Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade, released in 2016, is steeped in southern gothic, a subgenre of gothic literature, which takes its cues from America’s deep south. Gothic literature began in 19th century England and then crossed the Atlantic, where American authors like Edgar Allan Poe created a tradition of their own, which became known as American gothic. Southern gothic continues that tradition, but focuses on the people, culture and history of the American South and tends to abandon the traditional preoccupation with the supernatural, replacing it with more psychological, societal and physical threats.
Deep South and Decay
Southern gothic is set in the deep south of America and the writers of it are from the south, bringing an authenticity to the setting, which comes with a sense of decay, faded
elegance and a facade of respectability. With the south’s history of slavery and its sprawling plantation houses, a sense of moral and physical decay is one of the main themes of southern gothic. The white aristocracy tries to cling onto their position and traditions in a post-Civil War America, but the violent past haunts them all, driving them into a sense of despair and even madness.
The western tradition of gothic literature ignores the presence of black people, right up to modern day horror, with the exception of Get Out, which subverts that tradition. The heroines of European and American gothic have alabaster skin and the spirits that haunt them are often Christian.
In southern gothic, black folks can be central to the story. The black identity is part of the southern identity, from the food to the music and the language, there’s no getting away from it. This gives black creators like Beyoncé a chance to explore their past and their legacy, as a way of reflecting upon the present.
It’s hot in the south. The heat can be stifling and liberating. It allows people to inhabit the night, sitting on verandas , swimming in a lake, gathering on plantation lawns for a garden party or playing music and singing in a rural shack.
The heat makes the characters in southern gothic at times languorous, but it’s also a metaphor for sexual tension and passion, as in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire.
Voodoo and Spirituality
When the African slaves arrived in the south, they brought their own religions and
through the generations they became half-remembered and reinvented as voodoo, as well as informing the way they practice Christianity. Southern gothic can be set in the streets of New Orleans, the home of Dixieland jazz, elaborate funerals and voodoo priestesses in the back of old shops. The rural alternative is clandestine meetings in woodland shacks, riverside baptisms, folklore and dark family histories haunting the living. There is a sense of oppressive religious fervour, from the Bible thumping preacher with messages of hell fire and brimstone to the throbbing excitement of voodoo ceremonies.
Swamps and Rivers
Along with the heat, water is a key element for southern gothic. The Mississippi river snakes its way through the south and its literature. The Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that focuses on a water-based community and offers a commentary on the lack of
government support after Hurricane Katrina. Many of the communities in southern gothic stories are at the mercy of floods and storms. Nature is part of the fabric of their lives, even in the cities the oppressive heat is all powerful and the trees are draped in Spanish moss, giving everything a mournful grandeur. And in the swamps, gators and even supernatural creatures lurk beneath the surface.
The blood in the land of the deep south is a central theme for southern gothic stories and its the shared, dark past that replaces the supernatural threats of the British gothic tradition. Slavery, poverty and oppression permeates everything. Even the very wealthy can’t escape the source of their privilege. History is a burden for the characters of these stories and often they crack under the pressure. Family secrets eat away at their sanity and the spirits of slaves and an unforgettable past always threaten to surface.
Notable Southern Gothic Films:
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
A film that blends southern gothic and magical realism, with the real life trauma of the communities of New Orleans, post hurricane Katrina.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Sexual tension abounds in this film of Tennessee Williams’ most famous play. The animal masculinity of Stanley Kowalski clashes with the faded southern belle, Blanche DuBois and threatens her fragile emotional state.
The Beguiled (2017)
Yet to be released, this film starring Anna Paquin (of Trueblood and southern native), Kirstin Dunst, Nicole Kidman, as the lace bedecked ladies in a candlelit mansion, which serves as a school. Colin Farrell plays the injured soldier who is taken in and nursed by the ladies, who are soon vying for his attention. A remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film of the same name.
Night of the Hunter (1955)
Later remade as Cape Fear, Robert Mitchum stars in this dark thriller, which sees a criminal exact revenge upon the legal man who had him put away. The object of his revenge is the lawyer’s daughter. The self-styled preacher with ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles is the less than supernatural threat.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
A key inspiration for Lemonade, Daughters of the Dust is the story of a community of former slaves and particularly the black women. The island community is struggling to keep hold of its West African traditions, as the younger generation hankers for the mainland. The sumptuous visuals are pure southern gothic.
Notable Southern Gothic Books:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A black man is accused of the rape of a white woman, threatening the social fabric of a small town. A typical premise for southern gothic.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
One of the central figures of southern gothic, Faulkner’s novels often tackle the main themes of the genre. As I Lay Dying follows a family carrying their mother’s body to be buried and jumps from the point of view of every relative, including the body. None more southern gothic than Faulkner, so read anything by him for a fine example of the genre.
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
This is Donna Tartt’s southern gothic novel. The tale of a little girl who’s brother was taken as a baby. She sets out to solve the mystery of who took him all those years ago. A family secret, snake handling churches and a crumbling old house all lend to the atmosphere.
Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice
The baroque gothic of Europe meets the hot, violent southern gothic sensibilities in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. Lestat inhabits his plantation house and drifts through the streets of New Orleans engaging in macabre debauchery.
True Blood by Charlaine Harris
There is also a TV series based on the books, which take vampires to the south to create a world where witchcraft, voodoo, vampire lynchings and Christian fundamentalism all collide. At the heart of the show is a dark romanticism that’s typical of the genre.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
One of the most important books in black American literature, Invisible Man charts a black man’s journey from the south to Harlem.