Corruption, Thou Art My Father: The Witch and The Rise of Horror-Americana
**This post contains spoilers for the film The Witch.**
“And who with better right?” said the stranger, with one of his terrible smiles. “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on? Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? ‘Tis true the North claims me for a Southerner, and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. I am merely an honest American like yourself—and of the best descent—for, to tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.” –Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
Like a lot of other aspects of America—many of our laws, most of the founding fathers, et cetera—a lot of the nation’s conventions of supernatural fiction have roots in the generally European and specifically English tradition. Some of the first American supernatural literature, like that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, has a noticeably chilly, Puritan English character. Even the distinctly American work of H.P. Lovecraft has unmistakable origins in the works of Brits such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. While this work is the product of Americans and American fears, it complements what came before both the work itself and its nation of origin.
In more recent years, however, a distinct and exciting sub-genre of horror is emerging: what I call Horror-Americana, for lack of a better phrase—where the backdrop for horror is not just America-the-geographical-location, but America-the-idea. For an example of what I’m talking about, look to this year’s indie horror hit The Witch. The plot is fairly straightforward: For some unspecified heresy, 1630s Puritan William (Game of Thrones’ Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished from their Massachusetts settlement to the edge of a forest, whereupon ambiguous (at first) malevolent forces begin to claim them one by one.
According to traditional American values, William is living the American dream in striking out on his own with his family rather than conform to his community’s beliefs. He’s a rugged individualist centuries before the term and the idea came to be associated with the American character, and what does it net him? The loss of his entire family to infernal forces that, the film implies, a tight-knit community could have protected them from. The argument could be made that this is a perfectly mainstream takeaway by Puritan standards, but it’s still shocking to see such a rebuke of old-school, white-picket-fence American values, even if the argument could be made that that’s exactly what such values need.
Look also to Libba Bray’s series The Diviners, one of the most thematically-rich young-adult book series in recent years. The series, flowing directly from Bray’s stated desire to meld historical and supernatural fiction, takes place in Roaring ‘20s New York, centering on the (fictional) Museum of American Folklore, Superstition and the Occult. Its main villain is the ghost of a Jack the Ripper-esque killer, but its Bigger Bad, as TV Tropes would put it, is America’s original sin—forces such as racism, police brutality and religious fanaticism. It follows, then, that the title characters, a disparate group of teenagers and young adults with supernatural abilities, represent the changing face of that era’s America: a Black numbers-runner, an Irish-American flapper, a gay aspiring Broadway songwriter, the Jewish daughter of labor activists and more. Old, profound evils run deep in America, Bray seems to be saying, and its saviors don’t look like the national heroes who have come before.
Matt Ruff’s new novel, Lovecraft Country, is even less subtle about these themes, in the best possible way. Despite its recurring supernatural elements, one of its most chilling scenes is one we’re told of secondhand: The publisher of a 1950s-era “safe travel guide” for Black people tells of a friend who was pulled over at dusk by a New England sheriff, who informed that he was in a “sundown county,” and he had approximately nine minutes to cross the county line before his life was no longer protected by law. The book itself is full of intersections between the “cosmic horror” sub-genre that Lovecraft himself codified and the horrific racism that defined both midcentury America and, unfortunately, Lovecraft himself, as well as much of his work.
Ruff makes these two themes meet in the middle in brilliant ways, such as a plot line involving a haunted house within ‘50s-era Chicago’s notoriously racist housing market, or its young Korean War vet protagonist Atticus Turner being roped into an ancient secret society’s blood ritual and wryly dubbing himself the group’s “Magical Negro.” It’s a brilliant work of meta-fiction that asks us to think critically not only about America but about American horror and fantasy literature, such as a scene where Atticus’ father demands to know how his sci-fi addict son can root for a hero like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, a former Confederate soldier.
Much of American popular culture is the result of sticking disparate influences into a blender and withdrawing a unique result, and this sort of horror is no exception. I’ve written before on how, in its shallowest form, horror is a reactionary genre, but done right, it challenges our notions and makes us interrogate our reasons for what we fear and don’t fear. Horror-Americana goes right to the heart of this: who the hell knows what’s lurking on the fruited plain after the sun goes down?
Zack Budryk is a Washington, DC-area journalist who has covered disability, feminist and healthcare issues for The Mary Sue, Quail Bell, Ravishly and Style Weekly. His first novel, Judith, is available now for preorder. He lives in Alexandria with his wife Raychel.
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