The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 13-17

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 13: “Resurrector”

Local shock jock Mel Kirby approaches the influential Sheriff Buck for help in moving from radio into television work, but when Lucas refuses to get involved, Mel vows to get even with him. An opportunity presents itself when the sheriff’s deputy, Ben, shoots Lance Biggs after the man fired on the postal carrier who was delivering bills to his home. Turns out that Biggs had owed Lucas money, so Mel uses his radio platform to (in Lucas’s words) “put a dark spin on this morning’s events.”

But give the devil his due: Lucas is not to be outdone when it comes to dirty dealing. With the help of his seductive sidekick Selena, Lucas convinces Mel that a brighter future awaits him: he can make a break into television, but only as a solo act. Mel will have to dump (i.e. kill off) his radio co-host wife Gloria. With that in mind, Mel takes Gloria out for a boat ride on Jackson Lake (only on American Gothic does a nighttime foray onto an eerie, fog-shrouded lake fit the notion of a romantic date). Unbeknownst to Mel, though, Gloria has already been warned by Lucas of her husband’s dishonorable intentions.

Meanwhile, Caleb–troubled by the lingering afterlife of his sister Merlyn–takes steps to release her from her earthly hauntings. Miss Holt, who runs the boarding house where Caleb lives, has a family scrapbook that contains the instructions for holding a “second funeral”–a “going-away party for the dead.” Caleb enlists the aid of his friend Boone, and when the former insists that they follow the directions exactly so as to adhere to old customs, the latter offers a distinctly Gothic counterpoint: “Burning people at the stake was an old custom, too.”

But the best line in the episode belongs to Lucas. When Mel realizes he’s been duped, he moans that he had only come to the sheriff for help. In response, Lucas flashes some of the grim wit that makes him such a wonderful hero-villain: “Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.”

 

Episode 14: “Inhumanitas”

American Gothic certainly justifies its show title with this fourteenth episode. “Inhumanitas” opens with Sheriff Lucas Buck and Father Tilden sitting in a church confessional. Lucas, though, isn’t there to articulate his various transgressions but to learn of the secret sins of Trinity’s populace. Father Tilden dishes the dirt on the townspeople, citing incidents of petty theft, unwanted pregnancy, and marital infidelity.  Lucas seeks “something [he] can use” in his personal dealings with the locals, and gets a surprisingly juicy tidbit when Tilden confides that Barbara Hudson puts nails in the street to keep cars from speeding by her house.

Corrupt religious figures are a familiar character type in Gothic narratives, and Tilden ties in to that tradition based on the bargain he has made with the devilish Lucas. In return for snitching on the penitent, Tilden gets the assurance that no harm will come to his church (which, as the sheriff recounts during the conversation in the confessional, has been “miraculously” spared from damage by a wildfire that ravaged the rest of the buildings on that block).

Macabre rendition of religious icons is another hallmark of the Gothic, and in this opening scene viewers watch a church statue come to life and take on the visage of Merlyn Temple. Merlyn has turned avenging angel in the hopes of saving her brother Caleb’s soul from Lucas.

Later in the episode, Lucas snuffs the life out of a Scripture-spouting Tilden by squeezing the crucifix from a set of the priest’s rosary beads in his fist. Tilden’s desperate prayer and the lack of protection provided by Christianity’s primary symbol recall the scene from the televised version of Salem’s Lot where Father Callahan is thwarted by the vampire Barlow.

Echoes of Psycho: as part of Merlyn’s terror campaign against the sheriff, she turns the water in his lover Selena’s shower bloody (the image of the dark fluid circling down the drain is unmistakably Hitchcockian).

As Lucas works his latest scheme against Barbara’s husband Brian, he remarks (perhaps only half-jokingly) that the man could remove an unwanted tenant on his land by dismembering his body and burying him in the cellar–a course of action with which the narrators of certain Edgar Allan Poe stories would no doubt approve.

The episode’s most ominous note, though, is struck during the climactic confrontation between Lucas and Merlyn. The sheriff boasts of the dark power latent in his son Caleb, and warns that if he (Lucas) is killed, his evil spirit will flow straight inside the boy. “The child becomes the man,” and the Gothic theme of terrible inheritance is accordingly given a frightening twist.

 

Episode 15: “The Plague Sower”

In this episode, American Gothic hearkens back to the work of Charles Brockden Brown, by setting its story against a backdrop of terrible plague. A mysterious illness has been leveling the people of Trinity, who end up bleeding out from their mouth, eyes, and ears. Naturally, panic is burgeoning in the as-yet-uninfected, but Sheriff Lucas Buck tries to calm down the nervous masses by discounting the reports of bloody demise.
“In a small town,” he tells reporters and concerned citizens, “rumors can act like a cancer.”

Meantime, Lucas is using the situation to his advantage. When local hardware store owner A.E. Tippett comes to him complaining of bloody visions, Lucas offers to help the desperate man out–but only if Tippett will frame his own brother for the crime of vehicular homicide. Later, in a wonderfully ghoulish scene, Lucas moves to steal a plasma bag from a would-be transfusion recipient lying on a gurney in the hospital, just because the man had refused to do “business” with the sheriff in the past.

