I am a Southerner, born and raised. I grew up in Florida. No not that Florida. I grew up in rural Florida. I suppose now days it is called Old Florida. Places where the river was brown from all the tannic acid leeched out of the cypress trees. And lots of gator-filled swamps and sloughs (slews) perfect for hiding secrets. Tiny towns are full of generations of a handful of families. Where I grew up wasn’t so different from other small southern towns. One thing they all have in common is secrets of varying degrees.
In the early 19th century a genre of literature emerged called Southern Gothic. What does this entail you might wonder. Southern Gothic is chock full of irrational, appalling, and immoral thoughts. But it isn’t just the thoughts, desires, impulses, and eventually, deeds that come to fruition in Southern Gothic. Most characters are grotesque in a way that may not be physical. The humor is dark, and the characters have an overarching sense of alienation or differentness.
For ages, Southerners have been thought of as slow and stupid. “Hey, y’all watch this!” Go ahead and have a giggle. Alternatively, the South is genteel and has a certain cultured charm. Well, fiddle dee dee. And maybe there is a fair point to both of these thoughts. But unless you grew up in the South, you don’t know the deep unrest lingering just below the surface.
Didn’t I mention a sense of alienation? Such ideas about Southerners are quite alienating and darlin’ we do just fine doing that ourselves. Between racial issues, patriarchal ideals, and staunch bible-thumping religious zealots, we have our fair share of alienation right next door thank you very much. And please remember, these topics are inappropriate for polite conversation. Alienation and repression? Check!
Such alienation and repression are breeding grounds for dark humor. My hometown’s funeral home was only a block or two over from the high school. My group ate lunch outside and some days ash would sprinkle from the sky. “Looks like they’re cremating someone today!” someone always remarked, and we nodded our agreement and kept eating.
In a rather cruel and ironic twist, it was a damn Yankee that became the first Southern Gothic writer. Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. He grabbed all that dark humor, grief, and secretive nature and used it in his works. While not set in the south, his works had all the necessary hallmarks of Southern Gothic literature. But his work is nothing compared to William Faulkner, a Mississippi native who brought the Southern Gothic genre to the forefront.
A Cultural Melting Pot
Did you know Andrew Jackson (yes that one) almost started a war with Spain because he was a racist jerk face? When Florida was a Spanish colony he lead a party illegally into “Spain” to track down runaway slaves and Seminole Indians. Once I learned this about him, I never cared for him again and I’d love to see his stupid likeness replaced by someone better on our cash.
Even today, the South is a crazy melting pot of, well, crazy. Okay, crazy to outsiders. In Louisiana, it is a cultural hybrid of French, Spanish, and African American. This mix has permeated the social culture of the state. In the South Carolina low country, one can find the Gullah Geechee culture mixed with Southern white influence. Meanwhile, at its heart, Florida is a mix of Cuban, Seminole, African American, and transplanted Yankees, many of whom are Jewish. Many of the white settlers in the early years were of either German or Scots Irish heritage.
This cultural soup blends spiritual beliefs across the population creating a hybrid. But due in part to staunch religious beliefs, for many years these rituals were held in secret. Think of early slaves performing voodoo rituals far out in the swamps because culturally, their religion wasn’t accepted. Such necessity creates both secrecy and mystery. And it can’t be ignored that today with so many Southerners living in the backwoods, they just kind of do whatever they want. Social propriety be damned.
Who are you calling a Cootie Queen you lint licker?
Ah, there is the genesis behind the depravity and insanity. Growing up Southern there are rules y’all! Don’t be ugly! Act like a lady! Act like a man! Don’t be a sissy! Whew! It can be challenging. We are hardwired to act a certain way from our earliest days in the cradle. And for the love, we must always be nice. Yep, we are raised that way under the threat of going to H-E- double hockey sticks. Doesn’t mean we can’t think depraved thoughts though. Dark thoughts have a way of making a person a little unhinged.
Family secrets stem from this propriety at all costs. Must look the part. For those with wealth and power, this can turn into the case in South Carolina that’s burning up the news and Netflix these days. That is a true-life example of Southern Gothic. And I wager that most all Southerners know someone with a similar story can apply. And this is where the grotesque comes into play. Perhaps in stories, the character is deformed physically, but I know we all know some Bubba who is just deformed in the head.
Much of the South has been taken over by interlopers. For all its usual quirks, the South is a wonderful place to grow up and live. Nowadays, one has to really look for the tried-and-true Southerners. We like to pretend that we’re perfectly. I personally worked for years to hide my accent. Rightfully, the South did not trust the outside world for a long time. The Civil War saw a lot of destruction; trust me, only a handful of people were wealthy enough to hold slaves. Entire cities and towns were destroyed and kept that way for years to come. It was the regular citizens and yes even the newly freed slaves who suffered the most.
Now it is the old timers who know the secrets of the South. Southern Gothic personifies both the richness and the grimness of the past. Both vibrant and new yet gloomy and decaying is the aesthetic behind the Southern Gothic narrative. Additionally, in the South, we see the traditional religious dogma right next to the supernatural. Ask almost any old-school Southerner and they will tell you flat-out that the supernatural is real. It doesn’t mean they mess with it though. The South is a rich cultural mix of dark and light and this is its authentic charm.