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There are thieves, preachers, poets, murderers, healers, lawyers, and fundamentalists everywhere you go. They just wear different costumes, pick up different props.
On my first day in Chattanooga,
Tennessee, I noticed that there were an awful lot of waffle houses. I
had recently relocated from Santa Cruz, California, leaving the bedrock
of nonconformity for the very buckle of the Bible Belt. I had decided
that I would delve headfirst into my new surroundings. I wanted to find
the real "deep South," whatever that meant.
Thus, I entered one of these
waffle houses, an especially prosaic looking one, or so I thought. Inside,
there were a few people who looked like theyd escaped from an episode
of Jerry Springer. A song came on the juke box. It was the Confederate
People everywhere were still
talking about it. The Confederacy. Even the college newspaper still had
something to say. Folks back home had told me it was going to be like
this, but I had told them they were being too judgmental of our Southern
countrymen, indeed prejudiced, for surely these countrymen had already
"gotten over" a war that had ended more then a hundred years
ago. The truth is that people in the South have not recovered from the
Civil War, which they still refer to as "The War." They still
talk about it as if it happened yesterday, discussing certain key battles
Meanwhile, back at the waffle
house, I was experiencing the first reverberations of culture shock. Suddenly,
I didnt know how to behave. There I was in this waffle house, which
looked like it was probably the first waffle house ever, and everyone
was looking at me as if they knew that I was from very far away.
I sat down at a two person booth. There was a newspaper on the table, and on the cover of the newspaper there was a story about a man getting arrested for inhaling Freon from air conditioning units on top of buildings. A large waitress with stringy blond hair asked me a question but I was unable to understand a single word she said. I asked for coffee and cream. I looked at the menu, but the menu baffled me. Where were the fruit salads and bagels of my homeland? Here people ate pork chops, grits, and fried liver for breakfast. I realized that I was now immersed in a culture that Id only imagined, read about, and seen portrayed, but never actually experienced.
asking people right away if they knew where any of those snake-handling
churches were. Id heard about the churches from a segment on one
of those "Tales of the Bizarre" television programs. The program
explained how in the hills of Appalachia, people, many of them missing
teeth and wearing overalls, gathered in small churches and danced around
with rattle snakes. In addition to waving poisonous vipers around, these
people drank strychnine and burned themselves. They did these things because
of something it said in the Bible. And they did these things, many of
them, without getting hurt, though some of them did die. They were true
believers looking at the camera with defiance and pride.
Nothing gives rise to "characters"
like the thick, loamy soil of Appalachia. After a few short months, Id
heard more than just a few stories. Southerners tell the best stories,
with a natural flair for adjective and metaphor, and they tell them with
very little provocation and as if they had all the time in the world to
reminisce about quirky high school geography teachers and the time it
snowed three whole inches. I never knew what it meant to have neighbors
before I moved to the South, where baked goods and invitations to back
yard barbecues are still de rigeur.
Everyone seemed eager to humor
Yankee inquiries about southern culture, pointing in the direction of
the best fried chicken establishments, laughing politely when I complained
about the humidity, pretending to be mortified that Id never seen
fireflies before. But when I asked them about the serpent handlers, they
"I dont think people
still do that," said my sixty-year-old, platinum-blond neighbor.
I did my homework and found
out that the countrys leading researcher and court appointed expert
on serpent-handling sects lives in Chattanooga, where he teaches at the
University of Tennessee. Dr. Ralph Hood is originally from California,
though with his long white beard and predilection for denim, he says he
always gets mistaken for a hillbilly.
"There is little or no
difference between a fundamentalist in Bali and one in Tennessee,"
he said one morning from a green leather arm chair that looked like a
toad stool that had sprouted up among the piles of books and papers in
his cluttered office.
"One just happens to take
up snakes?" I said.
"Serpents," he corrected. "They prefer the term serpents, because snakes are not poisonous. Serpents are."
handlers are the wayward, mystical stepchildren of Pentecostalism
and the Holiness tradition, which hasnt condoned serpent-handling
since states began outlawing the practice in the 1940s. When this happened,
the blue-blooded serpent handlers broke away from the Holiness Church
and continued to pick up rattlesnakes, mostly copperheads and canebrakes,
which grow to prodigious sizes in these hills. Serpent handling is illegal
in most Appalachian states, with Tennessee having some of the toughest
anti-snake-handling legislation. West Virginia is the only Appalachian
state where the practice is legal. There, it is illegal to catch serpents
unless its for religious practice.
