One particularly American variant of folk horror that can be particularly well illuminated by viewing it within the context of a clash between the modern and the pre-modern is the family of films sometimes referred to as “backwoods horror,” or (more generally) “rural horror,” or (more possibly offensively) “hillbilly horror.” In these sorts of films, modern individuals typically travel into a remote rural area, where they encounter the menacing denizens of some sort of pre-modern enclave. These pre-modern individuals are often represented as degenerates or even cannibals as a result of their unawareness of—or, at least, lack of adherence to—the rules that maintain order and decorum in modern society. A close examination of such films, however, suggests that they might be driven less by our sense of the lurking threat posed by cannibalistic hillbillies and more by a sense that there is something rotten at the heart of modernity itself, at least in its current neoliberal manifestation.
Backwoods horror films underwent a particular flowering after the success of Deliverance (1972), which helped to usher in a number of such films, including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and Southern Comfort (1981). But the motif has continued to be a popular one in American horror film, as the longevity of the Texas Chainsaw franchise demonstrates. In general, such films have been viewed as reflections of very specific American cultural prejudices, largely based on the notion that rural types (especially in the South) tend to be crude and violent degenerates, highly resentful of their more civilized urban (and Northern) counterparts. It is very useful, however, to view these films from a perspective that is both wider and longer—to see them as comments on the broad historical process of capitalist modernization and, in particular, on the fear that this process might be imperiled by encounters with forces that are less modern. But this fear, of course, suggests a nagging lack of confidence in the project of capitalist modernity itself, driven by a basic concern that the shiny surface of the modern glosses over some fundamental flaws that might send us hurtling back into the primitive at any moment.
That the fears underlying hillbilly horror films are actually rooted in much larger anxieties concerning modernity itself can perhaps best be seen by exploring the many ways that the fundamental fears that energize these films can already be found at least as far back as the literature of late-Victorian Britain, which itself grew out of anxieties that the Enlightenment confidence in unstoppable progress toward an ideal future was, at best, a bit exaggerated and, at worst, entirely misplaced. These anxieties can be seen most clearly in the extent to which the discourse of “degeneration” became a popular fascination in Britain (and, to a lesser extent, America) around the end of the nineteenth century. Until this time, the Enlightenment faith in historical progress toward more and more advanced human societies had reigned supreme, buoyed first by Hegel’s idealist vision of history as the fulfillment of a divine plan for the human race and then by Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, which was widely (and incorrectly) taken to imply a similar sort of evolution in human societies. By the last years of the nineteenth century, however, this long-time confidence in progress was being seriously questioned, and can perhaps best be seen in the widespread fascination with the notion of “degeneration,” or the idea that that it was possible for the evolution of the human race (or of specific human societies, or even of specific human individuals) to be reversed.
The degeneration fears that were rampant in late-Victorian Britain were reinforced by a number of material signs that history was talking a bad turn, including a British capitalist economy that was in near collapse and a growing labor movement that many among the British elite saw as a harbinger of revolution, especially after the founding of the Second International in 1889. All of these crises contributed to a growing skepticism toward the Enlightenment belief in the inevitability of progress, and much of this skepticism came to be couched in Darwinian terms. For example, in the movement known as “social Darwinism,” thinkers such as Herbert Spencer argued that human societies advance through a process of natural selection analogous to that attributed to plants and animals by Darwin, presumably assuring that society will gradually progress to more and more efficient and sophisticated states. However, Spencer’s notion of social progress ultimately contributed to contemporary anxieties more than it alleviated them. For Spencer, Victorian England was a unique society because it had the sophistication of advanced, or “industrial” societies, but still maintained the raw energy and drive that he associated with primitive or “militant” societies. But this hybrid vision of Victorian England implied that the Victorians maintained strong vestiges of their primitive past, reinforcing fears that these primitive characteristics might somehow come back to the fore.
Thus, we see late-Victorian texts such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), in which the ultra-sophisticated Dr. Henry Jekyll develops a potion that activates Mr. Hyde, the primitive brute that still lurks within his modern exterior, only to find that Hyde’s primordial vigor makes him the stronger of the two, leading him to take over. Or we have H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), in which a mad scientist seeks to jump-start the process of evolution by using the techniques of late-Victorian science to transform animals into humans, only to discover that their animal natures keep stubbornly re-asserting themselves, reversing the process.
Perhaps the greatest of all late-Victorian degeneration texts, however, is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), partly because it zeroes in on a key source of British degeneration fears—the notion that contact with the primitive peoples and cultures of the recently colonized Africa might somewhat activate dark and deeply-buried impulses within the British, causing them to become primitive and savage in their own right. Heart of Darkness is a complex proto-modernist work that defeats any attempt at final and unequivocal interpretation, which is itself a sign of crisis. Still, it is certainly clear that Conrad depicts the inhabitants of the Belgian Congo as primitive savages, prone to cannibalism and devil worship. And most critics seem to agree that Conrad’s Kurtz “goes native” when he is exposed to this primitive African environment, reverting to savagery (and possibly to cannibalism and devil worship) as a result of this exposure.
