Southern Gothic Literature American literary movements

The nineteenth century saw the rise of Gothic literature, a movement that embraced the deep emotions and beautiful imagery of Romanticism, yet had plots driven by madness, death, and destruction. The setting of Gothic tales, including those of American authors like Edgar Allen Poe, was always Europe, as Gothic literature depends on place with an awful history for its settingOld World Europe, in the eyes of Gothic writers, held secret histories of macabre witchcraft, legacies of tortured men and cities burning, and dark woods full of monstrous creatures. Yet the Americas at the time were frontier lands, places of hope and unwritten history compared to Europe, with its catacombs of skeletons and century-long wars. It seemed, to American writers during the Antebellum period, that stories of horror and hopelessness were best left to Europe.

Then came the American Civil War, Reconstruction, and a Great Depression.

The carnage and violence of the Civil War broke Americans out of their Romantic ideals and plunged them straight into Realism. All literature suddenly lacked emotional drives, but painted the world in stark realities. One of these realities was the brutality of the Southern slave trade and the rigid caste system in Southern society. The Confederate loss of the Civil War plunged the once prosperous South into poverty, which was compounded half a century later with the Great Depression. Northern writers broke with Realism after World War I and started to question the meaning of existence and reality (Modernism), but this change didn't suit the South. After all, who cares about the meaning of life when you are too poor to eat?

These Southern writers took the verisimilitude of Realism and mixed it with the fantastic and emotional elements of Romanticism to create Southern Gothic literature, a literary movement that began in the early 1930s and ended by 1970. Southern Gothic stories are all in the HORROR genre, yet put a twist on the common horror tropes, as seen below.

The Poor, Small Southern Town

Southern Gothic stories take place in the states settled by plantation owners and that formerly belonged to the Confederacy: Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Southern Gothic is also set in East Texas (West Texas is the setting of Westerns) and North Florida (South Florida is too urban and tropical). The land of these areas is characterized by low hills, humidity, heat, mud, and swampland. The history of these states is that they were founded by European aristocrats: in Antebellum America, the South was the wealthiest area of the country. Southerners believed in military strength, good manners, and strict social hierarchies. They had faith in G-d and the dominance of the white race over all others.

The American Civil War changed everything for the South. The North burned their ancient cities, leaving them in ruin. The social hierarchy of slaves and masters was completely upended, which also plunged the South into poverty from which they have never escaped. The Southern faith in G-d's providence and protection was shattered as they were painted the villain in America's bloodiest conflict. The South, though it rejoined the Union in practice, is still spiritually divided--Northerners see the South as traitors, and the South sees the North as occupiers.

Gothic literature is all about broken, perverse places, and by the time of the Great Depression, the American South was the perfect setting for a Gothic revival. With the population either dying off or leaving for work in the North, towns were small and isolated. Those who stayed by choice did so because of a sense of pride and legacy, which made them distrustful of outsiders and change. Yet everyone in the South was poor, and the once grand buildings of the Antebellum area started to crumble and become abandoned. Such abject poverty is the spark that drives the desperation and darkness of Southern Gothic stories.


Horror stories rely on the trope of a creepy atmosphere, and while Southern Gothic is plenty creepy, it is specifically an atmosphere of decay. Decay occurs when buildings and fields are not maintained, giving into rot and infestation. During the Civil War, the Union wrecked the South: soldiers burnt farmland, poisoned wells, and destroyed homes and business as they marched from New Orleans to Louisiana. Yet by the 1930s, the South had still not rebuilt. Without slave labor, there were simply not enough people who could rebuild Southern society and repair the damage. In Southern Gothic novels, there are grand manors long abandoned, their once pristine porches covered in cobwebs and mold. Damaged building stay damaged, as there is no money to fix them. New buildings are isolated shacks made of loose boards and tar paper, no better than former slave quarters.

The literal decay of the surrounding act as a metaphor for the legacy of societal decay in every Southern Gothic novel, where social institutions prove as unreliable and broken as the buildings. Parents often neglect or harm their children. Lovers and marriages do not last. Schools only reinforce ignorance. Law enforcement is corrupt and justice is not served. The institution of the family is also decayed: the Civil War killed most of the South's young men, and the following generation suffered from rampant disease like tuberculosis (as no one could afford a doctor). Entire family lines died out from a lack of male heirs, and it was not uncommon to see one-parent families and orphans. Mental decay and madness are also hallmarks of Southern Gothic characters.

Broken, Deformed Characters

Like Romantic and Gothic texts, Southern Gothic characters tend to be archetypes--very clear depictions of the hero, the judge, the sage, etc. Gothic horror even includes the two archetypal characters of horror: the innocent and the abominable. However, no pure archetype remains pure in a society so decayed, and so these characters become grotesque.

A grotesque character is an archetypal character that has dramatic, almost absurd physical, emotional, or moral flaws. Sometimes the grotesque manifests in scars or missing limbs; other times, the grotesque aspect is madness or abnormal behavior. A more subtle grotesque twist is a moral one--the corrupt judge who forgives female criminals that spend the night with him, for example, breaks the archetype of the judge as just and fair. Even monsters are "grotesque" in their own way, meaning they often have a good or noble side. In fact, the only characters in Southern Gothic stories that can be pure are outsiders, who invariably are either driven away, killed, or corrupted by their experience in the South.

