Dark Representations: The South as Horror Movie

The 1972 release of Deliverance, based on the James Dickey novel of the same name, shocked and appalled audiences. Most found the central, violent act of the film almost unbearable to watch (“You’ve got a pretty mouth boy” . . . ugh). The cinematography, making full use of the stunning North Georgia landscape, combined with a brilliant use of symbolic images, gave the film an archetypal, dreamy quality; “dreamy” in the sense of the strongest of symbolic REM moments and the most chilling night terrors. Images such as the mountain literally being dug out by its roots, the grotesquely deformed child picking away at the banjo, and the clapboard Church on the back of a logging truck, have almost the quality of mythic symbolism.

The film provoked academics as well as popular audiences, especially those scholars and community activists who had spent a lifetime studying and celebrating the fascinating folkways of Appalachia. A number of Appalachian studies conferences and institutions attacked the film for doing what it unintentionally did: furthering a stereotype of the “hillbilly” as an inbred terror: America’s dirty secret and heart of darkness. J.W. Williamson, who has written at provacative length about both Deliverance and the portrayal of the “hillbilly” more generally in his excellent book Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies (University of North Carolina Press, April 1995) describes a bizarre response to the film’s powerful imagery. Apparently, no fewer than 11 men died in 1972-1973 attempting to raft the Chattahoochee river (the real river that the “Cahulawassee” of the film had been based on). The press coined the term “Deliverance Syndrome” for this incredibly ironic effort to re-enact the star-crossed expedition of city boys into the southern backwood. (Incidently, a pop country music hit from the ’90s seems more than a little wry given the Deliverance story. In “Way Down Yonder on the Chattahoochee”, Alan Jackson croons “Never knew how much that muddy water meant to me / but I learned how to swim and I learned who I was / lots about living and a little ’bout love'”).

Much has been made of how Deliverance portrays southern mountain people and the social world of the southern mountains. Interpreters of Deliverance sometimes miss how the film makes frequent use of some of the conventions of the horror genre. The unwary lost in the woods and confronted with physically monstrous beings whose acts of violence are as gruesome as their appearance certainly has a long history in the scare flicks. In fact, an entire subgenre of horror films has developed around this theme, including forgettable efforts like Pumpkinhead and Wrong Turn, and classics like the early Friday the Thirteenth films (not set in the South, but at least in the backwoods), and Evil Dead I and Evil Dead II.

Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses represents the most recent film that plays out these themes effectively. You know the story: a group of young faux sophisticates who find themselves confronted with the insanity on either side of I-95, beyond the margins of the civilized world. Drawing almost obsessively on the images of 1970s horror flicks like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film has its moments. The young unwary are “writing a book” about roadside weirdness and stumble upon a perfect example in an unnamed southern location, a place called “Captain Spauldings Museum of Wonders and Mayhem”, a combination gas station, funhouse and fried chicken restaurant. Here they learn of the local legend of “Dr. Satan” and go tramping off into the woods to find him. Wackiness and massive bloodletting, ensues. The bad guys are incarnations of Rob Zombie’s favorite monster: what he calls “the hellbilly”: satanic evil with a country twang. Sid Hair steals the show as Captain Spaulding, one of the scariest film rednecks you’ll ever have nightmares about.

Otherwise the film’s a mess, literally. Once these would-be anthropologists fall into the hands of the Hellbillys, Zombie follows Stephen King’s advice for those who run out of ideas and goes directly for “the gross-out”. In a blood-spattered denouement that you’d have to be a different person from me to enjoy, Zombie manages to turn nihilism into an emotional response rather than a philosophical position. Local law enforcement and a worried parent provide what the viewer believes to be the deux ex machina to allow the one remaining heroine to escape and settle up civilization’s accounts with the inbred maniacs in their backwoods fastness. Instead, all of them die, including the heroine that according to convention should survive as a tough but emotionally scarred link to the inevitable sequel. Following her own gruesome death, “THE END” flashes across the screen, almost as a kind of taunt directed at those waiting patiently for catharsis. I was one of those waiting patiently. I went to bed afterwards not scared at what might be hiding in the shadows, but rather, feeling despair at human nature. Zombie knows how to deliver existential yuckiness and I had it bad, post-David Lynch film bad.

