For this text, I chose to focus on three separate chapters: “Introduction: We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet,” “Backwoods Nightmares: The Rural Poor as Monstrous Other,” and “’Why Wouldn’t the Wilderness Fight Us?’ American Eco-Horror and the Apocalypse.” After reading these chapters, however, I am interested in reading the remaining three, as I think they may be super helpful to read in tandem with my 19th-century American list.
1. “Introduction: We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet”
The initial reaction of the first European settlers in America has continued to deeply color American depictions of the wilderness. The sub-genre of the rural gothic contains numerous sources of anxiety: category breakdowns, America’s racial past and its current racial tensions, human degeneration and hostile humans, a malevolent nature. There are two major types of rural gothic narratives: (1) Settled person(s) menaced by mobile/chaotic outsiders (ie: Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798) or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965)) 1; (2) People who have settled too long in the backwoods or wilderness are monstrous and attack civilized individuals who are just “passing through” the area (i.e.: Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Cabin Fever).
Notes and Quotes
- Murphy smartly highlights the various ways that category and boundary breakdowns present themselves in the rural gothic sub-genre. First, she states that the protagonist(s)’s discovery that they are the greatest horror of all in the wilderness is often repeated in these narratives, and uses “Young Goodman Brown” as a prime example (2). This horrifying discovery can be tied to the fear of loosing the rational self due to too much time spent in the wilderness, which she notes is present in both the variation of type one and type two of the rural gothic. The fact that people can become monstrous and degenerated hillbillies, sometimes even animal-like, refuses the classical humanist category of “human.” This is further tied into her discussion of race (which occurs later in the book, not really in this introduction). The European human was viewed as destroyed by the inter-racial coupling with Native Americans in early American colonies (she notes that this was primarily viewed as happening in backwoods communities). Not only is the human shown to be an unstable category, but the wilderness is also constantly changing:
‘Wilderness’ is, therefore, according to this definition, a place defined by the fact that humans are absent or present only on a transitory basis. It is a classification which owes much to the sea change in attitudes towards the natural landscape which took place in the late nineteenth century, when figures such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau encouraged Americans to see the ‘wilderness; in a very different light from earlier conceptions of the space: as a restorative and regenerative space that provided a refuge from the pressures and materialism of so-called ‘civilization.’ (6)
Not only did the ‘American’ view of nature change across time, from the Puritans to the 19th century transcendentalist view, but it also varied across racial and cultural divides.
Then there is the fact that, as Roderick Nash observes in Wilderness and the American Mind (1967), ‘only for the white man was nature a wilderness.’ The long-lasting ramifications of this difference between the way in which the settlers and the Indian tribes viewed the natural world forms a key strand of this study. (7)
This constant shifting and changing of categories allows these rural narratives to naturally take on a gothic tone because of the genre’s focus on this theme. Additionally, the term “gothic” is extremely difficult to pin down and define, especially “American Gothic,” as Theresa Goddu, among others, have helpfully explained.
2. “Backwoods Nightmares: The Rural Poor as Monstrous Other”
The backwoods horror film is a popular American sub-genre that features a collection of white trash locals that are monstrous and polluted as a result of their residence in the country (typically the American south) which is represented as a site of terror. This depiction of the white rural poor as monstrous is a result of historical memory, the racial past, and the national prevalence of capitalism. There are two major types of backwoods horror: (1)Angry working class rural men go rogue and violently assault middle class outsiders. When the protagonists are men, this causes the narrative to at least partly focus on urban and rural versions of masculinity; (2) Monstrous, degenerate, savage families (typically cannibals) terrorize a group of middle class outsiders. This is a more common form than Type 1.
Notes & Quotes
- Capitalism, as well as the behaviors it encourages and trains, plays a vital role in separating the “normal” middle class (sub)urban outsider(s) from the monstrous rural poor. The hillbilly is often depicted as being self-sufficient and utilitarian. While these qualities could be viewed as virtues, and certainly were depicted as such during the frontier era of American history, they are presented in these films as symptoms of difference and monstrosity. Once the frontier closed, as Richard Slotkin notes, “traits that had been productive and heroic might become antisocial and dangerous” (qtd. in Murphy 134). Even before the closing of the frontier, the backwoods settlers and frontiersmen were viewed as a group that was both necessary as well as deeply separate from civilized America: they mixed with American Indians, were classless, and rugged. At the close of the frontier, this group lived on the outskirts of society and were known as marginal outlaws and outcasts. In backwoods horror films, this same pioneer spirit is further perverted to display a sort of Ed Gein monstrosity:
…backwoods killers like nothing better than to hoard junk that will then be strategically placed around their home in order to create an atmosphere of maximum creepiness…This focus upon the pack-rat sensibilities of the backwoods aggressor emphasizes the fact that mainstream American culture appears to find something inherently suspicious about the self-sufficiency of those who make their own belongings rather than buy mass-produced products in a store like ‘normal’ folks. The ‘make do and mend’ philosophy of those who recycle or salvage what others would throw out, though seen as admirable in narratives which emphasize ‘positive rurality’ (such as The Hunger Games trilogy and Walden) are here further markers of deviancy. (153)
I think this mistrust of self-sufficiency is fascinating, especially given Carol Clover’s representation of the final girl as resourceful and self-sufficient. Also, these backwoods horror films typically feature a final girl who also manages to survive the film by intelligently using the tools and people around her quickly.
