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Hillbilly Horror: Reckoning With a Genre 15 Years After ‘Wrong Turn’

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“You’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner?”

Agent Clarice Starling of the 1991 horror classic “The Silence of the Lambs” was one of the first characters in popular American film to feature a canonically West Virginia accent. Hannibal Lecter’s comment to Agent Starling a character raised in West Virginia until her father’s untimely death might strike a familiar nerve for Appalachians who similarly leave home and are forced to leave their accents behind.

American horror has historically been unkind to Appalachia. While “hillbilly” narratives bring in the big bucks, the blurring line between fantasy and reality has done no favors for popular perceptions of mountain folks.

Among classics like “The Silence of the Lambs,” newer cult horror releases set in Appalachia have entirely reshaped their respective subgenres of American Horror. The 2006 psychological horror film “Silent Hill” has grossed nearly $100 million worldwide and is widely acclaimed as one of the best video game-to-film adaptations of the new millenium. In the film, abandoned coal mines are left still-smoldering beneath the town of Silent Hill, and ash falls on the ghost town like flurries of snow. The scene harkens a reminder of the town’s fiery past. But the film’s setting was inspired by real-life Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an underground mine fire has been burning since 1962. It is a fantastical, other-worldly and Salem-esque history of witch hunts, not the real-life, equally-horrifying history of coal extraction, that haunts the fictional Silent Hill. But “Silent Hill” isn’t your typical hillbilly horror feature.

Fifteen years ago, on May 30, 2003, one of the genre’s worst offenders, “Wrong Turn,” was released in theaters, grossing more than $28.7 million. To outsiders, the film is an otherwise forgettable and generic slasher, featuring a cast of unfamiliar names, that joins a genre of early 2000’s cheap screams that are hard to beat: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Final Destination,” and “Cherry Falls.” For West Virginians, the film reinvigorated some of the most painful stereotypes the region has had to face.

The film’s portrayal of Appalachian people is greatly influenced by outsiders’ perspectives on the abject poverty imagined to live isolated in our mountains. It’s hardly an accident that the murderous cannibal clan was styled by the film’s costume directors in threadbare, dirty duds. Vignettes feature the cast lurking around in ramshackle dwellings, covered in filth and grime. The infrastructure dirt roads and deteriorating public amenities is underdeveloped and crumbling. The film’s title implies that one should only find themselves navigating West Virginia’s backroads by accident.

More than a century of cultural dialogue has led to America’s visualization of rural space in Appalachia as ground zero for American poverty. In “Wrong Turn,” the recesses of a wealthy nation’s imagination envisions unseen poverty as a nightmarescape in which a storied history of neglect makes cannibals of people who live in exiled cabin slums.

Horror, as a format and genre, has roughly 120 minutes to terrify viewers, affording limited time and space for dialogue. As a result, horror film scripts rely on some of the most reductive and othering tropes to develop plotlines and character.

Historians like Ronald D. Eller have elegantly explained the processes that have led to Appalachia’s “othering.” Eller writes, “We know Appalachia exists because we need it to exist in order to define what we are not,” referring to the greater American population’s concept of an Appalachian America. “It is the ‘other America’ because the very idea of Appalachia convinces us of the righteousness of our own lives. The notion of Appalachia as a separate place, a region set off from mainstream culture and history, has allowed us to distance ourselves from the uncomfortable dilemmas that the story of Appalachia raises about our own lives and about the larger society.” Representation of the region in features like “Wrong Turn” have done some of that heavy lifting.

“Wrong Turn” follows a cast of bewildered outsiders some visiting West Virginia to hike or rock climb and some passing through on business as they stumble through an impenetrable forest to escape a stalking family of cannibal, film-stock “hillbillies.” Most of the murderous mountain dwellers appear horribly disfigured and the film’s intro scene flashes pages of books detailing the physiological effects of inbreeding.

West Virginia natives aren’t unfamiliar with incest stereotypes about the Mountain State. Professor Gabriel Rosenberg, a sexuality studies scholar at Duke University, told me that ideas linking rural people and supposed incestual behaviors find their way into horror film scripts due to age-old narratives that living away or far from society leads to degeneration. “Wrong Turn,” however, writes these narratives into flesh: “Three Finger,” “Three Toes,” “One Eye,” and “Saw Tooth” are characters costumed in special effects makeup created to materialize nightmarish “mutant genes” that rely on the assumption that the “incestuous hillbilly” already exists in the audience’s imagination.

