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Little Cities of Black Diamonds employee Daniel Clepper shines a light onto an unidentified filmstrip during a tour of the Tecumseh Theater in Shawnee, Ohio, on April 16, 2018. The filmstrip, dated 1936, would have likely been in rotation during the region’s industrial heyday when the theater was home to musical performances, sporting events, and movies for Shawnee’s residents. Photo: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia

Hey y’all – or as my Granny liked to say, hi-dee!

Last week, we unpacked the history of one of Appalachia’s longest-running stereotypes: degradation. Today, I want to take a look at a new stereotype, one which is similar in a lot of ways and yet distinct enough that it’s worth discussing on its own. Get your paddles ready, because you’re about to hear some banjos – we’re talking about stereotypes of Appalachian violence.

Before we begin, though, a heads up that I’m discussing some difficult subjects today, including rape and sexual violence. If you’d rather not read about that, please skip ahead to the next section of the newsletter, after the heading: Loving Thy Neighbor (And Hating on Deliverance).

Anyone else remember when, like, every clothing store sold a shirt that said this? 

Photo: Cindy Funk/Flickr

Violent Appalachia: Violence, Murder, and (content warning) Sexual Barbarity

While the stereotype of Appalachian violence hasn’t been around for quite as long as degradation, it still has a long history in media portrayals of the region. In fact, the notion of Appalachia as an exceedingly violent and dangerous place likely grew out of these pre-existing stereotypes. As Meredith McCarroll writes in her book “Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film,” the logic goes something like this: 

“The isolation of the hills leads to a depravity – often sexual in nature. Without the presence of a civilizing force, monstrous mountaineers are given reign to hone their self-serving cruelty.” 

Appalachia’s supposed backwardness and isolation thus naturally led to claims of violence, creating the impression of mountaineers as something so brutal and primitive they’re almost less than human.

Images of Appalachian violence have existed nearly as long as the film medium itself. In fact, the very first silent film set in the mountains portrays Appalachians as deadly. “The Moonshiner,” a 13-minute short released in 1904, tells of an illegal whiskey trade in the mountains and a violent conflict between a family of moonshiners and the revenuers searching for the still. 

After being discovered, the moonshining family engages in a deadly shootout with the revenuers; the film ends with the moonshiner’s wife shooting the lone surviving revenuer in the back, cradling her husband in her arms as he dies. Produced by Biograph, “The Moonshiner” was a massive success, so much so that the company was still advertising it four years later as “the most widely known and most popular film ever made.”  

Due to such interest in moonshining plots, many subsequent silent films of this era focused on violent altercations in Appalachia. In addition to battles between moonshiners and revenuers, popular plotlines included feuds and love triangles which pitted mountaineers against city-dwellers, nearly always involving at least one death. Violence and death are so common in films set in the mountains during this era that historian Anthony Harkins is able to quantify it: 

“[T]he amount of violence in the nearly 500 mountain films released through 1929 is staggering—over 200 murders, 500 assaults with guns, axes, or hand-to-hand combat, and 100 attacks on women.”  

One such film made famous during this period is the 1921 “Tol’able David.” Set in the mountains of West Virginia, the film centers on young protagonist David, who must protect his home and sweetheart from a trio of mountain brutes on the run from the law. After killing David’s dog, crippling his older brother and indirectly causing his father to suffer a fatal stroke, David faces off with the trio in a horrific battle from which he emerges victorious, though injured, after killing all three foes. 

“David” was an indisputable success, garnering nationwide rave reviews (one Illinois exhibitor touted it as “beyond a shadow of a doubt, the greatest picture of mountain life ever made”), winning best picture in a 1922 issue of Photoplay Magazine, and making a star out of its lead actor, Richard Barthelmess. “Tol’able David” made famous the image of the mountaineer who was not simply violent, but truly, in McCarroll’s sense, monstrous.

