Mob Scene: “The Shelter” (The Twilight Zone)

In this 1961 episode from season 3 of The Twilight Zone, a birthday party for a beloved doctor is interrupted by a sobering report on the radio: the government has detected unidentified objects rocketing towards the U.S. A state of yellow alert is promptly declared, and citizens are advised to take shelter. Soon thereafter, Doctor Stockton’s frantic friends and neighbors return, begging him to admit them into the bomb shelter in the cellar of his home (the very refuge they previously ridiculed him for building). Regretfully, the doctor cannot oblige them, since the shelter is designed for three people only (Stockton, his wife Grace, and son Paul). And thus the fallout begins before any bomb drops.

Turned away, the desperate neighbors quickly turn on each other. One of them, Frank, exhibits an ugly anti-Semitic streak, railing against “foreigners” like his friend Marty Weiss, “pushy, grabby semi-Americans.” The line between self and other gets sharply etched; when the idea of obtaining a pipe (to use as a battering ram) from a man on an adjacent street is raised, the group bristles at the thought of letting anyone else know about the existence of the shelter. “We’d have a whole mob to contend with,” one neighbor forewarns, “a whole bunch of strangers.” Ironically, these people don’t realize that they have already degenerated into a mob themselves, acting irrationally and violently amidst their fear. Knowing they all can’t fit inside the shelter doesn’t stop them from trying to bust it open (and ensuring that nobody ends up protected).

In a not-unexpected twist, a second news report (sounding just as the group savages its way into the bomb shelter) announces a false alarm: those were satellites, not nuclear warheads, that had been picked up by military radar. The tension diffused, the group recovers from its momentary lapse into lunacy. The neighbors offer to pay for the damages to the doctor’s property, and even propose throwing a block party the next night to celebrate the return to normalcy. The shell-shocked-looking Stockton, though, scoffs at the notion:

I don’t know what normal is. I thought I did once. I don’t anymore. […] I wonder if any one of us has any idea of what those damages really are. Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re “normal.” The kind of people we are just underneath the skin. I mean all of us. A lot of naked, wild animals, who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege. We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder if we weren’t destroyed even without it.

“The Shelter” is certainly a period piece, addressing the dread manifested by the Cold War. But it also illustrates the timelessness of The Twilight Zone. The episode is just as relevant six decades later, in these chaotic–and sometimes seemingly apocalyptic–times. Right now, we need to take heed to Rod Serling’s concluding comments: “No moral, no message, no prophetic tract. Just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized. Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.”

 

Mob Scene: We Sold Our Souls

In the “Master of Puppets” chapter of Grady Hendrix’s 2018 heavy-metal horror novel We Sold Our Souls, protagonist Kris Pulaski is a fugitive on the run, framed for a series of murders. Worse, her nemesis, the rock god Terry Hunt (who has made a deal with forces much more dangerous than the Devil) has alerted his legions of fans nationwide to be on the lookout for her. Inevitably, Kris is spotted at a highway rest stop, and the gathering crowd immediately begins to menace her verbally and physically. What is interesting here is the technological emphasis: this mob wields not torches and pitchforks but cellphones: “Kris stopped, turned, and saw a wall of people behind the girl, all of them bearing down on her, all of their phones out, all of them staring at her tiny image on their screens, fitting her into their phones, capturing her in their hands” (218). When a suspicious white van at the rest stop begins to blast a song from Terry’s group Koffin, the music transforms the singer’s loyal followers into a viciously homicidal “herd” (220).