The film was produced in a particular type of genre cycle in which “teenage horror” reached unseen commercial success, producing cult classics like “Scream” andI Know What You Did Last Summer.” The influence of “Scream” inspired a new crop of lookalikes, motivating producers to write screenplays that join a never-ending roster of films that abide by the ‘90s teen thrasher model: young people find themselves in a terrifying predicament, stalked by a someone or something, and everyone dies, ad nauseam. In the case of making wrong turns, the something the urbane teens were stalked by was a twisted family tree of cannibal mountain people.

Teenagers were running from masked murderers, and slasher directors were chasing after chainsaws. Professor Rosenberg sees “Wrong Turn” as a part of a larger “farmhouse horror” film family that includes works like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Along with “Massacre,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” “The Devil’s Rejects” and “House of 1000 Corpses” prove Rosenberg’s theory that almost every American horror film set in a rural place features a family as the film plot’s villain. “The family that preys together stays together,” he says, noting that the “monstrous rural family” characters always stalk the protagonist as a unit.

John Boorman’s 1972 “Deliverance” introduced the ultimate backwoods terror plot archetype. A cast of city dwellers enter Appalachia’s wilderness for recreation and leave only after being stalked by murderous mountain men. One of the most notable scenes from the film has had incredible staying power in pop culture, lending itself to the butt of nearly every joke at the expense of rural people, “Paddle faster, I hear banjos!” The “dueling banjos” scene although the instrumental composition itself won a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance has shaped the way Americans have relegated banjo-driven bluegrass to “backwards” and “backwoods.”

Professor Travis Stimeling, an ethnomusicologist at West Virginia University who focuses on traditional Appalachian music, believes that “Deliverance” has contributed to that stigma. He feels as though pop culture features like “Deliverance” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” have ultimately led to to the cultural association of banjos and bluegrass with white rural people, in spite of the true historical origins of the instrument.

Stimeling told me that people in the region who play bluegrass and old-time music have started to realign their relationships with the phase “Paddle faster, I hear banjos!” He says, “It’s interesting to see to see that phrase taken up by people in the bluegrass and old-time communities. Seeing that phrase reclaimed, not only in my own mind but by others, is really powerful.” Stimeling continued “You’ll see that sticker on guitar cases, banjo cases, Subarus. … It’s seen there as a source of pride. If I were someone who liked to go rafting and I heard banjos, I would also paddle faster, but in a different direction. I would paddle toward the banjos, not away.”

It’s true that our remote hills and forests can be terrifying at night. Appalachians themselves have done a far better job of capturing what lurks in the shadows of West Virginia’s wooded hills than fictional representations of hillbilly horror. A cartography of our sprawling landscape is decorated with cryptid sightings old and new hello, mothmen and some folks hang onto those stories for generations.

The second volume of the legendary “Foxfire” series provides a tell-all on Appalachia’s arcane unknown. David Wilson writes for “Foxfire’s” chapter on boogers, witches and haints, “That the people of these mountains have a rich supply of ‘haint’ tales is not at all surprising. They had conquered the land but only in a small area around their doors. No matter how friendly the woods seemed in daylight, there were noises and mysterious lights there at night that were hard to ignore if you were out there all alone.”

I peered over glossy paperbacks featuring folktales of local hauntings in my elementary school’s library, which turned into my decade-long horror habit, but I never knew my favorite films could make monsters out of people like me.  

In reality, “Wrong Turn” isn’t even filmed in West Virginia, but the franchise has lead to a 15-year legacy of urban outsiders mocking Mountain Staters. American horror has  underestimated its own reach of influence: more than a century of horror film history has redefined our fears, teaching us to always check the shower, shudder at flocks of birds, and writhe at the sight of expansive fields of corn and unending bodies of water. “Wrong Turn” has made it impossible to travel wooded hills without a foot on the gas pedal.

Following the film’s release, a popular, multinational clothing company began selling shirts emblazoned with “It’s all relative in West Virginia” and “West Virginia: No Lifeguard at the Gene Pool,” and the stereotypes persisted in horror film production well into the early 2000s.

During the 2008 production process of “Shelter,” casting director Donna Belajac posted a casting call searching for actors with physical abnormalities to extra in a scene set in a “West Virginia holler.” The call beckoned responses from extras with the features “Extraordinarily tall or short. Unusual body shapes, even physical abnormalities as long as there is normal mobility. Unusual facial features, especially eyes.” In response to public disapproval, Belajac told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “I hope it’s not an offensive thing. It’s not meant to be a generalization about everyone in West Virginia. That’s why we put that it’s in a ‘holler’ in the mountains.” Belajac was fired.