The serpent handlers
guiding text is Mark 16, versus 17 and 18, which states, "And these
signs shall follow them that believe; In my name they shall cast out devils;
they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if
they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands
on the sick, and they shall recover." According to Marks Gospel,
these were Jesus last words on earth.
The snake handlers think of
themselves as "Sign Followers," and they are willing to risk
their lives to prove the extent of this belief. "Snake handling begs
the question, How can you believe some, but not all, of what is
written in the gospel?" says Hood, who has published numerous
studies on serpent-handling. His book on the psychology of fundamentalism
will be published this year.
The various churches operate
independently of one another but are closely knit, their congregations
meeting every season for revival-style "homecomings." Women
are expected to dress modestly in long skirts and blouses and to wear
no makeup or jewelry. Though worldliness in all its forms is disdained,
many serpent handlers drive nice cars.
Some of todays Sign Followers
are fifth-generation serpent handlers. Powerful snake-handling families
often intermarry, a system Hood calls "spiritual Mafia." They
can tell you exactly how many times their great-great-grandfather was
bitten before succumbing. Serpent-handlers rarely enlist the help of doctors,
whom they disparage. No one under the age of 18 is normally allowed to
When someone does dies of snake
bite, it means that he or she must not have been "anointed"
by the spirit to do so. Handlers dont believe that you should just
go around picking up poisonous snakes any old time. Only when the spirit
"moves on you" should you express and rejoice in your faith
in this way.
Since the practice started
about ninety years ago, at least seventy-one people have been killed by
poisonous snakes during religious services in the United States, including
George Hensley. Hensley is credited with popularizing the practice of
serpent handling sometime around 1910. While he may not have been the
first person in the twentieth century to handle a serpent in obedience
to Biblical text, he claimed that he was. He was bitten over four hundred
times before the fatal blow in 1955. Legend has it that Hensley, an illiterate
preacher and moon shiner in Cleveland, Tennessee (about 45 minutes North
of Chattanooga), first handled snakes while preaching on the Mark passage
one Sunday. At the end of the sermon, he took a large rattlesnake out
of a box with his bare hands. He handled it for several minutes, and then
ordered his congregation to handle it too or else be "doomed to eternal
Hensleys fame spread
throughout Appalachia, catching the attention of the General Overseer
of the Church of God who ordained Hensley into the denomination. The practice
caught on quickly until Hensley was arrested for selling moonshine. He
escaped from the chain gang and fled to Ohio and from there to Kentucky,
where he started handling snakes again.
By the 1940s, the movement
had captured the attention of the media and local lawmakers, who began
outlawing the practice. However, Hensley and his followers continued to
handle, even when they were repeatedly arrested.
"Its the rulers every time," Hensley preached. "Its the rulers that persecute the people.... But Ive handled em all my lifebeen bit four hundred times till Im speckled all over like a guinea hen.... Ill handle em even if they put me on the road gang again! Now its handlin serpents thats against the law, but after a while itll be against the law to talk in tongues, and then theyll go after the Bible itself!"
Contrary to rumor,
handlers prefer highly venomous, freshly caught snakes because theyre
more lively and unpredictable. Serpent handlers often prefer to catch
their own snakes, usually the old fashioned way, which involves a snake
stick and a pillowcase. When a snake becomes sickly or old, they are quickly
retired. When handlers cant find their own snakes, they purchase
them from professional exhibitors at prices they complain have been going
up in recent years. At last reckoning it was over fifty dollars a pop.
A Sign Follower has no use for snakes that look puny, and they are always
in search of new ones. After services, they trade specimens back and forth
in the parking lot.
Ralph Hood assured me that
there were plenty of Sign Followers, some within an hours drive
down nearby mountain roads. In fact, the religion seemed to be on the
rise; at last count there were over 2,500 members.
Hood likes to film serpent-handling
meetings. He has amassed a sizable library of such tapes, including old
super 8 footage of services in the fifties. Hood said the serpent handlers
liked and trusted him because he didnt patronize them, or treat
them like precious oddities. For him, they were no stranger then anyone
else who decides to take something literally. In fact, he seemed to admire
"Youve got to be
awed by that kind of faith," he said. "That kind of commitment
to faith. For them, there is only the supremacy of The Word. And The Word
is law. These people would sacrifice their lives for the word of god.