Just as Kris is about to be mauled, her former band mate (and current sole ally) JD rolls into the rest step. Kris hops in, but the car is surrounded before it can make its getaway: “The car began to rock on its shocks as the screaming crowd pushed it from side to side” (222). The real mayhem, though, doesn’t kick in until the driver’s side window is shattered:

Pebbles of safety glass showered [JD’s] hair and face and bounced off Kris’s neck, unleashing the roar of the furious crowd. Hands slapped into JD’s face, grabbing his hair, his shirt, his arms. Kris screamed, and JD thrashed and bellowed, but that exposed his tongue and fingers forced their way inside his mouth, hooked his left cheek, grabbed his tongue by the root. JD clung to the wheel as hundreds of hands pulled him out through the window by his lips. Hands pried his fingers off the steering wheel, breaking them with hollow pops, and JD screamed as his left cheek stretched like bubblegum, and then fissures appeared, filled with red, widened, and his cheek came loose from his face and white gobbets of fat and red blood flowed down his hairy chin and the front of his shirt in a bib.  (222-23)

Grim stuff, for sure. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of JD’s suffering. I won’t spoil the reader’s experience here by quoting the passage of JD’s subsequent annihilation, but let’s just say the paragraph has a certain splatterpunk panache. Kris, meanwhile, does manage to escape the lynch mob, although hardly unscathed either physically (she has hunks of hair ripped right out of her scalp) or emotionally.

Hendrix’s short chapter leaves a lasting impression, and constitutes one of the most visceral and chilling mob scenes ever to appear in a horror novel.

 

Mob Scene: The Stand (2)

Last month, I covered a mob scene from early on in Stephen King’s apocalyptic epic, The Stand. Today I would like to return to that novel, which climaxes with a very interesting variation on a mob scene.

Late in chapter 73, Larry Underwood and Ralph Brentner are delivered to the front lawn of the MGM Grand, where they face a gruesome execution (being torn limb from limb by a rigged apparatus). Randall Flagg’s Las Vegas minions have all gathered for the impending bloodletting:

They spread out across the lawn in a rough circle. They were standing in the casino parking lot, on the steps leading up to the lobby doors, in the turnaround drive where incoming guests had once parked while the doorman whistled up a bellhop. They spilled out into the street itself. Some of the younger men had hoisted their girlfriends on their shoulders for a better look at the upcoming festivities. The low murmuring was the sound of the crowd-animal. (1077)

Such set-up has the making for a quintessential mob scene, but the demeanor of the crowd-animal proves surprisingly subdued: “Larry ran his eyes over them, and every eye he met turned away. Every face seemed pallid, distant, marked for death and seeming to know it.” Scattered catcalls and a small cheer when Larry spits on the chains presented to him give him a momentary hope that the crowd might rise up against Flagg, “[b]ut his heart didn’t believe it. Their faces were too pale, too secretive. The defiance from the back was meaningless. […] There was doubt here–he could feel it–and disaffection. But Flagg colored even that. These people would steal away in the dead of night for some of the great empty spaces that the world had become” (1078). For Flagg, these violent public spectacles are less an administration of justice than an exercise in crowd control; he keeps his people in line by keeping them cowed by fear. Even as things start to fall apart in Las Vegas here at novel’s end, Flagg’s terror still creates restraint. When Larry shouts a warning to the crowd that next time it might be their turn to die this way, he can’t quite bring the crowd’s energy to critical mass: “That low murmur again, rising and angry…and the silence” (1079).

Whitney Horgan, one of Flagg’s own underlings, picks up the cause for Larry, decrying the barbarity of the ritual. But Whitney, too, fails to stoke a response: “Dead silence from the crowd. They might all have been turned to gravestones” (1081). When Whitney is dragged forward by Flagg’s black magic (“His sprung and mushy black loafers whispered through the grass and he moved toward the dark man like a ghost”), the witnesses to this evil marvel remain mute: “The crowd had become a slack jaw and a staring eye.” Flagg’s graphic destruction of Whitney with a “blue ball of fire” similarly elicits only quiet amazement: “The crowd released a long, sibilant sound: Aaaahhhh. It was the sound people had made on the Fourth of July when the fireworks display had been particularly good” (1082). Rather than a rabbleroused mob, Flagg’s people have been left utterly agog.

