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The American Midwest in idea and in fact is girded. Bounded by the coasts, its flat expanse gives a sense of the landlocked and inescapable, the horizon slowly dissipating on a beyond that is hard to reach. Geographically speaking, the Midwestern landscape is also notably contained by a grid of square townships. From the bird’s-eye view the landscape appears like a patchwork quilt or womb stitched together from East and West. This “great interior region,” as Lincoln described it, has become a shelter or refuge from urban ills in the American imagination, a landscape whose supposed geographic emptiness provides a blank slate for recovery and respite from modernity and industrial capitalism’s stresses. This myth of emptiness has roots in colonization and westward expansion, including the displacement of indigenous people. Like in Little House on the Prairie, American culture views the Midwest as a region where Jeffersonian ideals of a peaceful “middle landscape” come to fruition, a place where art and nature are in true balance.
Despite the region’s associations with nature and the pastoral broadly speaking, Michael Martone writes that “[n]o other feature so marks the Midwestern landscape as the signature of townships” and that “[t]here is nothing natural about it. We know the Midwest by this arbitrary and artificial pattern that has been imposed upon it.” Martone’s emphasis on the landscape’s artificially imposed design has broader cultural implications. Counterintuitive to its cultural image and iconographic associations, the region and its wholesome, local cul-de-sacs take on an eerie, grid-like, and even simulated “as-seen-on-television” plastic sheen in popular Midwestern Gothic television shows like Eerie, Indiana. Set in Indiana and Wisconsin, respectively, Stranger Things and Making a Murderer also explore the region’s manufactured image in American culture, discovering a mysterious underbelly that seems to defy logic and preconceived ideas. The cultural and political dimensions of these shows implicate powerful institutions and government entities, reflecting as much on power in our contemporary politico-historical moment as they do on the nation’s myths, values, and ideals embodied by the region and critiqued from within it.
Indiana’s official state motto is Crossroads of America, and indeed Indianapolis, the state’s capital, is cross-hatched by several primary interstate highways. From this vantage, Indiana is a state one passes through en route to other destinations. It is also known as The Hoosier State, for its iconic intercollegiate basketball team which has become somewhat of an “all-American” institution since the mid-’70s. Given that the Midwest is “what American thinks itself to be” (William David Barillas) and is “keeper of the nation’s values” (James R. Shortridge), it is perhaps no coincidence that television shows like the early-90’s Eerie, Indiana set out to uncover the secrets of a place that appears “so wholesome, so squeaky clean you could only find it on TV.” Young protagonist Marshall Teller and his family have recently moved to Eerie from New Jersey, and it appears that he is having difficulty adjusting to his new “home sweet home” which he describes as “the center of weirdness for the entire planet.” The title sequence’s quintessentially Lynchian images evoke an artificial, all-too-perfect Midwestern suburb, replete with white picket fences, high school basketball players walking in uncanny formation, and fathers mowing their pristinely manicured lawns in nearly matching outfits. The population, of course, is 16,661. Marshall asks, “the American Dream come true, right? Wrong.”
The enduring impulse behind Eerie, Indiana is Marshall’s sixth sense that there is more to Eerie than what meets the eye, and every episode demonstrates a uniquely strange element of Midwestern suburban life. For instance, in one episode, Marshall and his friend Simon are convinced that they have encountered a “mind-sucking cult of housewife zombies who preserve themselves in household kitchenware.” Furthermore, Marshall’s “Eerie Museum of Horror,” an ongoing collection of artifacts and strange “findings,” is intriguing in its relationship to history. In contrast to New England, the South, and the West, the Midwest is known for its lack of history, and Kent C. Ryden writes that the region “is defined by the absence of a past, a sort of temporal emptiness” and that “[i]nstead of adopting and adapting a ready-made history, [Midwesterners] continually construct the past anew from the materials at hand, thinking not of the entire region and its abstract history but of the places most immediate to their lives.” It is evident throughout the series that Marshall is a sort of amateur sleuth-cum-historian, building a new archive and history of Eerie from everyday objects that are made strange through his odd encounters with them, such as a baloney sandwich from 1964 that has been perfectly preserved in a “Forever Ware” container.
