Mob Scene: The Night of the Hunter

The classic 1955 crime/horror film The Night of the Hunter not only evinces a German expressionist style throughout but in its climactic mob scene also evokes a German (or at least generically European) village setting from a Universal monster movie. After the widow-seducing, serial-killing con man and thief “Reverend” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is finally arrested, Icey and Walt Spoon (a couple that previously seemed plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting) bring disorder to the court during Powell’s trial via cries of “Lynch him!” and “Bluebeard!” Looking suddenly scraggly-haired and haggish, Evelyn Varden’s Icey channels Una O’Connor as the vociferous angry-villager Minnie in the Frankenstein movies. She comes across, though, as more of a pathetic than comedic figure; Icey apparently has had a few on the rocks when she drunkenly disturbs the dinner of the “poor orphans” following the trial. The children (who’ve spent a good portion of the film being chased by Powell) are forced to flee the restaurant as a torch-, tool-, and furniture-wielding lynch mob takes to the streets.

The turn by first-time filmmaker Charles Laughton (who co-starred with Boris Karloff in Frankenstein-director James Whale’s The Old Dark House, and who was married to The Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester) back to Universal horror is unsurprising here yet also curious. The iconography proves somewhat disorienting, as The Night of the Hunter‘s West Virginia locale promptly transforms into a back lot rendition of a European village. This mob scene is also disconcerting in its recasting of the film’s hitherto-wholesome supporting characters: as the Spoons stir up a bloodthirsty rabble, they are reduced to a level of dubious morality that marks them as ultimately not all that different from Mitchum’s criminal minister. With all these vigilante-justice-seekers afoot, the film’s title could easily–and troublingly–be pluralized.

Mob Scene: Daniel Woodrell’s “Returning the River”

In a span of less than ten pages, Daniel Woodrell’s short story “Returning the River” (published in the author’s 2011 collection The Outlaw Album) establishes a family saga worthy of a Faulkner epic. Just as impressively, Woodrell also manages to give an original twist to the traditional mob scene.

Playing the angry villager here is Harky Dewlin, who uses a torch “made of a baseball bat and a wadded sheet” soaked in kerosene to raze the house of an outsider. Interestingly, though, the arsonist barely knows the victim–“a man named Gordon Mather Adams, a retired schoolteacher of some sort.” It’s his domicile alone (“a shiny new log cottage”) that has been deemed offensive, and gradually Woodrell reveals why. The oft-imprisoned Harky offers a “spectacular act of penance” for his own wayward life, and sends a gift to his father by burning down the house that blocks the sickly man’s view of the natural scene. Harky returns the river to his dying father’s line of sight as the man spends his final days languishing in an upstairs bedroom.

The father–who pathetically chases Harky from the blazing crime scene–doesn’t appear enamored by the incendiary gesture, but Harky’s act of mob-like violence does expand into a family affair. His mother not only refuses to call in the fire department afterward, but revels in the observed immolation: “Mother had been angry since the foundation [of the neighbor’s obstructing house] had been poured, the first nail driven, and clapped her hands with gusto as the hot ruin spread.” Also, Harky has deliberately waited to act until his younger brother, the story’s narrator, is home for the holidays and thus can bear witness to the torching (placing the narrator in the role of almost-accomplice). The story ends with the siblings running off together, but their escape into the nearby woods as the police prepare to give chase isn’t the desperate flight of fugitives but a happy excursion across the ancestral lands their family lost possession of long ago.

Succinct yet resonant, Woodrell’s masterful tale shows that a mob scene can center on something other than simple vigilante justice, and spring from motives more complex than mere wrathfulness.

Mob Scene: “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”

A few nights ago, a huge throng gathered and made merry in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1831 short story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” though, a scene of nocturnal celebration is nowhere near as amiable.

The story shows structural similarities with Hawthorne’s more widely-known piece, “Young Goodman Brown”: night-time wandering, ominous encounters, the ultimate disillusionment of the protagonist. Here, a young man named Robin travels from his remote rural home to the heart of a New England colony, to seek a position with his titular kinsman. But the townspeople repeatedly answer his inquiries as to Molineux’s whereabouts with anger and derision. Among these is a devilish fellow whose “forehead bulged out into a double prominence,” and who is later seen sporting a red-and-black-painted face. Apparently, hell is other people, especially those who have united in enmity.

