Here’s a Halloween-themed post for you all. I’d gotten into a horror-fiction kick a while back, and noticed that every New England gothic that deals with the human or supernatural evil of some little farming town — it’s always about corn. From “The Lottery” to Children of the Corn to Harvest Home. Corn is the basis of the community, the source and/or excuse for the evil. So I figured, hey, I know someone who manages a farm, I wonder what Verena would say about this. I mean, get two women together, one of whom did a dissertation on literary genre and one of whom is a farmer, and surely we could figure out this “evil corn” thing, right? I had a few ideas of my own, so I shot them off to her. Here they are, and her responses:
1. Coincidence. Corn is a native crop to New England, which happens to be where America’s literary horror tradition got started. If the tradition had started in the midwest, it would have been “Children of the Wheat.”
Verena replied: That seems plausible. Corn’s native to the whole continent though (including Central America). Wheat was introduced from Europe, and doesn’t do well in the N.E. climate (fall rains come in just as the crop is ready). Wheat is also much shorter (not quite like lettuce, but still short). Wheat is romantic (“Days of Heaven”). You can’t really romp with your lover in the cornfields like you can in the wheat. Wheat is soft.
2. Structure. Cornfields are taller than people and make a scary rustling sound and you can hide in them, so you can set cool plot sequences in the cornfields that might not be possible in other agricultural settings. You pretty well have to be Peter Rabbit to get a lot of suspense going in a lettuce patch.
Verena replied: I think you’re totally right that big cornfields are easy to hide in and get lost in. That’s pretty scary. And unlike woods or mountains, there’s a man-made uniformity to a cornfield, so you can’t get your bearings. A corn field does have this weird human-like quality to it…hayfields are tall and uniform, and make rustling sounds, but you never feel like you’re standing in some kind of vegetable army.
Okay, doesn’t the phrase “vegetable army” just freak you out right there?
3. The Uncanny Valley. It is easy to make disturbingly human-looking poppets and fetishes out of corncobs and husks.
Verena replied: Yeah, kids love that! We always do husk doll making with little kids and it’s a blast. They all turn out so amazingly different.
That was pretty much all I knew about corn and why it might be scary, so I went on to ask her, “Is corn so important that in a given farming community it might not be just a crop, but the crop, much as potatoes were in Ireland? So that the needs of the corn become paramount and it’s treated in a sort of idolatrous fashion?
“Is corn so temperamental and hard to grow that a human sacrifice now and then might not seem like a bad idea? (I mean, do you sit around with your farmer friends and talk about ‘The Lottery’ and joke, ‘Well, of course it would be wrong, but don’t say you’ve never wondered if it would actually work …’)”
And that’s when it got really scary! (Okay, I’m cuing the music and holding the flashlight under my chin now.) She said corn isn’t really hard to grow, and that up until modern times there wasn’t an issue with monoculture that would lead to the kind of dependence I was wondering about … but then … she wrote …
sacrifice – here’s a thought – Blood has a lot of nitrogen in it (remember those school stories about how Native Americans planted a fish head at the base of every corn mound). Great fertilizer. You can buy “blood meal” as an organic fertilizer – it’s just dried blood and it’s the best thing you can get. A sacrifice that spilled blood all over your corn WOULD actually make it grow better.
So how about that!