Deconstructing Hillbilly Horror through Folklore
Well, that is at least the working title for my Appalachian Folklore term project. This may change as I get further into it.
What is hillbilly horror? Also known as backwoods horror. It is a movie genre I am taking the liberties of extending to books as well, that focus on hillbillies. Think movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes.
This genre of horror typically features rural settings, mostly in the United States (there has been hillbilly horror that focuses on Scotland and Australia), and focuses on fears and stereotypes associated with rural working-class people. Obviously, these movies rely on negative stereotypes and cast hillbillies as violent, backward, and dangerous people who engage in transgressive behaviors such as incest, cannibalism, and murder. Often these movies have city outsiders coming into a rural area in the bayou, forest, or mountains having the city folk square up against the horrors of the people who live in these places
Why did I choose hillbilly horror for this project? First, I didn’t know this was actually a genre. That is ironically funny considering I went through what I would call a horror phase that lasted a decade or so where I watched and read everything horror indiscriminately.
Second, this is an untapped genre in the folklore sandbox. There is the perceived folklore - albeit negative folklore - about “hillbillies” and then there is the actual folklore of these people. It’s an interesting dynamic because the audience has expectations about how this group should be portrayed, and it’s so far from the actual truth. Sometimes the genre even takes on mythical monsters and creature mythology from a region. Think The Mothman Prophecies.
Speaking of Mothman, I decided against doing my project on the cryptid because so much has already been said I don’t think I have anything to add to the conversation.
This brings me to my research questions: and this list is subject to change.
What role does horror movies play in society?
How do these movies affect what people believe about certain groups of people? How does Hollywood encourage the perpetration and belief in negative stereotypes? How has Hollywood created/changed/added to stereotypes of the group?
What are the common stereotypes used in hillbilly horror? Where do these stereotypes come from?
Why is hillbilly horror so popular and how does it affect the group of people it portrays? Why is this groups folklore fodder for these kinds of movies?
Do books do better accurately portraying this group? How do book to movie adaptations change between the book and movie? What I am wondering here is if Hollywood chooses to exaggerate on stereotypes and to what end?
How has the portrayal of the hillbilly changed over time? Has it even changed?
How does the commodification of culture play out? Is hillbilly horror even a commodification of culture?
Does where a director or author is from affect how hillbillies are portrayed?
How is storytelling and oral tradition used?11
Since this project is for a class specifically on Appalachia folklore, I have some research questions aimed at that specifically.
Does hillbilly horror change based on the region it takes place in (example: Texas vs. Appalachia)? What are the cultural nuances if there are any?
Why is Southern Appalachia more frequently used in hillbilly horror over Northern Appalachia?
Region as a political concept - how does this work in hillbilly horror?
What Appalachian folklore and superstitions are commonly used?
Is there a single Appalachian folklore? How does hillbilly horror turn Appalachia into an amalgamation of an area?
Material I am using for this project: I have identified 36 hillbilly horror movies that take place specifically in Appalachia and 11 books (this includes comics) with a 12th book that may or may not take place in Appalachia. The setting is too vague to tell, but preliminary research (including reviews) shows a strong argument for an Appalachian setting.
I am also using J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy (as well as the book J.D Vance is a Fake Hillbilly) because I want to know what people of Appalachia have to say about themselves
There is also the never ending piles of books and essays that draw from Film and Media Studies, Sociology, Appalachian Studies, Southern Studies, Folklore, and probably a few disciplines I am forgetting about. This is very much an interdisciplinary project as folklore normally is.
But what kind of folklore is there specifically about hillbilly horror? Everyone who isn’t a folklorist has a different definition of folklore than folklorists do. Folklore is more than Grimm’s Fairy Tales, folk medicine, sweetgrass baskets and bluegrass. It is more than what was done “back in the day.” Everyone has folklore. the word means “the story of the folk.” Folk is just another word for people. Folklore is everything from the food we eat during the holidays to internet memes to jokes to rituals before sporting events to religion. Folklore isn’t something other people have. Everyone engages with so kind of folklore every day.
The kinds of things I will be looking at are:
Monster and creature mythology. These legends play a role in hillbilly horror.
To go along with monster and creature mythology, there are supernatural beliefs such as witchcraft, curses or some other paranormal phenomena
Isolation and folk wisdom. Some folkloric beliefs can lead to isolation, especially in rural settings. These characters may also rely on folk wisdom and the supernatural to navigate what is going on.
Haunted places. Especially in the south. The south is haunted in so many ways. But haunted houses, cursed landscapes and other eerie settings set the stage for hillbilly horror
Cultural customs and traditions. This can be seen in the modern (the city people) clashing with rural (the hillbillies). There are also cultural practices, rituals, and traditions that are unfamiliar to those especially outside of Appalachia.
Humanization/Demonization. This goes into how cultural backgrounds are used to portray people. Those stereotypes I mentioned earlier about what we think/assume about a group verses how the group really is.
Moral lessons and taboos. In undergrad I had a religious studies professor tell me that in order to understand what is acceptable in society we study those on the fringes. That’s kind of the approach I am taking here. Folklore contains moral lessons and taboos (go read versions of Little Red Riding Hood that haven’t been Disneyfied if you don’t believe me). These things are used to explore morality, social norms and the repercussions of violating societal norms.
Cultural authenticity. I have a lot to say on authenticity, but that is for another day. Filmmakers like to use what they think is authenticity to their portrayals of rural life. I am interested in this “authenticity” they are claiming.
Yes, I realize this is a huge project as it stands. I am hoping as I delve into things I can narrow things down more. Stay tuned to see how this project works out…
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