All this, though, is King’s means of setting the stage for a stunning reversal. Suddenly, the crowd does in fact turn unruly: “There was a scream, high, clear, and freezing. Someone broke and ran. Then someone else. And then the crowd, already on an emotional hairtrigger, broke and stampeded” (1083). All hell breaks loose upon the last-minute arrival of the irradiated, warhead-lugging Trashcan Man: “He looked like a man who had driven his electric cart out of the dark and burning subterranean mouth of hell itself” (1084). Dread of nuclear annihilation detonates crowd chaos: “They ran, scattering to all points of the compass, pounding across the lawn of the MGM Grand, across the street, toward the Strip. They had seen the final guest, arrived at last like some grim vision out of a horror tale. They had seen, perhaps, the raddled face of some final awful retribution” (1083). Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is thus reenacted on a grand scale.

Curiously, Mick Garris’s 1994 miniseries adaptation presents an exact reversal of King’s mob scene. When Larry and Ralph arrive, the crowd is a vibrant throng, barely controllable in its bloodthirstiness. These Las Vegans push and chant and brandish their guns; they cheer Flagg like a rock star when he takes the stage. Then, when Trashcan Man crashes this Times-Square-type party, the crowd just stands immobile, rooted in predominantly mute place.

The climax of King’s horror epic has always been somewhat problematical. The “Hand of God” (1084) that triggers the warhead is too much of a “deus ex machina” plot-resolver (and also appears lame when visualized by the ostensible special fx of the miniseries). But hearkening to the deliberate beats here–as King continually diffuses a mob scene and then allows it to explode at last–does make the ending of The Stand much more appreciable.

 

Work Cited

King, Stephen. The Stand. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

 

Mob Scene: The Stand

Chapter 26 of Stephen King’s 1990 novel The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition might rank as the most horrifying chapter the author ever wrote. It presents a montage of scenes dramatizing the disintegration of American civilization as the “Captain Trips” superflu virus wreaks havoc on the populace and precipitates mass rioting and murderous rampaging across the nation. For instance:

TV newscasters held at gunpoint by army thugs and forced to feed misinformation about the outbreak manage a brief coup (before being “summarily executed on charges of treason” [213]), during which they air footage of a military vehicle dumping bodies onto a barge in Boston Harbor: “women, old men, children, police, nurses; they came in a cartwheeling flood that seemed never to end. At some point during the film-clip it became clear that the soldiers were using pitchforks to get them out” (213-14). In Duluth, Minnesota, a man walking the street wearing a sandwich board bearing such handwritten wisdom as “THE EVIL DAYS ARE AT HAND” learns the hard way the meaning of self-fulfilling prophecy: “Four young men in motorcycle jackets, all of them with bad coughs and runny noses, set upon the man in the khaki shorts and beat him unconscious with his own sandwich board. then they fled, one of them calling back hysterically over his shoulder: ‘Teach you to scare people! Teach you to scare people, you half-baked freak!'” (217)  At Kent State University, thousands of nonviolent protesters are mowed down by machine-gun fire; in the midst of this “turkey shoot” (224), the soldiers turn their weapons on one another. Downtown Des Moines, Iowa, is “gutted” by widespread rioting and looting; “as daylight left this flat green land,” the city “looked like the aftermath of some monster New Year’s Eve party after sodden sleep had claimed the last of the revelers” (228).

Perhaps the most disturbing section of the chapter, though, details an episode of ultraviolent reality TV: “At 9:16 P.M., EST, those still well enough to watch television in the Portland, Maine, area, tuned in WCSH-TV and watched with numbed horror as a huge black man, naked except for a pink leather loincloth and a Marine officer’s cap, obviously, ill, performed a series of sixty-two public executions” (226). This hulking lunatic is the leader of a black “junta” of deserting soldiers that has taken over the set of the “Dialing for Dollars” game show and uses a large glass drum to draw the driver’s licenses of some unlucky winners: “‘Inthenameofthefathersonandholyghost,’ the big black man intoned, grinning, and pulled the trigger. There was a large smear of blood and brains behind the spot where PFC Stern was being forced to kneel, and now he added his own contribution.” Further pandemonium occurs when the regular army breaks into the studio and goes to war with the deserters:

