The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 7-12

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

Episode 7: “Meet the Beetles”

The Gothicism of this episode is evident right from the opening, as Caleb and his friend Boone visit the ruins of the Temple house one foggy evening. When Caleb falls through a rotted floorboard, his foot gets caught inside the ribcage of a skeleton that seems to clutch at him as he thrashes.

“Meet the Beetles” also features several graveyard scenes. Caleb is perplexed by the discovery of a tombstone bearing his name (he dreams of digging up the grave, only to have his own undead self leap out at him). What’s actually buried here, though, is $30,000–a cash offering from Sheriff Buck to help get the orphaned Caleb started in life. Buck further tempts Caleb with the vision of building a “big old estate home” where the Temples’ house once stood (Buck now owns the land). The picture the sheriff paints–of luxuriating in a hammock while being weighed on by servants–calls to mind Thomas Sutpen’s obsession in the classic Faulkner novel Absalom, Absalom!.

A good old Southern Gothic murder mystery forms the dark heart of the episode. Married men with rumored connections to Selena keep ending up dead, their corpses (though only days old) curiously stripped of skin and flesh. When the investigating Lt. Jack Drey (guest star Bruce Campbell) finds himself chained inside a makeshift coffin and covered with carnivorous beetles, his gruesome predicament firmly establishes “Meet the Beetles” as the most horrifying of American Gothic‘s first seven installments.

 

Episode 8: “Strong Arm of the Law”

The eighth episode of American Gothic opens with Caleb and his sidekick Boone sneaking up onto a porch at night to catch glimpse of a naked woman. The would-be voyeurs, though, are shocked to discover no bathing beauty but rather a group of pig-masked figures busy drowning a man in a tub.

Will Hawkins, the victim, had recently endorsed a rival candidate for the position of town sheriff, leading Deputy Ben to doubt that Hawkins’s death was a mere accident. Further suspicion falls on Lucas Buck when a band of lawless brothers arrive in Trinity and begin shaking down local business owners (under the flimsy pretense that they are collecting for charities such as the “Sheriff’s Retirement Home”). But Buck is not responsible for the presence of the criminal quartet, who have chosen the wrong Southern town to stir up trouble in. The Sheriff’s qualities as a Gothic hero-villain are never more evident than when he first smooth-talks the brothers (leading them to believe that he approves of their misbehavior), and then methodically takes vengeance against them. Justice is is chillingly dispensed: one brother, in Poe-esque fashion, ends up buried alive alongside Will Hawkins in the latter’s coffin. And the episode’s climax offers a scenario that prefigures the traps of the Saw films: Buck handcuffs two of the brothers together (one has been trapped inside a wrecked, overturned car), sticks a burning road flare inside the gas tank, then tosses the captives a knife and proposes that they try to free themselves by cutting off a hand at the wrist.

An exploding gas tank soon decides the matter for the hoodlums. Prior to meeting this grisly fate, the brothers had also run afoul of Caleb. Midway through the episode, they sneak into Caleb’s room in the boarding house, accosting him for making off with their suitcase full of stolen goods. The tables are turned, though, and Caleb ends up putting a scare into his visitors by unleashing a beastly roar. Caleb credits his (unseen) sister Merlyn with the supernatural assistance, but one can’t help but wonder if the boy (dubbed a “demon child” by one of the spooked brothers) is really infused with Buck’s ungodly powers.

 

Episode 9: “To Hell and Back”

The dashing Dr. Matt is forced to face the ugliness from his past when a drunken-driving accident involving a married couple in Trinity stirs the memory of the doctor’s tragic loss of his own wife and daughter. Naturally, the supernatural sheriff of Trinity, Lucas Buck, is the driving force behind the recent accident–part of a fiendish plot to send the doctor on a terrible guilt trip. The ever-tempting Buck then tries to detour Matt (a recovering alcoholic) from the road of sobriety by proffering a bottle and promising him “oblivion.”

