Blake Cheek

Some Drowned Worlds

As a general rule I love horror movies, even the bad ones. I love classic monster movies (cheap creature effects? Yes, please!); haunted house horror movies (these are actually scary sometimes); rural-communities-that-prey-on-unwitting-travelers-to-satisfy-the-god-of-their-bloodthirsty-cult movies (rarely scary, but a particular favorite anyway). I’m generally less interested in the slasher sub-genre, but I have one notable exception: the original Friday the 13th.

Partly it’s the summer camp setting, a milieu I’m familiar with from my own time as a counselor. But honestly, I could skip all the furtive sex-followed-by-stabbings that comprise most of the movie right up until the very end, when (sorry, spoiler here) Alice, the lone surviving counselor, drifts across Crystal Lake in a canoe, exhausted and terrified but safe at last from the murderous retribution of Mrs. Vorhees—until the drowned corpse of her son Jason Vorhees leaps from the lake and grabs Alice, dragging her down into the green water.

Now that’s a fucking jump scare. That’s a horror I feel down to my bones. I may have never been pulled to the bottom of a lake by the reanimated corpse of a boy who drowned at the camp where I worked, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about bodies of water, and the drowned worlds that exist beneath them.

It’s partly a matter of geography and geology. The glaciers that swept up and down the highest reaches of the North American continent, scraping the Great Plains flat and carving out hundreds of thousands of lakes—they never touched the Deep South, where I live. So instead of lakes we have springs, creeks, and rivers, and for the most part they move according to the rules of physics, flowing downhill from the mountains to the foothills and on to the Atlantic. Or they do until we put a dam in the way and make a lake.

But when you make a lake, it has to go somewhere—and that other where that existed in that space before it? This is a drowned world.

Lake Jocassee is one of the more famous drowned worlds, at least in the northwest corner of South Carolina where I live. The Jocassee Valley was a deep river gorge in the Blue Ridge mountains until it was impounded by a hydroelectric dam. Because it is still a young lake (built in the early 1970s), and because the deep waters are so cold, the remains of the old Jocassee township and surrounding farming communities at the bottom of the lake are startlingly well preserved.

Between a stupidly beautiful panorama of mountains around the lake and a bona fide ghost town beneath it, Jocassee has become a popular destination for scuba divers. And thanks to the videos these divers shoot and upload to YouTube, you can see for yourself the drowned world beneath: vending machines that once held sodas and newspapers; catfish resting in submerged treetops; a well-preserved coffee table that divers have turned into an underwater chessboard. Perhaps the most documented scene, though, is the Mount Carmel Baptist Church cemetery, where tombstones stand at attention below 130 feet of water.

The drowned world of Jocassee has been documented by South Carolina’s local press and historical societies to the point of fetishization (yes, yes, I’m contributing to this, too). But there are many more such places. The other hydroelectric impoundments that power the state, the reservoirs that supply our drinking water, the farm ponds where I caught catfish and bluegill with my uncles—hundreds, perhaps thousands of them just in this state, and drowned worlds all.

The drowned world has been a robust literary trope since—well, at least since Noah built his ark. But it became particularly popular in second half of the twentieth century, when hydroelectric dams began to proliferate around the world. There’s Ron Rash’s One Foot in Eden (an excellent novel) set in the Jocassee Valley; William Gay’s Provinces of Night (a genuine masterpiece of a novel); Robert Penn Warren’s Flood: A Romance of Our Times (a novel best forgotten)—and that’s just stories set in the mid-century American South that I can think of off the top of my head.

The drowned world is equally popular trope in film, but with notable exceptions like the Coen brothers’ farce Oh Brother, Where Art Though, these movies usually lean toward horror—Still Water and In Dreams are representative, with plots centered on drowned kids manifesting as vengeful ghosts. But then there’s Deliverance, the 1972 movie more or less faithfully adapted from James Dickey’s 1970 novel, which defies easy categorization, straddling literary elegy and horror titillation.

Deliverance follows four men from Atlanta on a canoe trip down the fictional Cahulawassee River in Northwest Georgia, where they hope to experience the “wildness” of one of the last undammed rivers in the south before it too is impounded for a lake.  Rape and murder are key plot elements, but in some ways the logic of the story is even more disturbing: it asks you to identify with men who have decided that hunting and killing another person is acceptable as preemptive self-defense, and that it is preferrable to dispose of a friend’s body and lie about his disappearance rather than admit to being a victim of rape and assault yourself.

