Before Their Time: American Gothic

It’s that time of year again. All ambient sound has been reduced to Muzak for the Holidays, random objects twinkle and/or shed green needles. It’s a great time of year. All the seasonal food at Trader Joe’s is covered in chocolate and/or shredded candy canes (“peppermint snow” for the highfalutin’). The long dark pumpkin beer nightmare has come to an end! You’re polishing your familial political conversation avoidance techniques and whiling away your workplace’s Q4 dead zone on Amazon. But the grocery store has been playing Christmas carols since Halloween and you find yourself harboring heretical thoughts about that goddamn shoe song and a change of scene might be…nice. What you need is a holiday-cheer-free zone. Something slightly less dated than A Christmas Story and a touch less terrifying than Black Friday.

What you need, my friend, is a brief, glorious, creepy ‘90s morality play. What you need is a supernatural faceoff between Bill Lumbergh and Dr. Caron. What you need is to watch American Gothic.

According to my phone’s metadata, this happened on October 12.

American Gothic was created by Shaun Cassidy, produced by Sam Raimi, and aired 18 episodes (of 22 filmed) between September 1995 and July 1996. Set in the fictional town of Trinity, South Carolina, the show chronicles the battle between Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole) and Merlyn Temple (Sarah Paulson) for the soul of Merlyn’s orphaned brother Caleb (Lucas Black). This is not a metaphor: Sheriff Buck is The Devil incarnate and Merlyn is a ghost, and they both very much want Caleb to come round to their way of thinking. The tug of war between the diabolical and the disembodied produces variously eerie and unnatural occurrences in an otherwise well-kept and idyllic town. In this neat subversion of the Southern Gothic trope, Trinity’s decay is mostly invisible. Its residents live in relative ease, averting their eyes from Buck’s corruption so long as the proverbial trains run on time.

C’mon, you always knew Lumbergh had to be at least part lesser demon.

Trigger warning for sexual assault: Discussion below is not graphic, but one occurs in the pilot and is relevant to the premise of the show.

While Merlyn gears up to fight Buck supernaturally, Caleb’s cousin Gail Emory (Paige Turco) mounts a more terrestrial battle against the sheriff for custody of Caleb. The sheriff is supported by his spineless deputy Ben Healy (Nick Searcy) and occasionally by a lover (Selena Coombs, played by Brenda Bakke) whose allegiances remain unclear for most of the show. Gail is assisted by Dr. Matt Crower (Jake Weber), a newcomer to Trinity already suspicious of Buck’s apparent absolute control over the town. One of the show’s more chilling angles explored the ways its resident evil manifested as ordinary small town corruption; after several episodes I began to seriously entertain the possibility that my hometown’s mayor – a multi-decade incumbent whose obvious nepotism and self-dealing were never discussed aloud – might be a lesser demon, albeit one who preferred shady real estate deals to murder. Or did he? (In my defense, this is not an unreasonable supposition for a middle-schooler fresh off a Goosebumps binge.)

So why the fuss over the kid from Sling Blade? It’s easy to understand Merlyn’s interest, and Gail’s, but whence Sheriff Buck’s? In a chilling flashback, the show reveals that Buck is Caleb’s biological father. Ten years prior, he raped Judith Temple (Caleb and Merlyn’s mother), impregnating her and traumatizing Merlyn, who witnessed the assault. As a rule, I find the Rape As Plot Point trope shitty and lazy and abhorrent, but here it may have been the only way to make an obviously evil man Caleb’s biological father. And Buck’s depravity is consistent and meant to provoke horror: he murders people with Melisandre’s powers and Roose Bolton’s reptilian casualness. His battle of will against Merlyn will determine whether Caleb grows up Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil, and (although the show doesn’t really get enough time to make this explicit) there’s a good chance that the latter option turns Caleb into the Anti-Christ. If Caleb develops any of dear old Dad’s powers, that would be Very Bad News Indeed.

Suddenly the prospect of reliving Election Night with your in-laws seems like comparatively low stakes, right?

American Gothic is more suspenseful and plausible than it has any right to be. This is partly because it relies on psychological and moral horror more than gore and jump scares, and partly due to spectacular casting and – for a while, at least – very good writing. Eventually, CBS couldn’t resist tampering with the show before killing it entirely, and the series’ premature cancellation veered at least one character into implausible choice territory and rushed the conclusion of an arc that would have been better served by at least one more season. In spite of all of this, American Gothic is a Great American Story: it captured the claustrophobia and comforts of small town life and our willingness to overlook demons wearing familiar masks. In the haunted and haunting tradition of Carnivàle, it offers no assurance of salvation. In this respect, if no others, this piece of ‘90s horror has aged remarkably well.

So go on, bring your laptop down to the basement and play a few episodes while you’re wrapping those holiday gifts. If nothing else, you’ll never look at Bill Lumbergh the same way again.

HOW TO WATCH: American Gothic is available on DVD, and on Hulu, Amazon Video, and iTunes. Unfortunately these are all paid options. You can also pay to watch it on YouTube, but who pays to watch things on YouTube?

MUST WATCH: The pilot’s pretty solid (for a ‘90s horror series on network TV). And anyway you really can’t go wrong with half-mad disembodied Sarah Paulson.

FAVORITE LINES: “Someone’s at the door!”

“I smell a ghost.”

“You’re late.”
“And up until now, you were still on my good side.”

“Why do you think they call them ‘southern belles?’”
“That’s French, Ben. It means ‘beautiful.’”
“Oh yeah, I knew that. Four-alarm ‘belles.’”

“Some folks would lay all of Trinity’s troubles at my doorstep, but hell, you might as well blame a trailer park for attracting lightning bolts and tornadoes.”

“All guilt is relative. Loyalty counts. And never let your conscience be your guide.”

PAIR WITH: Ominously lit birthday cake.

WATCH OUT FOR: Everyone. Gary Cole and Sarah Paulson probably went on to have the broadest careers (notable recent appearances include Veep for Cole and 12 Years a Slave for Paulson). Paige Turco played April O’Neil in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and III, and both she and Lucas Black feature in NCIS: New Orleans. Jake Weber went on to be in Medium and Hell on Wheels and Nick Searcy is probably most recognizable as Frank Bennett from Fried Green Tomatoes. The show also includes one of Evan Rachel Wood’s first TV roles. And we all know and love executive producer Sam Raimi.

AFTERWARDS: For more Geocities-era ‘90s charm, pop over to the show’s ghost of a website. Then dust off the ol’ Goosebumps books and read ‘em to your kid(s). When they start asking awkward questions about local government, know that your work is done.

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