It seems that what Marshall finds so eerie about Eerie, Indiana is precisely its lack of history. Coupled with suburban development’s post-Fordist, pre-packaged construction, Eerie embodies a simulation or copy without an original. It is as if the town plays itself and is, in fact, living out a television show. Marshall’s “Eerie Museum of Horror” counteracts this lack of history by collecting the oddities and aberrations of the present-day, an archive that pushes the bounds and limits of the historical record and posits a new history that is dissimilar to the sanitized, repetitive, and overwhelmingly “normal” landscape around him. These objects and artifacts are also evidence of a secret or shadow life embedded within the American Dream, which is itself as illusory and fake as the synthetic bleach blonde wigs donned by housewives. Eerie, Indiana illuminates the American Dream as something to be bought and sold, and positions regional mythos similarly. In Heartland TV, Victoria Johnson writes that “[t]elevision’s role in constructing and reimagining the Heartland is . . . a historical, technological, economic, cultural, and political phenomenon. At each of these sites, and at the core of this myth, is the idea that geography—both real and symbolic—is capital.” Marshall’s makeshift museum implicitly critiques the American Dream and Midwestern mythos like the Heartland myth through its creation of an alternate, revisionary history that begins to account for the region’s uncanny, grotesque, abject, and estranged encounters.
Netflix’s Stranger Things is located in the similarly sleepy, suburban town of Hawkins, Indiana during the early/mid-’80s, and also features tweens in search of the truth of their town, particularly with respect to the disappearance of Will Byers and Barbara Holland as well as the mysterious appearance of Eleven. Just as Eerie, Indiana juxtaposes the seemingly quaint town of Eerie with the “crowded” and “polluted” New Jersey, Stranger Things defines Hawkins against the city. Jim Hopper states, “Joyce, this is Hawkins, okay? Do you know the worst thing that’s happened here? The worst thing was when an owl attacked Eleanor Gillespie’s head because it thought her hair was a nest.” Hawkins is, simply put, boring—nothing outlandish or out of the ordinary ever happens there, and likewise there is no real crime to investigate or difficult problems to solve. Main Street consists of small-town American staples—a general store, cinema, arcade, police station, and café. Hawkins is not unlike the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois of Halloween fame, and Stranger Things’s obvious references to the franchise, including the title sequence and Dustin and Lucas’s assumption that Eleven is probably an escapee or psycho “like Michael Myers,” serves to firmly place the show within the popular Midwestern Gothic tradition alongside films like Children of the Corn (1984).
It should come as no surprise that the Hawkins National Laboratory and U.S. Department of Energy hides in plain sight, so to speak—tucked away in a semi-covert location in Hawkins marked “No Trespassing / U.S. Government Property.” Given pervading ideas of the Midwest as
a microcosm for the nation, the fact that top-secret, unethical governmental affairs occur in Hawkins suggests a critique of these entities and institutions. That is, if the Midwest epitomizes America, then perhaps Stranger Things’s unassuming Midwestern setting is actually well-suited to complicating a national ideology that serves to undergird systems of power. And where, after all, is a better place to hide a high-security government laboratory than in one such bedroom community? One Hawkins police officer refers to the laboratory as “Emerald City,” a reference to The Wizard of Oz (1939) that suggests the laboratory is not quite what it seems. Just as The Wizard of Oz’s namesake character creates an illusion of power though in reality he is just a man behind a curtain, the mysterious scientists and government officials at the Department of Energy pull the strings behind the scenes, controlling and even enacting violence on those who get in their way or know too much.
