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.
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“ 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. It is used as a way to separate the “noble and hardworking” “good poor” from the lazy, “undisciplined, ungrateful and disgusting” “bad poor”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.