Meanwhile, young Caleb fixates on his creepy neighbor Mr. Emmett (shades of Boo Radley), who is spied digging a conspicuously rectangular hole in his yard and howling the name “Omar” at the moon. To the impressionable Caleb (just returned from watching a horror movie), Mr. Emmett seems to be burying a dead body in his pumpkin patch. Caleb ultimately is proven right, but Mr. Emmett is not the nefarious figure he seems, as the episode emphasizes the gap between appearance and reality. This American Gothic theme is further sounded when Caleb’s cousin Gail tutors him about gardening: a plant with a sinister-sounding name like “snakeroot” isn’t actually poisonous, whereas “the ones with the pretty names, they can kill you.”

“To Hell and Back” ends on a seemingly heartwarming, all-dogs-go-to-heaven note, but Mr. Emmett’s love for, and loyalty toward, his deceased pet is overshadowed by the act of small-town malice that caused the canine’s death in the first place: someone put lye in Omar’s food!

Once again, the small details form a large part of American Gothic‘s allure: as Dr. Matt experiences a ghostly flashback to the scene of his family’s car accident, the audience is given a close-up of a Massachusetts license plate lined with the phrase “The Spirit of America.” Of course, in the context of this television series, that slogan connotes much more than patriotic pride.

 

Episode 10: “The Beast Within”

This tenth episode (in terms of narrative sequence, not air date) of American Gothic opens and closes with an eerie dream scene. Caleb moves down a long corridor lined with cells (arms stretch ghoulishly through the bars). The boy is drawn by a shirtless prisoner’s cries of “Father!” Caleb’s path to the prisoner is cut off by the sudden appearance of a shadowy figure (whom the viewer readily suspects is Sheriff Lucas Buck). This figure flashes a razor blade that is then passed to the prisoner, who promptly uses it to make a bloody incision in his own belly. Such events no doubt are the stuff of nightmare, but the setting here is what proves most striking to me: the Dark Tunnel has long been a topos of Gothic literature (cf. the catacombs in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the site of Hannibal Lector’s imprisonment in The Silence of the Lambs).

The plot of the episode centers on a hostage crisis that lands Caleb, his cousin Gail, Lucas, and Dr. Matt in hospital room with a gun-wielding escapee from the psych ward of a nearby military base. Complicating matters further is the fact that this man Artie (the prisoner from Caleb’s dream) also happens to be Deputy Ben’s brother. The horrors of warfare seem to have left Artie mentally unbalanced, but in true Gothic fashion, the man is also haunted by an incident from his distant past. While on a hunting trip as a child, he accidentally shot and killed his father.

In its very title, this episode conjures a lycanthropic image and brings to mind the Gothic theme of split identity that traces back to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the most obvious level, the hidden beast here is the makeshift bomb that the munitions expert Artie has sewn inside his stomach. But “beast” also has infernal overtones, and thus the episode title can be seen to point to Lucas’s devilish presence inside the hospital room (we soon discover that the sheriff has orchestrated the entire hostage drama for his own nefarious purposes). At one point during the crisis Lucas admits to never carrying a gun (because shooting wouldn’t give the lawman a chance to impart a lesson to his antagonist), causing a sarcastic Gail to inquire if his demeanor should be perceived as an act of pacifism. “No ma’am,” Lucas bluntly replies. “You should view it as an act of seduction.” Never has the sheriff given stronger clue to his sinister nature; Lucas also marks his own dangerous duality as a Gothic hero-villain, hinting at the harm that’s always lurking behind his charm.

 

Episode 11: “Rebirth”

Initially, the premise of “Rebirth” makes it seem like an episode of The Ghost Whisperer rather than the grim fare the audience has come to expect from American Gothic. Tired of her angelic afterlife–of her inability to touch or feel anything when she makes her visitations to her brother Caleb–Merlyn works to take on corporeal form once again. She manages to reincarnate, assumes a new identity (“Halle Monroe”), revels in the joys of earthly existence, and even experiences love for the first time.