Echoes of Spencerian social Darwinism can clearly be found within Heart of Darkness. Brian Shaffer explores this connection, concluding that “Conrad’s African fictions inquire into Spencer’s typology of civilization, both incorporating and criticizing it, both absorbing its rubrics and parodying its resolutions” (54). But, if Conrad seems somewhat ambivalent about social Darwinism (as about so many other things), there can be little doubt that Heart of Darkness is an ultimately pessimistic work. For example, as Ian Watt notes, Conrad’s writing is powerfully informed by a growing skepticism toward the notion of limitless progress. Watt concludes that the pessimistic tone of Heart of Darkness is a very much of its time and is
largely reflecting the much bleaker and more threatening ideological perspective on human life which followed from new developments in physical science, in evolutionary theory, and in political life, during the last half of the nineteenth century. (151)
A similar tone of pessimism and uncertainty prevailed in American society in the 1970s. The rhetoric of the Cold War had, to an extent, resurrected the myth of unlimited progress, putting America forth as leading the way into a bright capitalist future. However, this notion of building a better world was now put in a distinctively American form freed of any sense of fundamental social transformations, accompanied by a skepticism toward all genuinely utopian thinking, which had become inescapably associated with communism, itself portrayed as an unequivocal evil. Yet events such as the collapse of the youth-led oppositional political movements of the 1960s, the catastrophic American imperial adventure in Vietnam, and the then-shocking revelations surrounding Watergate created a growing skepticism toward the American way as an alternative to communism. With both the East and the West thus seemingly discredited, there were few remaining antidotes to cynicism and despair. Little wonder, then, that the 1970s saw a unique flowering of the American horror film, a flowering that was greatly aided by the collapse of the Hollywood Production Code in the 1960s, allowing much more shocking material to appear on the screen.
Between 1968 and 1980, some of the greatest of all American horror films were produced, including Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973), Carrie (1976), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Halloween (1978), and The Shining (1980). Films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Jaws (1975), Alien (1979) combined horror with other genres, extending its coverage still further. But the hillbilly horror subgenre of horror that rose to prominence during this decade captured the fear that history had gone off course, threatening the entire project of modernity, better than any other American genre of its time—and perhaps better than any since the late-Victorian crisis texts of Stevenson, Wells, and Conrad.
The thematic parallels between texts such as Heart of Darkness and the hillbilly horror subgenre of films are remarkable and extensive, though there is also one major difference—and one that was very much to be expected. The perceived threat to modernity during the late Victorian period was conceptualized as emanating largely from Britain’s colonial Other, reflecting the recent rapid growth of the British Empire into new and supposedly more primitive territories. The threat to American modernity in the 1970s, on the other hand was conceptualized as coming primarily from other Americans, reflecting the fact that the era of the great colonial empires had come to an end and was in the process of being replaced by a new form of global capitalism. Meanwhile, by the 1970s, it had become problematic to depict Africans or other nonwhite racial Others as in stereotypical ways as savage threats to the stability of modernity. African Americans and white liberals found such stereotypes offensive and embarrassing; conservatives and white supremacists found such that stereotypes brought uncomfortable attention to ugly strains in American history that they would prefer to keep hidden. As a result, while the stereotypical depiction of African Americans in American popular culture remained a problem, American films focused on threats to the modern turned instead to the depiction of white trash antagonists, members of the last ethno-cultural group that could still be stereotyped as savage without causing a major outcry. Yet many of the negative stereotypes remained similar and were simply transferred from primitive African tribesmen to primitive American rednecks and hillbillies. For example, the hillbilly villains of the backwoods horror films that arose during this decade are often figured as degenerates, though in this case with their form of degeneration generally caused specifically by in-breeding. Deliverance (1972), from British director John Boorman, can be taken as the true progenitor of the modern rural horror film, even if it is often not even thought of as a horror film. Though also not typically thought of as one of the decade’s greatest films, Deliverance has survived as vividly in the American cultural memory as any film of the 1970s—a period that was, in fact, one of the richest in American cinematic history. In Deliverance, four businessmen from Atlanta—Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty), and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox)—decide to take a canoe trip down a wild Georgia river, which (in a violent intrusion of modernity into the countryside) is about to be dammed up and turned into a lake, flooding all of the surrounding area. Shots of the construction site of the dam early in the film identify modernity here as a destructive force with the potential to do great damage to the natural environment in the interest of “progress.” Indeed, this construction is explicitly described as a “rape” of the natural landscape, thus setting up the later staging of the film’s most notorious scene, the anal rape of Trippe by a backwoods “mountain man.” This rape is the central moment in a series of events that pits the urban visitors, not only against the wildness of nature, but also against the wildness of the human inhabitants of this remote area, clearly suggesting that these locals, lacking the civilizing influence of the modern world, represent a force as dangerous and violent as the swirling rapids of the river, with which they are vaguely identified.