The show’s representation of the American government undoubtedly reflects on the realities of governmental power and the underside of freedom and justice. The experiments performed on test subjects like Eleven are dangerous and unconscionable, revealing a secret world underlying the quiet life of Hawkins. While films like The Wizard of Oz represent the Midwest as “home” (i.e., “there’s no place like home”), the scientists and government officials disrupt notions of “home,” safety, and security by tearing apart families like Eleven’s, whom they violently kidnapped during infancy and whose mother is now permanently mentally damaged as a result. Hopper tells the officials, “I know you do experiments on kidnapped little kids whose parents brains you turn to mush. And I know you went a little too far this time and you messed up in a big way. I mean, you really messed up, didn’t you, big time? That’s why you’re trying to cover your tracks.” Furthermore, Sam Owens, an official at the Department of Energy, tells Jonathan Byers and Nancy Wheeler that “the thing is, we can’t seem to erase our mistake, but we can stop it from spreading. It’s like pulling weeds. But imagine for a moment if a foreign state, let’s say the Soviets, if they heard about our mistake, do you think they would even consider that a mistake? And what if they tried to replicate that? The more attention we bring to ourselves, the more people like the Hollands know the truth, the more likely that scenario becomes.” Significantly, Sam Owens says, “you see why I have to stop the truth from spreading, too . . . by whatever means necessary,” suggesting the government’s co-opting truth and knowledge in an effort to maintain power and cover their tracks, so to speak.
The truth of the Department of Energy’s so-called “mistake” is vast, uncontrollable, and dangerous. The scientists’ creation of what some of the show’s characters refer to as “the Upside Down” is a rhizomatic map of Hawkins—a dark, wet, underground space reminiscent of a womb. Dustin also refers to this as the “Vale of Shadows,” an alternate dimension “that is a dark reflection or echo of our world . . . a place of decay and death” which he further describes as “a plane out of phase, a place of monsters.” This shadow world represents the hidden underbelly of truth that exists right below or even beside us. “The Upside Down” is quite literally the “other side” of cultural myths of the Midwest as womb, “home,” or Heartland—the “yang” to the “yin” of the region’s “ideological status” (Joanne Jacobson). The whole truth of Hawkins and the disturbing events that take place there comprise both yin and yang, light and dark. Popular Midwestern Gothic shows like Stranger Things are intent on discovering this truth as well as the liminal spaces between where the above-ground meets the below.
In numerous respects, Making a Murderer takes up similar concerns regarding truth, conspiracy, and hidden governmental interests. Given that it is a documentary, this series seems to directly reflect on power in our contemporary politico-historical moment and the violence and oppression engendered by forces serving to uphold or protect their own interests. The show’s opening sequence of snapshots into Gothic small-town middle America starkly contrasts images of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin as a wholesome, close-knit farming community nestled at the heart of the country. Lawyer Reesa Evans states that “Manitowoc County is working class famers. And the Avery family, they weren’t that. They dealt in junk. They had a salvage yard. They lived on Avery Road. I mean, they had their own road and stuff. They didn’t dress like everybody else, they didn’t have education like other people, they weren’t involved in all the community activities. I don’t think it ever crossed their mind that they should try to fit into the community. They fit into the community they had built, and that was enough.” From the outset, Making a Murderer foregrounds key tensions surrounding community and the conflicts that arise from being “outside” of the dominant community.
Evans also states that “Steven was a representative in [the Sandra Morris] case of the entire Avery family, and the sheriff’s department saw them as a problem and definitely undesirable members of the community.” Of course, obstruction of justice and personal hostility toward Avery and his family only begin to account for the adversity and backlash that Avery faces throughout the series. In the show, the seemingly nefarious behavior on behalf of the Manitowoc police seems to boil down to a single point: Steven Avery and his family are viewed as “white trash” in the eyes of the Manitowoc community, and therefore why should he receive a restitution to the tune of $36 million. For the community, Avery is guilty of being lower class, pure and simple. The Avery’s are not those American homespun farmers so idealized by Jeffersonianism—rather, they salvage the remnants and rust of industrial capitalism, selling off its parts on a giant wasteland of automobiles and vehicles known as Avery Auto Salvage. As such, they are also targets of small-town gossip and lies that have quite possibly leeched their way into the minds of law enforcement and the county’s legal system. This is not so far-fetched as one might think, given the parochial nature of Manitowoc and the fact that Avery’s cousin Sandra Morris, who brought an early case against Avery that was significant in shaping his reputation in the community, was married to a Manitowoc Deputy Sherriff.