The black man in the loincloth went down almost immediately, cursing, sweating, riddled with bullets, and firing his automatic pistol crazily into the floor. The renegade who had been operating the #2 camera was shot in the belly, and as he leaned forward to catch his spilling guts, his camera pivoted slowly around, giving his audience a leisurely pan shot of hell. The semi-naked guards were returning fire, and the soldiers in the respirators were spraying the entire audience area. The unarmed soldiers in the middle , instead of being rescued, found that their executions had only been speeded up. (227)

Underscoring the blackly comic absurdity of the scene, the bloody orgy is finally “replaced on home screens by a picture of a cartoon man who was staring glumly at a cartoon TV. On the cartoon TV was a sign that said: SORRY, WE’RE HAVING PROBLEMS!” (228).

King punctuates the chapter with a transcript of a State of the Union address that evening, in which the President’s claims about the virulence of this flu strain are belied by his own fits of coughing and sneezing. Likewise, the disingenuity of the President’s attempt to pass off occupying army forces as mere National Guardsmen “called out in some areas to protect the populace against hooligans, vandals, and scare-mongers” (230) is proven by the various preceding scenes of mayhem in the chapter.

Chapter 26 of The Stand is frighteningly plausible; readers in this present time of the coronavirus pan(dem)ic can only hope that it is not also terribly prescient. Let us pray that we can trust more in the truth of King’s recently-tweeted PSA than in the nightmare scenario of his fiction.

 

WORK CITED

King, Stephen. The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

 

Mob Scene: The Addams Family

From its Karloffian butler Lurch to a winking instance of dead-frog revivification, the latest film version of The Addams Family clearly invokes James Whale’s 1931 film FrankensteinThe Addams Family, though, also hearkens back to Universal horror in its featuring of a pair of mob scenes.

In the film’s opening, the nuptials of Gomez and Morticia are interrupted by angry villagers–a horde of crusty rustics wielding torches and pitchforks and decrying the presence of such “monsters” and “freaks” in the area. This being a children’s animated film (rated PG for “macabre and suggestive humor, and some action”), the proceedings do not turn too grim (the sword-wielding Addams fend off the villagers by causing the latter’s pants to fall down around their ankles). Nevertheless, such expressed intolerance chases the Addams from the Old Country, forcing them to relocate to New Jersey (“Somewhere horrible. Somewhere corrupt. Somewhere no one in their right mind would be caught dead in!”).

There the Addams convert a former asylum for the criminally insane into the family mansion looming remotely on a hilltop. But after thirteen years of relative isolation, the Addams come into contact with the locals and soon discover that the persecution of perceived otherness exists in the New World as well. In the film’s climax, the roused rabble (led by duplicitous designer Margaux Needler) nearly destroys the Addams home with a boulder-launching catapult. These rabid neighborhood watchdogs eventually repent, and help repair the damage caused, yet this happy ending does not blunt the film’s skewering, American Gothic sensibility. The seemingly idyllic slice of suburban engineering dubbed Assimilation (a community that works to eradicate difference rather than accept it) is shown to have various shades of darkness underlying its Day-Glo veneer.

The Addams Family is a mordantly witty and extremely enjoyable film, whose skillful inclusion of mob scenes aligns it with eminent animated horror films such as Paranorman and Frankenweenie.

 

Mob Scene: “Herbert West: Reanimator”

In my last Lore Report, I noted an angry mob scene (the Doctors’ Riot of 1788 in New York City) that resulted from real-life incidents of body snatching. The same dynamic can be seen playing out in fictional form, in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 weird tale, “Herbert West: Reanimator.”

