Starring The Landscape: The Horror of Po’ White Trash – Classism in Horror (Pt. 1)

Evil Dead Horror GIF

In 1974, Tobe Hooper released The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which seemed to release some sort of valve, because city people have been  visiting the rural South so they can die horribly at the hands, chainsaws, and shotguns of its residents for decades.  I cannot entirely blame it all on Hooper, because in 1972, Deliverance was released, a movie about a hunting trip that goes terrifically wrong, after four men meet the  banjo playing locals, and country people have been terrorizing city people ever since.

The country is the place city dwellers go to to be tortured, raped, and consumed by  poor people, and occasionally chased by bears. But it wasn’t always like this. Before the fall of the studio system, along with the Hayes Code, and the popularity of graphic horror in the sixties, the country was seen as a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, where the mood was one of bucolic serenity, and oneness with nature,  “the locals” were  often depicted as ignorant, but well meaning comedy relief, as in Maybery RFD, or The Beverly Hillbillies. Occasionally, some city person would be trapped in the country, (Green Acres), and would be itching to get away from it,  not because the residents were unfriendly, but because living in the country was boring.

Quiz: How Well Do You Remember "Green Acres"? - Women.com

The children of the suburbs grew up, and young Americans of the 70’s, looked  over the American landscape, and viewed all of it as inherently dangerous. But it was the growing Environmentalist movement that made them view rural America, and its inhabitants, with deep suspicion. Not only were there a bunch of movies about environmental vengeance released during this period, mostly in the form of man-eating wildlife, but the locals were also out to punish city people for their hubris.

White trash is a “racist and classist slur[1] used in American English to refer to poor white people, especially in the rural southern United States. The label signifies a social class inside the white population and especially a degraded standard of living.[2] It is used as a way to separate the “noble and hardworking” “good poor” from the lazy, “undisciplined, ungrateful and disgusting” “bad poor”. 

Poor whites, Georgetown, D.C. | Library of Congress

Generally poor whites, (all these movies consist of white people preying on other white people), were depicted in early film,  as friendly, not very bright, but trustworthy, honest, direct, generous, and hard working,  salt of the earth people, who were close to the land. The seventies and eighties also saw a rise of serial killers, like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and Richard Ramirez. People simply could not be trusted, like they used to be. Consequently, there was a rise in the  popularity of movies about city people encountering various horrors when visiting the fringes  of the American countryside.

 The majority of Horror movies set in the country feature human beings who view other human beings as prey, from hunting, killing, and eating them, to simply terrorizing them in their country homes, on camping trips, or in their RVs. The woods, and rural America, are often used as a stand in for loneliness, isolation, wildness, or self- sufficiency, rugged individualism, and lawlessness. People can do anything to anyone in the woods, and hide any sin without consequences, because the bodies will never be found.

Deliverance GIFs | Tenor

Yet, there is also another, more insidious, component to movies set in the countryside, and that is Classism. This didn’t begin with the movie Deliverance,  but that movie certainly contributed to a theme found in dozens of such movies released since the 70s. In Deliverance, four men from the city go on a fishing/camping trip, and after having a rude  encounter with some of the locals, get  tortured, raped, and murdered. In 1975’s Race with the Devil, a family on a camping trip, are terrorized by vengeful Satanists, after witnessing one of their rituals,  and in The Hills Have Eyes in 1977, another family on a camping trip, is hunted and eaten by a bunch of cannibalistic, inbred mutants.

These are all  movies which depict the people who live in rural environments as, at best, degraded versions of city dwellers, and at worse,  not quite fully human. They are shown as thin, toothless, and malicious, as well as irrational, violent, and animal-like, with no control over their sexual desires. They are dirt-covered, misshapen, ugly, or inbred mutations of the prettier, cleaner, better dressed, and  more cosmopolitan looking  city people. After the movie, Deliverance, rural inhabitants were also shown as uneducated, with missing teeth, bad English, and  malicious intent. They were insular,  xenophobic, envious, or contemptuous, of their  smarter, middle class, college educated, visitors, often resentful of their wealth, relative to their own, and their mannerisms. Poor rural folks would lie to them for fun, warn them of non-existent horrors, or give false directions to lead them astray.

