Years ago, my boyfriend and I drove from New York City, where he was from, to Orlando, where I was from and where we were both attending an old liberal-arts college rich in bats and mossy oaks. South, past the Mason–Dixon Line and into the Carolinas, we went. We were speeding on a forsaken stretch of I-95 late one night when the rearview mirror glinted blue and red. I would have pulled over immediately. But I was not behind the wheel.
Nick did not want to stop until there were witnesses. I didn’t grasp his fear: we were a couple of law-abiding white kids en route to school at the end of summer. What did he imagine was going to happen to us? But he drove for more than five minutes—ignoring my advice (so that I pondered whether to phone my dad or his when we went to jail)—before halting in a semi-bright parking lot, switching the radio to country music, and dropping the window. Nick recalls the state trooper as a seven-footer with a gravelly voice and leathery face. What is indisputable is that Nick—a full-blooded Manhattanite—addressed this officer with a syrupy accent and managed to get away with a mere stern warning. Nick looked at me afterward. “This is why I put Florida license plates on the Xterra,” he said. “If that cop knew I was from New York, who knows!” I thought he was nuts then; and I still think he is nuts. But Nick continues to protest: “You didn’t get it. That was the stuff of horror films.”
Recently, I have seen his point. There is a robust subgenre of horror that mistrusts the custom of Southern hospitality. It turns on the premise that the American South is a danger zone for Northerners, who remain persona non grata and venture into Dixie at the risk of life and limb. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)—by the director Tobe Hooper, dead of natural causes this August—is the marquee example. Deliverance (1972), Motel Hell (1980, tagged, “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent Fritters”), and House of 1000 Corpses (2003) are some others. In this category, known as “hillbilly horror,” one film stands out at the get: a low-budget, semi-professional 1964 splatter flick titled Two Thousand Maniacs!
The cult classic follows six vacationers on a detour to Pleasant Valley, Georgia. “You all are it!” the black string bow-tie-wearing mayor gushes when two shiny convertibles with Northern plates roll up. The town is celebrating its centennial, he explains, and they are guests of honor. It is April of 1965. Smiling hicks have flagged them down on a main street with dozens and dozens of Stars and Bars. A child toys with a noose. “It’s such a strange little affair. It’s almost like Halloween,” one Yankee remarks to another, who responds, “This is better than Halloween.” Eventually, the hitchhiking teacher among the visitors computes that General Lee had surrendered exactly a century ago. Oh, dear.
One by one, in eighty-three minutes, four of the six Northerners are dispatched. A slim blonde in a custard-shade pantsuit goes for a stroll with a local in overalls and loses a thumb to his hunting knife—then, she’s taken indoors and hacked up with an axe. Later, her parts are ceremonially barbecued. Her husband is drawn and quartered. Another man is loaded into a wooden barrel, which is run through with jumbo nails and rolled down a hill. The dead body looks to be crossed with rivulets of ketchup. His girlfriend is placed under a dunk tank rigged with a boulder. Her bloodshed resembles spilled nail polish.
“I make the distinction that a horror film is one in which everything leads suspensefully to the denouement, whereas in the gore film, each separate special effect stands on its own,” Maniacs!’s notorious director Herschell Gordon Lewis held. And he would know. Lewis, the godfather of gore, who said that he could not have done it without chicken skin, invented the splatter film. After watching a movie in which “the police shot [a gangster] full of bullet holes, and he died peacefully, with his eyes closed, with a little spot on his shirt,” Lewis had a thought: “What if we make a movie where people die with their eyes open?” Of his classic gore trilogy, Maniacs! is in the middle—his personal favorite and regarded as his best work. Lewis had a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University and a doctorate in psychology from Midwestern University. He briefly taught college and went into advertising before getting into R-rated B moviemaking. In 1972, he retired from film and went on to have a respected, lucrative career in direct-mail consultancy. He passed away last September in Florida at the age of ninety. “Rest in Pieces,” the critic Owen Gleiberman wrote at Variety, adding that Two Thousand Maniacs! “became Lewis’s defining statement, a movie whose influence has never been fully recognized.”
