Children of the Corn
For the first 200 hundreds years of American history nearly all Americans (whether colonial subjects or American citizens) lived in a primarily rural setting. While there were plenty of urban centers—especially in the northeast—the dominant American settling pattern were around agricultural homesteads. While the northern pattern (a small village surrounded by family plots behind) differed from the southern (large, privately owned plantations), the American way of life was synonymous with farming.
That all started to change as the 19th century turned over to the 20th, as electricity, refrigerated transport, and better sanitation combined to make urban living more palatable to the wealthy and burgeoning middle classes. The beginnings of the urban/rural divide can be heard in early 20th century works like Winesburg, Ohio as farmers eyed the cities with suspicion, and city-dwellers increasingly viewed America’s hinterlands as uneducated backwaters.
The commuter suburbs of the 1940s and 1950s, combined with more efficient farming techniques and the collapse of family-owned farms, meant that fewer Americans actually resided in rural areas. Food arrived at the supermarket—or directly to your door—with most Americans having little understanding of the machinations that made that possible. So when the culture wars of the 1960s erupted, pitting cosmopolitan urbanites against rural and suburban conservatives, the battle was all the more pitched because of a lack of understanding between the two sides. After-all, for many Americans it had been a generation or two since anyone in their family had actually farmed.
Through the 1970s, rural America continued to decline in population, even as the political will of rural voters (and their suburban allies) increased, leaving a bizarre dichotomy. Most Americans lived in a urban or semi-urban environment, while most of the politics played out through a rural point of view. It’s no wonder then that the trope of the murderous hillbilly arose out of the smoldering ruins of the culture wars. Artists overwhelmingly lived in urban settings, and with nearly two decades of horrifying stories and images of lynchings, beatings, violent police, and corrupt politicians behind them, America’s heartland seemed a strange, violent, and frightening place. It’s not much of a leap from the sneering, violent mobs of the Deep South to the terrifying violence of Deliverance.
While Deliverance might have produced one of the most brutal and lasting images of rural violence, it was but one of countless depictions of yokels gone wild. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, The Wickerman, and I Spit On Your Grave all put to screen the very real tension of the urban/rural divide. It may have been exaggerated, but to many urbanites America’s rural places had changed in the cultural imagination from the breadbasket to the “Bible Belt”, with all the oppressive trappings the epithet implies.
Into this milieu, Stephen King published one of his most famous and iconic short stories of all time, “Children of the Corn,” at once aping the established slasher film tropes of Deliverance and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and expanding the scope of rural neuroses to include the increasingly decimated rural Midwest. Other than with the true crime terror of In Cold Blood, hardly anyone would have called Nebraska a hotbed of horror, yet King uses the ubiquitous rows of corn, increasing urban/rural isolation, and the quickly calcifying tropes of slasher films to create in instantly iconic tale of desperation and tragedy.
Though King makes the eponymous children deeply unsettling, there’s an underlying sadness to the whole exercise. They are kids, after-all, and the lengthy descriptions of empty storefronts and crumbling buildings, the ruins of what would have been a beautiful, classically American setting in a more prosperous time, make it clear the children are as desperate as the protagonists. They have been forsaken. They are lost, and in their desperation they grasped at the only hope they had, an evil god they may not have fully understood.
“Children of the Corn” is hardly the most original work in the King canon, yet it holds perennial fascination not only because the urban/rural divide that gave birth to it is, if anything, even worse these days, but also because unlike so many of its killer hillbilly brethren, “Children of the Corn” presents rural decimation as tragedy, not just horror. The story closes with a pregnant teenager clutching her belly as the father of her child goes into the corn, another rural teenager chewed up by a system they don’t understand or control. The great Corn God, He Who Walks Between The Rows, has decreed that the reaping age be lowered by one year because of the children’s failure to produce a suitable offering. It’s hard not to see that as a metaphor for the whole American experiment. One more suburban mall thrown up. One more rural town dead, as the great Corn God demands another year of sacrifice.