We welcome you to explore what’s out there, but “leave no trace.” Horror films like “Wrong Turn” prove that the influence of misguided visual representations of Appalachian people produced by journalists in the 1960s has extended much further than socio-political dialogue in a War on Poverty. That a “Stranger with a Camera” should betray our people and wilderness comes as no surprise. The painful legacy of these stereotypes about our region has shown us what 15 years of wrong turns can do. Appalachia is not Hollywood’s nightmarescape.

Holler-casting blackened bluegrass to you from the Ohio Valley, Liz Price studies Appalachian regional policy by day and spins mountain-metal by night.

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Ohio Valley Outlook: Expect a Slower Regional Economy in 2020

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Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource
Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource

This piece was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The Ohio Valley’s economy could see slower growth in 2020 amid continued anxiety about trade, and possible downturns in both energy and manufacturing, according to analyses and forecasts by regional economists.

Michael Hicks directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Indiana where he forecasts the health of the manufacturing sector. Hicks expects manufacturing to slow down, and he blames the tariffs levied under President Donald Trump’s administration. Hicks said the costs imposed by the trade war are playing out in markets across the region and he predicts the Ohio Valley’s economic growth to slow dramatically in 2020.

“You will see layoffs certainly, lower hours, less generous bonuses both this year and next year, less demand for power which is going to be important particularly in Kentucky and West Virginia, as manufacturing firms both use less metallurgical coal and less coal for electrical power,” Hicks said.

‘One tweet away’

A report Hicks co-authored shows the impact of manufacturing employment on the overall health of the United States economy has diminished. Production is still a large share of the economy. But, he said, the economies of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are heavily dependent on exports, which is why the trade war has and will continue to have a large impact.

Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

The Trump administration has made some recent moves to improve trade relations. The United States Mexico Canada Agreement or, USMCA, would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement or, NAFTA. USMCA has passed the House and is still pending in the Senate. But Hicks said that trade deal doesn’t offer much assurance.

“The USMCA passage is essentially for your typical manufacturing firm it improves the confidence that we’re not going to have a trade war with our big partners in Canada and Mexico,” Hicks said. “But to just speak candidly, we’re always one tweet away from a new adversary in the trade war.”

He said if European firms are less interested in buying higher-priced American products it’s enough to cause a significant decline in the demand for goods produced in the U.S. Hicks said that could have a bigger effect in the region than in the country as a whole.

“Which is enough to push Kentucky and West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois into a localized recession,” he said. “It’s not enough for a national recession, but it’s enough to give us the feel and taste of what a recession would be like.”

Of the three states, Ohio’s larger economy is also more diverse and follows national trends more closely. Zach Schiller is an economist with Policy Matters Ohio, an economic research institute.

“Ohio is not an island, you know, our economy is closely integrated into the national and international economies,” Schiller said.

Schiller said the largest employers in Ohio are either national or international companies and he expects any change in the state’s economy to be similar to what happens nationally.

Still Recovering

In Kentucky, manufacturing plays a significant role in the state’s economy. Jason Bailey director the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. He said manufacturing has grown in large part because of the auto industry, but carmakers are seeing a slowdown.

“We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing over the last couple decades across the state and industries like apparel or furniture manufacturing or computer parts manufacturing, that has often been to cheaper locations like China and in Latin America,” Bailey said.

Bailey said Kentucky still hasn’t fully recovered from the last recession and it’s facing a tough year ahead with state budget cuts likely.

West Virginia is in a similar position with even fewer signs of economic recovery. West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics is predicting the economy will expand by about point two percent annually for the next five years. The Executive Director of the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Ted Boettner said that’s the lowest growth rate WVU has predicted for the state in the past seven years.

“You know since our last economic recession that began in 2007, West Virginia has seen less than a 1 percent increase in job growth over that time,” Boettner said.

Pipeline stacked in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo by: Larry Dowling/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Boettner said the state’s economy has always been on a “roller coaster ride” based on energy markets. The downturn in coal has hit hard, of course, but that was somewhat offset recently by a boost from natural gas and pipeline construction work. Now, however, one major pipeline project is complete and some others have been halted by legal challenges. Boettner said that focus on natural resource extraction can hamper other kinds of growth.

“A lot of other industries, especially ones based in the knowledge-based economy don’t really want to be around extractive industries,” Boettner said. “They don’t want to be around a lot of pollution, and things like that. So you really are choosing one over the other in some sense.”

Boettner said the state has never had big urban centers to build a diversified economy around, but he thinks investment in education could help with that.

“I mean, unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I think the only way that West Virginia is going to really thrive, potentially thrive, over the coming decades will be unless there’s massive federal investment in the state,” he said.

Deficits Despite Growth 

The U.S. is in the longest period of economic recovery in modern history. Hicks said normally that would mean the country would be running a budget surplus and could start paying off debt or taking on big projects.