Lovecraft presents a gruesome variation on the Frankenstein story; like his literary precursor, Victor Frankenstein, the eponymous medical man West seeks to bring the dead back to life. As his outre experiments naturally require a supply of dead bodies, West is not hesitant to resort to grave robbing. West’s series of maniacal miscreations over the years, though, come back to haunt him in the story’s climax. A “grotesquely heterogeneous” “horde”–led by a headless nightmare in a Canadian officer’s uniform (Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee, reanimated by West six years earlier in Flanders during World War I)–breaks into West’s sub-cellar laboratory in a home neighboring a Boston burial ground. The frightfully silent assailants might not be wielding torches and pitchforks, but their own hands prove sufficiently deadly. The story’s horrified (and perhaps unreliable) narrator recounts: “Then they all sprang at [West] and tore him to pieces before my eyes, bearing the fragments away into that subterranean vault of fabulous abominations.”

“Herbert West: Reanimator” (a tale undoubtedly overshadowed by Stuart Gordon’s gory, campy film adaptation) was dismissed by Lovecraft himself as a piece of hack work, but this proto-zombie story offers plenty of macabre mayhem and grim thrills. And its climax reverses the angry-villager formula that would be popularized by Universal horror films a decade later. Here it is not a group of stoked locals stalking a creature, but the vengeful monsters themselves who have banded together to track down and viciously execute the unscrupulous resurrectionist West.

 

 

Mob Scene: The Bottoms

Joe R. Lansdale’s 2000 novel The Bottoms (an expansion of his 1999 novella “Mad Dog Summer”) forms an extended riff on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Both novels are Southern Gothic takes on the coming-of-age tale, and share many characteristics–tomboy younger sisters, rabid dogs, legendary boogeymen (Lansdale answers Lee’s Boo Radley with “The Goat Man”), and critiques of Deep Southern society as viewed through children’s eyes. Significantly, the plots of both novels also feature a mob scene.

In The Bottoms, the narrator Harry’s father (the constable in their Depression-era East Texas community) has been keeping an elderly black man named Mose (a person of interest in the investigation of a series of brutal rapes/murders in the area) hidden away. When the locals find out, though, they automatically deem Mose the killer, and band together as a “lynch mob” intent on dispensing rough justice. Harry and his dad rush to the scene, the latter trying to avert tragedy by calling for the need for a fair trial. But his attempt to talk sense is rebuffed by the mob, which is led by the despicably racist (and allegorically named) Mr. Nation: “He ain’t gonna be turned loose,” Nation taunts, “except at the end of the rope.” When Harry’s father physically intervenes to prevent the lynching, “the crowd let[s] out a sound like an animal in pain,” and pounces on the constable and his son.

Atticus Finch (with some timely assistance from his kids) in To Kill a Mockingbird is able to stave off an angry mob determined to lynch a black man accused of rape. For all the parallels that Lansdale draws with Lee’s masterwork, though, he takes matters in a shocking direction by having the mob succeed in executing Mose. The lynching in described in unflinching and unsettling detail (“Mose dropped with a snapping sound, started to kick fast and spit blood-tinted foam”), and when the pummeled Harry recovers consciousness he discovers a nightmarish sight:

Mose hung above us, his tongue long and black and thick as a sock stuffed with paper. His eyes bulged out of his head like little green persimmons. Someone had pulled down his pants and cut him. Blood dripped from between Mose’s legs, onto the ground.

Graphic and emotionally grueling, the mob scene in The Bottoms is not easily forgotten.

 

Mob Scene: IT

Approximately midway through Stephen King’s monster opus, IT, a mob scene breaks out.

