Puritans, Wendigos, and Hillbillies, Oh My!

[13 May 2014]

By James Williams

The basic premise, and overarching argument, of Bernice M. Murphy’s The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness is that the entertainment products of American culture, from the earliest days of the United States to the present, evince a particular fixation on non-urban spaces and their various menacing, often murderous, inhabitants (human and otherwise.) So abiding is this fixation in the American collective conscious, at least if literature, film, and television are any indication, that they can be said to constitute part of an American mythology, a set of beliefs that orient Americans in psychological and social relation to one another and their shared past.

Of course, one might first ask quite reasonably: is the anxiety about sparsely populated landscapes and the horror that potentially lurks there a uniquely American obsession? Given the primal fear of the wilderness (or, at its most basic, simply being afraid of the dark) that appears in so much folklore, the answer is probably not. But Murphy insists that the universal is realized with a curious intensity in America:

Negative depictions of the countryside and its inhabitants are, of course, by no means unique to American literature and popular culture. However, I would suggest that no other nation has so consistently produced horror narratives of this kind. In one of those odd contradictions which so often arises in popular culture, it seems that whilst Americans in real life have a high opinion of rural areas and their inhabitants, they have a fondness for watching horror films in which rural and wilderness locales are depicted in a deeply negative light.

Why, then, should this be so? Murphy provides several answers, but the most significant is this: in America this atavistic uneasiness manifested itself in the context of a seismic historical episode—the encounter of European settlers with both a “wild” landscape and the peoples who inhabited it. Of course, wilderness is relative, and the pre-European residents of North America developed, altered, and used the natural world to meet their needs as all people do, though the nature of the alteration was markedly different than that of colonists.  But instead of seeing highly complex societies, early settlers saw only devilishness and barbarity.

Furthermore, Puritan loathing of the “ungodly Indian” is the bedrock for subsequent anxiety about the wilderness. For European settlers—and, subsequently, native born Americans of European descent all the way down to the present—the wilderness and its inhabitants became the dark other against which they both defined themselves and onto which they projected their darkest fantasies.

Murphy surveys the historical territory of early America ably, but it must be noted that the accomplishment is more assimilative than original, as Murphy relies on other studies to do much of the scholarly heavy lifting. It must be noted, too, that her account of early American history is generally inflected with a rather censorious treatment of the colonists and encomia to Native Americans for their proto-environmentalist ethos and relatively civilized warfare practice, as in the following:

What was largely overlooked [in colonial accounts of laziness on the part of American Indians] was the fact that the Indians had learned to live in relative harmony with their environment, and did not see it, as the newcomers did, as a resource waiting to be exploited.

Perhaps it begins with the rather simplistic account of the good Indian, inflected as it is with centuries of the mythology of the “noble savage”—and the predacious, avaricious colonial settler hardly does justice to the enormously complex local histories that constitute the larger trajectory of settlement—not to mention the antagonisms and conflicts between different groups of Native Americans. 

The second persistent weakness of the volume is one that marks a fair amount of scholarship falling under the rubric “culture studies”—namely, lack of discrimination. With its omnivorous appetite for any cultural production that might fit under the broad rubric of “rural gothic”, the volume often seems like a grab bag with little organizing architecture. Murphy casts the net very wide indeed. Perhaps too wide. After all, what does the torture-horror flick Hostel, set in an urban industrial milieu in Eastern Europe with European villains, have to do with the American backwoods? Nothing at all it would seem.

Murphy tries a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand in a plot summary—“Each young man wakes up to find himself chained to a chair in a labyrinthine industrial complex (surely the urban equivalent of a cave)”—to obscure the problem, but not very successfully. Moreover, a good amount of the material the volume analyzes is, to be candid, of dubious merit—for example, schlock horror films that sink under the weight of Murphy’s analysis. 

All this being said, when Murphy’s critical sensibility and impressive erudition meet the right text, the volume quickly opens onto vistas of genuine interest and significance. For example, two extended readings—the first of M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Village and the second of both the novel and film The Shining—are deeply compelling and original. As to the former, Murphy makes a strong case that The Village—dismissed by the late, estimable Roger Ebert as a “colossal miscalculation”—is an important installment in a tradition of texts that explore how the purported diabolism of the American wilderness serves as a powerful means of establishing and ensuring social cohesion and harmony among a people who are convinced of the moral superiority of their way of living.

Is all of this enough to redeem the film? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it is worth noting that many now revered works were without honor in the time of their composition and initial dissemination, and Murphy’s reading certainly suggests that The Village deserves a second look.

As for The Shining, Murphy relates the story of a husband and father gone murderously insane to the ancient Native American myth of the Wendigo, a hermetic man who is transformed, by some mysterious alchemy, into a monstrous cannibal:

The human-turned-Windigo in Algonquin mythology finds himself increasingly subject to the prompting of supernatural spirits who appear to him in dreams. As the novel progresses, Jack finds himself caught up in the fantasy world created by the hotel, and increasingly willing to carry out its orders, until he finally becomes an unthinking puppet of the ‘management’.

It should be noted that origins of the Wendigo in Native American lore might suggest some problems with Murphy’s settler vs. Native American antagonism as a primary source of wilderness fear, but no mind: the reading of a novel and film that are emerging as classics of a sort in American culture is original and engaging—and displays a strong instinct for finding suggestive parallels, intriguing consonances, familiar iterations across historical periods and social contexts. Material of this kind may not constitute the whole of Rural Gothic, but enough of it is there to make the volume an important touchstone for further work in the field—and for the non-academic reader who is curious about the grim obsessions that lurk beneath the surface of much American literature and popular culture alike.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181611-the-rural-gothic-in-american-popular-culture-by-bernice-m.-murphy/