When the businessmen arrive in the area, they first stop at a local gas station, a sort of transitional stopping-off point between the modern world from which they have come and the primeval world into which they are headed. It thus plays somewhat the same role as the Central Station in Heart of Darkness, whence Marlow sets out up the Congo in search of Kurtz in the deep jungle, ultimately finding there the enigmatic “horror” that has been Kurtz’s undoing. This gas station episode also, tellingly, establishes a key convention of the rural horror film, in which travelers would come consistently to stop at such a station before heading into the wilderness and their own horror, often after a stern warning from the gas station attendant.
In Deliverance, it immediately becomes obvious that there is a huge communication gap between the locals and the new arrivals, even at the transitional site of the gas station. However, while Deliverance has often been seen as narrating the backwardness of the South, it should be noted that the modern businessmen are also Southerners. The opposition here is not between the North and the South, but between the modern and the traditional, the urban and the rural. There is, however, one moment of potential cultural contact in this arrival scene, as Ballinger begins to play the memorable “Dueling Banjos” on his guitar and is quickly joined by Lonnie (Billy Redden), a local boy playing a banjo. Lonnie clearly seems to be a product of generations of in-breeding, but the duet flows smoothly, at least until Ballinger is ultimately unable to keep up with the fancy picking of the boy. Meanwhile, as Ballinger tries to engage the boy in conversation after the song, the boy simply turns away, either unable or unwilling to speak. Communication with these locals will clearly not be easy. Indeed, this contact via music would seem, more than anything, to anticipate the communication by musical tones that is crucial to human-alien contact in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) only a few years later. The rural inhabitants of the Georgia backwoods are, in fact, identified almost as an alien species—and certainly as representatives of an alien culture.
Once the visitors get on the wild river, much as Conrad’s Marlow travels up the Congo, it is clear that the trip is going to be a difficult one. After Gentry and Trippe become separated from their two companions, they go ashore and encounter two mountain men. Gentry is tied to a tree, while one of the men rapes Trippe, for no apparent reason other than the sheer pleasure of humiliating this modern intruder, presumably out of resentment that the modern world will soon be destroying their home with the flood caused by the dam. Gentry is also nearly raped, but Medlock, an experienced woodsman, appears and shoots the rapist in the back with an arrow, killing him. The other mountain man flees into the woods, leading to a running battle down the river in which both Ballinger and another mountain man (apparently, but not certainly, the same as the one who escaped from the rape scene) are killed before the three surviving travelers finally make it to the town of Aintry (where the locals are at least reasonably modern and civilized), though with Medlock badly injured.
Many aspects of Deliverance recall motifs in Heart of Darkness. Perhaps most importantly, the “natives” encountered by the four businessmen in Deliverance in the deep woods are completely dehumanized, much in the manner of the Africans in Heart of Darkness. They are presented as foreign creatures who cannot be expected to follow the rules of civilized conduct, mindlessly attacking the outsiders, with rape now playing the role that cannibalism had played in Conrad’s novella (though backwoods horror films quite frequently incorporate cannibalism directly as a key practice of their backwoods characters). And, while there is no character in Deliverance who corresponds directly to Conrad’s Kurtz, we do find that the outsiders ultimately resort to “savage” and murderous behavior once they are thrust into the environment of the wilderness and confronted with the primitive locals. And, of course, the fact that the forces of modern civilization are destroying the homeland of these locals in order to build a modern dam (thus presumably generating electricity to help fuel the progress of modernity) has a decidedly colonialist ring to it, echoing the central premise of Heart of Darkness.
If Deliverance looks back to Heart of Darkness in many ways, it also anticipates many characteristics of the rural horror films that came after it. Of course, one reason why Deliverance seems to have so much in common with the rural horror films that came after it is that the entire evolution of this subgenre was strongly influenced by this film, many aspects of which have become virtual clichés of rural horror. Indeed, the only major deviation from the course of most rural horror films that one sees in Deliverance is the fact that the outsiders who come to the woods are an all-male group, whereas rural horror films typically have one or more female outsiders who are threatened by the rural locals, with these women often playing central roles. In this sense, then, Deliverance resembles Heart of Darkness—with its strong suggestions that civilized women must be kept away from the primitive jungle altogether—even more than it does the rural horror films that came after it.
