The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture
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The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture

Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness

B. Murphy

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The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture

Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness

B. Murphy

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The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture argues that complex and often negative initial responses of early European settlers continue to influence American horror and gothic narratives to this day. The book undertakes a detailed analysis of key literary and filmic texts situated within consideration of specific contexts.

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1
The Cabin in the Woods: Order versus Chaos in the ‘New World’
‘Five friends go to a remote cabin in the woods. Bad things happen. If you think you know the story, think again.’ The tag line for postmodern horror comedy The Cabin in the Woods (2011) emphasises the fact that the basic premise of the film is one that has been replicated time and time again. In fact, the very predictability of the scenario is what allows the film to undermine our expectations. The audience doesn’t need to have it explained to them that the isolated cabin in the midst of the deep, dark forest is a locale in which horrific events will take place: they’ve seen it all before. The film, therefore, works as a deconstruction of the horror genre precisely because the setting has long since become the stuff of cliché. The fact that we think we ‘know’ the story is what allows the film’s disorientating opening sequence and the reality-warping revelations that follow to so effectively wrong-foot us.
It begs the question: why choose this particular locale as the starting point for a narrative in which the concept of horror-as-entertainment is slyly interrogated? Why not call the film ‘The Old Dark House’ or ‘The Indian Burial Ground’ instead? Why does it have to be ‘The Cabin in the Woods’? Well, perhaps because this is the true starting point of American horror. The premise brings us back to the beginnings of the European relationship with the North American landscape. The titular structure is, after all, a vulnerable shelter constructed in the midst of a wilderness whose extent and inhabitants remain unknown, a refuge which is, itself, constructed from materials hewn from that same landscape. The cabin in the woods is to the American Gothic what the haunted castle is to the European – the seed from which everything else ultimately grows. A significant difference, however, between the European and American Gothic lies in the fact that whilst the ‘Old World’ castle as a setting has mostly faded into irrelevancy – displaced by the new fears which accompanied mass industrialisation – for American horror and Gothic narratives, the image of the cabin in the woods has never lost its potency. The cliché retains its power precisely because the nation is still, more than 400 years after the first faltering attempts at European settlement, grappling with the legacy of colonisation, expansion, and consolidation.
‘There is something in the proximity of the woods which is very singular’, wrote Crévecœur in Letters from an American Famer (1782). That suspicion persists, even if the ‘woods’ are not what they were in his time. So does his belief that proximity to the wilderness has significant effects not just on animals and plants, but also on men too: ‘They are entirely different from those that live in the plains. [ . . . ] By living in or near the woods, their actions are regulated by the wildness of the neighbourhood.’1 This feeling that the wilderness has a profound, and not always positive effect, upon those who resides there is one informed not only by long-standing perceptions of wilderness itself, but also of the individuals and the communities that exist within it or just outside its boundaries. These suspicions would also have a lasting influence upon how the rural US was perceived. The small town or village outside of the suburb or the city is still, in horror and Gothic narratives, a place where bad things related to the wilderness happen – just at one remove. The ‘singular’ nature of the wilderness is frequently perceived as extending beyond the boundaries of wilderness itself.
As we shall see, a key component of this perception lies in the belief that the forest beyond the settlement is the place where the representatives of ‘civilisation’ are pitched against forces that embody ‘savagery’, and order – moral, psychological, and geographical – is opposed to ‘chaos’. It is a dynamic that we shall see replicated again and again in this study. Later in this chapter, I will discuss this idea with specific reference to the Puritan captivity narrative, but I will first consider one of the most recent (and most interesting) expressions of this paradigm: that found in another film in which the archetypal American ‘Cabin in the Woods’ has a key role: Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009).2
Critical discussions of Antichrist have thus far tended to ignore the American setting, perhaps because the film contains so many interpretative possibilities that the question of national setting may seem somewhat less important than the complex theological, psychological, and theoretical possibilities the film so knowingly encompasses. 3 This is an understandable, but serious oversight. The America-as-fallen Eden paradigm is one that has existed since the earliest days of European interaction with the ‘New World’, and Antichrist is one of its most interesting modern manifestations. von Trier has set this story in the US (the forests of Washington State, to be exact) for a reason.
