Illustrated by Sahar Bakhtiari
America in the twentieth-century was arguably an uncanny space; a nation that was once the epitome of wholesomeness turned unfamiliar in this period of turmoil. Specifically, the 1950s, a post-war period in the developing nation, was filled with hope and optimism. Strangely, at the same time, uncanny feelings of the “familiar made strange” began to arise, as the country began to deal with modern issues, such as those discussed in In Cold Blood. (Wasson 133). Truman Capote’s account of the Clutter family murder in In Cold Blood utilises gothic concepts such as repression and the uncanny to create a story that evokes fear, not only because of the gruesome murder, but because of Capote’s ability to turn what would otherwise seem like the most traditionally American city into a place of horror. We see these gothic concepts in his underlying ideas; those that are implied rather than explicitly stated. Through an urban gothic perspective, these tropes work to depict a communal fear of “a return of old horror or atavistic decline” (Wasson 132). In other words, repression and uncanniness work to address unfamiliar violence and familial collapse specific to the era. Capote’s drawing of clear parallels between the town of Holcomb and American society suggests that issues like the return of the repressed and the introduction to and subsequent fascination with violence threatens mid-twentieth century America the same way it does the people of Holcomb, specifically the Clutter family. Despite writing a book based on true events, Capote’s manipulations of facts, emphasis on context, and focused details allow him to convey his own implications and suggestions about this one murder as a reflection of something larger in the growing nation.
There are suggestions that the Clutter family is representative of America as a nation as the Clutter family, who was murdered, are framed as the epitome of what an American family should be. An example would be Capote’s descriptions of Herb Clutter, the patriarch of the family. Having gone to college for a few years, married young, had four children, and lived on a farm in a rural town for years, Herb is hardly unlike the traditional American father. Herb is often described as simply average: average height, appearance, and income. (Capote 6). His daughter, Nancy, is described as pretty and popular; “the town darling”, well- liked and always helping others (Capote 7). The parallels Capote emphasizes between Nancy and her friends, one of which even shares her name, imply that Nancy represents more than just one girl, just like Herb represents more than just one man. They are symbols of something more profound and nation-wide in Capote’s book. There are good, average people like Herb and Nancy all over the country; these are essentially the people America is believed to be made of. One Holcomb citizen mentions that “the family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect” (Capote 88). The Clutter family is the embodiment of the American dream, a family that works hard for their success and happiness, yet are still humbled by their tight-knit community. Capote sets up these comparisons so that their murder represents the death of the American family as people knew it to be. This “death” ties into the impending degeneration and decay of morality that the people of the United States feared as uncanny and brought upon by the presence of violence, but which Capote also attributes to the return of a repressed America. His stance is that these aspects are literally horrific to the Clutters, and figuratively horrific to America.
As the Clutters represent America, Perry Smith represents all that has been repressed by the nation, and his role in the murder suggests that these nation-wide repressions threaten all of American society. Perry’s family is described as the opposite of the Clutter family, and Capote seems to focus on Smith instead of Hickock because Perry is the product of the lower-class, imperfect, and realistic American family. He seems to identify Perry’s familial conditions as what America truly is, instead of the wholesome Clutters that people imagine the American family to be. Perry’s family is filled with violence, alcoholism, and poverty, whereas it is explicitly stated that Herb doesn’t drink and that he is financially stable (Capote 10, 126-127). The irony lies in the fact that the idealized American family is destroyed and killed by one lacking this morality and peace. This is symbolic in terms of repression because the Smith family is half Native American and there are implications by Capote of the return of the repressed America, as in a “threat from the past re-emerging” (Wasson 132) or the reappearance of something that has long been forgotten. In this case, we could look at it as the return of a past indigenous-America, another form of the American family that is different from the American family of the 1950s that the Clutters represent, but American nonetheless. As Savoy says, “[America], a country that supposedly repudiated the burden of history […] has produced a strain of literature that is haunted by an insistent, undead past” (Savoy 167). The Clutters are “haunted” by what they, as embodiments of the American dream, have repressed along with the rest of their country. Capote frames the attack on the Clutters to warn of a possible attack on America by the re-emerging true American family, which was possibly the root of much tension and trouble in 1950s America.