Another film that features an all-male cast of victims, while bearing a particularly interesting relationship to Heart of Darkness,is Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981), which functions as a sort of combination of Deliverance and the cycle of Vietnam war films that was then just beginning to appear. Here, a squad of soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard ventures into the deep swamps of Louisiana bayou country on a training exercise. When they find that they must pass over a deep channel to reach their destination, they abscond with some canoes that have been left on the banks of the channel by the locals. As they paddle across the channel, the locals show up and start shooting at them, killing the sergeant who is leading the exercise and sending all of the other soldiers spilling into the water, among other things causing them to lose their radio. Most of the remainder of the film shows the soldiers wandering about the swamps, fighting amongst themselves and gradually being picked off one-by-one, either by the harsh environment or by the locals, who fiercely resent this intrusion into their territory. Eventually, only two of the original nine squad members are left alive, when they are finally (apparently) rescued by a helicopter that has spotted them and brought reinforcements.
The swamp people of the film are represented as being slightly more civilized and less degenerate than the mountain people of Deliverance, but they are still clearly othered as representatives of an enclave culture that differs substantially from that of the modern world. A key element of this otherness is the fact that the locals barely speak English at all, but instead use their own Cajun version of French to communicate, a fact that is repeatedly emphasized in the film. In addition, they are violently resentful of the intruders and willing to respond to them with deadly force. We also get a look at the daily culture of the Cajuns when the two surviving soldiers are brought to a Cajun village after being picked up by a Cajun couple in a pickup truck. This culture is essentially a collection of stereotypes about the premodern, and the people of the village seem to spend all of their time dancing, singing, drinking beer, and slaughtering animals.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Southern Comfort is the extent to which it resembles various Vietnam war films, clearly suggesting parallels between the marginal culture of its Cajun swamp people and the people of Vietnam, identifying both as indigenous cultures battling against intrusions from Western modernity. And, while this connection seems to be a rather general rather than to any specific film, viewing Heart of Darkness as a key predecessor to rural horror films in general immediately suggests Apocalypse Now (1979) as the most important referent here. Indeed, Apocalypse Now was the only one of the major Vietnam war films to be released before Southern Comfort, so it could have exerted an influence, though Hill (who wrote the first version of the script in 1976) has downplayed the Vietnam connection to his film, noting that he realized people would see that connection but suggesting that it was not one of his principal concerns in making Southern Comfort. Still, the connection is hard to miss, and many contemporary reviewers noted it. Roger Ebert, for example, noted that, “as the weekend soldiers are relentlessly hunted down and massacred by the local Cajuns (who are intimately familiar with the bayou), we think of the uselessness of American technology against the Viet Cong.”
The links between the swamps of Louisiana and the often-swampy jungles of Vietnam are visually obvious, and the shots of American soldiers wading through those swamps in Southern Comfort almost inescapably evoke Vietnam. For our purposes, it is crucial that these swamps have a primal feel and that the soldiers seem to be battling against a harsh environment from a premodern time when humans had not yet tamed the world around them. Also crucial as a link to Apocalypse Now is the depiction of the Cajun village, which has so much in common with Kurtz’s compound in Coppola’s film (itself inspired by Kurtz’s compound in Heart of Darkness). The animal slaughter scene of Southern Comfort is perhaps the most striking visual link, echoing the symbolic slaughter of an ox in Apocalypse Now, with both animal slaughter scenes carried out in a graphic fashion that is clearly designed to make them appear to be the work of a primitive pre-modern culture. Of course, far more animals are slaughtered by modern cultures, but our modern world tends to try to keep those slaughters out of sight, performed by professionals in enclosed environments. In Apocalypse Now and Southern Comfort, on the other hand, animal slaughter is integrated into the indigenous cultures that the films depict, marking them as pre-modern.
This emphasis on animal slaughter inevitably recalls the first rural horror film to become a true classic of American horror, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which appeared only two years after Deliverance. Here, both animal slaughter and cannibalism are absolutely integral to the plot, in which five modern young people travel into the heart of rural Texas, eventually stumbling directly into the clutches of the cannibal family at the heart of the film, announced (after more atmosphere building) by the sudden and shocking appearance of the film’s most striking figure, the notorious “Leatherface” (Gunnar Hansen). Much has been said about this film and about its central killer, a clear forerunner of great slasher figures such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, made all the more striking by his choice of weapons, which provides the film with its title. It is important to note, though, that the cannibal family has fallen on hard economic times precisely because their jobs (killing animals with sledge hammers) have been rendered obsolete. Thus, while they may be a bit more in touch with modernity than some of the “hillbillies” in rural horror films, the family has nevertheless become marginal to mainstream society precisely by modernization, to which they are thus set in opposition.