The novel’s “Third Interlude” section (another entry in Mike Hanlon’s journal of Derry’s dark history) details the very public execution of the Bradley Gang (King’s fictionalized version of the Brady Gang, who met a grim fate in Bangor) in October 1929. Previously identified when attempting to purchase ammunition at Machen’s Sporting Goods store, the fugitive group of bankrobbers ride into a barrage of gunfire that makes the ambush of Bonnie and Clyde seem like a roll-out of the old welcome wagon by comparison. It’s a case of bloodlust run amok, of community-wide vigilante violence (“There were men everywhere, men with guns, standing in doorways and sitting on steps and looking out of windows”). With “fifty, sixty men firing all at once,” the scene “sounded like the Battle of the Marne.” Overkill is undoubtedly the order of the day, as the criminals’ vehicles are obliterated (“By the time the firing stopped, those cars didn’t look like cars at all anymore, just hunks of junk with glass around them”), and the members of the Bradley Gang themselves brutally dispatched (Arthur Malloy has his throat torn “wide open” by a bullet; George Bradley’s gun moll, Marie Hauser, has “one of her eyes shot out”; as for  Bradley: “someone pulped the back of his head with a shotgun blast”). This bloody massacre right in the center of Derry’s streets precipitates a wave of shame and denial–most of the perpetrators are loathe to admit they were even present in Derry that grim day.

In and of itself, the gunning down of the Bradley Gang is a perfect example of the ugly results when hotter heads prevail. There is a further turn of the screw to this particular mob scene, though: Mike identifies the incident as another “monstrous sacrifice” that served to stir It from a quarter-century-long hibernation period and thus unofficially initiated Its next feeding cycle. Appropriately enough, various vigilantes report seeing a clown (none other than Pennywise It-self,Mike knows) gleefully joining in on the shooting spree. Noting a nearby county fair operating at the time, the recounting Norbert Keene speculates to Mike: “Maybe one of them [clowns from the fair] heard we were going to have our own little carnival and rode down because he wanted to be in on it.” The macabre irony of such statement is that Derry’s carnival of violence has been heavily influenced by the town’s own long-resident clown. Malignancy, as Mike’s recurring journal entries illustrate, is deep-seated in Derry’s body politic, and is anything but excised by the execution of a gang of designated outsiders.

 

Mob Scene: “The Lynching” by Claude McKay

Over the years, I have covered many examples of mob scenes–of instances of violent Othering and mass misbehavior–in film, television, and fiction. But as Claude McKay’s 1920 poem “The Lynching” (collected in Harlem Shadows) illustrates, the mob scene also has its place in American verse.

Written as a Shakespearean sonnet, “The Lynching” jars with its deliberate dissonance between the elegant poetic form and the particularly ugly subject matter treated here. Evincing a Gothic sensibility, McKay’s lines record sadistic impulses (the victim of the titular crime has died “by the cruelest way of pain”) and present horrific images (hung and burned, a black man has been reduced to a “swinging char”). The poem, though, hits hardest in its sestet section: the last six lines describe the crowd of morbidly curious gawkers that has gathered the next day “to view / the ghastly body swaying in the sun.” McKay is unsparing in his indictment, as the foulness of the allegedly fairer sex is highlighted by the complete absence of “sorrow” in the “steely blue” eyes of the women who “thronged to look” at the corpse. The concluding couplet makes for a devastating clincher, marking a perversion of public celebration and foreboding a dark generational legacy to such scene: “And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.”

McKay’s opening octave alludes strongly to the Crucifixion (ostensibly the quintessential example of execution-as-public-spectacle). But whereas Christ died to take away the sins of the world, “The Lynching” points in a more pessimistic direction. “The awful sin remained still unforgiven,” McKay writes, referencing an innocent man’s crime of possessing black skin in a racist white society. This line also resonates with Gothicism, though, suggesting a problematical impingement of the past, the continuously haunting impact of ignominious history.

The racial underpinnings of American Gothic is well- and long-established in literary criticism (cf. Leslie Fiedler’s oft-cited remark in Love and Death in the American Novel: “The proper subject for American gothic is the black man, from whose shadow we have not yet emerged”). Perhaps this aspect of the genre is sometimes seized too readily upon by academics, but a poem such as McKay’s “The Lynching” clearly requires no critical stretch to grasp its concerns with black-white relations and racial violence in this country.