I had come out of my existential crisis by the time I was enjoying my Tony the Tiger the following morning and had begun to consider some of the film’s larger implications. It’s an ugly film; a two hour death metal video, and one that well-illustrates the frequent portrayal of the South as itself a House of Horrors. Railing against “yankees” and “city folk”, Captain Spaulding and the disturbed family who slaughter the youngsters could easily be related to the hillbilly horrors of Deliverance who stalked the boys from Atlanta along the Chattahoochee. In some respects, the deadly redneck family seemed a funhouse reflection of the Dukes of Hazzard, with even a maniacal Daisy Duke in cut-off jeans (that’s “Baby” in the film; Rob Zombie’s main squeeze in real life). Murder and mayhem rather than speeding and moonshine provided Rob Zombie’s hillbilly’s with their “trouble with the law”.

Films such as these portray the South as a kind of American Other, the anomaly in the American story. The suburban South in particular sometimes takes offense at the common trade in these stereotypes, though they often miss two important points, however, are often missed. There are good historical reasons for the nation’s projection of horrifying evil onto the South and, secondly, many of these films do not so much stereotype as celebrate their maniacal country-folk. Frequently, it’s the representative of civilization who comes off as the bad guys, deserving in some way of their gruesome deaths.

Violence, and the celebration of violent heroes, are deeply ingrained in the American tradition. A colleague in graduate school, a French Canadian, once told me that he found the narrative of American history so compelling because it seemed to be the celebration of one bloody war after another, a nation founded on ritual bloodletting. He’s right. American heroes tend to have 1. A deep sense of wounded justice and 2. a willingness to go out and do enormous violence to those perpetrating injustice. Violence has been a deeply ingrained part of the American mythos, much more than simply a southern phenomenon. Who would argue, after all, that the American West doesn’t have a good claim to a violent tradition? Dark things lurk in the New England woods as well; the background of witch trials and wars of extermination waged by the early Puritans against their Indian neighbors hardly suggests a peaceful cultural ethos.

The American celebration of violence, at least, celebrates the hero who uses extreme violence to destroy, in rhetoric used continuously by the current President, as “the evil-doers”. When Clint Eastwood walked into that bar at the end of Unforgiven, we had a corkscrew chill in our spine because we knew Pale Rider/The Man With No Name/Dirty Harry would lay those bad guys to waste with utmost dispatch. Violence in the American tradition has tended to bed down, rather uneasily, with the American Myth of Innocence. The good guys do in the bad guys. Violence for its own sake, violence as a value, violence as a form of social cohesion, has not been accepted by most Americans. The violence of horror movies intrigues us but not in the same way as our love of revenge tales does. Horror movies are the Other, the values we don’t consciously accept and affirm.

The South does, however, have some bizarre and gruesome peculiarities in this respect. Often hiding behind the mask of gentility, violence against African Americans reached epidemic proportions in the early years of this century and during the most intense periods of the freedom struggle during the 1950s and ’60s. If you think that only horror films are sickening in their violence and egregious gore, read the accounts of the lynching and public torture of African American men accused, generally falsely, of raping white women in the American South. The acclaimed sociologist Orlando Patterson, in an important essay on this topic, has called these lynching “Feasts of Blood” because of how the religious symbolism of southern fundamentalism intertwined with these bloody massacres.

Meanwhile, horror films full of hellbillys often do a disservice by erasing the historical context for southern violence and instead attempting, consciously, to act as metaphors for a perceived war between civilization and nature. I know plenty of people who express anger over the stereotypes of white southerners in the films. I think, in earlier days, I did so myself. But we missed the real message that they convey. Its notable that, with few exceptions, those “city folk” who come to grief in the backwoods South are themselves intensely unlikable. They are portrayed in the films as obnoxious meddlers, soft, effete representatives of civilization. Many of these films use the horror genre to show the city folk, with their prejudices against the country, getting their come-uppance. Films like Cape Fear, one of De Niro’s finest performances as a literate, ironic hillbilly mass murderer, even portray the hills coming after the city folk in their own domain.

Rather than mockeries of the southern backwoods, most of these films, the good ones and the barely watchable ones, are simply exercise in the romanticism of the primitive, popular in the West at least since Rousseau and the voyages of Captain Cook. In writing about Deliverance, J.W. Williamson has pointed out that John Boorman, the film’s director, also directed The Emerald Forest. It’s essentially the same story, set this time in South America rather than north Georgia. In this story, the good guys are the cannibals and the bad guys are civilized intruders.

Dark representations of the South have proven popular because they are as much reflections as representations, reflections of violence past and violence present in our society. We live in a culture that projects its violence onto symbolic figures and narratives and that uses violence as a metaphor for our social anxieties, our discomforts at the world we have created. This is much easier than accepting that the monster under the bed lives in our own hearts and in the collective heart of our economic and class relations.

Happy Halloween.