The men believe they can do this because the bodies, and the fear and guilt and shame associated with them, will be covered by the rising waters of the Cahulawassee. But in the final scene of the film, John Voight’s character awakes from a dream in which a bloated hand rises from the surface of the lake. It feels prescient of the penultimate scene of Friday the 13th, where the (similarly bloated) corpse of Jason Vorhees also rises out of a lake (a scene that, it turns out, may have been dreamt by Alice). The message of both scenes is clear: drowned does not always mean forgotten.

The river scenes in Deliverance were filmed along the Chattooga River, which forms the northernmost portion of the border between South Carolina and Georgia. But unlike the Cahulawassee, the Chattooga has never been dammed; today, fifty years after Deliverance was filmed, it remains protected by its federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River. So, to show the construction of the Cahulawassee dam, the producers filmed the construction of the Lake Jocassee dam, which happened to be ongoing nearby. The rising waters depicted near the end of the movie are from the Jocassee construction, too. One scene is filmed at the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church cemetery, meaning you can see the creation of that sunken graveyard in real time. Does this make Deliverance a sort of geographic snuff film?

Mount Carmel isn’t the only cemetery to be covered by a lake. Look up the Long Cemetery in Mullins Cove, Tennessee. Look up Lake Buchannan in Texas. Mount Carmel is not even the only such site in South Carolina. When the state dammed the Saluda River to create Lake Murray, it covered up 193 small family or community graveyards.

Dramatic as the images of the Mount Carmel cemetery are though, most of the actual bodies in Jocassee (and these other lakes) were relocated before the waters rose. Well, the white bodies. The Cherokee and Eastatoe were driven out of the Jocassee Valley long before it was flooded, so their dead remain.

Quite a few dead, archaeologists estimate. There were dozens of Cherokee and Eastatoe settlements throughout the Jocassee Valley and adjacent Keowee River valley, which is also now a hydropower impoundment. In fact, the Keowee River (now Lake Keowee) was named for Keowee Town, the regional capital of the Lower Cherokee and a central urban hub for settlements throughout the Carolinas and northern Georgia. It is now completely underwater. A hasty excavation before the dam was built turned up thousands of artifacts and human remains.

I learned much of this, by the way, from the website of Duke Power, the company that built and operates both the Keowee and Jocassee impoundments.

I need to correct something I wrote earlier in this essay: hydroelectric dams didn’t just “proliferate” in the mid-twentieth century. Dams don’t have agency to proliferate themselves; dams proliferate because people build them. Specifically, people who have power (of the economic and political kind) build dams, usually in places where they affect the lives of people who don’t have power (of the economic, political, and sometimes electrical kind).

Today, all over the world, Indigenous communities—and non-Indigenous but similarly marginalized communities—are regularly forced to evacuate their homes to make way for new hydroelectric impoundments. It’s currently happening in Ethiopia, Brazil, and Zambia. It’s happening in Panama, Guinea, and Canada. As of this writing there are more than 500 large hydropower impoundments in various stages of planning or development, often displacing the poorest and least powerful people within those countries. We are creating new drowned worlds every day.

To be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t ever build hydroelectric impoundments—or drinking reservoirs, or swimming lakes, or fishing ponds. What I’m saying is maybe we don’t stop to think often enough about what will be lost—and who will be lost. Maybe, like the protagonists of Deliverance, we’re a little too quick to believe the rising water will cover our sins.

Jocassee means “place of the lost one” in the Cherokee language, which given modern developments feels almost too apt, right? It sounds like something from the logline of a movie—perhaps one of the haunted Indian burial ground (IBG) movies that by the early 1980s were so cliché there may now be more parodies of the trope than earnest uses in horror films, according to Shea Vassar, a film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Which poses a question: what was happening in the 1970s and ‘80s that made every aspiring horror director glom onto IBGs? Afterall, horror movies are often vehicles for metaphor and allegory. From the creature-features of the 1950s and ‘60s, so many of which involved monsters spawned by nuclear radiation, to today’s celebrated films from Jordan Peele, which literalize the ways white Americans take possession of Black bodies and Black culture, horror movies are a record of our collective subconscious. Consider that Friday the 13th , which helped establish the slasher-film conceit in which the characters who indulge in sex or alcohol are the first to die, was released in 1980, just as the Moral Majority carried Ronald Reagan into office.

