If someone were to say ‘Americana’, what would be the first things that came to mind? Coca Cola? Blue jeans? The star-spangled banner? Urban metropolises? How about isolated little townships that are suspended between the past and the present, and walk the line between too much passiveness and too much violence?
If there is one thing that translates well onto the silver screen, that’s the inherent horror found within the remote regions of America, where shadowy desires are obscured by smears of grey-brown fields, deadened forests, sharp mountains and lonely, winding roads. Upon first glance, it’s just a dark flavour of monotony that threatens the tranquility of small-town life: routine, hard work, religious devotion and family responsibilities. But in communities where people know of one another – their histories, their movements, their motivations – danger is but a heartbeat away. Fear is a unique tool in a filmmaker’s toolkit – it can manifest from a variety of origins, and the angle through which it is approached can certainly dictate a film in its entirety. Fearfulness is a habitual human response and emerges when one is surrounded by the unknown and the familiar. In isolated America, such is an inevitability in the context of film.
Granted, few movie-goers seek out screenings without a little bit of horror – love it or hate It, what is horrifying makes us feel alive. Fear is our limitation and our opportunity to be limitless, stretching our imagination into the most twisted of corners. The cinematic medium is a universal format that can summon forth nature, both artificial and authentic, music, lighting, gore, narrative and character simultaneously. In turn, each of these aspects can be manipulated to work in conjunction with each other in order to tell a truly terrifying story. And, in regard to America, though factiousness is obvious in these tales, the ghastly reality of leading a life there, now or then, is rooted in profoundly brutal truths, which is arguably the most horrifying thing of all.
From satanic rituals to ancestral secrets, haunted spaces to intensive loneliness and exile, we’ve seen it all. Perhaps, one of the most dreadful (and most enticing) elements of backwoods Americana is superstition and the belief in the demonic. Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Alejandro Amenábar’s Regression, prey upon this indeed. Misguided assumptions and prejudices give rise to ghastly events that taint the lives of two daughters, who endure cruelty at the hands of their parents. A chilling atmosphere of despair clouds both pieces. The Witch chooses to focus its narrative on the notorious witch hunts that plagued America in the 1600s. Comparatively, Regression follows a detective who seeks to prove that a young woman’s claims of being sexually abused by a cult of Satanists is valid, which grew to be a major concern during the 1980s. Suspicion is at its peak as rifts are created between loved ones, and blood is split at the expense of the defenceless young, the female, and those whose voices are marginalised.
Americana has always been a ripe country for mass hysteria, and the brutality by which people sought to take action continues to haunt us as well as our screens. Supernatural forces can be unearthed anywhere as long as one digs deep enough; skeletons best left buried transform into the ghosts and, more immediate, the devastating consequences that we are sentenced to endure. Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance in The Witch has been praised and though Watson does not frequent the horror genre like the former, both actresses shed light upon the discrimination and fear that was – and still is – practiced in the United States. Even though utterances of ‘witch’ and ‘Satan’ have seemingly died down in contemporary civilisation, one need only sit through the two aforementioned films to be reminded of the socially constructed evil that will forever define so dynamic a country. Perhaps, at the same time, as Taylor-Joy and Watson’s characters advocate for, the power and the cunning of women will be made just as clear.
Subtlety, however, is not always present in a film, nor does it always need to be. In some instances, horror can and deserves to be all encompassing, and no amount of prayer or stillness can dispel it. This particular reality, arguably a more relatable, though incredibly sad one, is featured in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones and Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Each piece centres around a family shattered upon the abduction and murder of their teenage children. What makes these films so abhorrent is the fact that these unexpected tragedies can befall any one of us. And the question of deserving does not play a large role, seeing as pain and hurt do not have favourites. The measures that these parents are forced to take stem from a place of anger and fear – fear that they’ll never know the truth about who the perpetrator was, fear that they’ll never be brought to justice. Fear of forgetting, and fear that they will never be able to move on.
