Voodoo (or Vodou) is a set of supernatural beliefs and practices found in portions of Africa and the New World, including parts of South America and the West Indies, notably Haiti. A mixture of Roman Catholicism and African polytheistic magic, it includes belief in loa, spirits that interact with humans, some of which are identified with Catholic saints. At ceremonies, the priest or priestess invokes the loa who may seemingly possess members of the vodou congregation.
The altar of a vodou temple is typically a stepped structure loaded with such varied objects as a cross, candles, a skull, sacred stones, a magic rattle, a picture of the Virgin, dolls, a little coffin, offerings of food and bottles of rum, and other items that give it baroquely ornate character. Smaller home altars are similarly bedecked.
Voodoo dolls were occasionally used in authentic voodoo practice. The popular notion is that they are used to attack an enemy. Supposedly one obtains an object from the person (a photo, button, nail parings, hair, etc.), affixes it to the doll, and then sticks it with pins, causing pain or even death.
But according to Charles M. Gandolfo, founder of the Historic Voodoo Museum, in his booklet, How to Use Your Voodoo Doll for Serious Practitioners (1993), the stereotype is untrue: "First of all the voodoo doll is used about 90% of the time to help people find love, to keep a lover, to guide someone in the right direction, to bring some financial help, or to heal." He adds, "The other 10% is to influence that someone that is evil and to send away that evil person from your life."
Voodoo dolls are largely sold as souvenirs, novelties, or New Age voodooesque charms. From left to right in the photo are a female voodoo doll from Brazil (about 11" tall); a spanish-moss-stuffed "Love Doll" from a New Orleans voodoo temple; a wooden voodoo doll from Haiti (ca. 1960s); a stick-and-moss doll sold by the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum; and a novelty Voodoo doll also from New Orleans.