In the story’s climax, Robin encounters a mad pageant–a riotously-dressed mob wielding torches and playing “fearful wind-instruments.” The fantastic scene makes it seem “as if a dream had broken forth from some feverish brain, and were sweeping visibly through the midnight streets.” Eventually, Robin discovers that his unfortunate relation has been tarred and feathered and is being parade around in public shame. The colonists no doubt enjoy this torture and ridicule of a governmental figure loyal to the British crown, but as a reader it is hard to ignore the horror of the situation. Robin observes that the elderly Molineux’s “eyes were red and wild, and the foam hung white upon his quivering lip. His whole frame was agitated by a quick, and continual tremor.”

Hawthorne’s story illustrates how popular dissent can easily descend into mob violence, how America’s political independence has its roots in the American Gothic. Once more shining a light on the darker elements of the country’s early history, Hawthorne reminds us that tar and feathers precede the Stars and Stripes.

Mob Scene: Hex

In a recent post, I covered various instances of mob scenes in literature, film and television. That entire list, however, is outnumbered by the number of examples of angry-villager activity found in Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s extraordinary novel Hex.

Heuvelt’s story originates in an act of awful Othering–the persecution of an accused witch. In 1664, Katherine van Wyler is forced (upon threat at having her daughter killed) to murder the son she is believed to have resurrected from the dead. Katherine is then forced to hang herself, but her ignominious death will make life miserable for people for centuries thereafter. The witch continues to haunt the town of Black Spring with her posthumous presence, teleporting all over the place–sometimes right into residents’ bedrooms, where she might loom unnervingly for days. An early attempt (by a group of church elders) to curtail Katherine’s menace by wrapping her body in chains and sewing her eyes and mouth shut hasn’t done much improve Black Spring’s cursed condition. Any resident who lingers outside town borders for too long plummets into the blackest pit of despair and is plagued by a mounting desire to commit suicide. Within Black Spring, the townspeople dare not try to attack Katherine, who emits a “freak energy when she’s under great physical or emotional distress” that causes innocent citizens in the vicinity to drop dead. Worse still, the people of Black Spring have to work unceasingly to conceal Katherine’s existence from the world at large, for fear of an influx of curious Outsiders and an incautious snipping of the witch’s stitches. The dread is that if Katherine’s evil eye is free to wander, and if her lips are able to articulate spells, the entire populace will die. This unrelenting fear causes Black Spring to shackle itself with iron laws:

The only thing that made the situation in Black Spring manageable–survivable, as some claimed–was that Black Spring was an indoctrinated commune. The townsfolk lived according to strict rules because they believed in those rules and adopted them without question. Children took in the commandments of the Emergency Decree with their mothers’ milk: Thou shalt not associate with the witch. Thou shalt not say a word about her to people on the outside. Thou shalt comply with the visitor regulation. And the mortal sin: Thou shalt, never, under any circumstances, open the witch’s eyes. These were rules prompted by fear, and Steve knew that fear invariably led to violence. He’d seen plenty of blank, pale little faces with black-and-blue patches and swollen lips on the playground of Black Rock Elementary in earlier years, faces of children who had spilled the beans with friends or cousins from out of town and had been beaten until they were fully reprogrammed according to their parents’ example.

The perennial pressure of dealing with a “paranormal time bomb” has doubtless taken a toll on the town, and their are plenty of early indications of Black Spring’s civic instability and penchant for harsh intolerance. Back in 1932, when a group of laid-off tree-farm workers threatened to blow the whistle about Katherine unless they were awarded new employment, the “town took a vote to set an example for other blackmailers. They were publicly flogged and killed by firing squared in the town square.” The town’s annual Halloween celebration includes a Wicker Woman burning and mock tests in which a declared young “witch” is “chased around by a group of pitchfork brandishing actors form Black Spring dressed in seventeenth century rags.” More seriously, when Arthur Roth (a mentally unstable resident who was imprisoned for talking about exposing Katherine) ends up beaten to death, Black Spring votes to get rid of the dead body by burying it anonymously. One citizen, Pete VanderMeer,  vehemently opposes the idea: “Come on, people, we’re not barbarians, are we? If we go down that road, we’re one step away from a lynch mob.”

That step appears even closer to being taken in a subsequent town meeting, in which a group of Black Spring teens who threw stones at Katherine are charged with brazen violation of the Emergency Decree. Outraged citizens in attendance act “like a rioting street mob,” shouting out impetuous suggestions such as “Let’s throw stones at ’em till they’re dead!” The teens are spared that fate, but hardly get off easy, being sentenced to lashes by a cat-o’-nine-tails in a public ceremony in the town square. “The impulse to point the finger, to assign a scapegoat,” which has marked the town from the very beginning here gives rise to a sadistic scene born of “collective madness.”