Lewis made Maniacs! not in Georgia but in Florida, where he liked to run his camera because it was cheap and sunlit, as the film’s palms, a bromeliad and lawn flamingo betray. Maniacs!’s location was a small town named Saint Cloud an hour outside of Orlando, just beyond what would become the Disney corridor. He shot the movie for about thirty grand in fourteen days with a secondhand camera, a cherry picker instead of a boom truck, and a mainly amateur cast and crew, including local cowboys hired to conduct traffic in the downtown historic district during production. As the Orlando Sentinel recorded, some Saint Cloudians were “horrified” by the community’s involvement. I was relieved to hear it. I am actually from Saint Cloud. Consider this: my hometown was founded as a retirement village for Union vets, a fact generally forgotten if not ignored. I had heard about and avoided the movie—in fact, I’d given it sight unseen on DVD to Nick, a horror buff, who never got through it. But last week, on a visit to Central Florida from my base in New York City, I decided to scare myself.
Watching the film, one sees the South as undead. It has risen again, as a town of homicidal ghosts, determined to visit revenge upon Yankees for the Union forces who took Pleasant Valley “back when.” Here is the bad blood, the distinction of “us” versus “them”; and the septic unease that still plagues our union. “The movie worked really well for the Civil Rights and Civil War centennial moment, when regional antagonisms came to a head and depictions of the white South as a violent and regressive and perverse place were being seen by the nation daily on televised news,” Jacqueline Pinkowitz, a doctoral student in media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, told me by phone.
“People forget that the Civil War centennial”—in 1965—“occurred during the Civil Rights era,” Pinkowitz went on. Maniacs! was filming just after the Civil Rights Act had passed. “This movie is interesting to me,” she said, “because it connects the dedication to white supremacy, nativism, and the extermination of outsiders. And again, you have these pictures of an unreconstructed South, resistant to integration—a lot of the Confederate monuments that we have were put up in the Civil Rights era.” She added, “The rise [in film] of this maniacal hillbilly who is affiliated with the South has got to be a product of what was happening in the sixties.”
In the seventies, film’s hillbilly trope would transition into a redneck—not just uncouth, but truly ill-intentioned and leveled-up à la Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the horror film historian and Bela Lugosi biographer Dr. Gary Don Rhodes explained when we spoke. While Maniacs! portrayed a medial hillbilly/redneck, in anticipation of the future scarier and scarier type, it was not obvious: Who was the joke on here? Who was the joke for? Lewis’s movies were mostly shown in drive-ins around Southern cities, whose patrons were rural, working-class folk. Yet the Confederate comeback, styled as an outrageous lost cause, played both to Southern pride and to Northern (outsider) anxiety. “It has this weird dual-address,” Pinkowitz said. “A region that felt particularly embattled at that time could enjoy this, while it could also be consumed by people in the tradition of being afraid of the South and what it represents.”
Without a doubt, for me, the most disturbing scene takes place near the end, when the maniacs move to take turns hitting a target that will release a teetering rock onto their final brunette victim. “You gotta look up there and say, ‘It ain’t fallen yet!’ ” the mayor instructs her. “It hasn’t fallen yet,” she cries in correct grammar. “All that class,” they had said earlier, “is gonna be drained out of her.”
Lewis was no dummy, but he shied from analysis. His oeuvre, he maintained, was unworthy of that. But of course Two Thousand Maniacs! is still scarily relevant to a nation whose hard, clear borders keep reconfiguring. Among the film’s simple lessons is that revenge may be unavoidable. (“This president is punishment for the last president,” is what I have overheard in Pleasant Valley.)
In the end, the hitchhiker and his costar (Connie Mason, his actual wife and a 1963 Playboy playmate) escape. They later drag a sheriff back to the scene of the crime only to find that it is an empty scrub prairie—the murderous town seems never to have existed. “They do tell a story around here,” the sheriff admits. It is about us. As Pinkowitz said, “Everything that we want to believe ‘we’ are—the North, the nation as a whole—is historically held in contrast to the South.”
Chantel Tattoli is a freelance journalist. She’s contributed to the New York Times Magazine, VanityFair.com, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Orion, and is at work on a cultural biography of Copenhagen’s statue of the Little Mermaid.