So why the widespread use of the IBG trope in the early 1980s? And why no crossover movies with the drowned world horror genre? Why not a movie about a lake resort where the dead rise from a flooded IBG to attack unsuspecting swimmers—you could film on location at the actual lake that flooded Cherokee territories 30 miles from my house. (If anyone from Blumhouse Productions is reading this and wants to discuss movie ideas, please send me a DM on LinkedIn.)

If you have read this far, and if you agree there is at least something a little queasy about how quick we are to displace marginalized communities and permanently cover their homes and heritages with billions of gallons of water, then I assume you are quite disturbed about what climate change has in store for us.

I know you don’t need me to tell you about climate change—the warming planet, the rising seas, the increasingly erratic weather around world, etc. etc. etc. But I’m not sure you realize how bad things have already gotten. Across the Pacific, the waters have come for the dead: residents of some small island nations have had to relocate graveyards before the waves, which creep higher every day, erode them completely and exhume the bodies. Now the waters are coming for the living. Entire nations like Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands may be gone in the next 50 years—they will be drowned worlds.

Eventually the waters—or the wildfires, or the hurricanes, or some other climate disasters—will come for all of us. But they will not come for all of us equally.

Horror movies are not just a record of our fears. They also tend to depict a certain moral order, expressed in who survives to the end of movie.

Friday the 13th presents a stark, straightforward sense of cosmic justice. The counselors who engaged in sexual relations when they should have been supervising young Jason Vorhees are murdered. When the camp reopens, the new counselors who engage in sexual relations there are also murdered. Only Alice, the chaste girl in the group, makes it to the final scenes.

Deliverance, on the other hand, suggests that justice is not cosmic but conditional. Civilization is a façade, and the only sure way to avoid being killed is to kill first. Pour one out for the nice guy in the group, Drew—the one who tried to befriend the local hillbillies, the one who brought a guitar on the trip instead of a hunting bow, the one whose body is weighted down with rocks and sunk in the river by his friends so they can pretend the whole ordeal never happened.

But the real-life horror movie that is climate change features a truly perverse moral order: those who have the best chance of survival are those who did the most to bring about this apocalypse in the first place. I mean of course the residents of North America and Western Europe, who, thanks to a combination of geographic luck and powerhouse economies built on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, will likely suffer less from climate change.

Not everyone in these countries will be unscathed, of course. Shaktoolik, Alaska and Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana (communities largely populated by American Indians, incidentally) are already sinking into the ocean, creating the United States’ first climate refugees. And wildfires have become so pervasive in parts of California it feels strange to call them disasters anymore—that’s just the weather.

But people like me—people who live in moist, mild climates far from the coast; who are white, well-educated, and wealthy in the global scheme; who have the luxury of writing essays pondering the cultural significance of horror movies as they relate to climate change—we’ll be okay for a little while longer. The end is nigh, but at least you have us here to analyze and chronicle the whole thing.

Journalist Dan Nosowitz has this to say about the emergence of IBG horror movies in the 1970s and 80s:

“The idea that one could disrespect American Indians, that theirs was a history on which we had trampled, was, embarrassingly but truthfully, sort of new to much of the American public in the 1970s. And what could be scarier than having your worst mistakes come back to haunt you?”

If you change “the 1970s” to “the 2020s,” the statement still feels apt. If you change the statement to be about climate change, it still feels apt.

Question for fellow residents of the Global North: Are we more like the characters in Deliverance, glancing uneasily over our shoulders at the bodies we left behind, or those in Friday the 13th, shacked up in a cabin fucking away the afternoon, blissfully unaware of the kid drowning in the lake right at this moment, of our own culpability in this event, and the violent repercussions we will inevitably face?

A personal diversion: I spent two summers working as a counselor at a summer camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains, not too far from Lake Jocassee. Based on this experience I can say that Friday the 13th gets two things about summer camp right. One, when you drop your kids at summer camp, they very well may be supervised by college students—many of whom are, yes, very horny. And two, the swimming lake really was, for me at least, a place of death and terror.

A regular part of my camp duties was assisting the lifeguards with supervising the swimming beach, a little spit of mud and sand sloping into tepid green water. I spent many hours parked at the top of a tall slide that deposited campers in the shallows of the lake, a great spot for working on my sunburn and scanning the lake for struggling swimmers.

