Elements of a Southern Gothic

Beth Fhaner
 | Apr 05, 2018

Southern Gothic

Elements of a Southern Gothic

  • Voodoo and spirituality
  • An air of mystery, and/or the supernatural
  • Grotesque history, especially focusing on the South’s history of slavery
  • Social anxieties represented in racial tension
  • Deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters
  • A sense of moral and physical decay, especially decaying buildings and plantation homes
  • Darkened religious symbols
  • Exploring madness
  • Heat that can be stifling and/or liberating
  • Swamps or rivers
  • Sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime or violence

When director May Adrales sat down recently to discuss the upcoming production of Little Black Shadows (April 8-29, Julianne Argyros Stage), she mentioned the play’s subtitle is “A Southern Gothic Stage Play.” And some elements of this genre can certainly be found in playwright Kemp Powers’ riveting, historical drama, which is set in pre-Civil War Georgia.

“Southern Gothic literature and art—it does have a tendency towards the dark, a high contrast between the light and the dark and acknowledgement of death as another character, ghosts or supernatural figures as a presence, so that very much permeates through this production as well as through the South itself,” explains Adrales.

The story unfolds inside the plantation manor, which Adrales says is a bit spooky, as well.

“The play feels like it emanates that sense of haunted, ghost-filled, complicated​ and dark sounds," notes Adrales. "The set features oak trees, but they sort of frame the “Big House” [of a Georgia cotton plantation in the 1850s]. One of the things I was fascinated by is that the slave-children—Toy and Colis—have no acknowledgement of the outside world…they never leave the house. The shadow world is something that the production really centers on.” 

Characteristics of the Southern Gothic style are fairly widespread throughout American culture and represented not only in literature, film and television programs, but in the art, music and theatre worlds, too. The Southern Gothic genre continues to appeal to many people, whether it’s through the themes explored in the novels of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers or Anne Rice; the stories of Flannery O’Connor; the stage dramas of Tennessee Williams; televisions shows or films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), which featured a community suffering post-Hurricane Katrina, or the decay depicted in a post-Civil War South in the film The Beguiled (1971 and its 2017 remake), to name just a few. The success of John Berendt’s novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (a New York Times best-seller for 216 weeks, later adapted into a movie) or HBO’s True Detective drama series has continued to keep this genre in the spotlight. No matter why people are fascinated with Southern Gothic tales, this extremely popular genre will undoubtedly endure for generations to come.

For more on the compelling Southern Gothic genre, check out this Smithsonian article.

Learn more about Little Black Shadows and buy tickets.