John Boorman’s 1972 film Deliverance is considered a landmark achievement in cinema. Its story of four ‘big city’ friends stalked and assaulted by backwoods locals on a wilderness canoe trip earned multiple Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. While not a horror film, Deliverance played a significant role in popularizing one of horror’s most popular subgenres – the backwoods horror film.
Sometimes referred to as “rural horror” or “hillbilly horror”, the backwoods horror film will nevertheless be familiar to even occasional horror fans. It’s basic narrative has been recycled in countless films. Big-city folks venture out into the wilderness, maybe they get lost or make a wrong turn, and inevitably encounter small-town locals. Generally, the small-town or backwoods folks are clearly marked as “different” – they may be physically deformed, dimwitted, dirty and poor, or cannibalistic and/or inbred.
It’s been a while since the last entry in from The Laboratory corner of the blog. For this latest edition, I will be taking a look at the “rural other” in the backwoods horror film. In this enduring subgenre, I will look at how the horror emerges from the culture class between “civilized” and “uncivilized”, with the backwoods villain, “rural other” ultimately constructed as a threat to human progress.
A Brief History of the Backwoods Horror Film
Deliverance may have popularized the defining elements of backwoods horror, but much of the basic narrative had been kicking around for decades. In 1932, Universal Studios released James Whale’s The Old Dark House, which introduced many of the subgenre’s narrative elements. Starring horror icon Boris Karloff, The Old Dark House’s story of travelers seeking refuge from a storm in a countryside estate set the basic template of the clash between ‘sinful city dwellers’ and backwood religious fundamentalism.
Thirty-five years later, cult classic Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told, starring another Universal Monster alum Lon Chaney Jr., would introduce the ideas of incestuous inbreeding, mental deficiency, and inherent violence in its bizarre tale of the Merrye siblings.
Two years following the release of Deliverance, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would coalesce all of these narrative elements into the first genuine backwoods horror film…
Two years following the release of Deliverance, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would coalesce all of these narrative elements into the first genuine backwoods horror film, rounding out the subgenre with cannibalism and the physical marker of deformity. In the years since the success of Texas Chainsaw, the backwoods horror film has continued to thrive. Not limited to the American wilderness, backwoods horror films have been produced and released in Canada (Rituals), England (Lake Eden, Severance, The Cottage), France (Frontier(s)), Australia (Storm Warning, Wolf Creek), and Belgium (Calvaire).
Early Biological Criminology, Eugenics, and the “Rural Other”
Much of backwoods horror works for audiences because of its demarcation of rural people and spaces as “deviant” or “other”. That is, backwoods horror films deviantize the rural as “other”, both in story elements and visually. The major way in which this deviantization process occurs is through the adoption of principles of early biological criminology and social Darwinism.
In the late 1800’s, criminologist Cesare Lombroso published The Criminal Man, based on his examinations of the cadavers of convicted criminals. Based on this research, Lombroso concluded that criminals were atavistic, or evolutionary throwbacks to primitive men. He further argued that these genetic deficiencies could be identified through physical stigmata such as long arms, a sloping forehead, excessive body hair, or enlarged and squared off jaws.
Despite the lack of support for Lombroso’s ideas, other researhcers followed in his footsteps in the early twentieth century. H.H. Goddard, for example, developed I.Q. testing procedures to identify what he referred to as ‘feeble-mindedness’ that included three groups of low-functioning individuals. In particular, Goddard believed that one low-IQ group, referred as the “moron”, represented a threat to human progress and should be prohibited from reproducing. Many of these early biological theories of criminality fueled the eugenics movements of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Sterilizations practices in the United States were supported in part by Goddard’s faulty empirical evidence.
Horror cinema and literature aesthetics and narratives have liberally borrowed and incorporated these ideas in the creation of their ‘monsters’ over the years.
Horror cinema and literature aesthetics and narratives have liberally borrowed and incorporated these ideas in the creation of their ‘monsters’ over the years. The idea that the ‘monsterous’ is not just something external to humanity but a twisted version of it has been central to many familiar horror stories. Even before the backwoods horror subgenre launched, film monsters like ‘Mr. Hyde’ from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” were rooted in criminal anthropology and eugenics research.
Across several of backwoods horror films, the villains are mentally deficient or dimwitted, like Goddard’s “moron”. The ‘rural other’ of backwoods horror is also often physically deformed, marked by stigmata, like Lombroso’s “born criminal”. The introduction of incest in Spider Baby followed by the incorporation of cannibalism in Texas Chainsaw further served to distinguish the “rural other” as deviant.
Most importantly, the “rural other” in backwoods horror represents the worst nightmare for its liberal and progressive middle-class audience – they are socially backwards or, as Goddard feared’, an impediment to human progress. The narrative of backwoods horror then marks the “rural other” as monstrous in that it represents the uncivilized or lack of social progress.
In some films, like American Gothic, the ‘rural other’ are characterized by religious fundamentalism, threatening the secularization of society. Other films like British thriller, Eden Lake, with its “chav killers” constructs the lower economic class and values of the “rural other” as dangerous. In general, these films mark the rural and “rural other” as dangerous and threatening to its largely middle-class audiences.
The Enduring Fascination with Backwoods Horror
You want a killer Hillbilly? I’ll show you a killer Hillbilly” (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil)
The most enduring monsters and themes in horror have always been ones that reflect some of our deepest anxieties and fears. In the backwoods horror film, the “rural other”, the evolutionary throwback, taps into some fears of middle-class film-goers around social class, poverty, and values. Regardless of the reasons, as Dale (played by Tyler Labine) observes in Tucker and Dale vs Evil, we seem to want more “killer Hillbillies”.