- Her discussion of the history of eugenics helped me to view the racial components of these texts, as well as their general feeling of contagion. Because of the belief that people living in the hills were racially mixing with Native Americans, there was a view that they were degenerated and genetically different from more populated areas of America. As Murphy notes, “their degenerate condition was said to have been increased by the rural environment” because these people were largely isolated for social and cultural influences (143). In 1924, there was a law in the Commonwealth of Virginia that allowed for the forced mass sterilization of the “mentally, morally, and hereditary” unfit (144). In some of the backwoods narratives, there is a sense that the non adherence to moral behavior, as well as their mental deficiency (sometimes depicted physically as well, which may also point to their lack of access to health care), is just as contagious as the environment’s negative effects on the middle class protagonists. In Deliverance, for example, the middle class outsiders degenerate to the point that they hunt humans, just like the hillbillies who assaulted them for sport.
- Race is also a major undercurrent of these narratives, despite the fact that the characters are usually all white. The American South has long been viewed as the American “other,” where northerners can comfortably pin the racial guilt of the nation (137). The middle class protagonists are treated in a way that echoes the violence of slavery: the slave was seen as livestock, and victims in rural gothic texts are often eaten and barbecued like livestock by cannibal families, or they are treated like animals (“Squeal like a piggy!”). However, slavery is deeply repressed and only comes to the surface of these films in these moments. Black characters only appear near the end of the film, and their presence is a relief, as, according to the film’s logic, black people signify urban civilization, despite the large population of black southerners in the real world (170).
- The backwoods horror film also often points to Thoreau’s positive and regenerative concept of the wilderness. The setting is often a cabin in the woods, and lakes often feature as well (although the lake in Texas Chainsaw Massacre is barren and in Cabin Fever, it is a river that carries a deadly infection). The middle class protagonists who enter the wild carry the same (problematic) ecophilia that Thoreau encouraged, and hope to experience a regeneration (as well as a revitalized masculinity for the male characters) as a result of their foray into nature. Unfortunately for them, nature does not work solely to support, strengthen, and entertain humanity.
3. ‘Why Wouldn’t the Wilderness Fight Us?’ American Eco-Horror and the Apocalypse
Although the prevalent ecohorror films of the 1970’s typically featured a threat of a single animal against a small town, ecohorror films of the post-2000 era are vastly different at least in part because of the public’s awareness of climate change. These horror films feature a violent and changed nature as a result of human arrogance at a world-wide scale. The revolt of nature here is not a single species, but is rather a chaotic and apocalyptic revenge. These narratives often take the form of post-apocolyptic tales in which the American landscape returns to the wilderness it was prior to European invasion.
Notes & Quotes
- Murphy uses Simon Estok’s concept of ecophobia to highlight a specifically American dilemma that often factors into post-2000 ecohorror films: the desire to control nature and use it for profit (in particular, she highlights the prominence of the question of oil drilling to support energy consumption) despite the fact that this will ultimately cause chaos and the destruction of human life.
‘To drill or not to drill?… dramatizes a specifically American environmental conundrum- whether or not to prioritize the nation’s ever-growing energy needs, or preserve the last relatively unpolluted natural landscape. (195)
In these films, business and economic desires win the debate, allowing humans to foolishly alter the environment. This human interaction ultimately causes humanity’s destruction.
- She notes that, in post-apocalyptic films, the American landscape is returned to its original ‘wild’ state. She also notes that there is often an element of contagion, which reflects the original viruses brought to America by Europeans which devastated large populations of natives. Now, this is reversed, and modern Americans must face countless viruses, often Zombie epidemics, as their civilized landscape is restored to its former wilderness. Finally, Murphy notes that human characters who survived the apocalypse are often equipped with weaponry and tools that are connected to the image of the American Indian. For example, bows an arrows have become prominent fixtures in the post-apocalyptic tale. Murphy wrote this book before A Quiet Place came out, but I think that this film provides a particularly great example. In fact, in A Quiet Place, America is attacked by outside aliens, who kill the ‘native population’ and take over the land for themselves. This land now looks more like an early wilderness than a modern civilization because the humans are unable to make noise, and therefore cannot keep up their modern dwellings. Humanity is also forced to farm, fish and hunt (quietly!) in order to sustain themselves, since the grocery and drug stores are depleted. The film features an overgrown railroad, which, according to Murphy, is a repeated image (204).
- There is a variation on this first type in which “bad things happen to individuals or groups of individuals who decide to leave the community behind and venture into the wilderness” (i.e.: Brown’s Edgar Huntly, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” The Shining, and The Blair Witch Project). However, I feel like this plot features so often that it should be given its own category. Maybe these are part of a degenerative gothic as in all of Murphy’s examples, the individuals who move into the wilderness are dramatically changed. ↩
Selections from The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness (2013) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.