Watch Saturday Night Live Highlight: White Trash Bed and Breakfast - NBC.com

But sometimes, city visitors deserved their harsh treatment, as their torture by the locals is often in retaliation for some misdeed, disrespect, or contempt. Country folk are proud, and city people are often shown being mocking and arrogant, sometimes killing the locals out of negligence or for fun,  as in the 1988 movie, Pumpkinhead. When a group of college students accidentally take the life of his only child, farmer Ed, along with the local witch, summon  the aid of the titular vengeance demon. All of the tropes of rural life are there. The townsfolk are dirt covered, threadbare, suspicious and superstitious, with the requisite southern accents, while the college students are clean,  pretty, well dressed, and wealthy enough to travel, and own recreational vehicles. Notice their use of standard English, with Midwestern accents, compared to the vocabulary and accents of the locals.

I wrote before about the use of accents in movies, and how they were meant to note the class status of certain characters. The 1994 movie, Kalifornia, starring Brad Pitt, and Juliette Lewis, (Early and Adele), as two middle class actors doing their  impersonation Hollywood’s interpretation of “Poor White Trash”. Early and Adele are strongly contrasted against the other couple in the film, played by Michelle Forbes and David Duchovny, as a couple of clean cut, cosmopolitan, Yuppies on a road trip. When Forbes character first sees the two, she sniffs in disdain at Adele’s manner of dress, and is appalled by their lack of manners, and public displays of affection. Adele is sweet, but dim, as she expresses doubt about the other couple’s friendliness towards people like her, as she seems aware of their class differences. At least part of the reason their trip turns sour is because of Early’s lust, and envy of the other couple.

early grayce | Tumblr

These class differences were excellently parodied/subverted, in the 2011 movie, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, where a bunch of college students jump to erroneous conclusions about two hapless friends, who are visiting the country to fix up their ramshackle second home(that looks like it once belonged to a serial killer). Things get off to a bad start after Dale approaches one of the girls, and comes off as a tiny bit creepy. Tucker and Dale are both horrified, and panicked, as these attractive, well dressed , college students kill themselves in increasingly gory accidents, in their attempts to stop the two friend’s assumed killing spree. Why? Because the college students have watched too much media where the local country bumpkins happen to be serial murderers, preying on their social betters.

Children Of The Corn Sacrifice GIF by Shudder - Find & Share on GIPHY

Outside of the occasional ghost, or  myth, there are  few paranormal creature features set in rural areas. Movies like Jeepers Creepers, The Ritual, and The Blair Witch, which feature supernatural beings, are not as frequently made.In Hollywood, the supernatural takes the form of a fear of occultism, expressed in the idea that the people who live in the country are the followers of mysterious unknown gods, violent cults, and pagan rituals. The countryside is a place where dark forces must be appeased by the blood of either its inhabitants, or the unfortunate outsider, who strays near.

In Stephen King’s 1984 movie Children of the Corn, a group of children have sacrificed all of the adults in their communities, and any outsiders who wander by, to  the nameless god, (He Who Walks Behind The Rows), who lives in  the local cornfield. The 2006 American version of the 1976 British film, The Wicker Man, stars Nicholas Cage as an outsider who gets sacrificed to the local pagan god by a community of murderous women who worship bees, and in the latest iteration of this theme, Ari Aster’s 2019 Midsommar, a cult of pretty, blond, Europeans, murder four college students, while love-bombing one of the group’s members into joining them. In these movies, city folk are godless heathens who must be sacrificed,  or lusty hedonists, who must be sacrificed for their sins.  People from the city are rational, and are  never shown to be members of cults willing to sacrifice one another in barbaric pagan rituals, as depicted in the 1975 film, Race with the Devil.

Midsommar GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

This discussion would not be complete without discussing  the  insidious, yet prominent depiction, of poor white trash, as the consumers of human flesh. Remember, the film industry, especially the horror genre as a whole, is almost entirely controlled by straight white, middle class men, so we’re learning not so much about what scares most Americans, as what scares a small population of privileged, white, city dwelling  men. At the same time, we are learning about how they view white people that they think of as less than. Cannibalism is taboo in most of the world, but only in America has an entire economic class of people been demonized as eaters of “the other white meat”. In film after film, from 1963’s Blood Feast, to 1977’s Hills Have Eyes, and its 2006 remake, 1980’s Motel Hell, and  2003’s Wrong Turn franchise, poor folk have indeed been “eating the rich”. Well, folks who are richer than them, anyway.

