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227 The Politics of Hillbilly Horror emily satterwhite Hillbilly horror films have been an important locus of interdisciplinary re‑ search.1 Scholarship about rural-­ set horror films employs a wide array of dis‑ ciplinary frameworks to examine the ways in which the films map space, ste‑ reotype place, and criticize uneven geographic development. Lead theorists of the hillbilly horror subgenre have emerged especially from literary studies but also from geography, anthropology, and Appalachian studies.2 Such work on the subgenre is made possible in part by scholars of the horror genre more broadly who trained in communication, media and film studies, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy.3 Many of the most influential horror film schol‑ ars, including those working on hillbilly horror, approach films through the lenses of feminist or queer theories. The form of interdisciplinarity practiced by scholars of hillbilly horror traverses social sciences and humanities disci‑ plines, incorporating qualitative and quantitative analyses. Hillbilly horror scholarship, then, constitutes a form of collaboration that is both inherent in southern studies and a model for future work. Nonetheless, to date these collaborations have been unable to bridge an impasse in our understanding of the political valences of hillbilly horror films. Some scholars and most lay observers find the politics of hillbilly horror films anathema to efforts for social justice in the films’ sexism, racism, and clas‑ sism, yet hillbilly horror scholars frequently claim the films to be transgressive in their progressive critiques of U.S. norms. Both sets of claims—hillbilly hor‑ ror as promoting or challenging hegemony—generally rely on close readings of the films themselves, without much or any evidence beyond close readings to support their interpretations.4 Skepticism about the progressive politics of hillbilly horror films is pa‑ tently warranted. Laden with vulgar stereotypes, rural-­ set films often appear to emphasize the depravity, danger, and monstrosity of white rural people and places. As one blogger noted about the film Staunton Hill (2009), “If this 228 satterwhite­ [movie’s] goal was to give white small town Americans a worse cinematic rep than they already have, well then it certainly succeeded.”5 Yet sophisti‑ cated close readings of particular films within the hillbilly horror subgenre have argued persuasively that horror films can marshal the figure of the mu‑ tinous redneck antihero for the purpose of critique of U.S. nationalism, capi‑ talism, class hegemony, or uneven geographic development and hierarchies of geography.6 While scholars’ close readings are compelling, actual viewers’ interpretations of, and investments in, hillbilly horror films remain under-­ documented and under-­ analyzed. Methods and insights from the field of re‑ ception studies can contribute a valuable additional dimension for assessing films’ consequences—for the construction of overlapping imagined geogra‑ phies of Appalachia, the South, and rural U.S. locales more broadly, and for the sociopolitical consequences of these geographic imaginaries for rural-­ identified Americans. Beyond hillbilly horror, audience studies have often been undertaken as a social science endeavor, relying on surveys, focus groups, or ethnography, commonly with the assumption that a text’s “preferred reading” is a hege‑ monic one.7 “Fan studies” scholarship, on the other hand, has tended toward ethnographies that underscore the potential for human agency and resistance to the dominant ideologies presumed to be embedded in mass media texts. Since the year 2000, reception studies in the United States have promoted a third set of methodologies that emphasize the qualitative study of evidence produced by readers and viewers. Reception studies may employ ethnogra‑ phy, but frequently they rely especially on textual evidence such as fan mail, letters to the editor, online customer reviews, or film adaptations.8 For this essay, I work in this more recent tradition of reception studies to examine reactions to two recent low-­ budget “nightmare visions of the rural,” Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007) and Staunton Hill (2009), both selected be‑ cause they so deliberately follow in the tradition of the now-­ canonical The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in their representation of decimated rural economies and because of my particular interest in Appalachian settings. I thematized reviews posted to websites for Amazon, IMDb, and Netflix, as well as a selection of online horror blogs, to assess whether viewers registered the films’ commentaries on American capitalism, urban exploitation of the rural, and the social injustice that results from deliberate and unequal processes of capitalist development (see table 1). As David Church notes, “texts cannot fully dictate their reception,” but “they still provide interpretive cues to which viewers may respond...


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