Though set in a specifically American wilderness, the film was shot in Germany, and directed by a Dane who objects ‘to this idea that you can’t make a film about a country where you haven’t been. That’s exactly what Hollywood has done for very many years and they don’t give a shit’.4 In other words, like von Trier’s other American-set films, Dancer in the Dark (2002), Dogville (2003), and Manderlay (2005), Antichrist depicts a America constructed from European preconceptions – a created America. As A.O. Scott noted of Dancer in the Dark: ‘the movie presents a curious blend of the alien and the familiar: it is a fantasy of America, but not an American fantasy’.5 With this in mind then, it is telling that one of the most interesting things about Antichrist is the way in which the natural landscape is depicted.
There are only two characters in the film – ‘She’ (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and ‘He’ (Willem Dafoe): a married couple whose young son plummets out of an upper-story window during the self-consciously operatic (and pornographic) opening scene. Their grief at the child’s death is compounded, especially for his mother, by the fact that he toddled to his doom whilst they were too busy making love to notice that he had climbed out of his cot (the the level of culpability which can be attributed to Gainsbourg’s character regarding the child’s death will, crucially, be revisited later in the narrative). In an ill-advised bid to jolt his wife out of the near-catatonic depression which afflicts her following the tragedy, ‘He’ decides to treat her himself, brushing aside the counselling profession’s strict admonitions against having one’s own family members as patients by arrogantly (and wrongly) telling her ‘No therapist can know as much about you as I do’. The moment he says this, there is an ominous close-up of the flowers which sit in a vase full of suggestively murky water in his wife’s hospital room: an early indication of the association between unruly femininity and the hidden depths of the wilderness made explicit later (‘Women do not control their own bodies. Nature does’, ‘She’ declares at one point, in a sign of things to come).
Gainsbourg’s character fears the forest above all else – for her, ‘Eden’, as they have called their cabin in the woods, is the place where, whilst working on her doctoral dissertation on ‘gynocide’ (the mass killing of women), she first felt her grip on sanity begin to slip. There’s something about the wilderness, the film suggests, that brings primal and destructive impulses oozing to the surface. ‘She’, as later events imply, may well have had serious problems even before her time in the forest, but in von Trier’s American forest ‘Chaos reigns’, and people are subject to urges which they are unable to control, much less understand. ‘Let fear come if it likes. What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve’, the husband glibly states, but therapeutic jargon is no match for the primal power of nature, or madness. Soon the woman’s guilt and selfloathing/internalised misogyny begins to aggressively manifest itself in her dealings with her husband – first, through desperate demands for sexual intimacy, and then through wince-inducing acts of torture and self-mutilation (significantly, much of this violence is directed at genitalia, both her own and his), and finally imprisonment and attempted murder.
Of course, if Dafoe’s character had any familiarity at all with the American Gothic, he would have known that an isolated cabin in the middle of a teeming forest populated by sinister wildlife (such as the talking fox who gets the film’s signature line: ‘Chaos reigns’) is the last place in the world anyone should go for a spot of psychological recuperation. Whilst there is, in American culture more generally, a long-standing feeling that ‘returning to nature’ can act as a powerful physical and mental restorative (for naturalist John Muir, for instance, ‘Wild country [ . . . ] had a mystical ability to inspire and refresh’), that is definitely not the case here.6,7 As in the Rural Gothic more generally, positive impressions of the natural landscape are reversed. The forest intensifies rather than soothes mental torment and spiritual malaise.
The woman’s belief that the very landscape is infected with innate evil, and her assertion that during the previous summer, she ‘[ . . . ] understood that everything that used to be beautiful about Eden was perhaps hideous’ can be seen as either reflections of her growing madness or a reaction to the terrifying true nature of reality.8 Whatever the truth of the matter – and Antichrist is a film which offers a multitude of interpretative possibilities – her resoundingly negative view of the wilderness is actually one that the Puritans would have agreed wholeheartedly with. For them, nature – and particularly nature as they came across it in the simultaneously seductive and terrifying ‘New World’ – really was, as Gainsbourg’s character puts it, ‘Satan’s Church’, the living corollary to the darkness that lurked in every human heart. Faye Ringel observes in New England’s Gothic Literature (1995), ‘Psychologically, the less learned settler was prepared to find devils in the forest; all the reassurances to the contrary could hardly prevail against such primal fears.’9
In Antichrist, as so often in the Rural Gothic, these ‘primal fears’ continue to resonate, and we are presented with a scenario in which individual madness and a much older, more elemental kind of malevolence collide. The relationship between sex, violence, and death which is made explicit in the opening sequence of von Trier’s film comes to a Grand Guignol climax, with the cabin in the woods as its inevitable stage. Antichrist, therefore, owes as much to ‘Young Goodman Brown’ as it does to the European art-house tradition.10 The horrors of Antichrist’s finale, far from rendering it a self-indulgent art-house oddity, in fact place it squarely in a century’s-long tradition in which the natural world itself becomes a threatening and otherworldly place. Lars von Trier is by no means the first European to find something sinister in the American forest. For the remainder of this chapter, therefore, I shall discuss how and why this deeply negative perception of the wilderness would take such a prominent place in American Gothic and horror narratives, beginning with a consideration of the historical context for this tendency. I also argue here that the non-fiction writing of Puritan chronicler William Bradford, and colonist-turned-captive Mary Rowlandson helped establish some of the principal tropes of the American horror film, which so often pivots on the relationship between a naive white person and the territory which they perceive to be ‘wilderness’. In particular, these early, theologically influenced responses to the North American landscape and its native inhabitants helped establish the conflict between settled community and mobile outsider, which is a major distinguishing feature of the Rural Gothic.
Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland have suggested (1991) that the originating tradition of American literature ‘came from the meeting between the land with its elusive and despised “Indians” and the settlers who left the developed, literate cultures of Renaissance Europe, first to explore and conquer, then to populate, what they generally considered a virgin continent – a “New World” promised them in their own mythology’.11 For the settlers, the Americas were a kind of metaphorical and literal tabula rasa upon which they could project their deepest fears, longings, and anxieties; a space filled with both promise and terror. For the Puritans, it was simultaneously a space in which one could fulfil God’s plans for his chosen people and the natural site for the Devil to inhabit so that he could snare the unworthy.
Like the settlers who crossed the Atlantic for more obviously utilitarian (and often, commercial) reasons, the Puritans would irrevocably change the American landscape. What they did not take into consideration at first were the ways in which the land would change them. Adaptation is, after all, a two-way street, and if there is one basic tenet of the early European experience of the ‘New World’, it is this: you may possess the land, but you should never forget that it also possesses you.12 It is at least partially for this reason that the wilderness and its inhabitants have for so long functioned as the perennially mysterious, and at times, overtly threatening ‘Other’ to North America’s urban, and later, suburban self.
To really come to terms with the reasons why this relationship has come to play such an important role in shaping the American sense of self, we first need to consider just what it was that the wilderness and the landscape represented to the first Europeans to arrive in the ‘New World’. As Roderick Nash notes (1967, 1982), ‘the wilderness was the basic ingredient of American civilisation. From the raw materials of the physical wilderness Americans built a civilisation; with the idea or symbol of wilderness they sought to give that civilisation identity and meaning.’13 Nash also makes clear that the wilderness had long been perceived as a physical analogue to the essentially uncontrollable and unknowable aspects of the self : ‘the wilderness was the unknown, the disordered, the uncontrolled’.14 Even the very etymology of the term is telling: the Norse/Teutonic root of the ‘wilderness’ is ‘will’, which has a descriptive meaning of self-willed, wilful, or uncontrollable.15 From ‘villed’ came ‘wild’, which was used to convey the idea of being lost, unruly, and confused. Once the word ‘deor’ or ‘animal’ is added to ‘willed’ you end up with ‘wild-deor-ness’ – i.e., the place of wild beasts.16
Wilderness is, thus, the region of wild animals over which human beings have no control. Wild beasts in Northern Europe lived in forests. As a scene or environment, ‘wilderness’ is a forest, and indeed the word ‘wild’ may have another root – ‘weald’ or ‘Woeld’, the Old English word for forests. Cultivated fields are the familiar and harmonised world. By contrast, the forest surrounding it seems alien, a place of possibly dangerous strangers.17
From the earliest times, therefore, the wilderness was perceived as a place where a person was likely to get into a disordered, confused, or ‘wild’ condition. In fact, the word ‘bewilder’ is derived from the term ‘wilderness’.18 To return to von Trier’s talking fox for a moment, the feeling that the untamed land beyond ‘civilisation’ is where ‘Chaos reigns’ is one that significantly pre-dates European settlement. As Yi-Fu Tuan makes clear, the Europeans in the ‘Old World’ had, in practical terms, quite a lot to fear from the unmapped and unregulated terrain that surrounded their first cities and towns. The wilderness was where the unwary and underprepared traveller could lose his or her way, or be assailed by wild animals and wild men. It is no c...

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Citation styles for The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture
APA 6 Citation
Murphy, B. (2013). The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture ([edition unavailable]). Palgrave Macmillan UK. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/3482303/the-rural-gothic-in-american-popular-culture-backwoods-horror-and-terror-in-the-wilderness-pdf (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Murphy, B. (2013) 2013. The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture. [Edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK. https://www.perlego.com/book/3482303/the-rural-gothic-in-american-popular-culture-backwoods-horror-and-terror-in-the-wilderness-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Murphy, B. (2013) The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture. [edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/3482303/the-rural-gothic-in-american-popular-culture-backwoods-horror-and-terror-in-the-wilderness-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Murphy, B. The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture. [edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.