“The Plague Sower” is ripe with disturbing images, none more so than when Tippett falls victim to the bloodshed. A basic act of bathroom hygiene transforms into an uncanny incident:as Tippett brushes his teeth, the froth in his mouth is suddenly stained crimson, and what he ends up spitting into the sink looks like the product of the most gruesome case of gingivitis ever.

he source of all this Old-Testament-type unpleasantness? Merlyn Temple, in the role of avenging angel. Determined to protect the righteous and punish the wicked, she preys on anyone who has fallen in with the devilish Lucas (including her own lust-filled cousin Gail).

One minor but memorable moment from the episode perfectly captures the eponymous Gothicism of the series. Dr. Billy Peele, an investigator of the plague sent to Trinity from the CDC, goes door to door questioning the townspeople. When he asks one of the local yokels if he has noticed anything odd about his neighbors, the man’s superficially innocuous response rings with suggestiveness: “No, no more than usual.”

 

Episode 16: “Doctor Death Takes a Holiday”

“This is kind of a strange town, you know?”

These words from Dr. Billy Peele–a recent arrival in Trinity–perfectly capture the vibe of American Gothic. There’s no shortage of intrigue and lurking horror to be found in the bucolic Southern town, as evidenced by the episode “Doctor Death Takes a Holiday.”  When Judge Streeter declines to get involved in Lucas Buck’s latest scheme against Dr. Matt Crower (who has been digging up past nastiness by investigating Merlyn Temple’s death), the sheriff responds by using his devilish gifts to prey upon the gambling addiction of Streeter’s spouse, Charlotte. The desperate housewife (driven to attempt suicide) is discovered lying in a bloody bathtub by the judge after she loses big in a Lucas-influenced poker game.

Meanwhile, a mysterious woman named Angela has come to town, claiming to be Lucas’s mother (she’s actually a jilted ex-lover) and aiming to assassinate the sheriff. When Dr. Matt jumps in to prevent the shooting, Angela is undeterred, working to manipulate the doctor into carrying out the deed himself. She argues that Lucas is “pure, otherworldly evil,” a supernatural equivalent of Hitler who needs to be snuffed out before he causes widespread suffering. The moralistic Dr. Matt is slowly convinced that Angela is right, but when his attempt to shoot down the sheriff fails, he earns himself an extended stay in a staple Gothic setting–an insane asylum.

Angela is dying of brain cancer, and has been admitted to a room in the local hospital. Conveniently enough, it’s the same room where Caleb Temple’s mom resided during the final days of her pregnancy. Room 105 is “cursed” (as the nurse Sarah tells Dr. Matt), plagued by inexplicable cold spots and presumably haunted by Mrs. Temple’s ghost. The nurse also relates that just prior to giving birth to Caleb, the distraught woman raved that someone was trying to take her baby away. Paging Ira Levin

The episode also makes reference to one of the founding fathers of American Gothic fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sitting with a book in hand in the boarding house parlor, Miss Holt tells Dr. Matt that she has chosen this particular author because reading Hawthorne is “like reading the human heart.”  No doubt there’s plenty of sin (secret, if not unpardonable) bound up in the hearts of Trinity’s constituents, and nowhere more voluminously than in the town’s duplicitous, corrupt(ing) law man.

 

Episode 17: “Learning to Crawl”

Despite being set primarily in a weathered cabin in the woods, “Learning to Crawl” is hardly the most Gothic installment of American Gothic. The episode does begin, though, with an instance of the sudden eruption of horror within everyday life, when Caleb is accidentally electrocuted and nearly killed while doing mundane chores down at the Sheriff’s Station.

Once Caleb survives the scare, Sheriff Lucas Buck takes the boy on a bass-fishing trip.  On the drive to the isolated cabin (located on the outskirts of a “ghost town”), Lucas entertains Caleb with a spook story about a monstrous cat haunting the Simpsonville woods. According to the yarning sheriff, the beast has never been seen, and is known only by the savage claw marks it has scored into trees.

The father-and-son team, however, run across a more natural nemesis upon arrival.  The cabin has been occupied by a trio of Capote-esque criminals who are holding a tobacco-company executive for ransom (and who end up killing the hostage in cold blood). These are ruthless folks, for sure, but they meet more than their match in Lucas, who calmly employs his devilish skills to manipulate the situation.

At one point during the standoff with the criminals, Lucas teaches Caleb a “visualization” technique. Caleb proceeds to imagine an outcome in which Jeri reunites with her brother-in-law Ted (with whom she’s been having an affair), but when the adulteress moves to embrace her lover she ends up kissing the bloody-mouthed corpse of her late husband Cody (whom she has recently gunned down). Subsequently, in an attempt to prey on Jeri’s fears, Caleb uses his nascent powers to terrorize her with the approach of the cat-monster from Lucas’s story. A scene of eerily lit woods (that seems to hearken back to the 1989 film Pet Sematary) ends with Jeri’s cheek clawed gorily open.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of “Learning to Crawl” is that the episode dramatizes the deepening bond between Lucas and Caleb and shows the former’s increasing tutelage of the latter. As the season-long run of American Gothic draws to a close, the storyline has started arcing towards what portends to be a dark climax.

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