Those who have been victimized by modernity also turn to cannibalism in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the second film directed by English-professor-turned-horror-maven Wes Craven. Reportedly based on the story of the Sawney Bean cannibal family in Scotland, this film pushed Deliverance’s motif of scary hillbillies into much more graphic territory. There is nothing supernatural in this horror film, but Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) and his brood are definitely unnatural, as opposed to the all-American Carter family (one of whom is played by a young Dee Wallace) that wanders into their midst after once again being warned not to go there at a gas-station stop. But they proceed into the desert hills nevertheless, only to get stranded by an auto breakdown. They are then terrorized by a clan of degenerates who mean them mortal harm—and who even steal and plan to eat an infant member of the Carter clan. In the long run, the Carters (aided by their trusty dog Beast) prove more dangerous than the Jupiters, and it is the latter who ultimately suffer the worse damage. It would seem that all Americans, in rural horror films, are capable of grotesque violence if sufficiently provoked. As is often the case with horror films, the work of Richard Slotkin, with its insight that the American national identity is built around the colonialist idea of violently destroying “savage” enemies, seems the perfect gloss for this one. These hillbilly degenerates are from the Southwest, rather than the South proper, but this film participates in a long line of Gothic depictions of backwoods Southern folk in American film, a line continued in Craven’s own 1985 sequel, as well as a two-film reboot sequence in 2006 and 2007.
It should also be pointed out that one reason why the hillbillies of backwoods horror seem so menacing to the modern folk who wander into their territories is that these territories are so remote that the normal protections afforded by the structures of modern civilization are simply unavailable. In particular, the police or other law enforcement organizations tend to be absent. When they are present, they tend to be woefully incompetent or even to be in cahoots with the hillbillies. Again, Conrad provides a useful gloss on this phenomenon when he has Marlow remind his listeners aboard the Nellie that they, with their comfortable bourgeois lives, could not possibly understand what he discovered in Africa. After all, they are “each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal—you hear—normal from year’s end to year’s end” (54). As a result, he suspects that they cannot possibly “imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman” (55–56).
If backwoods horror thrives in times of perceived threat to the orderliness cited here by Marlow in relation to London, then it might be expected that the early twentieth century would see a resurgence in this kind of horror, given that the century was ushered in by the World Trade Center bombings of September 11, 2001—an event that, for many, seemed to represent an attack carried out by sinister pre-modern forces, making Americans feel much less safe in their modern, civilized enclave, with a policeman round every corner. And, indeed, the years immediately following 9/11 did see something of a comeback for backwoods horror, including enhanced-budget remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006), as well as two films that anchored new franchises in Rob Schmidt’s Wrong Turn and Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, both released in 2003. Wrong Turn features particularly degenerate cannibalistic West Virginia mountain people as its central villains, though it might ultimately be most interesting for the way in which it ultimately evolved, in a 2021 reboot directed by Mike P. Nelson (the seventh film in the franchise) in a distinctively new direction. This kind of evolution also applies to Zombie’s film, which was followed by two sequels—The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and 3 from Hell (2019)—that also moved in new directions.
Granted, House of 1000 Corpses, something of a combined homage to and parody of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, was already something new because its focus on the cannibalistic Firefly family in Texas already included a liberal dose of black humor from the very beginning. Backwoods horror, of course, is an extreme genre that lends itself to parody: the first sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was already largely comic back in 1986. Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) is also laced with comedy, while, by 2010, Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil relied almost entirely on spoofs of the backwoods horror genre, with Tucker and Dale, the protagonists of the film, themselves being “hillbillies,” while the obligatory group of spoiled college kids who wander into their territory are hilariously destroyed by their own stupidity and arrogance, not by the hillbillies (who are actually perfectly benevolent).
These turns to comedy, though, are largely a matter internal to the genre of backwoods horror and not a reflection of larger sociohistorical trends. However, Zombie’s Firefly Trilogy as a whole moves in directions that do seem to reflect such trends. Moving almost entirely away from the comedy of the first film in the sequence, Zombie’s trilogy eventually sees the Firefly clan become become outlaw anti-heroes battling modern conformism and authoritarianism, essentially jumping out of the backwoods horror genre altogether and into the genre of films about nonconformist outlaws of a kind often seen in American film. For example, the end of The Devil’s Rejects sees the Fireflies seemingly going out in a blaze of suicidal glory as they charge into a hail of bullets fired by the forces of modern civilization, thus echoing the famous ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), another film about outlaws attempting to escape the encroachment of capitalist routine. Of course, especially in American culture, outlaws have often been romanticized, and there had been complaints about the restraints placed on individual liberty from even before Heart of Darkness, as exemplified by the way Huck Finn chafes at the attempts of the Widow Douglas to “sivilize” him. The Firefly trilogy, however, might be responding to some genuinely new historical developments, as the progress of modernity becomes so ubiquitous and all-intrusive that modernity itself (rather than the anti-modern) becomes the most terrifying threat of all, leaving little room for genuine individualism and forcing everyone into pre-fabricated roles. Meanwhile, the police, who provide such reassuring protections to Marlow’s listeners in London, evolve, in The Devil’s Rejects, into sadistic and savage killers in their own right, perhaps reflecting growing concerns that police violence in America is getting out of hand, with no one to watch the watchmen.