From here, the novel spirals toward a literally-riotous climax, as an orgy of irrational violence erupts after the witch’s eyes are unsealed. Armed with “kitchen knives, hammers, baseball bats, and guns” the fear-stricken citizens of Black Spring proceed to raise hell and raze buildings. I won’t go into further (spoiling) detail here, but will just mention that one of the book’s main characters is subjected to a spectacularly gruesome lynching.

This English-language translation/revision of Heuvelt’s novel, which transplants the setting from a small Dutch village to a town in New York’s Hudson Valley, proves an exemplary work of American Gothic fiction. The book boldly rewrites American history, positing that West Point was actually established to help keep the supernatural situation in nearby Black Spring under cover. Heuvelt also conflates historical eras, censuring Black Spring’s “puritanical soul” as the town is “catapulted back into the seventeenth century.” Hex makes for one horrific read, not just because of its spooky witch figure, but because of its demonstration of how quickly modern civilization can revert to savagery.

Mob Scenes

No, I’m not talking about Walmart on Black Friday. “Mob Scenes” (a feature on my old Macabre Republic blog that I plan to revive here) highlights literary, cinematic, and televisual instances of angry villagers on the rampage. Though first popularized as the torch- and pitchfork-wielding European folk of Universal horror films, an other-hunting mob certainly exemplifies the American Gothic (as civility and community give way to intolerance and bloodthirsty violence).

I’ll be posting a brand new Mob Scene shortly. In the meantime, here are some scenes from years past on the Macabre Republic blog:

Mob Scene: Paranorman

The Oscar-nominated Paranorman has plenty to recommend it: vivid animation, endearing characters, satiric wit, sophisticated plot twists. Perhaps best of all for lovers of American Gothic, the film features an extended angry-villager sequence.

Paranorman‘s pyrotechnic climax kicks off when a group of zombies shamble into the midtown section of Blithe Hollow, and a redneck resident promptly responds by pulling out a shotgun and shouting, “Kill ’em in the head!” Mayhem and riotous violence ensue, but the dark behavior does not overshadow the scene’s comedic elements. There are sight gags galore, such as a hand mixer and a bowling bowl being wielded as weapons (along with the more traditional torches and pitchforks), and a young girl’s flaming teddy bear tossed forth into the town hall like a Molotov cocktail. A plunger-toting drama teacher climbs atop a car and histrionically proclaims “Cry ‘havoc’ and let loose the dogs of war,” and then (when her audience fails to understand her) bluntly translates, “Let’s rip ’em apart!” More subtle touches include a laundromat sign that reads “Hung and Dried,” and the Frankensteinian-shaped head of musclebound Mitch (who apppropriately bemoans the townspeople’s desire to “burn and murder stuff”). For all its rampant humor, the scene also has serious import, driving home the film’s anti-bullying message: the zombies are ultimately misunderstood creatures, more victims than monsters, and protagonist Norman lectures the crowd about their intolerance of difference.

2012 was a big year for cinematic mob scenes, and none were more effective–or more fun to watch–than the one orchestrated in Paranorman.


Mob Scene: “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe”

David J. Schow’s 2003 short story “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe” (collected in Havoc Swims Jaded) is a sterling, Serling-esque satire of American values. The story highlights the illusory nature of the idyllic small town, and censures the “superstitious paranoia and hidebound, inbred fear” that reduces townspeople to a monster-hating/-hunting mob. For all its serious subtext, though, the narrative is driven by tongue-in-cheek humor. It is also wonderfully self-aware of the conventions of angry-villager scenes in (Universal) monster movies. At one point the titular grotesque (who makes for an unusual, but quite useful, viewpoint character) is approached for an interview by a doctoral student whose thesis concerns “the weird crowd behavior of group insanity in small, isolated towns and villages.” In the course of the discussion, the scholar, Steve, deconstructs the familiar filmic event:

I mean, you’ve seen some of those movies, right?” said the Steve-creature. “Who really makes out, every time the besotted Burgomeister decides, you know, to blow up another dam? Local contractors, funeral directors, hardware stores, the makers of pitchfork and rope, gun dealers and distributors of ammunition, hell… monsters are great for their economy. They all get shit-faced at the inn until their fizzed enough to see monsters, then they start grabbing for the dynamite. And who do you think gets first crack at developing the destroyed real estate? I mean, where’s the real problem, here?”

Schow’s story (which offers terrifically descriptive prose as well as pointed satire) climaxes with a plot twist that puts the drunken unreason and violent intolerance of the lynch-happy locals on full display. From start to finish, “The Thing Too Hideous to Describe” forms arguably the greatest work of angry-mob fiction ever written.


