Southern Gothic

by Belle Waring on April 19, 2014

“Midnight in the Garden of Good an Evil” is not a great movie but an OK one; certainly if you want to see a lot of purty pictures of Savannah it’s a good one. Kevin Spacey portrays, according to my grandmother Henrietta, the main character extremely convincingly–even going so far as to both have his mannerisms and resemble him somewhat, which she thought incredible for a picture of a dead man. There must have been video of him, obviously. There are a number of very unconvincing things about the book, mainly the idea that this white journalist from New York (IIRC) could insinuate himself into both white high society (second tier–but still) and black society in so short a time as to be both privy to all kind of secrets and taken by an…I don’t know voodoo I guess…practitioner on a midnight rowboat ride up in a marsh somewhere. (First-tier Savannah society is so insular you could only gain that kind of access by marrying someone, even though it’s true everyone loves to gossip. But getting invited to parties?) I say “voodoo I guess” because despite the fact that people totally do this thing, or practice this religion, or whatever, we don’t even really call it anything, so much do we not talk about it. No, that’s an exaggeration, we call it voodoo; there’s an island near my dad’s place in Bluffton called either Voodoo Island or Devil’s Elbow Island (or more cheerfully Potato Island, but I think the Crams pushed that and it never happened.) You can read a short story about it here, if you like. I had been thinking for a while people might like to read it, it’s from 2004, so quite a while ago. Yeah, voodoo, but not like in Florida where people have actual Santeria churches and storefronts and stuff; more like everyone is a devout Christian–but everyone–but still there are women who will do voodoo for you. As I say in the story, white people hire black people to put curses on other white people. And I’m not entirely sure how they find them, except that everyone knows who to ask? Everyone knows everything about everyone, is the answer to that. Well, no, there are information asymmetries: the black community as a whole knows more because maids know everything about their employers but not vice versa, and so on for a lot of other things.



Daniel Lindquist 04.19.14 at 6:02 am

I enjoyed reading the old J&B piece you linked. Did you ever tell more ghost stories?


Belle Waring 04.19.14 at 9:55 am

Not yet. I guess I could tell y’all now; I’ve got lots.


Assistant Professor 04.19.14 at 2:14 pm

What’s particularly interesting about Southern Gothic Georgia is being an academic in a small-town or mid-sized city. Sure, if you’re in Atlanta, you’re in more or less Large American City, and if you’re in Athens, you’re in North American College Town (with the peculiarity of “I wrestle with the conflict between being a twenty-something hipster and a Christian [i.e., evangelical protestant]”).

But in the mid-sized cities (Savannah, Macon, Columbus, Augusta) or small towns that have colleges and universities, it’s an interesting sort of separation. You’ve got the members of the college community and then you’ve got the rest of the community, and they’ll always look at the members of the college community as “You’re not from around here”–but often in a welcoming, non-hostile sense!–even when you’ve been in the town for twenty or thirty years.

Which is to say, I’ll never figure out how to make contact with the local voodoo practitioners to put a curse on my enemies. :(


PJW 04.19.14 at 5:58 pm

Good stuff. I think the man and the boy in McCarthy’s The Road, on their journey to the coast — via Knoxville, Tenn., and parts north of there — ended up close to Devil’s Island, by my reckonings using various clues in the book. Wish I knew that area first-hand. Thinking about buying the recent book on the witch doctor sheriff (McTeer) from that neck of the woods, which your post helped me find. Bring on the ghost stories. Thank you.


Barry Freed 04.19.14 at 6:20 pm

That linked story is one helluva piece of fantastic writing. You’ve got at least a dozen novels in you, Belle and I wanna buy ’em all and read ’em to pieces.


Ronan(rf) 04.19.14 at 6:27 pm

Yeah the linked piece is really good. I’d love to go to the South sometime and say it could be a pretty good place to grow up (with obvious caveats implied)
I hate to ask another question too the many I do, but .. is Southern culture still distinct from the rest of the country ? (I’m not talking specifically about the racism here, but the norms, food, practices etc that white and black developed together over the generations .. ? )


Assistant Professor 04.19.14 at 6:32 pm

Ronan, I’m originally from Texas (a small town in the cultural orbit of Houston), and so when I relocated to Georgia a few years ago, I rather reasonably thought that I more or less understood The South.

I very quickly came to realize that I did not truly know The Deep South.