It would be a mistake, of course, to equate the politics of the Firefly Trilogy with the politics of Black Lives Matter or the Defund the Police movement, and the fact that the third film of the trilogy ultimately ends after a cataclysmic gun battle between the Fireflies (who turn out to have miraculously survived the end of the second film) and a Mexican cartel hit squad disrupts any simple reading of the Fireflies as the simple polar opposites of the forces of law and order. One might even see certain disturbing parallels between the Fireflies and the insurrectionists who, driven by White Rage, attacked the U.S. capitol on January 6, 2020, apparently somehow thinking they were fighting for law and order and against an unjust, illegal system. This is not to say that either Rob Zombie or his film overtly expresses Trumpist sympathies. Indeed, Zombie’s few public comments on Trump have been vaguely antagonistic. But there are many ways in which the Fireflies as antiheroes are driven by a sense of belonging to a group that has been rejected and/or ignored by American popular culture, with the backwoods horror films of the 1970s perhaps serving as a clear point at which working-class white Southern Americans became the Others to mainstream American culture, helping to push them into their own countercultural enclave of Confederate nostalgia and simmering, confused anti-modern rage.
In short, if the backwoods horror genre looks back to late-Victorian degeneration narratives in the way it responds to anxieties about the fragility of modernity, the Firefly Trilogy ultimately responds to a world in which modernity is all too firmly ensconced, leaving little room for those who would prefer to go in a different direction. As early as the 1980s, Fredric Jameson was theorizing the new global form of “late” capitalism that arose in the wake of the downfall of the great European colonial Empires as a sign of the impending completion of the long historical process of capitalist modernization, and the Firefly Trilogy (like waning of the West films such as Butch Cassidy) seems to be responding to that completion.
Meanwhile, the 2021 reboot of Wrong Turn serves in many ways as a rejoinder to the earlier films in the franchise, taking the franchise in the direction of folk horror. Here, a group of spoiled, but educated, young people (including the requisite gay couple and interracial couple, as if to telegraph their Woke status) arrive in rural Virginia to hike the Appalachian Trail, already assuming that the local “white trash hillbillies” might be trouble. And there are a number of signs of hostility from the locals in the small town where they arrive, but the yuppie tourists are pretty obnoxious in their own right. It is, in fact, these same locals who end up helping to rescue the group’s Final Girl (joined by her father, who has come looking for her) from the real threat that lurks in the nearby woods.
That threat, as it turns out, is the Foundation, an insular community that has existed in the Virginia mountains since 1859, when they retreated into the backwoods out of a sense that they would be needed to form the basis of a new America that would rise from the ashes of the one that they then felt to be collapsing around them. Somehow, though, the United States ultimately survived the crisis (and the Civil War it led to), leaving the Foundation to go on in isolation, developing its own culture and customs, possibly based partly on Scandinavian folk models, at least on the evidence of the fact that their default language seems to be a version of Faroese, a dialect spoken in the Faroe Islands of Denmark.
Of course, this Scandinavian connection might also be taken as a signal of the influence on this film of Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), which reinvigorated the folk horror subgenre with its striking depiction of privileged Americans in a shocking encounter with a Swedish folk cult. Thus, the new direction taken by the Wrong Turn franchise in its latest manifestation can be taken partly as a case of simply following trends within the horror genre itself. At the same time, the depiction of the Foundation as a civilized (in many ways even utopian) community, with its own rules and systems, can be taken—along with the depiction of the townsfolk as not entirely sinister, after all—as a suggestion of a genuine ideological shift away from the early days of the franchise.
In a sense, the change here is a generic one, and it is certain arguable that the 2021 reincarnation of Wrong Turn differs so much from its predecessors in the franchise because it is not a backwoods horror film at all but is, in fact, an example of folk horror. Both of these genres are about clashes between different cultures, but backwoods horror tends to treat mainstream modern culture as “good” and “normal,” while its backwoods cultures are deviant and depraved. Folk horror, at its best, deals in issues of cultural relativism, asking viewers to consider that cultures different from our own are not necessarily inferior, even if they at first might strike us as bizarre and horrific. By turning from backwoods horror to folk horror, Wrong Turn shows a basic uncertainty about the superiority of mainstream modern culture to the culture of the Foundation, suggesting some basic anxieties about the status of capitalist modernity itself.
