river. “It is a sign,” said Gabriel, “a good sign. Overhead one could see snatches of stars among the scudding clouds. The sky was clearing.

Gabriel turned away from the river and toward the hole the boys had dug. The two wax images he stood side by side on a large rock beside it. By the flickering Light of the pine splinter he placed the gourd plate with its delicacies in the hole. The two eggs he laid in a second plate beside the other. Then he covered it all with earth. Gabriel poured liquor from a bottle into a china cup. His voice was warm and familiar now. “Here you have your drink, compadres,” he said as he poured the liquor from the cup over the top of the rock. He made a cross over the offering with the censer. The two voting men cut saplings from ihe bushes and whipped the ground and near-by foliage, “so that evil spirits would depart.ˮ Gabriel scooped up a handful of earth and pebbles into one of the empty gourd bowls we had brought. “That the soul may follow,” he said. With it in his hand he started off and we filed down the path along which we had come.


ALICIAA met us at the door of her hut as we approached through the corn patch. Her face showed an intense desire to know if we had been successful in our mission. Gabriel spoke comforting but noncommittal words, He sat down and smoked a cigarette, wiping the weariness from his eyes. This man, I thought, earns his two-dollar fee.

From the native point of view he had cleared matters with the Christian powers and had established contact with his particular friends among the malevolent spirits and had besought the occult crew to work with him rather than against him. Now had come the time to cleanse the body of the patient so that the soul might return.

The curer took off his jacket and his shirt. Alicia, her mumbling complaints silent for once, went to the bed. She removed her blouse and her skirt. All present had a long drink from a single bottle of liquor. Alicia cried and whimpered, standing naked before us. She and Gabriel stood before the house altar for a minute while he prayed.

Gabriel led her out of the door some distance into the corn patch and placed her upright, facing the north. Theothers in the party were instructed to form a hollow square about her. Gabriel faced Alicia and offered her a gourd bowl containing the magic mixture. She drank it in a series of loud gulps, whining with complaint. Gabriel raised another bowl and took a large mouthful himself, stepping back about three feet from the patient. Suddenly and without warning, a blast of fine spray burst from the mouth of the witch doctor.

The shock of the liquid in the cold air rocked the naked woman. The strong-smelling stuff ran down her trembling body in little rivulets; gobs of the macerated herbs clung welly to her skin. Blast after blast of the spray struck her face, and with each gust the “evil winds” that had infested her were blown further away.

A stool was brought and the patient was made to crouch upon it. She shook violently with one uncontrollable paroxysm of ague after another. Then Gabriel raised a bottle of liquor to his lips and drank about half of it and gave the other half to Alicia to drink. Choking and gasping, she swallowed it. He gave her a cigarette and she smoked. We all smoked. Finally the doctor moved toward the house and all followed.

Who says that psychiatric “shock treatment” is a modern invention? I asked myself.

A mat was laid on the damp earth floor before the house altar. Alicia, still naked and shaken by successive waves of ague, stretched out upon it. Gabriel took up a gourd plate with eight eggs in it. Using them four at a time, he proceeded to massage her body thoroughly with the eggs. He started with her scalp, then the back of her neck. It was not a superficial rubdown, but a systematic and thorough rubbing of skin and muscle. Gradually the shivering and complaining ceased and the patient relaxed, enjoying the treatment. From the native point of view the remaining “evil” was being drawn from her body into the eggs. Objectively, the technique seemed to be induced relaxation following shock treatment.

When Gabriel was finished, Alicia drank another potion, then went lo the bed and covered herself with blankets. One of the assistants brought a broken pot full of red coals which he placed under the bed, while Gabriel threw into it a handful of copal gum incense. The sweetish-acrid smoke swirled upward, enveloping the patient and filling the room. Crawling through the smoke, Gabriel placed the gourdful of earth and pebbles brought from The Place of the fright, under the bed next to the smoking pot. As he did so, the incense suddenly burst inlo flame.

“Ha,” said Gabriel in a strong, quiet voice. “She has life. The soul is here.”

The smoke of the copal gradually cleared and a large gourd half full of water was set on the floor. Gabriel laid the eight eggs he had used in the massage beside it, and broke them one by one into the water. Slowly the whites coagulated, forming weird shapes like drifting clouds. For a long time the witch doctor studied the shapes by the vague light of the candles on the altar behind him. “Yes,” he said at length. “I see it now. Here is The Place by the riverside. There is the man who deceived you. Here is your father. . . .” He went through the whole list of Alicia’s previous espantos and explained in detail the present case. Her troubles would leave her now. Gabriel washed his hands and said simply, “Now the cure is finished.”

The whole company sat down to a meal of rice and chicken. The guests chatted gaily and licked their fingers. Suddenly I was aware of a bent figure hovering over the sleeping Alicia, arranging her coverings. It was old Aparicio, her husband. It. was the first time I had really noticed him that night.

I stood up, shook hands all around, and went out into the early dawn.

I kept in touch with Alicia for three years following the “cure,” and during that period she had no further attacks of “fright” and no return of The Fear as she had known it. But she remained an anxious and insecure woman. Let us give credit to Gabriel and his San Carlos methods of psychiatric treatment. In the deeper sense he is unable to touch the roots of The Fear. But he enables his patients to live with it.