How the ancient greek notion of guest-friendship persists through the unlikely vessel of a rural horror trope.
Otis Firefly tromps down the staircase in a flesh suit. He’s wearing the skin of Sheriff Frank Huston, whose daughter Denise is dangling half-conscious in a bunny costume at the foot of the stairs. Denise and her friends were traveling the countryside researching offbeat roadside attractions but this a bit much. “Maybe,” leers Otis, kissing Denise through her father’s face, “it just ain’t a good idea to be prancing around where you don’t belong.”
While I’m not in the habit of siding with men who wear other men’s faces like peel-off masks, Otis isn’t wrong. Denise and company are tourists; the kind of urban rubberneckers who reek of cruel post-modern irony and pale when met with anything bona fide. Yet, as much as there’s truth to their “not belonging,” the fault of these urban dingdongs rests squarely in their “prancing;” their rudeness, their disrespect, and as Denise herself remarks, their “making waves.”
In their own unsettling way, the Firefly’s were generous hosts: offering their guests hot chocolate, welcoming them to dinner, even inviting them to their Halloween-eve talent show. And yes, there’s a fetus in a jar and Grandpa Hugo’s standup is trash (and yes, it was the Firefly’s who shot out the teens’ tire in the first place) – but as far as being hosts, the Firefly’s are damned-near hospitable. Things don’t truly take a turn for the worse until this hospitality is rejected, until Mary interrupts the vaudeville act, shoving Baby Firefly to the floor in a fit of obscenities for getting too cozy with her boyfriend. At first, the Firefly matriarch restrains Baby and her switchblade: tonight is special, and they’ve talked about this – for some private reason killing these dumb teens is off the table. But a transgression has taken place, so Mother Firefly relents – and thus: Otis, staircase, flesh suit, and sure enough, the eponymous House of 1000 Corpses.There exists an elemental concept of host-guest relations (xenia) in ancient greek literature which consists of two basic principles: the respect from host to guest, and vice versa. Xenia, abstractly, is a divinely-sanctioned ordinance of hospitality; a reciprocal amicability that must be honored or else. Positive examples of xenia pepper greek myth, most notably in the works of Homer: the Phaeacians caring for a shipwrecked Odysseus; Eumaeus the Herdsman opening his home to the Mysterious Traveler; Diomedes and Glaucus exchanging armor on the battlefield at Troy. After all, it’s always a good idea to play the gracious host when gods have the habit of assuming the guise of strangers.
The repercussions for abandoning, perverting, or ignoring one’s obligations as a host/guest are steep. A fact perhaps most remarkably illustrated in the Iliad, where Paris’ abduction of Helen (big party foul) results in a ten-year war of attrition. And it’s here where the line between Homer and horror is thinnest. Even though we’re rooting for Odysseus, the slaughter of the disrespectful suitors is a veritable bloodbath. All told, over one hundred suitors and unfaithful maidservants are butchered by four men; that Athena signs off on the carnage doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s a massacre. It’s a similar story with Polyphemus, who runs afoul of xenia by eating his guests (as one does). Consequently, he is blinded in one of the most viscerally horrific passages of ancient greek literature (see: an eye hissing). All to say: violence and the violation of hospitality-rights go hand in hand.
Rural horror subscribes to this governing principle: that overstepping or neglecting the bounds of hospitality comes at a violent price. And while having your dismembered torso sewn onto a fish might seem like a harsh punishment for bad manners (it is) this is horror we’re talking about. Like greek myth, the brutality is enmeshed with a primordial sense of justice. In this way, I want to suggest a lineage: that an ancient conception of guest-friendship subsists within rural horror.
By failing to come to the aid of the neighbouring hermit, the teens of Cabin Fever meet a gooey end; the vacationing coeds of Pumpkinhead treat Ed Harley’s convenience store like their own personal dirt bike course, resulting in the tragic death of Ed’s son; by overstepping the comfort of their would-be provincial hosts, American Werewolf in London’s David and Jack condemn themselves to the moors; and by virtue of their confrontational and condescending attitudes, the dudes from Hunter’s Blood run afoul of the locals – a trend echoed in Deliverance, Southern Comfort, and Rituals.
I’d be remiss to not mention the delightful rural horror comedy satire Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Our loveable duo are (appearances be damned) exceptionally courteous hosts, and Allison, a charming and grateful guest. Meanwhile, inhospitable characters are poetically undone by their own hostility; launching themselves into wood chippers and tree branches with such ease as to suggest the masterful handiwork of some rudeness-hating divinity
For Homer, the world functions peaceably when there’s mutual respect between grateful strangers and gracious hosts. To undermine the sanctity of this hospitality is to be literally monstrous – a sliding scale of imposing douchebag (Antinous) to all-out grotesque (Polyphemus). Conversely, in rural horror, the offending party are our protagonists: we’re rooting for the rude city slickers and praying they see the light of day. It’d be like reading The Odyssey from the perspective of a suitor and hoping against hope that he finds some way to claw out of Odysseus’ murder room, and hitchhike to safety. I mean hey, that worked for House of 1000 Corpses’ Denise, right? (Spoiler: it doesn’t, but my point still stands).
With the rare exception of Tucker and Dale, our sympathies rarely lie with the offended party in rural horror. Instead, we are typically asked to root for the transgressors, or at the very least, against those who’ve been disrespected. There’s something deeply unnerving about this. Is it as simple (and offensive) as urban prejudice? As the hateful presupposition that we side against the rustic? I want to believe it’s more nuanced than that, or that there’s the potential for it to be. There is an element of horror to hospitality-rights that stretches as far back as Homer that is, if anything, indiscriminate in its brutality. Certainly there’s a capability within rustic horror to lean into xenia and out of stereotype. A girl can dream.