Speak Your Piece: Rural Ghouls

Once a year, rural America dolls for the sake of city residents, who visit their country cousins to get a pumpkin and a Halloween scare. The real-life fright is what’s happening in the countryside the other 364 days of the year.

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A video ad for a paintball zombie hayride, a new twist on the old scare-night tradition. Does the metaphor of urban America leaving small communities for dead strike a little too close to reality to be enjoyable?

Contrary to its rural roots, the All Hallows of my lifetime has always been something of a “townie” holiday, and little wonder.

Trick-or-treating at the end of a long country lane is next to impossible, and farming can be macabre enough as it is. The sight of missing digits and severed arms are real here where I hang my hat and sharpen my plowshare, and especially so around harvest time.

Ask any true farmer whether he relishes schlepping the kiddos into town and idling in the car while they go a-begging for Grade-A goodies from commuter moms and dads snug in their bedroom communities, and if he’s in a truth-telling mood, he’ll tell you otherwise. Seeing his kids dressed up to please and placate the folks with the best candy and the best jobs is a bit too near to real life to strike him as harmless allegory.

When urban America needs a really good scare, it typically turns to the countryside it privately fears and long ago left for dead – the place where the rest of us choose to make our homes and raise our families despite long odds. How could it be otherwise? City folks have come calling here for generations when the harvest moon rises in the sky, looking to get back in touch with the more psycho-active aspects of lives they’ve sanitized and regularized for the sake of safety and a good clean living made in the the office park and the skyrise.

It’s the NIMBY phenomenon all over again, only this time in a beguiling guise, and it’s the latest in rural-drive-bys – a quick trip to the hinterlands to pick a plump pumpkin, a boon Saturday afternoon for the city kiddos at the corn maze or the petting zoo, a heart-pounding Friday night at some decrepit fallen down house one of our grandparents might actually have lived in. It’s almost tragically ironic: the house of horrors they’re white-knuckling in likely fell to its current state of ruination in the 1970s or 1980s when there were no young people willing to live in it when they could be living high on the hog in the nearest university town.

Anyhow, the young citified couple in their skinny jeans will gladly pay their 10 bucks to enter the haunted house where the local high school kids will leap out at them wielding the axes and chainsaws they probably brought from home and actually know how to use. It’s a great date night, sure, a relatively cheap townie thrill, to go whistling through the graveyard of your country cousins once a year, then return home to laugh about it all over a hot cocoa or these days, a Starbucks pumpkin latte. 

Not all the chainsaw-murder actors are in rural mazes. This one is at the Fright Zone haunted maze in downtown Abilene, Texas.

Please don’t mistake me for the Grinch Who Stole All Hallows. My rural family has hosted its share of frighteningly good haunted houses over the 155-plus years we’ve haunted our own Heritage Farm. But when we donned the Frankenstein masks, we were performing for our rural family, friends and neighbors, using the clothes and hats and handkerchiefs we actually put to good and frequent use the other 364 days of the year. We were straight-up repurposing, not nudge-nudge, wink-wink cultural re-appropriating.

Contrast our homegrown haunts with the reality of contemporary Halloween in the burbs, where for a single week in late October it’s as rare as a Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, which is to say as rare as hen’s teeth, to find a pair of pinstripe “farmer” overalls on the racks at the local Goodwill or Salvation Army. Ditto the straw hat and handkerchief and work boots that practically scream farmer in the eyes of the TV generation. Of course, before these threads became the Fright-Night clothes of choice, they belonged to the farmer, who dressed his scarecrow in his duds so the crows might mistake the dressed-up staves of the cross for the spooking arms of the farmer himself. That’s costumery with an appropriately utilitarian, and rural, twist.

Urbanists would have you believe that their perennially elaborate (and expensive) game of dress-up is a harmless enough homage to their country cousins. Their great-grandfather was a farmer, they’ll insist, intimating that his willingness to work the land somehow confers on them the ability to spoof his stock and trade.

Or consider the much maligned, much snickered-at-in-urban-circles farmer’s daughter. Most of the paper-pushers at the office Halloween party would, after a cocktail or two, shudder at the thought of pulling their real-life daughter from her $80 million suburban schoolhouse with its natatorium and solar-powered greenhouse and enroll her in an underresourced rural school, to say nothing of giving her a dignified role to play in the running of an actual commodity crop farm they’ve purchased to work themselves. But they wouldn’t think twice of dolling themselves up as the naughty-but-nice cultural icon they’ve played a large part in turning into a disgraced and defamed sex symbol – a laughable cardboard cut-out light on realism and heavy on cleavage.

And isn’t that always the way? We wear the clothes of the people we’ve successfully subjugated or undermined or simply cheated or decimated.

A farmer’s daughter costume for sale at Wanelo.com.

Don’t believe me? Not too many Victorian Americans could be found clamoring for Indian feathers and headdresses until Sitting Bull and Geronimo were roundly defeated and widely paraded around the world’s fairs and Wild West shows. Once these formerly fearsome warriors and national bugaboos were subdued and safely under armed guard, however, Americans practically tripped over themselves to dress the part of the Indian warrior.

Or consider the early Jazz Age fashion sensation among urban gals keen to dress the part of the farmerette at exactly the moment in history when they had left the farm in droves to work as urban secretaries and stenographers. Need more proof of how we carry on once we’ve removed the existential threat of the Other? Type “Farmer’s Daughter Costume” into the search engine of your favorite online retailer and you’ll see something that looks XXX—and I’m not referring to size. Can you think of any other icon of American virtue and ingenuity so thoroughly caricatured and crassly sexualized?

Or you could spend the ghastly holiday with the rest of a Neflix nation in a horror movie marathon, where you could get your scream on with the original 1984 Stephen King version of Children of the Corn, the 2009 made-for-TV remake—filmed in the swampy bottomlands just a half mile from my farm, and on the square in our local county seat—or try on a newer version of the rural slasher flick such as 2011’s Husk. If those rural scares fail to titillate, you could always go old-school with Deliverance, a film that gave new meaning to the term “squeal like a pig” and scared a generation of young men and women both from banjos and making a home in the boonies.

Photo via Yelp.
One of the scariest things for rural businesses during Halloween, or any time for that matter, may be a bad online review.

It’s the same old story, really. Urban America wants a yearly dose of the horrors it smugly feels it left behind—depravity and poverty, social isolation and eerie silences, chainsaws and farm implements gone awry.

Look more closely, however, and you see a real-life ax-murder playing out in America’s empty acres—the whodunit of the millions of farmers and their families forced from their livelihoods in the last 40 years, or the 70% of North American farmland soon to be awaiting an unironic heir willing to wield sharp instruments in the frighteningly difficult task of wresting a real-life living from the land.

If I had one wish this Halloween season, Charlie Brown, it would be that rural America quit being so complicit in aping its own proud heritage for the amusement of the city folks whose Disneyfied image of the countryside comes from the once-a-year hayrack rides and corn mazes we ruralites all too willingly stage for their giddy delight.

Sure, humoring the city slickers may be good for business or agri-tourism, but it’s a dagger to the heart and soul of the places we live, and increasingly, die.

Zachary Michael Jack is the seventh generation in his family to make his home on an eastern Iowa farm. He is the great-grandson of farm and conservation writer Walter Thomas Jack, and the author, most recently, of “The Midwest Farmer’s Daughter: In Search of an American Icon.” He teaches courses in Place Studies and Writing at North Central College.

 

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