Author: Rosie Allen
Illustration: Mark Smith
A second series of hit crime show Making a Murderer has been slated, meaning another round of amateur sleuthing on Twitter and several more hours of Steven and Ma Avery literally just saying the word ‘Yuh’ to each other on the phone.
But as we await the outcome of an investigation into alleged police corruption in the Steven Avery case, MAMs theme of small-town paranoia continues to reverberate in real-life. And it’s a well-used trope that has been morbidly entertaining us for centuries.
For many it isn’t just the alleged miscarriages of official justice systems that makes the Avery story so disturbing. Making a Murderer reveals the complex layers of life and society in a small community, and the Chinese Whisper effect that can turn friends and neighbours into pitchfork-toting vigilantes. It’s a primal fear and one that writers and film-makers have manipulated for decades to send shivers down even the most cynical of horror-buff’s spine, posing a nightmarish question: if society turns against you – maybe the neighbours you’ve known since you were a child; the law enforcement agencies who are charged to protect you; even your own family – can any reason or rationale truly save your skin?
Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories may have been published over 60 years ago, but her critique of small town paranoia, mob justice and ritual sacrifice could not be more prescient. Both Making A Murderer and another recent Netflix rural-crime-and-justice doc, Brother’s Keeper, echo the time old fear of cold-blooded conformity and its devastating effect on communities. It’s what makes The Wicker Man so compelling, 1984 so terrifying and The Crucible so claustrophobic. Can you use fear to manipulate humans into behaving like, well, not-quite-humans?
Jackson’s motives for writing the suspenseful story echo these sentiments. She told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1948: ‘I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.’
While the sacrifice in the Lottery is horribly palpable, the symbolic ‘ritual’ murder of many by one is well-documented. Take just one of the many recent UK murder stories in recent years where a suspect deemed ‘strange’ because they reject social norms can be turned out into the cold by society and left as carrion for a gleeful press.
Jackson’s story has inspired popular culture immeasurably from The Simpsons ‘Dog of Death’ episode to the music of the high-priest of dark pop Marilyn Manson. The writer also counts record-smashing novelists Neil Gaiman and Donna Tartt as fans.
The short story itself stoked the fires of controversy on publication, with readers calling it alternately ‘perverse’ and ‘pointless’ and Jackson receiving hate mail to her home, in an ironic twist that saw Jackson hounded by an outraged mob, many of whom had simply heard of its notoriety rather than having read it.
Allegedly even her parents hated it, with her father writing ‘[I]t does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”’. Luckily Shirley knew her dad was being a basic bro and wrote the rest of the stories that make up the collection. Each story presents a vignette of dark suburban Americana featuring housewives on the border of a nervous breakdown, racism, kids considering cutting dogs heads off (yeah you read right) and small town paranoia. Each story ratchets up the tension to The Lottery’s gruesome climax.
So if your eyes are aching from your true-crime-based Netflix binge fest, but you still want to indulge your morbid side, try The Lottery. Who would have guessed that a retro horror writer could be so 2016?