The following essay was first posted on the old Macabre Republic blog back in 2012.
There’s no doubt we have come a long way from the lovable straw-man who befriended Dorothy on the glowing road to the Emerald City. While cute scarecrows in pop culture do persist, they are outnumbered and overshadowed by their more macabre counterparts. Why, though, is the scarecrow such a frightful guy? What is it about this constructed figure that proves so unnerving to observers?
A possible explanation begins with the anthropomorphic form of the scarecrow. The thing’s semblance of, yet discernible difference from, humanity makes it strangely disturbing to behold. Composed of natural (i.e. straw) and old-household items, the scarecrow vaguely suggests a life-size voodoo doll. Indeed, the notion of unholy creation has long been linked with the scarecrow, going back to one of its earliest appearances in American literature. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 short story “Feathertop,” Mother Rigby (“one of the most cunning and potent witches in New England”) crafts a humanoid straw-man using her own broomstick as spinal cord, and then brings the thing to life via puffs from a diabolically-stoked coal pipe.
Before the scarecrow, in its various fictional and cinematic manifestations, is brought to life, it certainly conveys a corpse-like quality. Weathered and wizened, slowly decomposing (as seen in the photo above). The scarecrow is a figure marked by both categorical incompleteness and boundary transgression (when internal straw pokes out of its body like desiccant viscera). It straddles the borderline between the inanimate and the animate, especially when the breeze fluttering its tattered garb intimates bodily movement. Its very station as sentinel lends it a spooky aura of sentience: a person can’t help but feel watched by it, and wonder if he/she is being tracked, the same way the eyes of a portrait seemingly follow movement across a room.
When considering the dark aspects of the scarecrow, we should not overlook its traditional crucified pose. Aside from the serious religious implications–the debased reflection of Christ’s sacred image–there’s the connotation of the capitally-punished criminal. Historically, the crucifixion victim was left hanging as an ominous message to others, and the rotting body became the spoils of carrion birds all around. Likewise, when a scarecrow fails to live up to its name, it can be reduced to a perch/chew-toy for black, cacophonic scavengers.
The scarecrow’s location, its typically rustic habitat, is no less integral to its fearfulness. Time and again, the figure is subjected to solitary consignment in a cornfield (that heartland labyrinth and classic American Gothic topos). Its perennially outdoor existence renders it forlorn. The constant exposure to the elements saturates it with wretchedness and gloom–an aura that John Mellencamp draws on in his haunting hit song “Rain on the Scarecrow.”
When sporting its familiar burlap mask, the scarecrow assumes additional sinisterness. The onlooker inevitably imagines that an actual human being might be hiding in rural disguise (the cult classic Dark Night of the Scarecrow builds masterful suspense from such unsettling uncertainty). A mask also raises the specter of underlying grotesquerie, a hideousness of feature or demeanor that affronts one’s basic conceptions of normalcy/civility. Part of the required uniform for the evil killer, a mask has given a quasi-scarecrow look to antagonists in sundry films, from Nightbreed and The Strangers to Batman Begins and Trick ‘R Treat. Director Wes Craven cemented the link between the murderous scarecrow and the slasher figure when he entertained the idea of a sack-colored Ghostface for Scream 4; the alteration didn’t make it to the final cut, but nonetheless has since been popularized as an officially licensed costume.
Last but not least, the scarecrow (by virtue of its association with crops and the harvesting thereof) is a quintessential autumn figure, that season when the days of the year grow short and the nights longer and colder. And once the scarecrow was fashioned (in art and life) with a jack-o’-lantern head, it instantly transformed into an icon of Halloween. As long as Americans are wont to engage in pagan celebration each October, the scary scarecrow will remain firmly staked in our cultural and psychological soil.