There are two conflicting pop culture cliches concerning life in a small town. One is the idyllic, Norman Rockwell portrayal, where a small town is portrayed as something like a little slice of heaven on Earth. This is the stereotypical, baseball and apple pie American ideal that most small towns aspire to with varying degrees of success. And then on the opposite pole there is the portrayal of small towns favored by Stephen King and other horror authors since time immemorial–the Norman Rockwell-gone-wrong where on the surface everything seems fine but like a white washed tomb the pleasant exterior conceals corruption.
Having lived in a small town my entire life, I’m in a position where I can judge the truth of both these extremes. Both are true, to a certain extent. There are wonderful people in small towns, people who will do anything for you and who still live by the Golden Rule. The down-home feel and old fashioned spirit are both still alive and well in America’s small towns (at least the ones I’ve been in). Where I live, it’s safe to go out at night and a lot of people still leave their doors unlocked (I don’t, but that’s because I have anxiety problems and a lot of portable electronics).
However, that is not the whole story. Horror is a popular genre not because it talks about terrible things that can never happen, but because it helps us to deal with the terrible things that do happen in a safe way. The horrors of the world are not far away in a small town, no matter how friendly or safe it might be.
Certainly, there may not be as much crime and violence in rural areas as in a bigger city, but while the frequency of such events might be lower they are often more horrific simply because they happen in smaller, close knit areas, where everyone knows everyone. I can think of several terrible things that have occurred around my area, senseless and bizarre crimes that still echo in the local memory years, even decades, later.
By way of example, in my own town two local boys in the 90′s went on a killing spree. The story goes that they killed an old lady in the next town over by crushing her head with a brick. They killed two more people before finally being caught in Oklahoma. They’ve since been executed. When asked why they did what they did, one of them responded that they were bored. Even creepier, one of them worked at a local grocery store and he carried out for my mom a week before he and his friend went on their spree. The woman’s body was never found.
I covered another example in a previous post. Cletus T. Reese killed three men on his farm the next county over, spurred by voices in his head. He did the deed by braining them with a heavy branch. His story went on to become the subject of local folklore, which portrayed him as a cunning serial killer rather than a sad, mentally ill man haunted by inner demons who destroyed three lives as a result of his delusions.
So, by way of my own experiences, the Stephen King-esque cliche of the white washed tomb town is very much true. But then so is the 1950′s Norman Rockwell stereotype. It’s rather like when you see the ugly side of a person, say when the lose their temper and say something that shouldn’t be said. Often the response will be, “So now we see who you really are!” (or the like). Well, no. And yes. Really, it can be both at once and neither at the same time. Kind of like how grey is neither black nor white but a mix of both.
That, in a nut shell, is life in a small town.