[Note: for an excellent overview of this subject, see Hollis Robbins’s essay (which covers McKay’s poem) “The Literature of Lynching.”]

Mob Scene: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (book and film)

Shirley Jackson was no stranger to angry villagers. As Jonathan Lethem has noted, “the motif of small-town New England persecution” runs through Jackson’s fiction, filtered from personal experience: “It was [Jackson’s] fate, as an eccentric newcomer in a staid insular village [North Bennington, Vermont], to absorb the reflexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism felt by the townspeople toward the college” [where Jackson’s Jewish husband worked as a professor]. Life in North Bennington would lead Jackson to draw up the classic story “The Lottery” (which I covered in a Mob Scene post last year). The author’s most extensive depiction of angry villagers, though, occurs in her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (whose long-overdue film adaptation arrived in theaters and on demand last week).

In the novel, Jackson’s Blackwoods (the narrating Merricat; Constance; Uncle Julian) live isolated in their fenced-off family home, ostracized by the community. They are the object of scorn, the subject of a dark nursery rhyme that is often tauntingly chanted at them. Some of the hostility stems from class resentment, of a wealthy family perceived to set itself above and beyond the common folk. No small part, though, is played by fear, for dark scandal haunts the Blackwood name: six years earlier, most of the family was killed off, and Constance accused (but found innocent in court, at least) of poisoning them at dinnertime by lacing the sugar bowl with arsenic. Six years later, the Blackwood home is a largely shunned place, and the survivors inside treated like witches by the lore-building locals.

The burning resentment and dread of the Blackwoods flares out of control when Merricat sets fire to the home (in the attempt to cleanse the place of her intrusive, duplicitous cousin Charles, a true American Gothic hero-villain). Along with the fireman battling the conflagration, the villagers arrive at the scene, but act less like concerned onlookers than joyous witnesses of an auto-da-fe. “Let it burn!” the uncaring refrain resounds outside the blazing walls. In a shocking twist, the flames are brought under control, but the crowd goes berserk after the fire chief turns around and throws a rock through one of the tall windows of the home. The act inaugurates an orgy of destruction: looting, vandalizing villagers promptly wash over the home like a “wave.” One of the more respectable townspeople denounces the rioters as “crazy drunken fools,” but intemperance isn’t an adequate explanation for such a transgressive outburst. Long-held inimical feelings have flooded to the surface, resulting in a deluge of unneighborly behavior.

As dramatized in the film, this mob scene is even more stunning. The Blackwood home is torn apart by a pack of wild men and women, its furnishings strewn across the lawn like viscera. The mob’s persecution of the Blackwoods is made even more poignant by Merricat’s voiceover: “The sound of their hate is another kind of fire moving through the bones of our house. I know now that all of my [protective] spells are broken. What was buried here in this village, their want for our ruin, has come to the surface at last.”  There’s one salient difference between the book and film versions of the scene. In Jackson’s novel, the villagers are wary of actually touching Constance or Merricat, but in the film the pair of sisters are roughly manhandled. A lynching seems very well in the making, until the crowd is cowed by the announcement that Uncle Julian is dead inside the house.

Further outrage against the Blackwoods is thus avoided, but plenty of damage has occurred. The alleged high-and-mighty have been brought low, their denigrated den of eccentricity devastated. The shock troop of American Gothic, the angry mob, has reduced the Blackwood home to a Gothic ruin: “Our house,” Merricat narrates in the novel, “was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Ironically, this violent transformation really hasn’t changed much, only obviated the circumstances of the Blackwoods’ existence all along (as also signaled by Jackson’s book title). The House of Blackwood has fallen into decrepitude, and the weird sisters now shuttered up inside are shuttered at all the more. “We fixed things up nice for you girls, just like you always wanted it,” the mocking villagers proclaim during the sacking of the manse, but Merricat and Constance were fixed in their situation of ugly Othering long before their unfortunate fort was stormed.