The change in the backwoods horror subgenre over the first two decades of the twenty-first century surely represents more than a mere attempt to treat southern white working-class characters more sensitively. After all, no one could accuse Rob Zombie of tip-toeing through his films in an attempt to be politically correct. At the same time, films such as 3 from Hell do not really seem to reflect a white supremacist vision, either, despite the fact that the film’s nonwhite characters tend to be villainous. In my view, the late-Victorian degeneration texts, the 1970s backwoods horror cycle, and newer developments such as the Firefly Trilogy and the 2021 reboot of Wrong Turn all reflect anxieties about crises in the project of modernity, but they do so in different ways because the nature of those crises has changed over time. In the 1890s, a failing economy had led to increased colonial expansion, bringing European civilization into unprecedented contact with pre-modern cultures, especially in Africa, just as confidence in the inevitable triumph of Western modernity was beginning to waver. The 1970s backwoods horror cycle, meanwhile, occurred at a time just after the end of the great European colonial empires, of which the war in Vietnam might be considered a final death knell (and one that made Americans wonder if they might have by this point become the bad guys of global politics). The project of modernity, then, once again seemed highly fragile, but this time American culture looked more inward for signs of rot. Then, just as the triumphalist rhetoric of the Reagan years and the stock-market boom of the Clinton years created for many a sense that modernity was back on course, the 2001 World Trade Center bombings once again made the whole project seem vulnerable. The next twenty years of neoliberal globalization once again made modernity seem increasingly invincible but also raised serious questions about whether it was desirable. Thus, those who have been left behind by modernization have come to be depicted less and less as degenerate monsters and more and more as victims who are simply trying to defend their own way of life from encroaching neoliberalism.
Despite these shifts, one thing that has remained constant from the late Victorian era, through the end of the great European colonial empires, through the rise of global neoliberalism, is that the project of capitalist modernity has remained fraught with difficulties. And, given that modernity is such a global phenomenon, it should come as no surprise that backwoods horror has itself gone global in recent years. Australia, for example, also has some quite remote areas in the outback, enabling such films as Wolf Creek (2005) based on some real-life cases of the murders of backpackers in the outback. Here, three backpackers are captured and subsequently hunted by sadistic, psychopathic, xenophobic serial killer Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), in the Australian outback. Some American critics complained about the film’s high levels of gruesome violence, leading some to argue that it belongs in the torture porn subgenre. Roger Ebert was particularly appalled, awarding the film a rare zero-stars rating. At the same time, the film has also been praised for getting the most out of its low budget and effective use of a grindhouse aesthetic to convey its bloody story, comparing it with films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The film’s critical reputation has only grown over time. In a 2010 retrospective, Slant magazine included the film in its list of the 100 best films of the past decade; in 2018, Esquire listed it as 14th scariest film of all time. The film has now become something of a cult favorite among horror film aficionados. A sequel film Wolf Creek 2, premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 2013, with Jarratt returning as Taylor. Jarratt also plays Taylor in the Wolf Creek web television series, which debuted in 2017 and ran fro two seasons, with a third season still considered an eventual possibility.
Large stretches, though, are not always required. In some cases, horror can occur with even the slightest removal from the comfort and safety provided by modern civilization, with its “butcher round one corner, a policeman round another,” as Conrad put it. In the British film Eden Lake (2008), for example, two modern young lovers, Steve and Jenny (played by Michael Fassbinder and Kelly Reilly), drive out to a wooded area to camp near a flooded quarry while the whole area is still in a relatively pristine state prior to upcoming development. They are thus taking advantage of one last chance to see the wilderness before it is destroyed by modernity, much as in Deliverance. On the trip they are terrorized by a gang of psychopathic juvenile delinquents from the nearby town, leading to some truly gruesome scenes (and to the deaths of Steve and several of the gang members). Kelly manages to make her way back to town and to the home of the parents of the leader of the gang, who promptly murder her to protect their son. A well-made, well-acted, and reasonably well-funded film, Eden Lake responds to some very specific fears of the time and place in which it was made, including anxieties that Britain was “broken” and concerns over the high levels of British juvenile crime at the time. It also addresses concerns that improper parenting might be a key cause of these crime levels. But it also illustrates the way in which many in the modern urban world find the idea of traveling into more rural (and less modern) areas quite terrifying.
Finally, perhaps the classic case of a “British” version of backwoods horror can be found in American director Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), which is especially interesting when compared with its much inferior 2011 remake, directed by Rod Lurie. This remake is quite faithful to the original, replicating numerous scenes almost exactly and even re-using much of the original dialogue. However, the clash between the original film’s English townfolk and their bookish visitor (played by Dustin Hoffman) is figured almost entirely as a matter of class, with suggestions that working-class men tend to be very oafish and rapey. In the remake, however, the clash between the Southern redneck yokels and their visitor (played by James Marsden) is figured almost entirely as a matter of culture, the visitor’s citified, Harvard-inflected intellectualism coming off as much more snobby and snotty than Hoffman’s version, while the rednecks are all God and football (but still rapey and even more oafish, now almost cartoonishly so). In short, the first film, set in England, is built on very English notions of group differences, while the second, set in the United States, is built on very American notions of group differences. Both films (especially the 2011 version) are problematic in their vision of what working-class white people are like, but both are interesting in their depiction of the white grievance felt by these people, triggered especially by men like the David Sumners of Hoffman and Marsden. Also interesting is the fact that this grievance is mostly taken out on Amy Sumner (played, respectively, by Susan George and Kate Bosworth), the returning local girl who had been lured away by the charms of urban culture and four-eyed brainiacs like Sumner. Both versions are relatively rare examples of films in which the intellectual is the good guy, though both Davids triumph basically by descending to the hyper-masculine, but savage, levels of their antagonists.
