Keeping the Haints Away

Last summer I decided that, after twenty-something years, it was time to repaint the ceiling of my front porch. I was determined not to use the same boring off-white that had been there for goodness-only-knows how long. Nope. I was going to paint the ceiling blue.

Blue porch ceilings are common throughout the south for a variety of reasons. Some homeowners find the color soothing. Others say it’s visually expansive. Still others claim that painting a porch ceiling blue confuses birds and bugs because they think it’s a continuation of the sky and therefore refuse to settle down on the porch.

But none of those is the best reason to do it.

Porch ceilings should be painted blue to keep the “haints” away. What’s a “haint”? It’s the Gullah variation of the word “haunt,” an angry spirit that’s trapped between the world of the living and the dead. Something we tend to pay extra attention to this time of year.

So what, you might ask, is a Gullah?

Quick history lesson. During the 1700s, wealthy planters in coastal Georgia and South Carolina discovered that rice was ideally suited for the low country. But because they had limited experience with this difficult crop, the planters needed African slaves who knew how to cultivate it. The “Rice Coast” of west Africa, stretching from Senegal to Liberia, supplied countless numbers of valuable, albeit involuntary, workers to coastal rice plantations.

The descendants of these “rice slaves” are known as Gullahs. An estimated half-million of them presently live in the coastal region between Jacksonville, North Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida. They retain much of the language, handicraft skills, cuisine and customs of their ancestors.

Including the centuries-old belief that haints can’t cross water.

That’s why, even in the twenty-first century, they consider it prudent to paint doorways, windowsills and—especially—porch ceilings, blue.

Who was I to argue with centuries of wisdom? My porch ceiling definitely needed to be haint blue. But which shade? Apparently, it doesn’t matter. Any hue will do as long as it’s blue. Though I like aqua and periwinkle, I shied away from those colors because I feared they would clash with my shutters. I chose, instead, a clear robin’s egg blue. It’s pretty. It’s soothing. And yes, it’s visually expansive.
But does it deliver where it really matters?

Results are mixed.

Not a single bird has built a nest on my porch since I painted the ceiling, though red-winged blackbirds, as usual, took up residence in my gutters long enough to raise a family.

But the blue paint had no effect whatsoever on the bugs. Until fall’s first hard frost hit last week, the porch was working alive with mosquitoes, flies and red wasps. And spiders, though technically not insects, continued to flock to my porch by the millions. Perhaps the bugs’ continued presence can be explained by the fact that old-timey house paint, unlike modern paint, was milk-based and used lye—a natural insect repellent–as an ingredient. No matter what color the paint was.

As for the big question—does my new blue porch ceiling keep the haints away?–the jury’s still out. Come Halloween night, I guess I’ll find out.

(October 27, 2013)



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