Furthermore, with respect to the Penny Beernsten case for which Avery was wrongfully convicted, civil rights lawyer Stephen Glynn asserts that “this is not only a violent sexual assault, it’s a violent sexual assault of someone who is a leader of the community. I mean a shining example of what Manitowoc would like its citizens to be.” According to Making a Murderer, it seems that what was at stake in this case was, in fact, Manitowoc’s image of its community, and it was one that Avery did not fit into. Avery states, “the sheriff told me ‘I got you now’ when I got to jail. And the other cops couldn’t do nothing. Nobody could do nothing. He had all the power.” Undoubtedly, Avery’s eventual release from prison with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project had numerous repercussions for Manitowoc County’s law enforcement. The Wisconsin Attorney General ordered an investigation into Manitowoc County’s handling of the case, an investigation that was in public view and effected the proliferation and publication of many local editorials and articles on the Manitowoc legal system.
As a result, Avery became somewhat of a celebrity for wrongful conviction, which only served to shine a brighter light on concerns surrounding the Manitowoc police department. One commentator on the show states that “law enforcement despised Steven Avery. Steven Avery was a shining example of their inadequacies, their misconduct.” The implication here is that the Manitowoc police had come under real pressure and scrutiny, and their seemingly unethical and downright illegal actions, including framing and the withholding of information, not only reflected on the department itself but on Manitowoc County as a whole. If the Manitowoc police were engaged in an effort to frame Avery for a crime he did not commit because they had personal hostility toward him and wanted to prove a point about what sort of community Manitowoc should be, then their actions only served to reveal the truth behind the community’s constructed image of itself. The façade of Manitowoc’s picture-perfect community belies a darker reality wherein “outsiders” and the Other must be squelched for fear of threatening the community’s image, and where those in power are corrupt, criminal, and in disservice to justice.
It is true that Teresa Halbach’s murder could have served as a convenient opportunity for Manitowoc police to once again frame Avery and forego his hefty restitution. Concerns surrounding dishonesty and the planting and fabrication of evidence, including supposedly covering up the violent porn discovered on Bobby Dassey’s computer, the mysterious blood flakes found in Halbach’s vehicle, and Avery’s claim that the police had collected a blood sample from his bathroom sink, provide a compelling case for the police’s mishandling of the investigation. In a town that appears to embrace “all-American” values, freedom, it seems, is only for those who fit into the parochial community—for it is easy to become imprisoned, but much harder to escape. Those who have felt alone, confined, or ousted in such small Midwestern communities can understand this. And those in power, furthermore, may make sure to fulfill their ends by whatever means necessary, covering their tracks along the way. Avery states, “they were covering something up. And they are still covering something up. Even with the Sherriff who’s on there now – he’s covering something up.” The popular Midwestern Gothic knows that truth lies just beneath the prairie soil, and that the hidden and repressed will return as a force for justice and healing, unearthing those histories and stories that have been silenced for too long.
In essence, the popular Midwestern Gothic goes against “‘new’ media branding and content appeals” that “continue to imagine the Heartland as a ‘comforting,’ red-state preserve” (Johnson). As I write this, Wisconsin is undergoing a major political struggle to undo the results of the 2018 election and take power from those parties who were recently voted into office, and truly there is nothing comforting about this. This is a monumental power grab at the hands of those who wish to maintain their red-state partisanship—and will go to whatever lengths necessary to ensure control of the state’s government and economy. This is not only corrupt, but goes against quintessentially American values of democracy. The Midwest’s future is unfolding before our very eyes, and the necessity and force of the popular Midwestern Gothic’s critique lies in its ability to imagine the region otherwise, appealing to a broad audience that just might be able to help change the course of events and, in effect, change history.
Julia Madsen is a multimedia poet and educator. She received an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University and is a PhD candidate in English/Creative Writing at the University of Denver. Her first book, The Boneyard, The Birth Manual, A Burial: Investigations into the Heartland, was recently published with Trembling Pillow Press and was listed on Entropy’s Best Poetry Books of 2018.