Fun fact: the University System of Georgia makes all of its employees sign an oath of loyalty to the U.S. and Georgia Constitutions and to affirm that they’re not part of a subversive organization.


Ronan(rf) 04.19.14 at 7:10 pm

That’s a large enough group though, isn’t it. I mean, afaict, unions are pretty much a subversive organisation in the south ? ; )

That’s what I mean though as well (in part) Any place I’ve lived with these kinds of deep, ethnic/racial conflicts tend to have some odd local behaviourisms that come across as very, very wierd to outsiders (which can literally be people from 100 miles away)
But there has always been a very distinct southern culture, hasn’t there ? Up until quite recently ..


godoggo 04.19.14 at 9:02 pm

Googling tells me that L.A. is the Santeria capital of America. I don’t know of any churches offhand but there’s botanicas all over the place.


godoggo 04.19.14 at 9:13 pm


Take nine lumps of starch, nine of sugar, nine teaspoons of steel dust. Wet it all with Jockey Club cologne. Take nine pieces of ribbon, blue, red or yellow. Take a dessertspoonful and put it on a piece of ribbon and tie it in a bag. As each fold is gathered together call his name. As you wrap it with yellow thread call his name till you finish. Make nine bags and place them under a rug, behind an armoire, under a step or over a door. They will love you and give you everything they can get. Distance makes no difference. Your mind is talking to his mind and nothing beats that.

– Zora Neale Hurston

Just scored another Zora book at the thrift store.


GiT 04.20.14 at 5:01 am

“Fun fact: the University System of Georgia makes all of its employees sign an oath of loyalty to the U.S. and Georgia Constitutions and to affirm that they’re not part of a subversive organization.”

You have to do this in the University of California as well. So not such a peculiar institution.


Meredith 04.20.14 at 5:54 am

I remember “Midnight” well. I’ve seen it at least twice on television and really enjoyed it, in that “Gee, I’m just watching TV, and this is good” way. Very erotic. Languid. (With well constructed narrative drive.) Now that I think about it, those two adjectives, erotic and languid (a lovely word, no?), capture the southern gothic well. I’m wondering: does the southern gothic depend on a construction of its audience as northern? (Do southerners adopt that audience place when watching/reading southern gothic, or do they respond very differently?) Might that north/south divide, as ideology, extend to voodoo? (Go far enough south, to the Caribbean, and you’re practically in Africa, the dark continent.)


godoggo 04.20.14 at 6:02 am

Sorry, I guess I should have said boSCAMica, heh heh (/dog whistle).


godoggo 04.20.14 at 6:04 am

The little bit of that movie I saw seemed pretty good. I’m an Eastwood fan, despite all the talking to the chair and such. I’d love to ask him what he was thinking with making a movie out of The Outlaw Josie Wales though.


godoggo 04.20.14 at 9:25 pm

Note that the (/dog whistle) tag comes before #14.


Belle Waring 04.21.14 at 3:28 am

Certainly the deep South has its own culture and food and stuff, I would say. Especially food. The divisions within the south of where which foods are made and endless competition as to which versions are better really are just as sharp and bitter as you think. This is why I can tell you without prejudice or favoritism of any kind that South Carolina peaches from right along the South Carolina/Georgia border are better than Georgia peaches. My step-brother, who is from Statesboro, agrees. And I will kindly concede that Georgia has better pecans. Mmmmm pecans. God, a fresh pecan is so good and sweet and different from a stale one. There are some foods I never get to eat here in Singapore. Fresh peaches, pecans, Carolina gold rice, good stone-ground grits, butterbeans, lima-beans, figs. Peaches and figs don’t travel anywhere, even within America, really.

Caring about your extended family? Everyone in America is like this maybe but I don’t hear about it as much in the North? African-American families in the North are like this for sure, and I feel like they’re having Southern values in this respect. Everybody loves their family, duh, but I’m talking about mandatory, you have to give a shit about your cousin’s problems caring. Or like how I’m worried I’m ruining my one life I have by spending it away from the people I love, even though it’s best for my children. John loves his family but he’s not worried he’s wasting his one chance for happiness by not living in the same town as his sister. I played “Sweet Home Alabama” (and “Southern Man”) for Zoe day-before-yesterday and it has a funny line: “miss my family once again/ and I think it’s a sin.” Like, an actual sin. It’s not enough that you feel homesick and be singing songs about the Southland and that you be traveling home to see your kin, no, it’s an actual sin that you weren’t there the whole time. What if something happened to your moms?! As it happens half of my family is WASPs in DC, NY, and Martha’s Vineyard, and I’m equally obligated to see them (both by custom and my own heart) but we’re considered unusually close.


marcel 04.21.14 at 4:33 pm

Off topic, but so what…


Relative of yours?