The thing that people dont understand is that it is completely rational.
These people are far from crazy. They operate by a kind of logic."
So whats logical about
picking up a copperhead and waving it around your head?
about communion?" asks Dr. Ralph Hood. "Why doesnt it
seem odd to us that people ingest the blood and body of Jesus Christ?
Because its familiar. Strangeness comes from distance."
Thanks to Tales of the Bizarre,
I assumed that serpent-handlers were inbred, toothless, fanatic hillbillies.
I was soon to learn that Sign Followers come from all walks of life and
are often well-educated members of the upper middle class. Except for
their thick accents, they might even pass for slightly aloof residents
of Humboldt County, California.
The media has never been kind
to the serpent handlers. TV crews routinely hunt out the most toothless,
crooked-eyed participant to interview. But in reality the pews are filled
with average-enough looking folk, many of them rural farmers, but not
all. While most Sign Handlers hail from the southeastern United States,
you will meet the occasional émigré from Detroit or Las
Vegas. Today there are groups of Sign Followers in many non-Appalachian
places as well, including Arizona, Michigan, and San Diego.
Sign Follower churches arent
listed along side the other denominations in the yellow pages. They meet
in small, nondescript, out-of-the-way churches, the kind with white paint
peeling off of them and with unpaved parking lots. When they cant
find a church, they meet in brush arbors (yes, in the south, there are
such things), backyards, basements of old motels, or garages. Places with
addresses that do not show up on MapQuest.
So to get there you must have very good directions and even then youll probably get lost and have to ask somebody where the "snake church" is and inevitably they will give you a look and say something like "I think I heard of one of them places over up around that there old cemetery," and off youll go, down a windy road, past rusting Chevies and flatbeds, abandoned refrigerators, mint green shacks, and tractors. If you roll down the car window, you might be able to hear distant shouts, Hosannas and Amens, the soft sounds of a preacher whipping his congregation into a fury.
Inside the church,
fluorescent lighting and cheap paneling surround the closely knit congregation,
some of whom drive four hours to attend service, sometimes twice a week.
The air is warm and thick and filled with strange electricity. Tattered
Bibles held together with duct tape rest on the polished pews. The Reverend
Carl Porter, a dark yellow vest barely buttoned over his round belly,
approaches the stand and preaches about Jesus and related topics for almost
thirty minutes before I even notice what is up there on the stand next
"Jesus is real,"
he says. "Jesus made it all so he can handle it all."
His voice is rising and falling,
his rhythmic intonations gathering momentum, and then he looks over at
the plain wooden box on the altar. Its about the size of a cigar
box. The kind of box you could use to keep snakes in. Or serpents.
bows down slightly and raises his hands above the box, praying over it
for a moment. Then he opens it and reaches in. What he pulls out of that
box hits the hot air like a revelation, darting its head crazily
as it sniffs. The reverend raises the fat copperhead over his head and
the thing seems to stiffen and freeze in the sudden brightness. It could
just be my imagination, but there is a new acrid smell in the air.
"I have been anointed
by the holy ghost," he says and the people encourage him with hushed
amens. The band has started up again with another hymn that is reminiscent
of an early Elvis song. An old woman who looks like she stepped out of
an old daguerreotype, shakes a tambourine. It sounds like a rattlesnake.
"Youve got to
have it, got to have the holy ghost," they sing. People are stomping
their feet, hands in the air. The Reverend himself starts to dance, hopping
a little on one foot and then the other foot, the whole time moving the
snake in front of his face and over his head. Sometimes he lowers the
snake towards his knee or waist, and looks at it as if not really seeing
it. Sometimes it looks like hes singing to the snake.
Toto, Im not in Santa
Cruz anymore, I think. Im in the deep, dark heart of the South.
I imagine what some of the people Id known in Santa Cruz might say
about the scene that is now unfolding before me. The snake as metaphor
... a spiritual struggle with faith made manifest ... possessing the sacred....
In fact, for a minute it is almost possible to imagine some of the fire
dancers and kundalini yoga practitioners Id known out west handling
a serpent or two of their own.
People are shouting and clapping. Children are gazing wide eyes at the serpent, hypnotized. The snake is passed around the small circle of men near the pulpit while a white-haired woman starts singing a new song about finding her way out of the wilderness. People are in the aisles, quivering with the spirit, on the verge.
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