Nothing defines a Southern Gothic character more than isolation. Rampant death in the family isolates characters from unconditional storge love, making many characters hard and stoic. Most characters carry this isolation into their friendships and romantic relationships, feeling alone even when others are present. The Southern Gothic character is also distrustful of others, which isolates him or her further.

Culture of Violence

The South struggles to survive. Many characters are so poor they must hunt for their supper and live in abandoned, rotting buildings. Such poverty motivates characters to undertake violent acts of robbery, murder, rape, and suicide. While all horror stories have a threat of death, Southern Gothic goes beyond this to a certainty of violence. Like in the Western genre, violence is necessary to survive in the South, and survival is tied to the ability to use weapons, most often guns and knives. However, unlike the gunslingers and cowboys of the Western (who aim for a minimal use of force and clean, justified killing), the South revels in its violence. Southern Gothic tales contain more than just death, but monstrous stories of torture, abuse, mutilation, and even cannibalism. Kidnapping a Black a man and hanging him or covering a Jew with boiling tar and feathers, two common violent act in these stories, aren't done for revenge but merely for fun.

Not all violence is completely uncivil; the South is known for dueling, an sport where two men gracefully agree to shoot at each other over a matter of honor. Southern characters also traffic in verbal violence in the form of threats and shouting. Characters often try to outwit opponents with maxims and clever wordplay, a relic from the days of a wealthy aristocratic South. Yet every character in the South, even the heroes, must deal in violence to survive.

Supernatural Occurrences

One element taken from the coinciding Modernism movement was the questioning of religious principles. Yet instead of a growing atheism, the South is a place of mystical and supernatural alternatives to G-d. Belief in ghosts is widespread in the South, so much so they paint their porches blue to thwart ghosts and hold seances. With so many dead and so many abandoned places, it's little wonder why ghosts became popular inclusions in Southern storytelling. Southerners also believe in magic and superstition, and none more than voodoo, a Haitian religion that became prominent in New Orleans and spread to the rest of the South. Featured in voodoo is the ability to control others, through a voodoo doll that inflicts violence remotely or by making someone a mindless servant called a zombi. Even fairly realistic Southern Gothic stories feature unexplained events, superstitious talk, and characters with uncanny abilities.

Imprisonment & the Broken Spirit

With a society so broken and twisted, why would anyone want to stay? The final trope of Southern Gothic literature is the cruel irony of the movement: characters are trapped. The motif of imprisonment runs through all Southern Gothic literature. Often, imprisonment is literal: in a world full of violence, criminals are easy to find. Yet often the prison is metaphorical, such as a loveless marriage or family obligation that forces characters to stay. Often, characters are too poor to go anywhere else, trapped by poverty. Other plots play upon illegal imprisonment, with characters bound and kidnapped.

Why is the sense of imprisonment vital for Southern Gothic? First, it keeps the characters there; otherwise, they'd move away and there would be no story. Imprisonment of Southern characters also acts a spiritual punishment for the South's history of slavery. Yet perhaps the most important function of imprisonment is that it robs the characters of hope.

Hopelessness is the most prominent motif in Southern Gothic literature and is what differentiates it from other horror: while horror stories employ a sense of just retribution where good triumphs over evil, the South is so decayed that there is no justice. Hopelessness antagonizes every character, and the struggle to survive becomes less important than the struggle to not give up. The Southern Gothic text is full of broken spirits who are barely men or women, are consumed by depression or alcohol, and shut themselves away where no one can see. This recluse--a character that isolates himself or herself and gives up on human connection-- is the ultimate grotesque character, a person that goes against the idea and hope of human connection itself. As expected, the recluse is featured in every Southern Gothic story.

Legacy of Southern Gothic

Southern Gothic started to disappear after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Though the South was still marked by poverty and social injustice, strides were made to clean up the decay and social corruption left over from almost a century before. With jobs, infrastructure, and acceptance from the rest of the nation, the South no longer felt they resembled their Gothic stories.

Yet Southern Gothic never disappeared, but rather morphed into a subgenre of Horror (just like Gothic had). Films and novels occasionally dip into Southern Gothic settings, with most set in the 1930s-1960s era. However, the recent racial tension in the country coupled with the 2007 Financial Crisis and the (still decaying) destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have led to a modern Southern Gothic revival, with works such as HBO's True Blood and True Detective, John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead.

Southern Gothic Authors and Texts
  • William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury (1929), "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (1930), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932)
  • Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood (1952), "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (1955), Everything That Rise Must Converge (1965)
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Go Set a Watchman (2012)
  • Carson McCullers: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), The Member of the Wedding (1946)
  • Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Rose Tattoo (1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
  • Truman Capote: The Grass Harp (1951), In Cold Blood (1966)
  • Cormac McCarthy: Child of God (1973), Blood Meridian (1985)
  • Films: Swamp Water (1941), Night of the Hunter (1955), Cape Fear (1961), Southern Comfort (1981), Interview with the Vampire (1994), The Skeleton Key (2005), Winter's Bone (2010), Mud (2012)
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Brandon Coon

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