The Southern states of the USA have given rise to a strangely atmospheric genre of literature and entertainment referred to as Southern Gothic. TV fans of True Detective (particularly S1), True Blood, Sharp Objects and On Becoming A God In Central Florida will instantly recognise some linking themes of race and poverty, a smattering of eccentric personalities, and that unsettling feeling of long-held blood secrets hiding under a veneer of piety.
The genre is rooted in communities where rich and poor of all races are deeply divided, yet rub shoulders where they are linked by church, town and conservative values. These are communities that are repressive yet accepting and even embracing of a bizarre and outspoken individuality and eccentricity in certain cases. And some people seem to have a license to do just as they please.
Visually, Southern Gothic is linked by green landscapes, bayous and waterlands, tropical vegetation, eerie trees and hanging mosses. It’s a place where the wild world seems to be overtaking manmade structures – or even straight up eating people’s husbands. And it’s a landscape that symbolises the way in which civilisation is being overcome by dangerous unchecked animal instincts like greed, lust and violence.
There’s a disturbing contrast between strip mall towns that cater to the poor, and the elegant pre-revolutionary streets lined with the salve-built mansions of the rich. These are places haunted by terrible secrets and an atmosphere of decay and corruption, covered up with Sunday manners. They are small towns where people never escape and feuds fester for years until they explode in violence. It’s the perfect cradle for a murder, and the new Investigation Discovery (DStv 171) series Southern Gothic will highlight real-life crimes that have that familiar taint.
Lies in church
The first episode of Southern Gothic sets the tone for what’s to come: A woman shoots her husband in the back of the head, execution style, moments after they arrive home from church. Then she goes on a grocery shopping trip to her local Piggly Wiggly (a touch of the absurd and mundane), leaving his corpse cooling on the floor. After returning from the grocery store, she stages a break-in and calls 911. Her lies soon fall apart, though, and she is arrested while on a date with her partner in crime – the man she claims is her lover, the recently resigned pastor of the couple’s Baptist church, who has just moved into the couple’s house. You can only imagine the rustling of hats and handkerchiefs in that community as folks start whispering about what happened after Sunday service! Chief Deputy Randy Christian, of the county sheriff’s office later sums up the adulterous scheme: “Here we are with three families ruined because of dark hearts, stupidity and extreme selfishness."
Rich versus poor
The 2003 rape and murder of 18-year-old Kentucky student Katie Autry has two prime suspects, one poor and mixed race, the other rich and white. Katie has been raped, beaten and set on fire. She later dies from the burn wounds and the fire destroys potential physical evidence from the assault. The case becomes so divisive that it inspires William Van Meter’s bestselling true crime novel, Cruel Heart: The True Story Of A Beautiful Co-ed, A Vicious Murder, And The Trial That Tore Apart A Town (also published under the title Bluegrass: A True Story Of Murder In Kentucky).
The first and second suspects have wildly differing stories. While jury members acquit the second suspect due to a complete lack of physical evidence, they also call the work on the case “shoddy” – most of the investigation, such as it is, has been conducted by the campus’s security staff. As for being equal before the law, the second suspect's family can afford to hire a criminologist, a former FBI agent and a crime-scene consultant to support his case, along with a publicist who starts a website to defend his innocence. The first suspect is assigned a public defender. When the first suspect pleads guilty to rape and assault, his testimony is the only thing linking the second suspect to the crime.
Doubt lingers to this day as to whether either man is telling the truth, and Katie was still dead – a pretty young blonde crime victim in a Southern town. Larger buried issues about race and privilege in the community overshadow questions about why the attacker feels entitled to possess and then torture and destroy her physically with such violence.
One of the weirder things about the episode titled Creek Runs Red is recognising 90 Day Fiancé Before The 90s Days’ (2020) Jeffrey Paschal (remember the guy who claimed that he’d had sex with over 500 women?) during one of the re-enactments. That aside, this is a true Southern Gothic story of an evil stepmother turned murderous, and children who live in fear.
Police follow many lies and twists after the body of a woman is found battered and drowned in Turnbull Creek in Dickson County, Tennessee. It’s only when her 11-year-old daughter is allowed to testify that the truth comes out. She describes a horrific day on which the stepmother forced her 15-year-old big brother to murder their birth mother in front of her after years of jealous hatred, during which the evil stepmom sometimes forced the children to phone their mother and tell her that they hate her, and physically abused the children herself.
The stepmother’s defence counter-claims that the children go to their mother’s mobile home to rob her, and that things get out of hand leading to murder. The children then expose the stepmother’s threats as she forces them to stage the crime scene. The trigger? Signs point to the stepmother becoming enraged after finding out that the children’s mother is petitioning for custody. The more you learn about this case, the crueller it becomes… like something out of a Southern Gothic fairy-tale.