Wrong Turn 7 Theory: The Foundation Will Introduce A New Cannibal Family

The association being made here is that country folk are little better than the wild animals, or that they are so poor, that they will eat anything out of sheer desperation. They will just as soon kill and eat people, as any of the wildlife, and are sometimes indistinguishable from it, as they are often depicted as either the mutated results of nuclear radiation, or as the mutated products of inbreeding. They are  shown as sexually untamed, and indiscriminate, willing to mate with whoever, or even whatever, is readily available, including members of their own families, livestock, and yes, visitors from the city.

At the same  time, such films are also a middle finger to  well dressed, exploitative, and arrogant, city dwellers, who think they’re better than the rural inhabitants. Poor whites eating them is a form of punishment, or sometimes contempt, to show that people from the city can look down their nose at the locals all they want, but even they are little better than meat.

When poor (or formerly poor) white folks do get portrayed in the media and pop culture, they’re often reduced to a series of offensive stereotypes: that they’re angry, lazy, dirty, overweight, sunburned, stupid, racist, alcoholic, abusive, jobless, tacky, diseased, violent, backwards, Bible-thumping and uneducated. Those stereotypes get reinforced over and over again on TV and in movies…
Rob Zombie’s Poverty Horror
Rob Zombie is Expecting an "Early Fall" 2019 Release for His 'Three from  Hell' - Bloody Disgusting
While we’re here we should probably discuss the  filmography of Rob Zombie, who has made a career out of showing rural white people as various shades of Boonies, Crackers, Hillbillies, Okies, Rednecks, Swamp Yankees, Yokels, and/or White Trash freaks and monsters, (the women often wearing ripped and skimpy clothing), in nearly all of his films. His characters, however, are not unsympathetic. Unlike films by other directors, Zombie empathizes with his characters. They are poor, and downtrodden, but  their victims are worse, and deserve their fates. His directorial style is highly influenced by the grade B  Horror films he loves.
In fact, he has coined his film style Hillbilly Horror, a type of horror that is specifically created to showcase the freakishness of the rural inhabitants, with which he identifies, with their  emphasis on gore, weird costumes, and various social pathologies, like angry fathers, drunken mothers, screaming dysfunctional families, sexual exhibitionism, and lots of murder. These are the kinds characters created  by someone familiar with their  lifestyles, and sympathetic to their feelings about it.
In House of 1000 Corpses, and its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects,  a couple gets kidnapped by a rural family who subjects them to the medical experiments of the local mad doctor.  In Lords of Salem a radio DJ experiences strange visions , and horrors after playing the final album from a Satan worshiping Rock band. But it is in his 2007 remake  of John Carpenter’s  Halloween where many of Zombie’s  tropes coalesce.
halloween 2007 | Tumblr
In Zombie’s remake, Michael Myers is given a victim’s  backstory of child abuse, and neglect. His mother is absentmindedly affectionate, his father is a screaming, angry,  disabled asshole, and his sister is openly sexually promiscuous. Michael is shown to be a product of a deeply dysfunctional poor white family, where the mother is often absent, and the father makes sexual overtures to his own daughter, and emotionally abuses his son. We didn’t need to know these things about Michael Myers, but it puts his psychopathic tendencies in a new light, especially against the backdrop of the many years of such movies that depict rural pathology.
Note that Michael doesn’t kill other poor people. He only  kills the comfortable, small town, middle-class members of Haddonfield. Contrast Michael’s upbringing with that of Laurie Strode, his most prominent victim, who comes from a middle class, mainstream lifestyle as the daughter of the local sheriff. The homes Michael invades are warm, comfortable, wel ldecorated places where he afflicts the comfortable.
Horror movies in country settings are a repository of all the types of evil that city people disdain. As if by laying these sins onto the backs of others, they can absolve themselves of their complicity in the creation of such environments. By telling themselves that such people either hate them, or aren’t human anyway, they believe they  are unworthy of compassion. Its yet another way for middle class  Americans  to abdicate their responsibilities in caring for their fellow man.

2 thoughts on “Starring The Landscape: The Horror of Po’ White Trash – Classism in Horror (Pt. 1)

  1. Interesting post! It reminds me of the book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, but told through movies. Calling someone White Trash remains a term many people feel is still ok to utter.

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    1. I stopped using it a little while ago, because I object to referring to other human beings as refuse, or disposable. As a black woman my ancestors were often considered to be worthless, so I recognize this as a slur. I used the term only for the article. No matter how frustrated and angry I get about white people’s racism, for my own conscience, I’ll never refer to them as less than human.

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