Southern Gothic

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Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Southern Gothic is an artistic subgenre of fiction, country music, film, theatre, and television that are heavily influenced by Gothic elements and the American South. Common themes of Southern Gothic include storytelling of 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 first apparent during the ante- and post-bellum 19th century in the grotesques of Henry Clay Lewis and in the de-idealized representations of Mark Twain.[3] The genre was consolidated, however, in the 20th century, when dark romanticism, Southern humor, and the new literary naturalism merged in a new and powerful form of social critique.[3] The thematic material was largely a reflection of the culture existing in the South following the collapse of the Confederacy as a consequence of the Civil War, which left a vacuum in its cultural and religious values. The resulting poverty and lingering bitterness over the loss of the Civil War in the region during Reconstruction exacerbated the racism, excessive violence, and religious extremism endemic to the region.[citation needed]

The term "Southern Gothic" was originally 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] Another prominent feature in Southern gothic is its relation to voodoo and hoodoo.


Seward Plantation House, Independence, a strictly fantastical one.[5]

The setting of these works is distinctly Southern. Some of these characteristics include 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.[6]


Eudora Welty was labeled a Southern Gothic author, though she disliked the label
Cherie Priest has been identified as a modern Southern Gothic writer

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] Helen Ellis (b. 1970) and Cherie Priest (b. 1975).[12]

Other media[edit]

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


Television series[edit]

Video games[edit]


Southern Gothic (also known as Gothic Americana, or Dark Country) is a genre of country music rooted in early jazz, gospel, Americana, gothic rock and post-punk.[29] Its lyrics often focus on dark 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.[citation needed]

Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (1982) was influenced by the writings of Flannery O'Connor.[30] Athens, Georgia–based alternative rock band R.E.M. displayed a Southern Gothic influence with their third album, Fables of the Reconstruction (1985).[31] J.D. Wilkes, frontman of the band Legendary Shack Shakers, described Southern Gothic music as "[taking] an angle that there’s something grotesque and beautiful in the traditions of the South, the backdrop of Southern living."[32] Ethel Cain's music has been described as "Southern Gothic Pop,"[33] often focusing on themes such as intergenerational trauma, Christianity, grotesque violence, poverty, and abuse, and she often credits inspiration to the works of Southern Gothic writers such as Flannery O’Connor.


The Southern Gothic genre comes to the stage in many different ways.

Southern Gothic fiction writers like Carson McCullers and Zora Neale Hurston adapted their own work for the stage in language-heavy productions of The Member of the Wedding and Spunk.

Playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Beth Henley, and Jacqueline Goldfinger translated elements of Southern Gothic aesthetic to the stage and added theatrical elements such as stylized movement, dialogue, and design. Examples of Southern Gothic plays include the Pulitzer Prize winner A Streetcar Named Desire (1948), the popular The Jacksonian (2014), and the Yale Prize winner Bottle Fly (2018).

In addition, many Southern Gothic novels and short stories have been adapted for the stage by artists who are not the original authors. The Tony Award winning musical The Color Purple by Alice Walker is a prime example of this approach to theatricalization of the Southern Gothic genre. The Color Purple is an adaptation of the novel with music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray, and Marsha Norman which has been performed around the country constantly since its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 2004.

Photographic representation[edit]

The images of Great Depression photographer Walker Evans are 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.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Merkel, Julia (2008). Writing against the Odds. pp. 25–27.
  2. ^ Bloom, Harold (2010). The Ballad of the Sad Cafe – Carson McCullers. pp. 95–97.
  3. ^ a b Flora, Joseph M.; Mackethan, Lucinda Hardwick, eds. (2002). The Companion to Southern Literature. pp. 313–16. ISBN 978-0807126929.
  4. ^ a b c d e Marshall, Bridget (2013). Defining Southern Gothic. Critical Insights: Southern Gothic Literature: Salem Press. pp. 3–18. ISBN 978-1-4298-3823-8.
  5. ^ Bjerre, T. (2017, June 28). Southern Gothic Literature. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Hughes, William (2013). Historical Dictionary of Gothic Literature. p. 14.
  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. ^ a b 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. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Wigley, Samuel (January 20, 2014). "10 great Southern Gothic films". British Film Institute. Retrieved March 13, 2014.
  14. ^ a b Oliver, James. "10 Southern Gothic films you need to watch". Reader's Digest. Retrieved November 24, 2022.
  15. ^ Canby, Vincent (January 16, 1975). "Screen: 'Macon County Line' Arrives". The New York Times.
  16. ^ Gibron, Bill (May 19, 2010). "More than Just Gore The Macabre: Moral Compass of Lucio Fulci". PopMatters. Retrieved July 26, 2015.
  17. ^ Gibron, Bill (October 15, 2007). "Lucio Fulci's The Beyond (1981)". PopMatters. Retrieved July 26, 2015.
  18. ^ "20 Best Southern Gothic Movies". Taste of Cinema.
  19. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 12, 1986). "Crimes of the Heart". Chicago Sun-Times.
  20. ^ "20 Best Southern Gothic Movies". A Taste of Cinema.
  21. ^ "Review: 'Jug Face' opts for more dread than gore". Los Angeles Times. August 8, 2013.
  22. ^ Hemrajani, Sara (October 12, 2015). "Del Toro subverts gothic romance gender expectations in 'Crimson Peak'". Reuters. Retrieved October 11, 2023.
  23. ^ "Tom Ford mines Texan roots for Southern Gothic styling of Nocturnal Animals". The Sydney Morning Herald. November 9, 2016.
  24. ^ "The twisted horror of the American South". BBC Culture.
  25. ^ "Building a Southern Gothic". The Wall Street Journal. April 24, 2013. Retrieved May 6, 2014.
  26. ^ "A Supernatural Southern Gothic Superhero Show". UrbanDaddy.
  27. ^ "Review: Outcast Premiere". EW.
  28. ^ "'Lovecraft Country' Trailer: Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams Unleash HBO's Big Summer Series". IndieWire. May 2020.
  29. ^ Johnson, Aaron Loki (January 29, 2015). "Yes, there is a 'Denver Sound,' and here's a brief history". CPR. Retrieved November 20, 2022.
  30. ^ "At 40, Springsteen's "Nebraska" Holds Up as a Harbinger of Rural Despair | History News Network". Retrieved December 5, 2023.
  31. ^ Wisgard, Alex (September 3, 2010). "R.E.M. 'Fables of the Reconstruction (Deluxe Edition)'". The Line of Best Fit. Retrieved November 15, 2023.
  32. ^ Oksenhorn, Stewart (February 21, 2006). "Shack*Shakers get back to the roots of Goth". The Aspen Times. Retrieved November 22, 2022.
  33. ^ "Ethel Cain Is Making Southern Gothic Pop Music for the End of the American Empire". FLOOD. Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  34. ^ Merkel, Julia (2008). Writing against the Odds. p. 57.

External links[edit]