Southern Gothic

Southern Gothic is a subgenre of Gothic fiction in American literature that takes place in the American South.

Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may be involved in hoodoo,[1] decayed or derelict settings,[2] grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.


Elements of a Gothic treatment of the South were apparent in the 19th century, ante- and post-bellum, in the grotesques of Henry Clay Lewis and the de-idealized visions of Mark Twain.[3] The genre came together, however, only in the 20th century, when dark romanticism, Southern humor, and the new literary naturalism merged into a new and powerful form of social critique.[3] The thematic material was largely a result of the culture existing in the South following the collapse of the Confederacy. It left a vacuum in both values and religion that became filled with poverty due to defeat in the Civil war and reconstruction, racism, excessive violence, and hundreds of different denominations resulting from the theological divide that separated the country over the issue of slavery.

The term "Southern Gothic" was originally used as pejorative and dismissive. Ellen Glasgow used the term in this way when she referred to the writings of Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner. She included the authors in what she called the "Southern Gothic School" in 1935, stating that their work was filled with "aimless violence" and "fantastic nightmares." It was so negatively viewed at first that Eudora Welty said, "They better not call me that!"[4]


The Southern Gothic style employs macabre, ironic events to examine the values of the American South.[5] Thus unlike its parent genre, it uses the Gothic tools not solely for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South – Gothic elements often taking place in a magic realist context rather than a strictly fantastical one.[6]

Warped rural communities replaced the sinister plantations of an earlier age; and in the works of leading figures such as William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor, the representation of the South blossomed into an absurdist critique of modernity as a whole.[3]

There are many characteristics in Southern Gothic Literature that relate back to its parent genre of American Gothic and even to European Gothic. However, the setting of these works is distinctly Southern. Some of these characteristics are exploring madness, decay and despair, continuing pressures of the past upon the present, particularly with the lost ideals of a dispossessed Southern aristocracy and continued racial hostilities.[4]

Southern Gothic particularly focuses on the South's history of slavery, racism, fear of the outside world, violence, a "fixation with the grotesque, and a tension between realistic and supernatural elements".[4]

Similar to the elements of the Gothic castle, Southern Gothic gives us the decay of the plantation in the post-Civil War South.[4]

Villains who disguise themselves as innocents or victims are often found in Southern Gothic Literature, especially stories by Flannery O'Connor, such as Good Country People and The Life You Save May Be Your Own, giving us a blurred line between victim and villain.[4]

Southern Gothic literature set out to expose the myth of old antebellum South, and its narrative of an idyllic past hidden by social, familial, and racial denials and suppressions.[7]


Some have included Eudora Welty in the category, but apparently she disagreed: "They better not call me that!", she abruptly told Alice Walker in an interview.[10]

A resurgence of Southern Gothic themes in contemporary fiction has been identified in the work of figures like Barry Hannah (1942–2010),[11] Joe R. Lansdale (b. 1951)[12] and Cherie Priest (b. 1975).[12]

Film and television

A number of films and television programs are also described as being part of the Southern Gothic genre. Some prominent examples are:


Television series


Southern Gothic (also known as Gothic Americana, or Dark Country) is a genre of acoustic-based alternative rock and Americana music that combines elements of traditional country, folk, blues, and gospel, often with dark lyrical subject matter. The genre shares thematic connections with the Southern Gothic genre of literature, and indeed the parameters of what makes something Gothic Americana appears to have more in common with literary genres than traditional musical ones. Songs often examine poverty, criminal behavior, religious imagery, death, ghosts, family, lost love, alcohol, murder, the devil and betrayal.[23]


Photographic representation

The images of Great Depression photographer Walker Evans are frequently seen to evoke the visual depiction of the Southern Gothic; Evans claimed: "I can understand why Southerners are haunted by their own landscape".[34]

Another noted Southern Gothic photographer was surrealist, Clarence John Laughlin, who photographed cemeteries, plantations, and other abandoned places throughout the American South (primarily Louisiana) for nearly 40 years.

