Fair warning: spoilers for Resident Evil 7 lie ahead.
Welcome to the family,” growls Jack, the demented patriarch of Resident Evil 7’s Baker family as he abducts you into his house of horrors. In Southern culture, there is perhaps no stronger, more deeply-rooted concept than that of family. After all, there’s a reason you see massive, extended families taking up entire lawns or renting banquet halls during holiday celebrations. Community is everything, especially those communities united by blood.
“You should love your family no matter what,” was a pretty standard motto I heard growing up in South Carolina. It’s a pretty thought, one that gives rise to images of people helping each other out during hard time, but it’s never that clear-cut. Sometimes family members aren’t decent, much less good, people. Worse yet, you’re trapped with them across the span of several years.
Small Southern towns strongly encourage everyone to operate on the same trajectory. Go to church. Watch football. Vote red. Keep to your own. Deviate from that line and you become an outsider. People will still treat you politely, more as a matter of decorum than anything else. A sharp-toothed smile accompanies a compliment but their eyes say it all: freak. This all goes out the window when alcohol or tempers enter the picture. At family gatherings. Football events. It’s like acid burning away a veneer to reveal something vile you’ve always been somewhat aware of. This is where you find out who people really are, like a family member, tipsy in their recliner, defending the preacher who slapped a child two Sundays ago or spitting racial slurs because they’re convinced minorities are somehow responsible for rural economic decline. Later they’ll apologize profusely, of course. Not for feeling those things. Not for believing those things. Simply for saying them. Because, of course.
When you’re young and in situations like this, with no idea what your future is going to look like, there’s nothing you can do about it except try and tune out these occasions, bouncing back and forth between pity and disgust of these people. You can’t disown extended family if you’re going to be stuck with them for however long it is until you can graduate high school and hopefully leave town, one way or another. It is, in a way, like being trapped in a house with people capable of turning into their worse selves at a moment’s notice.
The Baker family is a dramatic example: crazy, murderous hillbillies who jump from personality to personality, raving as they swing axes and knives at you. But they also have moments where they genuinely seem like they want to be a family with you in some twisted display of love. Your first real encounter with the whole group has you sitting down to eat a feast of decaying body parts. It’s a disgusting, tense moment where they wait to see if you’re one of them. When you refuse to eat the food, they get offended, and violence erupts. And that’s when you become an outsider, both an ideological and physical trespasser, and they want to remove you as soon as possible for rejecting their invitation to become part of the family.
The Bakers are the way they are because a biological weapon has brainwashed them, which is typical sci-fi horror schlock. However, the game does something interesting with this trope. The Bakers end up being more fleshed out than the violent rednecks you see in the likes of The Hills Have Eyes or Deliverance because the story eventually reveals that the family, at least Jack, are aware of what’s happening to them and are powerless to stop their own decay and loss of control. During later encounters with the family, they often surge back and forth between cursing you, attacking you, and lamenting their losses.
During the actual final boss fight you have with Jack, where he’s transformed into sickening, pulsating tendril beast, he starts weeping about his dead wife and it creates this sensation of pity and disgust. You’re not just fighting a massive monster. You’re also putting down someone in a lot of pain but that doesn’t make the relief any less potent when you emerge from the other side of that fight victorious, having escaped the evil grasping at your ankles. These scenes are often grotesque and pitiable, but it’s also a combination of traits that have been attached to Southern literature for ages.
Southern authors have long created fascinating characters often as sympathetic as they are disgusting. In O’Connor’s Wise Blood, protagonist Hazel Motes returns to his home in Tennessee after World War II. He’s become disillusioned with religion and builds a church dedicated to atheism. By the end of the book, Motes commits a terrible crime and returns to Catholicism in a twisted way: wrapping his chest up in barbed wire walking with sharp stones in his shoes as a form of penance. Motes’ anxieties, guilt, and emotional desolation emerge from the mental realm into the physical one in disturbing fashion.
William Faulkner’s characters are also pitiable, dysfunctional families as seen in The Sound and The Fury and As I Lay Dying. The latter novel in particular is a grim tale that follows a family’s trial and tribulations as they struggle to transport the body of their matriarch to her burial site in a coffin, crossing stormy rivers and dealing with burning barns.
Almost all these stories are focused on decay — moral decay, the decay of communities, the literal decay of ourselves as human beings. This makes sense because the collective story of the South, as told by the people who have chronicled it through the ages in fiction and non-fiction, is one of decay, slavery, horror, and desolation. Racial tensions, religious anxieties, and imprisoning group thought still lurk beneath the surface of cultural politeness, ready to burst forth when triggered by a catalyst, whether it’s something as simple as a family argument or something as large scale as a political election. To grow up in that environment creates such a sense of dread. You’re constantly wondering when the people you’ve grown close to out of necessity, or people who share your blood, will suddenly become proud bigots.
Resident Evil 7 is a strong example of Southern horror and it makes sense in a way. The series has always been concerned with the literal decay of flesh and minds, so transporting this particular story to a land obsessed with that theme on several levels works. Resident Evil 7 works in this gene not just because it lowers itself into the muck and rolls about gleefully, but because it channels the isolation and grotesque pity that forms the foundation of some of the best works to come out of that culture while also still being a Capital-R Resident Evil game. It’s a hell of a feat. The setting feels authentic not just because the swamps, plant life, and rickety houses are all believable, but because it also sells the horrifying atmosphere of The South at its worst. It felt oddly familiar to be trapped in a small house, surrounded by a strange family I didn’t want to be part of, with dread in the pit of my stomach and a voice whispering in my head get out, get out, get out.
That voice is probably familiar to most people who move away from the South at the first opportunity. Sometimes I run into these people at conventions, on vacations, or wherever. It doesn’t matter if we grew up in the same town or states apart, we always end up talking about our childhoods. It’s unavoidable really. You hear a touch of twang and the conversation takes a sharp left, often focusing on fatty foods or sweltering heat, or even the things we ran away from. There’s a palpable sense of relief in that comradery. We made it. Even if we don’t say it aloud, it’s the undercurrent. It’s pride. It’s shame. It’s heartbrokenness for the people we loved who couldn’t do the same. We’re the wounded survivors at the end of your grindhouse film, clutching our wounds, laughing bitterly.
We got out.