Unlike The Lovely Bones, which is told through the eyes of the deceased victim Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), who watches over her family from a sort of heavenly purgatory, Francis McDormand’s daughter is nearly physically absent, and it is her memory that drives the plot. Bereavement, and the tunnel vision it inflicts is the horror that is captured so beautifully here. By placing children at the centre of the story, caged in on all sides by malicious intentions, harsh environments and adults who are either lethargic or so riddled with hopelessness they cannot act, the dark side of innocence is made into an ominous character in and of itself. Jackson and McDonagh are able to capture this phenomenon and channel it into heart-wrenching yet disturbing showcases. Horror is an emotion, one made even more dominating due to the rigidity of the rural setting that is the background; prairies that echo the last cries of the lost, towns whose citizens turn a blind eye to the hardships of their neighbours, are places devoid of homeliness; instead, they’re filled with garbage, peeling picket fences, blacktops and scarecrows whose beady eyes follow you wherever you go. Places that aren’t suitable for the dead, little own the living.
And it seems that the further south one travels, the bolder the world becomes in its gruesomeness. Antonio Campos’ gothic film The Devil All the Time wholly embraces everything gory, as does the 2018 limited series adaptation of author Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. In these parts, ancestral blood and past mistakes can dictate the future, good or bad, though the former is a rarity when it comes to the cinematic experience. Religious extremists, tabooed fetishes and inexhaustible naughtiness is not only encouraged in the shadows that run rampant, but colour one’s view of the world and their personal fate. Self-punishment is common and the idyllic-turned-hellish environment, ruined by desperation, sickness and abuse, does nothing to alleviate such behaviour.
Again, it seems that it is the young and impressionable who suffer the most. Violent impulses bloom in showers of blood and lies are handled openly, all of which makes navigating such tumultuous waters lethal. Tom Holland, Amy Adams and Eliza Scanlen, amongst others, all deal with these horrors-made-trivial ‘inconveniences’ in the films stated above, embodying the damaged souls whose potential to be morally upright has been squandered by the unhealthy traditionalism of their hometowns. The repulsions of this particular subpopulation – meaning those who are used to turning a blind eye to injustice and prosper from the snapping of other’s bones – is prominent in rural Americana on film, and creates an addictively compelling feature.
Similarly, the higher north one ventures, ulterior motivations and feelings of imprisonment, paranoia and recklessness can be uncovered also, as seen in Bates Motel and Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Creepy farmhouses and gothic Victorian townships do not hold the monopoly on the frightful. In fact, the towering mountains, misty forests and frozen rivers can scare you more immediately, as they are constantly filled with foreboding noises and creatures that stalk you in the night, as opposed to the stillness of open roads and vacant churches. Moaning winds, howling wolves, the tap-tapping of branches and the thunderous cascading of rocks and snow provide the soundtrack to this lonely region of America, whose culture thrives on the early darkness that sets in more than the sun shines. Murderers can operate right under people’s noses, as long as they keep their heads. Sanity and selfishness walk hand in hand, and their bond is infectious to those who dare to interact with them.
Freddie Highmore’s noteworthy portrayal of young Norman Bates, who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, takes advantage of this: anyone who comes in close proximity to him or his motel will drown in a storm of deception. After all, the north is the perfect place to bury a body or two – who could possibly find them amongst all the rock, all that pine? The hunter and the hunted are encased in expansiveness and the cold, which can prove to be a terrifying ordeal, especially since the bones of the dead can be there waiting for you to unknowingly stumble on. Such is the case with Winter’s Bone; the slow-burn propulsion of Ree Dolly’s (Jennifer Lawrence) reality, where she’s forced to search for her criminal father who’s up and disappeared into the fathoms of the Ozarks, adds a layer of fragility to an already bleak tale. The air of deterioration and how it lingers in one’s brain through stripped, stylised visuals, coupled with Lawrence’s rawness infuses horror into this particular region and prods the question that those who dwell there are as equally rotten.
Americana can be defined as all things that are associated with America itself – it is obvious that the most intriguing aspect of such a culture is the natural terror that this way of life was built on and maintains. Through the lens of film, this terror is contained, magnified and sewn together into a medium that invokes physical and mental responses of anxiety and dreadful glee. Despite such savagery, a little darkness is sometimes needed to keep us on our toes. This is one of main elements that allows life to be thrilling and bloodcurdling. In America, the devil may be everywhere.
By Kacy Hogg
Kacy is an English Lit student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), Canada. Her favourite films include the Harry Potter series, Cinderella, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hangover, and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95