“We would have made some long term investments in infrastructure, highways, roads, particularly with transfers to local governments that are, you know, facing a lot of aging infrastructure,” Hicks said.

Instead, Hicks said, the federal budget has a deficit of more than a trillion dollars after tax cuts and what he calls unsustainable federal spending, including the trade bailouts for farmers. And he said those economic policies are not having the degree of stimulus they should, largely because of the negative effects of the trade war.

A report from Ball State notes the Trump administration’s 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was meant to spur private, non-residential investment. But whatever effect could have been expected was muted by a similarly large tax increase due to tariffs associated with the trade war.

“We are running a budget deficit of $1.1 trillion, which is considerably more than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” Hicks said. “That was Obama’s large stimulus package passed in February 2009. That was only $856 billion”

As economists across the region watch for signs of the next recession, they also look to infrastructure investment as an area for potential growth. The Ohio Valley has massive funding needs for its roads, broadband internet access, and aging water systems.

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Fact-check: Is Jim Justice the First West Virginia Governor to Fight For Teacher Pay Raises?

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Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP
Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP Photo

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, facing a competitive Republican primary in 2020, recently introduced an ad touting his accomplishments in office, including a focus on K-12 education.

The ad, released in a Dec. 4 tweet, features several West Virginians reading off a series of scripted accomplishments from Justice’s tenure. One of the accomplishments, voiced by a teacher, is that “Jim Justice is the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

This struck us as odd since governors of all parties regularly tout their support for teachers — a group that’s popular with voters and, in many states, a politically powerful constituency.

Teacher salaries have been an especially sensitive issue in West Virginia. Between 2005 and 2017, West Virginia teacher salaries never rose higher than 44th in the nation. That history set the stage for a 2018 teacher strike in West Virginia, which was the state’s first major K-12 walkout in almost three decades. Justice eventually signed a 5 percent pay bump, which is more than the legislature had offered prior to the strike.

So is Justice really the first West Virginia governor ever to push for teacher pay raises? His office did not respond to inquiries for this article, but we found that each of Justice’s five immediate predecessors either proposed or enacted teacher pay raises.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Democrat, 2011-2017

In his first state of the state address in 2011, Tomblin proposed a one-time, across-the-board $800 increase for teachers. “Frankly, it should be more and we need to strive for a day when our teachers are paid at a rate equivalent to the most important role they play,” he said in the speech, according to the Associated Press.

In 2014, despite offering few increases in his relatively austere budget proposal, Tomblin did include a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. The bill he eventually signed contained a $1,000 raise for teachers for the 2014-2015 school year. 

Gov. Joe Manchin, Democrat, 2005-2010

As governor, Manchin — now a U.S. Senator — periodically sparred with teachers’ unions over the size of his salary increase proposals. But both Manchin’s Senate office and West Virginia teachers’ unions agree that he proposed a teacher salary increase and signed it into law.

During his tenure, Manchin raised teacher salaries by 3.5 percent, according to a joint statement released by the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association when the groups endorsed Manchin’s Senate reelection bid in 2018. Manchin’s Senate office cited the same 3.5 percent increase when we inquired.

The legislation Manchin signed also improved teachers’ annual salary increments and allowed educators to move from a 401(k)-style defined contribution plans to a defined-benefit system.

Gov. Bob Wise, Democrat, 2001-2005

In his 2001 state of the state address, Wise proposed raising teacher salaries by $1,000, plus $2,500 in incentives. “Teachers are the heart of the educational system. We must honor the work of our teachers,” he said.

After leaving the governor’s office, Wise became CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an education advocacy group.

Gov. Cecil Underwood, Republican, 1997-2001

In his 1998 state of the state address, Underwood proposed giving teachers a $750 pay raise. He signed a three-year pay raise into law later that year.

Gov. Gaston Caperton, Democrat, 1989-1997

Caperton was governor during a divisive, 11-day West Virginia teacher strike in 1990, but he ended up presiding over a significant pay increase for the state’s teachers. The strike was settled when all parties agreed on a $5,000 pay increase phased in over three years.

Last year, PolitiFact reported that most significant recent improvement in West Virginia teacher pay compared to other states came between 1990 and 2000, a period during which Caperton and Underwood were in office.

Like Wise, Caperton headed an education group — the College Board — after serving as governor.

Our ruling 

Justice’s ad said he’s “the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

That’s far off-base. Seeking pay raises for teachers is practically a rite of passage for governors, and West Virginia is no exception. Not one, not two, but each of Justice’s five most recent predecessors — Tomblin, Manchin, Wise, Underwood and Caperton — either proposed a teacher pay raise, signed one into law or both. We rate the statement Pants on Fire!

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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