It’s also worth noting that while these films were clearly fictional, they were often taken by critics and audiences – and intended by writers and directors – to represent the real circumstances of life in the Appalachian mountains. This is well exemplified by the reception of the 1927 film “Stark Love,” directed by Karl Brown. The film itself is a coming-of-age story of a young man named Rob who wants to escape his mountain life but must first defeat the living symbol of mountain barbarity itself – his own father. When Rob’s mother dies, his father marries Rob’s childhood sweetheart, Barbara, basically acquiring her like property with her father’s permission. Rob attacks his father when he discovers him attempting to have sex with Barbara against her will, but is thrown out the door and into the river. Barbara then threatens her captor with an axe, saves Rob from the river, and the two float to safety, finally free from the mountains.

While the theme of escape from the mountains was not uncommon in this time period, director Brown insisted that his film moved beyond clichéd storylines, telling one writer, “I want to show these people as they are. As they really are. As human beings, not caricatures.” Although the film was largely unsuccessful in its original run, it was nevertheless accepted as an accurate portrayal of mountain life by critics and reporters, with one reviewer labeling the film “a picturization of the actual life and customs of the most primitive people of America” and another comparing it to three highly influential documentaries of the time – “Nanook of the North” (1922), “Grass” (1925) and “Moana” (1926) – pronouncing the film “as important sociologically and scientifically as the illustrious trinity which preceded it.” 

Easily one of the most instantly recognizable portrayals of Appalachian violence is the 1972 thriller “Deliverance,” directed by John Boorman. From the moment the film’s urban protagonists meet their soon-to-be captors in the woods, a threat hangs in the air, one which McCarroll explains is derived distinctly from the villains’ mountain isolation and backwardness:

"The pair of men who emerge from the woods in Deliverance, guns in hand, are the daguerreotype: physically repulsive, more animal than human, with overgrown hair and long utilitarian fingernails caked with dirt and oil. […] The monstrous mountaineer type, at least in Deliverance…exists apart from the white southerners, who are shocked to come across him, and because he has no access to the civilized white world that surrounds him at the foot of his hills." 

Themes of Appalachian backwardness, brutality and sexual deviance come to a head in the film’s most infamous scene, in which Bobby, one of the urban canoeists, is sodomized at gunpoint by his captors. The horrific scene, in which one mountaineer orders Bobby to “squeal like a pig,” has become synonymous with the movie. Interestingly, though, these allusions to bestiality were not present in the far more ambiguous novel (written by James Dickey) on which the movie was based – they were added in for shock value and to accentuate the mountaineers’ utter repulsiveness. 

Even Christopher Dickey, James Dickey’s son who worked on the movie, was disgusted by his experience filming the scene, (correctly) predicting that it would overshadow anything meaningful that the film had to say. But despite its horrific portrayal of mountain culture, “Deliverance” became an instant hit, nominated for awards in several categories at both the Academy Awards and Golden Globes in 1973 and parodied on nightly talk shows, in cartoons and on “Saturday Night Live” for years after its release. Nearly 50 years later, the film has retained staying power, with a Metascore of 80, a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 89 percent (with many recent favorable reviews on each website) and a perhaps permanent slot in the American cultural lexicon. 

A more modern example of the monstrous mountaineer appears in the 2010 film “Winter’s Bone” starring Jennifer Lawrence. The film follows 17-year-old Ree as she navigates her dangerous mountain community to search for her father, who is due in court for cooking meth, so her family can keep their home. Ree eventually tries to get information from a local crime boss and is severely beaten by the women of his family; after Ree learns that her father was killed because he was planning to inform on other meth cookers, the women return to take her to “[her] daddy’s bones.” 

Rowing to her father’s submerged body in the middle of the pond, the women make Ree grab his hands so they can cut them off with a chainsaw. Ree then takes the hands to the authorities to prove her father’s death so the house will not be taken away, lying that someone had thrown them on her front porch. Ree neither confronts those who have hurt her family nor makes an attempt to leave such a dangerous place; rather, she hides their violence and stays put. In “Winter’s Bone,” mountain culture is inherently brutal, and this culture of violence is so pervasive that it doesn’t even cross the protagonist’s mind to fight it.

