Next month, Madness Heart Press will release American Cult, an anthology of stories of alternative history and distinctly American horror. It includes my short story, “stuffed,” and to celebrate, this is the first installment of a three-part examination of horror that has been molded by the American experience; a look at the empty places.
It’s remarkably easy to forget how large the United States is, geographically speaking. In the US, most of us watch cable news, eat at chain restaurants, and watch big-budget Hollywood movies at chain theaters. It’s easy to be lulled into the impression that our world is much smaller than it is, much more uniform, and thus both more comprehensible and much easier to control than it is actually is.
A road trip, even a Sunday drive a few hours away from one’s home and back, puts that lie to rest. Not that there isn’t uncertainty and horror aplenty to be had in America’s cities, suburbs, and rural communities – I’ll get to those in my next few installments. But there’s a particular and special kind of American horror to be had in the truly empty places, in the abandoned or never-occupied corners of the country. You know the kind of places I’m talking about here; whether it’s a wire fence by the side of a state road in Wyoming, frozen and fluttering with the trapped shreds of plastic bags, or a sunbaked and long-abandoned shed rotting in the Arizona summer, or a tangle of muddy cypress trees greedily clutching a stagnant swamp in Florida. America is riddled with empty places, and the empty places have a dread poetry and an allure all their own.
Plainfield, Wisconsin, is one such empty place; one farmhouse there, in particular, was the site of isolation and madness tuned to a pitch that would echo through horror fiction – and the American subconscious – for decades to come. Plainfield is where, in the 1940s and 50s, Ed Gein committed at least two murders and engaged in a spree of grave-robbing and desecration. Gein was deeply disturbed and had significant isolation in which to work; he famously fashioned clothing, decorations, and household goods from the human remains he stole.
The news coverage of Gein’s grisly crimes met the confluence of television and an American psyche ripe and ready for a home-grown Jack the Ripper; a nihilistic specter to haunt the New World’s new age. This villain would arrive in August of 1969 in the person of Charles Manson, but Gein’s shadow still looms large – arguably, larger than the shadow cast by Manson himself. Consider that one man – Ed Gein, who was only ever convicted of two murders and was primarily a grave-robber – was the inspiration for the Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and House of 1,000 Corpses.
That’s an illustrious list of titles to have influenced. Of them, I’d say that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 triple shot of pure, unfiltered nihilistic horror, has to be my favorite. For such a low-budget, ramshackle production (famously, the film cost $140,000 to make and eventually grossed $30 million), Chainsaw has more going on than most people absorb at first glance. It’s an exploration of the darkest places humanity can go, and asks the question “who will survive and what will be left of them?” without answering it to the audience’s satisfaction. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film of and for the empty places that howl so loudly in American isolation; hardpan abattoirs where the gods of pain are worshipped with shrieking saw and twisted barbed wire.
It doesn’t take a maniac with a face of tattered human leather to explore these places. One of the best examinations of American desolation falls outside the catalog of horror titles, although it’s certainly horror-adjacent: Cruddy, by cartoonist and novelist Lynda Barry. Cruddy follows the drug-, alcohol-, and mental-illness-fueled crash course in bleak depravity given the protagonist in her youth by her father, while also serving as a grim meditation on her later teenage misadventures. Cruddy takes us to the same America that Texas Chainsaw does, although Barry does it in a way that is less murderous and more comical than the view presented by Hooper. It’s an America that horror and horror-tinged fiction takes us to while allowing us to survive; an America of junk dealers (metal or heroin; take your pick), mad prophets, and predators one step removed from the beasts of the wild.
The empty places, you see, are never really as empty as we’d like – not quite.