Like most terms used to describe Southern phenomena, the phrase Southern Gothic began its life as a pejorative. Lifelong Virginian Ellen Glasgow described the work of William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell as members of the “Southern Gothic School” in 1935, bemoaning that their work was filled with “aimless violence” and “fantastic nightmares.” Now, almost a hundred years after this statement, it seems impossible to imagine Southern life without the fantastic nightmares and aimless violence that give shape and form to our present realities.
Spanning the Obama years, Alan Ball’s swampy, campy, decadent soap opera True Blood felt like the first fictional exposure people had to contemporary Southern life that wasn’t explicitly about slavery, Jim Crow, or otherwise some form of trauma porn centered around Black Death. It presaged critical darlings like True Detective and Treme that made a case for the South to be taken seriously intellectually even as the region remains a favorite scapegoat for anti-intellectualism, provincialism, and ignorance in popular media and political discourse.
In the cold open for the show’s pilot, a drunken white couple is swerving down a rural highway when one of them spots a sign outside a convenience store advertising that they “HAVE TRUE BLOOD.” The couple screeches to a halt and staggers into the store. Her makeup is running; his puka shell necklace is askew under a polo shirt. They excitedly ask the cashier—a lanky, greasy-haired goth—if they’ve had any “vamps” come in looking for True Blood. The cashier’s appearance draws on both New Orleans and vampire archetypes: he’s pale and unshaven with long black hair, wearing crucifixes and leather. Their conversation is overheard by a stereotypical country man in the beer section whose camo hunting vest, trucker hat, and hulking frame set him up as the kind of feral local who city slickers fear having to interact with. The cashier leans over the counter, menacingly looking at these two drunken kids. He frightens them, saying that New Orleans is the capital of the vampires and that he would be interested in eating them. The couple flees in fear. Countryman Bob approaches the counter and sets down his four pack of True Blood. He grins at the cashier.
“If you ever pretend to be one of us again, I’ll fuck ya, and then I’ll eat ya.” His fangs flash, and the opening credits roll.
I was in.
The opening credits deserve their own essay, and many have been written about them. Scenes of violence move perfectly into scenes of sex and decay, tied together with Jace Everett’s sinister song “Bad Things.” None of the characters from the show appear in the credits. Instead, the actors’ names sit on top of a striking snake, a drunken bar fight, an emerging locust, a fly eaten by a Venus flytrap, maggots desiccating the corpse of a fox. The sequence deftly collapses the contradictory worlds of devout religion, devout racism, rural livelihoods and hobbies, and the reality on the ground. A man at a KKK meeting holds a baby bottle in his hands in front of a child in infant sized klan robes. A billboard proclaims GOD HATES FANGS—right, this is a series about vampires—and finally the show begins.
Set in the fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, True Blood features a working-class cast of characters comprising a waitress, a short-order cook, a bar owner, a womanizing former quarterback past his glory days, a couple of bumbling policemen, and some old Southern matriarchs. All of these characters are real people—I’ve met dozens of them, and so has everyone else in the South. We are asked to suspend our disbelief when our waitress is revealed to be some sort of telepath, a bar owner shapeshifts into a dog, or our short-order cook may or may not be some sort of magician. But it isn’t a huge ask, and somehow the small-town setting makes it easier to believe. Strange things happen out there in the rural dark, unexplained things that seem earthier than the aristocratic vanity of Anne Rice’s vampiric New Orleans.
With the natural processes of life and death closer the surface, True Blood makes the complicated social issues it grapples with so much easier to stomach, presenting them with care, delicacy, and humor. Nelsan Ellis’s short-order cook Lafayette is a flamboyant, Black, makeup-wearing, outstandingly queer character, and the jokes he shares between the women working at the bar are as easygoing and pleasant as when he confronts a bunch of racists who refuse to eat his food because it might have AIDS. Lafayette works multiple jobs and deals drugs on the side, an economic reality in many rural areas. There is no guilt or shame there, just what he has to do to make a living and take care of his mother in a nursing home. Jason Stackhouse, the womanizing football player, aggressively stands up to anyone who slanders his sister and main character, Sookie for being a “fang banger”—a vampire’s girlfriend. Change one word, and this defense echoes the tense familial dramas that play about interracial relationships to this day. Lafayette’s miserable cousin Tara has effectively grown up with Sookie and Jason because her single mother has lost herself in the bottom of the bottle. The dog-shifting bar owner, Sam Merlotte, has provided all of these misfits support either through employment, or—in the true style of a small town bar owner—by making sure someone too drunk gets home safely, letting a waitress use the phone to call her kids multiple times a shift, encouraging a man who might go astray to go home to his wife.
Our main vampire character is Bill Compton, who has returned to his family’s home in Bon Temps after a century of wandering the world. While his return is later discovered to be something more insidious, at the beginning he claims he would like to return to living a “mainstream” life, where he was born and raised. The sentiment is something many of us can appreciate as it is happening across our region on a large scale. People who have left the South for school or jobs are returning to home, and people who were never before interested in the South are fleeing cramped cities for the cheap space provided here, especially in our new post COVID-19 world.
While writing this essay, I’ve been pondering how to celebrate Halloween this year, the first one in a long time I have not spent in New Orleans. The skeletons and tombstones decorating my neighbors’ lawns feel more frightening and morbid than ever before. I revisited my grandmother’s well-worn copy of Stories of the Modern South, a collection of short stories written mainly in the 1920s and 1930s. In the introduction, the editors Ben Forkner and Patrick Samway ask:
In what ways are these stories Southern? It is a complex question because the South is a deceptively complex area, varied in its people and climate, and marked by strong differences of racial origins, social values and temperaments, and landscapes. … Indeed, most of the first generation of modern Southern writers, saw the danger for the South less in a debilitating dream of the past than in the empty, crude, materialism of the future. Nowhere else in the United States was the intrusion of the 20th century as late coming and as brutal. And it is perhaps this conflict between the fatal flaws of the old order and the corrupt values of the new that accounts for the stress Southern art places on the tragic on one hand, and the satiric and grotesque on the other.
In True Blood, as in the real world in both 1920 and 2020, the stakes are high in the South: questions of life, death, and the mysterious space in-between have devastated rural areas and small-town communities like the fictional Bon Temps, Louisiana. For all of its supernatural splendor, True Blood shows us at our most spectacularly human by celebrating sex, death, and the ingenuity of the working-class South. While escapist, its inspired exaggerations and lurid metaphors present a frank picture of the region, demonstrating the continued relevance of the Southern Gothic in the twenty-first century—and especially this year, when it feels as though the genre of Southern Gothic has ballooned into the spooky backdrop for an era of death, infection, and unease. The problems that True Blood addresses haven’t gone anywhere, and most of them have gotten much worse since the show ended in 2014. In its final seasons, Bon Temps is all but destroyed by a virulent vampire plague, a nightmare that is now closer to reality more than ever before.
The South has always done bad things, but we’ve always done them with you.
This essay is part of Burnaway’s yearlong series on Exurbs and the Rural.