But all is not as saccharine as this synopsis might make seem. Early in the episode, Caleb is shown to be a lonesome object of derision, as a group of teens taunt him about his ignominious family history. Caleb has been tainted by the scandal surrounding the Temples, and observing his mistreatment, Merlyn appears to him lamenting that “It’s the sins of the Father, and it ain’t right.” This notion of generational plague is a recurrent theme in Gothic narratives.

Other Gothic trappings are also evident in “Rebirth”–literally, Ray (the motorcycle-riding local with whom Merlyn falls in love) is entrapped in a police cruiser when Sheriff Buck uses his powers to lock the innocent young man inside the vehicle on a suffocatingly hot afternoon. The episode also offers a bit of Poe-esque grotesquerie when Buck forces Ray to dig up Merlyn’s grave and discover that his dearly beloved girl has already departed. We are only given brief glimpse of Merlyn in decomposing repose, but it is no doubt a haunting image.

Buck, seeing through the “Halle” disguise,” eventually confronts Merlyn. He doesn’t seek to banish her, though. Instead, he encourages her to continue on frolicking in fleshly form. But Merlyn knows enough about Buck to recognize devilish temptation: she has returned to life by borrowing the spirit of a pregnant woman’s child, and if she doesn’t return that vital force to its rightful owner, the child will die before it has a chance to be born (perhaps killing the mother in the process). Rather than committing “the ultimate sin,” and losing Caleb’s faith in her in the process, Merlyn chooses to take a suicide dive off the side of a bridge. And so for the second time in the first half-season of the series, Merlyn suffers a shocking death.

 

Episode 12: “Ring of Fire”

The title of this episode might echo that of a Johnny Cash song, but on American Gothic Sheriff Lucas Buck is the ultimate Man in Black.

“Ring of Fire” (which never aired during the series’ single-season run) focuses on Gail’s quest to solve the mystery surrounding her parents’ deaths years earlier in a fire at their newspaper office. Suspecting none other than Lucas Buck (whom Gail’s parents had been investigating at the time) to be the fatal firebug, Gail breaks into the sheriff’s home. Hoping to dig up some dirt, she finds a remarkably clean and modernly furnished residence, albeit one with some bits of macabre decor thrown into into the mix: a gargoyle squatting over the front doorway, a dark stone statue in the foyer, a stuffed raven and an occult tome on a table.

As Gail grows more preoccupied by her search for answers, she suffers a nightmare that makes the shocking final scene from Carrie seem tame by comparison. She envisions herself visiting her parents’ grave site on a bright, sunny day, only to have the pair of moldering corpses suddenly rip through the ground and demand that she avenge their murder.

Effusing his trademark seductive charm, Lucas offers to lead Gail to the truth (provided that she agree to welcome his future sexual advances). Gail grudgingly agrees, and quickly regrets the decision. The sheriff forewarned her that “no one’s exactly who they appear to be,” but Gail learns that lesson the hard way. She discovers (via Lucas-facilitated flashbacks) that the childhood she recalls as idyllic was actually anything but. Her father was guilty of both spousal abuse and sadistic violence towards his own daughter (apparently Gail had repressed the memory of how she got that burn mark on her arm). Even more sordid details emerge: at the time of her death Gail’s mother was pregnant with a child conceived during an extramarital affair with Gage Temple (father of Gail’s cousin Caleb!). Gage was also the arsonist who ended up killing both Christine and Peter Emory (not realizing that his lover was still inside the office with her wretch of a husband when he set fire to it).

At the start of “Ring of Fire,” a librarian tells Gail that “the secret history of the South is hidden in blood. Genealogy. Family.” It’s a distinctly Faulknerian sentiment, one that bookends with a comment Lucas makes later in the episode. In absolute echo of Absalom, Absalom!, Lucas observes: “The past isn’t dead. Hell, it isn’t even the past.” His words strike at one of the most central themes of the Gothic: the haunting and harrying impingement of prior history on the present moment.

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