Postmodern pastiche

William Gibson took an ironic look at the cult of "Southernness" in his novel Virtual Light. Rydell, the stolid, southern antihero, is looking for a job at an LA shop called Nightmare Folk Art—Southern Gothic. The (northern) owner says he finds Rydell unsuitable: "What we offer people here is a certain vision, Mr. Rydell. A certain darkness as well. A Gothic quality....The Mind of the South. A fever dream of sensuality".[35]

Put out by finding himself not southern enough for this New Englander, "'Lady,' Rydell said carefully, 'I think you're crazier than a sack full of assholes.' Her eyebrows shot up. 'There,' she said. 'There what?' 'Color, Mr. Rydell. Fire. The brooding verbal polychromes of an almost unthinkably advanced decay.'"[35]

See also


  1. Merkel, Julia (2008). Writing against the Odds. pp. 25–27.
  2. Bloom, Harold (2009). The Ballad of the Sad Cafe – Carson McCullers. pp. 95–97.
  3. Flora, Joseph M.; Mackethan, Lucinda Hardwick, eds. (2002). The Companion to Southern Literature. pp. 313–16. ISBN 978-0807126929.
  4. Marshall, Bridget (2013). Defining Southern Gothic. Critical Insights: Southern Gothic Literature: Salem Press. pp. 3–18. ISBN 978-1-4298-3823-8.
  5. "Genre: The Southern Gothic".
  6. Bjerre, T.  (2017, June 28). Southern Gothic Literature. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.
  7. Walsh, Christopher (2013). ""Dark Legacy": Gothic Ruptures in Southern Literature". Critical Insights: Southern Gothic Literature. Salem Press. pp. 19–33. ISBN 978-1-4298-3823-8.
  8. "The Toll By Cherie Priest". MacMillan Publishing Official Website. Retrieved July 12, 2019.
  9. Smith, Allan Lloyd (2004). American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction.
  10. Donaldson, Susan V. (September 22, 1997). "Making a Spectacle: Welty, Faulkner, and Southern Gothic". The Mississippi Quarterly.
  11. Merkel, Julia (2008). Writing against the Odds. p. 31.
  12. Don D'Ammassa: The New Southern Gothic: Cherie Priest’s Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Wings to the Kingdom, and Not Flesh Nor Feathers. In: Danel Olson (ed.):21st-Century Gothic : Great Gothic Novels Since 2000. Scarecrow, 2010, ISBN 9780810877283, p. 171.
  13. Wigley, Samuel (January 20, 2014). "10 great Southern Gothic films". British Film Institute. Retrieved March 13, 2014.
  14. Canby, Vincent (January 16, 1975). "Screen: 'Macon County Line' Arrives". The New York Times.
  15. Gibron, Bill. "More than Just Gore The Macabre: Moral Compass of Lucio Fulci". PopMatters. Retrieved July 26, 2015.
  16. Gibron, Bill. "Lucio Fulci's The Beyond (1981)". PopMatters. Retrieved July 26, 2015.
  17. "20 Best Southern Gothic Movies". Taste of Cinema.
  18. "20 Best Southern Gothic Movies". A Taste of Cinema.
  19. "Tom Ford mines Texan roots for Southern Gothic styling of Nocturnal Animals". Sydney Morning Herald.
  20. "Building a Southern Gothic". The Wall Street Journal. April 24, 2013. Retrieved May 6, 2014.
  21. "A Supernatural Southern Gothic Superhero Show". UrbanDaddy.
  22. "Review: Outcast Premiere". EW.
  23. "Gothic Americana tag". Retrieved March 10, 2014.
  24. "16 Horsepower Artist Biography".
  25. "Did Rick Rubin Turn Johnny Cash Into A Cheesy Goth?".
  26. "'Johnny Cash And The Paradox Of American Identity' by Leigh H. Edwards".
  27. "Tapestry Music Podcast Episode 2: Katie Dee".
  28. "Millvale Music Festival 2018". Punksburgh.
  29. "Featured Artist Julie Mintz: The Haunting, Otherworldly Side Of Folk". LA Music Blog.
  30. "Interviews: Adam Turla (Murder By Death)".
  31. "Joshua Cutchin: Weird Words & Brass Beats". Joshua Cutchin: Weird Words & Brass Beats. Retrieved September 9, 2019.
  33. "Slim Cessna's Auto Club Brings Its Gothic Americana To Beachland Ballroom".
  34. Merkel, Julia (2008). Writing against the Odds. p. 57.
  35. Gibson, William (1993). Virtual Light. pp. 53–4.
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