Mob Scene: Frankenweenie

Not since Mel Brooks has a director so cleverly referenced the climactic mob scene in the 1931 film Frankenstein. “He’s killed the little girl!” Bob’s Mom exclaims when Sparky, the titular revivified canine, appears carrying Elsa’s pony-tailed wig (part of her Dutch Day costume) in his jaws. Such hasty blaming recalls the denouncement of Frankenstein’s Monster as a murderer when the drowned body of the peasant girl is found. The parallels between the Tim Burton and James Whale films are extended when Mayor Burgemeister in Frankenweenie promptly urges his torch-sporting constituents: “After him! Kill the monster!”

Then the chase is on, with Sparky actually leading the mob to the windmill where Elsa is located (menaced inside by the mutated Mr. Whiskers). The oblivious Burgemeister, confronting Sparky and demanding to know where his niece Elsa is, accidentally ignites the windmill with his lofted torch (the burning windmill seems to be another Burton motif–cf. Sleepy Hollow). Frankenweenie‘s satiric twists grow more evident as the mob (in contrast to the unruly bunch in Frankenstein, who deliberately raze the windmill) is reduced to a group of stupefied bystanders, passive observers of the chaotic scene.

Burton’s oeuvre is filled with angry villager scenes, but this 2012 instance represents the macabre maestro’s best-orchestrated Frankenstein riff to date.


Mob Scene: “Going to Meet the Man”

In a Universal monster movie, with old Una O’Connor hamming it up, a gathering of angry villagers could function as a bit of comic relief. But there’s zero humor to be found when the mob-scene setting shifts to an American town in the South during the Civil Rights Era.

The title story of James Baldwin’s 1965 collection Going to Meet the Man features a grisly flashback scene in which a group of whites attend the lynching of a captured black man. His execution is treated like some public holiday, as the caravan of cars traveling to the site carry baskets of food: “It was like a Fourth of July picnic.” Viewpoint character Jesse (eight years old at the time of the lynching) recalls his mother fussing to get dressed up as if for church, and his father nonchalantly sitting him upon his shoulders to provide better view of the proceedings.

What Jesse sees is a naked man chained to a tree limb and dangled above a bonfire. The captive’s wretched screams only stoke the crowd’s bloodlust: “The cry of all the people rose to answer the dying man’s cry. He wanted death to come quickly. They wanted to make death wait: and it was they who held death, now, on a leash which they lengthened little by little.” After the victim is unmanned by a “long, bright knife,” the frenzied crowd pounces, “tearing at the body with their hands, with knives, with rocks, with stones, howling and cursing.” The vicious persecution concludes with a dousing of kerosene that reduces the man to “a black charred object on the black, charred ground.”

Presenting this harrowing event through the eyes of a child, Baldwin dramatizes a dark rite of passage and demonstrates a warping psychosexual effect. Jesse (who considers the hanging body “the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then”) grows up to be a virulently racist sheriff whose libido is a fueled by a confused mix of violent aggression and secret desire.

“Going to Meet the Man” is a deliberately discomforting read, but Baldwin’s searing indictment of Deep South depravity makes for one of the most forceful and unforgettable stories in all of American literature.


Mob Scene: American Horror Story

The season of the witch (21 more days ’til Halloween, Halloween…) usually brews up some frightful television programming, but no show promises to deliver as much delicious wickedness this year as American Horror Story: Coven. “Bitchcraft,” last night’s debut episode of the third iteration of the FX horror series, offered a spellbinding cast (Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett), heaps of witty dialogue, and more than a dash of grue. The episode also featured not one, but two mob scenes. In the first, the bloodthirsty, torch-lofting Puritans of Salem boisterously cheer on their magistrate with cries of “Hang her! Drown her! Burn her!” as they gather around the scaffold upon which Mercy Osborne awaits execution. This black-and-white flashback is matched by the scene where a modern-day Louisiana girl is persecuted (because of her unusual talents as a healer) by a group of religious zealots; Misty Day certainly suffers a dismal fate–dragged, bound, doused with gasoline, and then set ablaze.

The parallel angry-mob scenes serve as a grim reminder that the American capacity for irrational violence has not waned in the three centuries since the Salem Witch Trials. Such ignominious ganging-up on the perceived Other could easily be witnessed again on AHS: Coven this season. Because as the schoolmistress Delia forewarns her sorcerous wards: “We are under siege, ladies. Our lives, our very existence is always at risk. Know this or face extinction.” Unfortunately, prejudice’s torch-bearers are legion, and for those marked as witches, a flash mob signals a terribly incendiary event.