While we’ve mostly focused on film here, I want to finish with an example from the world of video games: “Red Dead Redemption 2,” released in 2018. “Red Dead’s” Roanoke Ridge region may be fictional, but it contains many references specific to Appalachia, such as coal mining, thick forests along tall mountains and flora and fauna which are native to the region. While both the animals and the terrain of Roanoke Ridge pose a threat to the player, it’s the area’s inhabitants, called the Murfree Brood, who are the true menaces. 

As the player (controlling a character named Arthur) canoes through the area toward the town of Butcher’s Creek, Charles, a companion on the journey, warns about the “Murfree gang that hides out in these caves. They’re animals. Everyone is terrified of them.” The first night of camping in this area confirms Charles’s description, as Arthur encounters two members of the Murfree Brood. Appalachian scholar Christopher Ryan McCloud writes of the scene that follows: 

"The first man, wearing overalls and no shirt, warns, 'Y’all know these is Murfree hills. You should be careful where you’re camping.' […] The other Murfree, with a facial deformity, responds…that 'everything [is] bought and paid for. And we’re going to protect what’s ours.' After warning Arthur to stay away, they leave the campsite with a final threat: 'We’ll kill you next time.''

Arthur spots other “locals” during his trip through Butcher’s Creek, noting that “they don’t look too friendly.” Many of the characters in this area are physically disfigured and look altogether threatening, as if any one of them could be persuaded to shoot Arthur dead at a moment’s notice (and on a particular side quest, one does try to choke him to death). As McCloud summarizes, the characters in Roanoke Ridge, especially Butcher’s Creek, are “illiterate, fatalistic, uncivilized, violent, and prone to animalistic instincts.” “Red Dead’ thus brings age-old ideas of the monstrous mountaineer into the relatively new arena of video gaming.

To sum up, stereotypes of Appalachian violence grew out of pre-existing notions of the region as a degraded and backward place. Like we discussed with degradation, stereotypes of Appalachian violence have helped contribute to its national perception as a culturally deviant area: Even if people don’t actually think they’re going to get kidnapped and murdered here, they still probably think of it as a place to avoid. This, in turn, makes Appalachia a place whose problems are easy to ignore on a national scale.

Probably you after reading all that.

Once again, we’ve covered a lot of ground! Thanks for sticking with me. Now, let’s take a look at some of the stories we’ve been sharing at The Appalachian Retelling Project to combat these stereotypes.

Loving Thy Neighbor (And Hating on Deliverance)

Instead of images of violence and barbarity, The Appalachian Retelling Project has been sharing stories of Appalachians who help others in need. And if we get the chance to say something about “Deliverance,” we’re probably gonna take it. Here are some of my favorite submissions:

Paul tells about the 1957 flood which devastated Southeastern Kentucky and all those who helped his family as the water invaded his home. 

Masoud writes about a member of his chosen family who took him in after he moved to the U.S. and who often unconditionally made sacrifices for the sake of others. 

J. Wayne reminisces on the importance of owning a jackknife as he grew up – and as it turns out, they didn’t use them to kill anyone! 

And in our Appalachian Talk Back series, contributors reveal some of the worst portrayals of Appalachia they’ve seen in popular media. (Spoiler alert: “Deliverance” is in there.)

Questions to Think About

Now it’s your turn! Are there any stories from your own life, family history, or community that can combat these stereotypes? Here are a few prompts to get you thinking:

When have you or someone you know helped a neighbor in need? When has a neighbor helped you?

What work are you or someone you know doing to improve your community?

What’s another example of popular media that contributes to the stereotype of Appalachian violence? How did it get it wrong?

If any of these got you thinking, you can submit your response to be featured on our website. And remember, submissions don’t have to be long essays – they can be photos, videos, or short responses too. And if you’re interested in getting involved but aren’t sure how, you can reach out to me by DM or by email.

Thanks for spending another week with me. See you next Thursday!

-    Elon

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about portrayals of Appalachian violence in media, here are some recommendations:

Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon by Anthony Harkins (recommending this for the second week in a row because it’s fantastic!)

Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film by Meredith McCarroll

“Violent Appalachia: The media’s role in the creation and perpetuation of an American myth” by Viviana Andreescu 

“Virtual Appalachia: Video Game Representations of the Region” by Christopher Ryan McCloud

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