Southern Gothic in Horror Films
I was in college when I was asked to read Jane Erye, the quintessential gothic novel. Then I read James’ Turn of the Screw, the American version of the genre. The elements of gothic narratives are the protagonist is a single person stepping into a situation unknown to him or her, in a remote locale, surrounded by a mystery and strange people, some of whom know something about the goings on, some who know everything and an element of the supernatural.
Southern Gothic shares all those characteristics but it also plays on what we as the American audience already know. The American South is troubled by its violent past and it still is. It is an unspoken understanding of the ghosts and the taboos of the south that enhance the genre Southern Gothic and makes it a uniquely American horror genre.
There are three films I consider excellent examples of Southern Gothic. The first is Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. This was not one of the films made in the heyday of Bette Davis career, but a film after she successfully transitioned to one of the eminent scream queens of b-horror. In it she plays a loud irascible southern woman who is being evicted from her house. She is the central character of a long-running story that has been gossiped over for many years. She lives alone except for her housekeeper and she is visited by her cousin, played by Olivia de Havilland, who has come to help her put her house in order and help Davis pack her things and move.
For decades, Davis’ character has been rumored to have been involved with the death of her married lover and she supposedly keeps his hand in a music box. The sexual element is not as evident in the story, but southern gothic is obnoxiously sexual and sweaty and grimy. Tennessee William’s play Streetcar Named Desire a nod in the direction of southern gothic, though it is missing some key elements, is said to be the anti Gone with the Wind with Stanley Kowalski’s character breaking the mold on the Rhett Butler/Ashley Wilkes southern gentleman stereotype. Still, the sexual element is there with Charlotte’s illicit affair being the center of the story. The supernatural element downplayed to an extent in favor of the psychological elements of the story. Her house, as houses and buildings are often the centerpiece of the gothic story, is the subject of gossip and the curiosity of school children who even make up an obnoxious little rhyme about it, not unlike the Lizzy Borden. The story is layered with innuendo and though many can boast they know some of the story there are only two characters who know the entire story and Charlotte isn’t one of them.
The second movie is Angel Heart. Based on the book Fallen Angel by William Hjortsberg and made into a film by Alan Parker, Angel Heart is a beautifully told tale of the Southern Gothic Genre. It touches on everything that makes a Southern Gothic. There are big secrets around our protagonist, Detective Harry Angel, played by a still handsome Mickey Rourke, uses the social taboos of race and culture and religion and examines a world thought of as exotic and primitive to those outside it. Robert DeNiro plays the enigmatic antagonist Louis Cypher whose smooth, almost comforting approach catches Harry at his most vulnerable. The film noir element patina’s the film creating a feeling that Harry’s life is not his own anymore and the devil has come to collect his due.
The locale is different in the book than the film, as the entire story takes place in New York in a section known in the story as Little Jamaica. In the movie, it is set in Louisiana. There is no one fixed location for the action, but a symbolic place that Harry sees in his mind of an old-fashioned cage elevator. Symbolic or not, the elevator is an important place in the story.
The sexual element is very upfront with no blurring of the edges. Lisa Bonet plays Epiphany Proudfoot, a voudou practitioner, is seen being enraptured in a “Chevalier” which is a part of the practice wherein the believers are possessed by the spirits of the loa, the under gods who rule the fortunes of humans. In an orgiastic ritual, Harry watches her as she writhes on the ground with an invisible lover. To be “ridden by the gods” is a high honour, tantamount to the Christian practice of speaking in tongues. Later the two become lovers and when the truth is realized, Harry is pulled into the secret that will end his life.
The third film is Skeleton Key. This is a carefully crafted tale that plays more on the notion of revenge and racial taboos and barriers. Like Angel Heart, there is the element of voudou/hoodoo and is more obvious when confronting racial elements. It questions the viewer as whether there are things that are real we can’t explain and belief in things we can’t see as we become more and more technology driven and less spiritually motivated. This film is even more spiritual than Angel Heart with its occult images and left-handed doings. It challenges the modern age with its logical reasoning and understanding of sacrifice as more like a trade.
The story gravitates around Kate Hudson, who plays Caroline, a hospice care nurse and her strange relationship with Gena Davis’ character Violet and her husband John, played by John Hurt. The house is isolated in a swamp and Caroline, who is a born and bred New Jersey girl, trying to find some sort of absolution for not attending to her father in his last days by caring for the dying. She is confronted by a world and culture she has little understanding of and comes to believe in something she doesn’t really understand with all her logic. As with Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte we find the supernatural being challenged with the psychological as Caroline tries to find a cure for something magic has caused.
Unlike Angel Heart, there is no sexual element in the story but that is replaced with racial elements and cultural undertones that shroud the reality of the situation as she investigates the reality that there are places steeped in mysticism and magic her pragmatic mind strains to understand. Belief is cut and dried and essential to the story and it takes a lot for our protagonist to finally accept there are some things that are more powerful than logic, and belief is one of them.
Southern Gothic has lent its elements to another subgenre in the overall Gothic Genre, which is Urban Gothic. A bit more complex than urban legends, we have seen this genre birthed in the film Candy Man with its tale of slavery, justice and revenge and urban decay and racial and economic outcasts. While gothic storytelling waxes and wanes in formal European novels and films, relegated to period costume drama purgatory. In America, the gothic genre is alive and well in the American south and increasingly in the urban landscape.
Kim McIntyre is a fan of the horror genre. I live with my husband in Harrow, England and I watch movies and write about them for pleasure.