Doug 04.21.14 at 7:19 pm

Do southerners adopt that audience place when watching/reading southern gothic, or do they respond very differently?

We can’t tell you. I’m real sorry about that.


Belle Waring 04.22.14 at 2:23 am

marcel: awww yeah, baby; that’s my boy. Great mumble something uncle on my dad’s dad’s side. My great-aunt, before she died, still had a rice plantation outside Charleston that actually grew rice! I mean, it still grows rice, I just don’t ever see those relatives and thus don’t get any homegrown rice. We also had a famous Waring who was an abolitionist during the Civil War but stayed in Savannah (!); his wife and kids didn’t leave the house and walled garden, which is on one of the squares…on Broughton south of Oglethorpe I think, I’d have to look at a map…for over two years. They had a cow and chickens in there and they lived mostly in the attic. He tried to get the AMA to admit black physicians, and it maybe even worked (?) like a lot of Reconstruction efforts that then got followed up by 75 years of bullshit. These relatives are, needless to say, outnumbered by countless plantation-owning slavers. I literally owe money to black people. I am not one of those people who can be all, “my family came here from Ireland 10 minutes ago [and benefited from white privilege over the last 75 years but OK Republican person who won’t acknowledge white privilege], I didn’t get anything out of the practice of slavery.” Not me! I got stuff. No entire plantation, though.


Suzanne 04.22.14 at 5:08 pm

“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is a nice example of why studios are reluctant to give directors final cut. Like many of Eastwood’s efforts it goes on for at least 20 minutes more than needful. It also tries to create a murder mystery where there isn’t one, really. The charm of the book is its descriptive asides and town characters and when the movie tries to replicate that effect it just seems to be going off topic.

In those days Jude Law was so pretty he was regularly cast as trade – here Spacey lusts for him and kills him and he was, inevitably, Bosie to Stephen Fry’s Wilde.


Anne Wessels Kelly 04.24.14 at 3:28 am

Are you related to Drs. Tom and Ruth Waring? As a girl in Savannah in the 50s and 60s my mother (who also often summered in Bluffton, as it happens) spent much time with them–like, always at their house–and has always spoken very fondly of them. I don’t know where it is now, but I remember for years seeing an old set of Dickens which they gave her way back then. Then they moved, at least for a while, to Michigan, where I remember we visited them once when I was little.
In any case, you are exactly right about Midnight and voodoo. My father was in politics and I recall a woman who worked on a campaign of his getting some voodoo done to help him out.
None of us are in Savannah anymore, the three-generation rule having been proved yet again, but I bet my peeps know your peeps.


Belle Waring 04.24.14 at 4:23 am

So undoubtedly. My grandfather was Dr. A.J. Waring, Jr., and he practiced in Savannah and they summered at our Waring summer house in Bluffton; it can hardly be that they didn’t know each other.


smartalek 04.24.14 at 7:32 pm

@ Suzanne, #20:

Would it really have been so hard to add a little “*SPOILERS*” tag in there?


Meredith 04.24.14 at 9:49 pm

Coming back so way late. Sorry. Life.
“Caring about your extended family? Everyone in America is like this maybe but I don’t hear about it as much in the North? African-American families in the North are like this for sure, and I feel like they’re having Southern values in this respect. Everybody loves their family, duh, but I’m talking about mandatory, you have to give a shit about your cousin’s problems caring.”

I’d agree with this but only as it extends to northern WASPs of a middle-upper class sort, not to rural or working class urban WASP’s (the latter hardly an identifiable category anymore, but it certainly was till after WWII), and not to various ethnic groups (in addition to black folks), from Irish and Italians and Mexicans and Jamaicans to Chinese and Koreans and Nigerians and…. Or, for that matter, to Nordic types in the upper middle tier and northwest. And so on.

Recent immigrants and long-time poor or barely-making-it-maybe know they have to depend on one another, especially on family — people far more reliable (whatever their human weaknesses) than any government. Those for whom “the system” works don’t have such worries.

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