The same way the return of the repressed threatens the family and the country, Dick and Perry’s crime corrupts an otherwise innocent and oblivious family and town by instilling a new awareness and fear of violence. The urban gothic fear of degeneration prevails in this aspect, as “supernatural threats are less terrifying than the possibility of human brutality stemming from evolutionary or psychological degeneration” (Wasson 133). The nation being introduced to violence shows them that the monsters are among them, which is uncanny in itself. It seems that the Clutter family murder was the first true taste of violence the people of Holcomb ever had and, as is visible in the The X-Files episode, “Home”, this small and somewhat isolated society is forced to come to terms with unspeakable acts occurring in their own backyards. Capote writes that the murder caused the people of Holcomb, who were “theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors” to “[view] each other strangely, and as strangers” (Capote 8). Here, he implies that the crime made the townspeople question their safety and fear each other. We have discussed this as one of the forms of the uncanny, “the sense that things are not as they have come to appear” (Punter 131). The murder triggers a sudden shift to many of them being sure, and even hoping, that one of their own is the criminal, whereas they were always trustful of each other before (Capote 88). There is mention of an identical murder occurring in Florida and, as these other crimes take place, there is the sense that this newfound violence is plaguing America, not just Holcomb, and certainly not just the Clutters. These events might seem isolated to the people in each town, but this introduction to violence and overall corruption is something much more widespread in the United States. Capote also addresses the fascination with violence that is exhibited by Holcomb citizens, who go from complete innocence to being both fearful of violence and craving it., which is another aspect of the urban gothic, also explored in “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”, where the inhabitants of an apartment complex watch a crime from the comfort of their own home, completely enthralled. Capote states that the citizens “found fantasy recreating them over and again—those somber explosions”, indicating that they displayed a strange fascination with brutal murder by constantly thinking about it (Capote 8). While this fascination was never a direct threat to the Clutters, it is a threat to the town, and thus American society. Capote often mentions the acts of violence that the citizens of Holcomb later face, sometimes months after he has stopped interviewing them, such as postmistress Clare, who was later the victim of an armed robbery (Capote 88). The idea here is that the awareness of impending violence was a threat to the Clutters and the country, and the fascination continues to be a threat long after the murder, and the idea that such good American people can be fascinated by something so terrible is telling of the state of American society.
Capote conveys his ideas efficiently by depicting the struggles of America as suffered by one family that is ultimately representative of the nation. This message is best received when we understand mid-twentieth century America for what it was; a time of change and tension thinly veiled by the idea of the perfect nuclear American family, which was arguably not even the true American family. Capote’s subtle use of gothic concepts such as the repression of the past, the uncanny within a tight-knit community, and the degeneration of the modern nation, turns what would otherwise be considered just another unfortunate murder into a profound critique of the state of American society. Through further analysis, we can see how Capote further addresses issues concerning what is historically repressed in terms of homosexuality, women, and black people, as well as the how this made the country “unfamiliar” for many of its more conservative inhabitants. With every character, even the seemingly insignificant ones, Capote is making a statement about class, gender, and race that challenges the notion that America is the most wholesome, homely, and accepting nation on earth. Capote’s focus on the modernization and change of the country may be depicted negatively due to the impending communal deterioration, but he suggests that this change in “morality” can only be a positive thing for those who don’t fit the identity of a traditional American.
Capote, Truman. “In Cold Blood”. New York: Vintage Books. 2012.
Ellison, Harlan. “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.” Deathbird Stories. New York: Collier, 1983. 2-19.
“Home.” The X-Files, produced by Chris Carter, directed by Kim Manners, season 4, episode 2, Fox, 11 Oct. 1996. Netflix Canada, www.netflix.com/ca/.
Punter, David. “The Uncanny.” The Routledge Companion to Gothic. Ed. Catherine Spooner, Emma McEvoy. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 129-136.
Savoy, Eric. “The Rise of the American Gothic.” Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 167-188.
Wasson, Sara. “Gothic Cities and Suburbs, 1880-Present.” The Gothic World. Ed. Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend. New York and London: Routledge, 2014. 132-142.