The American Southern Gothic: An Evolving Screen Genre

A plantation-style home inhabited by vampires. A family of “hillbillies” living in the swamp. A Southern belle futilely attempting to reclaim her glory days. The stereotypes and tropes of Southern Gothic film are familiar, but in The American Southern Gothic on Screen, Karen Horsley says that these films have “been somewhat overlooked as a genre worthy of close analysis.” She sets out to remedy the lack of critical attention by illuminating the depth and history of this compelling film category.

Using examples from Gone with the Wind (1939), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and Toys in the Attic (1963) to Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003), True Detective (2014), and The Devil All the Time (2020), Horsley provides an incredible overview of the American Southern Gothic as a screen genre, positioning it in the context of Gothic fiction more broadly along with its accompanying critical conversations. Though this is her first book on the subject, it’s clear that Horsley has conducted extensive research with careful attention to detail and nuance. This is evident in the precision of her terms. For example, she uses the term “screen text” to describe any type of film, whether it’s a documentary, television show, or feature film, and “screen genre” to describe the larger category of Southern Gothic on film.

Horsley argues that “the Southern Gothic’s status as a dynamic and evolving screen genre is reaffirmed through the implicit suggestion that the Gothic South is never final, never closed off, never entirely faded.” Throughout the book, Horsley shows that the concept of the American Southern Gothic is not a finite or restrictive genre. Instead, it is a mode that exhibits extreme flexibility on screen and that grows out of, transforms, and relates to a wide variety of other gothics — both historical and geographical — such as the Victorian Gothic or the Australian Gothic. Horsley positions the American Southern Gothic in relation to these other genres and modes by creating a well-structured, scholarly text.

Each section of the book builds on previous sections, moving the reader from one piece of information to the next in a logical sequence. Section One discusses “The South in the Cultural Imaginary” by describing perceived regional qualities of the South and its inhabitants, particularly as these qualities have appeared on film. This section does not necessarily attempt to explain the realities of the American South or to address the real lived conditions of people in the American South; instead, Horsley is interested in how the South has been constructed through film representations. 

Section Two goes on to elaborate these points, connecting Southern identity, gothic genres and modes, and historical context to the Gothic more generally. Section Three explores “The Southern Gothic on Screen” and provides a survey of Southern Gothic screen texts. Finally, Section Four consists of two “Case Studies: Toys in the Attic and Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.” In this final section, Horsley does her most persuasive work by closely examining two specific screen texts. Additional case studies would likely have added interest to the book. Many films are mentioned and discussed briefly throughout the book, and in Section Four, I found myself wanting to dive into some of Horsley’s other examples in more detail.

The American Southern Gothic on Screen is the first volume in a new series published by Amsterdam University Press, and a second volume (Screening the Gothic in Australia and New Zealand) is scheduled for publication later this year. Horsley herself is Australian and currently teaches at Swinburne University in Melbourne. Her country of origin provides her with a unique perspective on the American South, particularly as it appears on television and in film.

The information and analysis that Horsley provides will appeal to many readers interested in screen depictions of the South, but The American Southern Gothic on Screen is a distinctively academic text. Each chapter begins with an abstract and a brief list of key terms, but this may not be especially helpful for someone accustomed to reading popular nonfiction. These features also set each chapter apart from one another, rather than contributing to a more streamlined monograph structure. This is not necessarily a weakness of the book, but it may not be preferred by all readers.

Horsley’s work is a thorough overview of the American Southern Gothic as a screen genre and of the Gothic as a mode which extends beyond the limitations of genre. Her perspective as an “outsider” provides a unique viewpoint from which to examine the screen texts that have largely represented the American South to outsiders. For those who want to learn more about the history of this screen genre, The American Southern Gothic on Screen is a perfect starting point. It will lead many readers to films they may not have heard of or considered seriously, and it will provide a variety of new lenses through which to view films and TV shows we already know and love.

The American Southern Gothic on Screen
By Karen Horsley
Amsterdam University Press
Published May 24, 2022