Movies usually portray lifeguarding as a relaxing job, the preferred occupation of affable stoners or sporty beefcakes who spend more time scanning the pool for exposed female flesh than distressed swimmers. In truth, it’s incredibly stressful. Drowning happens quickly, and imminent victims are rarely gasping and flailing about on the surface; the signs are much subtler. It’s hard enough to identify someone drowning in a swimming pool with perfectly transparent water, let alone in a lake with low visibility. That’s why, during inter-session weekends when there were no campers around, all the lifeguards and counselors practiced body searches at our swimming lake.

Search practice was one of my least favorite things about working at the camp. There was a manic urgency to the drills. Serious brain damage occurs after about 4 minutes underwater, so we were drilling against the clock to find our missing “camper”—a First Aid dummy, weighed down by strapping lifting plates to the torso. Because the lake water was opaque green beyond a foot or so, visual search was impossible—we swept the bottom with our feet or hands, groping for gangly arms or smooth, firm torsos.

Though I wasn’t a lifeguard, I was one of the strongest swimmers, so my assigned position was in deep water near the line of buoys that separated the swimming area from the rest of the lake. It was not a desirable position, but it was better than being on the team that drilled near the floating dock—the bottom there was littered with broken cinderblocks and rebar, the remains of whatever structures had been partially cleared before the creek was dammed to create the lake.

To thoroughly sweep our area, I tread water in a line with five other guards and counselors, arms outstretched so our fingers barely touched our neighbors’. On the count of three, we flipped and dove straight down, pushing through a layer of silt and algae to the firm clay bottom and pulling forward with a single breaststroke before resurfacing again in our line. Then—breathe, count, and repeat.

On each dive I prayed that I would not find the dummy. Not because I didn’t care about or recognize the importance of the drill—the opposite, actually. When I entered the water for a drill it became all too real in my mind, and the process of coming literally face to face with the “body” terrified me so much that I could hardly bring myself to make each dive.

This is not unlike how I feel about climate change: it’s just too big and too terrifying to face it directly. I mean, I do think about climate change. I think about it all the time, in fact, because writing climate change and other environmental threats is my job. But as with so many jobs, professionalization leads to clinical abstraction. I spend a lot of time writing about how many feet of mean sea-level rise over how many years, how much global GDP affected, etc. What I don’t think about is the people literally fleeing from their homes right now, the people who are dying right now, and the many more who will die in the future. I don’t think about this very often because doing so overwhelms me and I shutdown and stop thinking about the subject at all.

There are a lot of things that scare me too much to focus on them very long—the prospect of this global pandemic continuing forever; the possibility of sharpening political divides in the U.S. sparking a new civil war, leaving me stranded in a rebel state; the possibility that any time my family leaves in the car without me their trip might end in a horrible accident. But these are (at least for now) just hypotheticals; putting them out of mind seems like the healthy, responsible thing to do. Whereas considering the reality of climate change and the suffering it is causing is an ethical responsibility, not just because it is my job but because I am a human living on a planet that is somehow burning and drowning at the same time.

Try for a moment to visualize global sea-level rise—try to actually picture it. Try to picture millions of people dead or resettled. If you’re like me, you find this nearly impossible. But I find it is possible, if still harrowing, to visualize a single town covered by rising waters. It’s possible to see echoes of climate change when I read novels and watch movies, even schlocky ones (especially the schlocky ones). It’s possible to find a middle ground between emotional distance and emotional overload.

Is thinking this way helpful? Is writing about this helpful? I genuinely don’t know—which is to say, I don’t know if it is helpful to be an artist or critic or scholar today. I have to believe it’s better to look at the world slant than not look at all. Maybe you, too, will find that considering the horror of just one body at the bottom of a lake, a body that might rise up (literally or figuratively) to hold you to account for your actions, is the first step toward confronting the reality of millions of bodies.

I never found the dummy on any of our lifeguard drills. It always turned up in the deep water by the floating dock, or in the shallows where someone literally stumbled over it as they swept the bottom with their legs and feet. And yet the breath-shortening, sphincter-clenching fear of those drills stays with me, especially that moment when we dove and pulled ourselves through the thick layer of silt and rotting detritus that sits on top of the true lake bottom. For a moment our bodies were immersed in a suspension of decay, all those tiny bits of dead plants and newts and fish. I felt it as soon as I entered the false bottom—the thickness, the cooler temperature. For a brief moment we were literally swimming in death.

That silt was so fine it clung to my body hair, even after I swam to the surface and back to shore. When I emerged from the lake I was coated in a thin layer of brown slime and smelled of death. How that smell would linger! I’d stand under the shower for a long time, but some days it seemed like I could never wash it off.


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