Despite their differences in orientation, both versions of Straw Dogs can be seen to have one key element in common when viewed from a historical perspective. Both the working-class characters of the 1971 version and the redneck characters of the 2011 version have in common the fact that they are, in a sense, throwbacks to an earlier era. They perform manual labor, seek pleasure in old-fashioned activities such as hunting and communal festivals, and attempt to preserve an outdated notion of masculinity in the face of the encroachments of modernity, encroachments that in both films are personified in the fact that the seemingly most attractive of their local females has rejected what they have to offer in favor of the more modern charms of her new urban husband. The problem for the husband, in both cases, is not only the physical threat posed to him by his less modern rivals but also the lingering anxiety that his wife might, at any time, rethink her decision and decide to return to the more physically robust charms of his more primitive rivals. From this point of view, it is significant that the leader of the locals, Charlie Venner (played, respectively, by Del Henney and Alexander Skarsgård), is Amy’s former lover. Moreover, in both cases, the scene in which Venner rapes Amy is filmed in an ambiguous manner that leaves open the possibility that she at least in part welcomes the assault, regarding the raw physical power of Venner as an improvement over her intellectual, effete husband. In both cases, however, this initial rape is immediately followed by a brutal (and possibly anal) rape of Amy by Norman Scutt (played by Ken Hutchison and Rhys Coiro), with Venner (in the 1971 film) reluctantly helping out or (in the 2011 film) sitting by confusedly and doing nothing.
The country folk in both versions of Straw Dogs do not appear to be in-bred degenerates so much as products of cultures that are hostile to outsiders who are more modern than they. Ultimately, of course, it is always a clash of cultures that really lies at the heart of the backwoods horror genre, and these films help us to see that the monstrous hillbillies who sometimes inhabit these films—however much they might be manifestations of pre-existing stereotypes—are really just reminders that there are still people in the world who see that world differently than the global capitalist mainstream view, something that can be frightening to acknowledge.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.
Ebert, Roger. “Southern Comfort.” RogerEbert.com, 1 January 1981, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/southern-comfort-1981. Accessed 29 April 2021.
Goad, Jim. The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats. Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Empire, 1875–1914. Pantheon, 1987.
Kershner, R. B., Jr. “Degeneration: The Explanatory Nightmare.” Georgia Review, No. 40, 1986), pp. 416-44.
Murphy, Bernice M. The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Parrinder, Patrick. “Heart of Darkness: Geography as Apocalypse.” Fin de Siécle/Fin du Globe, edited by John Stokes, St. Martin’s, 1992, pp. 85-101.
Shaffer, Brian W. “‘Rebarbarizing Civilization’: Conrad’s African Fiction and Spencerian Sociology.” PMLA, Vol. 108, No. 1, 1993, pp. 45-58.
Shiller, Beth. “Bill Sage on Leading the Foundation in Wrong Turn.” Fandomize.com, 22 February 2021, https://www.fandomize.com/featured/bill-sage-on-leading-the-foundation-in-wrong-turn/. Accessed 9 July 2021.
Watt, Ian. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. University of California Press, 1979.
Zelazny, Jon. “Kicking Ass with Walter Hill.” The Hollywood Interview, 8 December 2012, http://thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.com/2009/09/walter-hill-hollywood-interview.html. Accessed 30 April 2021.
 Bernice Murphy presents an excellent survey of the American ideoalogical landscape tht informs these films in her chapter on backwoods horror (133–77).
 For an excellent survey of the turn-of-the-century degeneration scare, see Kershner.
 An excellent summary of the various crises facing Britain around the end of the nineteenth century can be found in Hobsbawm.
 See Parrinder for an excellent reading of Heart of Darkness as a reflection of European fantasies about cannibalism and devil worship in Africa.
 See Jim Goad for an exploration of how “hillbillies” and “white trash” came to be the last remaining American social group against whom it was acceptable to employ sweeping negative stereotypes, making clear that “racism” in America is quite often actually a case of disguised classism.
 Of course, American culture is complex and sometimes even dialectical, so it is not surprising that works involving stalwart redneck protagonists also appeared in this same period, though works such as the film Smokey and the Bandit (1977) or the television series The Dukes of Hazzard (1979–1985) typically operated in a comic mode.
 See Zelazny.
 Actor Bill Sage, who plays the head of the Foundation, has acknowledged in an interview that he was speaking Faroese words in the film, while admitting that he really didn’t know what he was saying and that it was probably gibberish (Shiller).