They Eat People In Illinois
One of the side effects of being a stand up comedian in St. Louis is that you get familiar with the drive between St. Louis and Chicago very quickly. And while this drive is only 4-5 hours depending on how you do it, it can be as tedious as a drive across Kansas between Missouri and Colorado (if you know, you know). It’s a lot of highway, a lot of farmland, broken up by the occasional lake or factory. And a lot of small towns.
Small towns freak me out a little. Not for any rational reason. As a white man in modern America, the real dangers these town pose to me is minimal. I’ve done a lot of shows in a lot of small towns, and I know how to get in and out without pissing off too many people. But, I grew up consuming books and movies that all focused on the myriad of horrors served up in the small insular communities lining America’s highways.
It’s a hard picture to paint now, in this era of cellular phones, with cameras everywhere, where social media keeps us constantly connected. Cross country, and even cross state travel, used to be a much different experience. There was a time when if you were driving from Los Angeles to New York, you would tell people when you were leaving and when you expected to arrive, and then you would disappear for awhile, with no one having any idea of what was happening in between. On a three or four day drive, that’s a lot of time to be out of communication, by today’s standards. It was a world where you could have died five minutes into your journey and no one would think to look for you until you didn’t show up in your destination.
It doesn’t have to be that long of a journey. Off each exit ramp in the five hour drive between St. Louis and Chicago are countless small towns, with populations rivaling the average high school enrollment of a large urban neighborhood. Before the internet brought these towns into constant contact with the outside world, before Starbucks, Burger King, Taco Bell, and others bought the land around these off ramps and spread their brands into even the smallest towns, making each one indistinguishable from the next, they were all universes unto themselves.
The small town/dark secret trope thrives on that isolation. And my entire life has been spent ingesting every version of it served to me.
HP Lovecraft thrived in this genre. Arkham. Dunnwich. Innsmouth. Kingsport. The terrors in Lovecraft’s mythos all lived in these secluded worlds waiting for a traveller to have the misfortune of passing through, or appearing on the scene to investigate a rumor or urban legend. Then these tales show that traveller’s descent into madness as the hell of these places is revealed.
Stephen King (towards whom all of my biases lean) is a master of showing how this isolation leads to places where you did not want to book a vacation. Derry, Castle Rock, Haven. King is devoted lover of the the small-town-with-a-secret trope.
In a chapter describing the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, a New England town that eventually becomes ground zero for an outbreak of vampirism, King captures the conceit that outsiders have that leads them to being caught up unawares in small town mayhem. The town has its problems, as it’s impossible to escape the outside world entirely.
“But except for these things, the Lot’s knowledge of the country’s torment was academic. Time went on a different schedule there. Nothing too nasty could happen in such a nice little town. Not there.”
Quaint things can’t kill you, right?
Of course, King gives us a great reason to avoid stopping anywhere other major cities in the book Children of the Corn, where a couple on a cross country drive ends up in a town full of murderous children worshipping an unseen god demanding the blood of adults.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wrong Turn, The Hills Have Eyes, The Devil’s Rejects, House of Wax…the list could go on for awhile. Tale after tale, storytellers have shown us what a small group of people, colluding to keep their town free of outside intrusion, or the prying eyes of general public, can do when you wander into their midst. Hell, even the Christian bible’s myth of Sodom and Gomorroh is nothing but an ancient tale of travelers wandering into the wrong town at the wrong time, only to be chased down to be sodomized by the men of the town.
From a childhood full of exposure to these tales, thanks to an adult library card, and monthly weekends with a biological father who didn’t pay attention to my parents’ limits on what I was and wasn’t allowed to watch, comes my irrational fear of small town America.
Here are the lessons I’ve learned:
- Only stop in high traffic areas for fuel.
The drive between St. Louis and Chicago is 300 miles. Luckily, you can do that on one tank of gas in most cars. But if you do have to stop for a fill up, your best bet is Springfield, IL. It’s the state’s capital and has a high enough population to make it impossible to be over run by a cult or single murderous family.
- Never trust those signs telling you that exit up ahead, with no lights anywhere to be seen, has a gas station, restaurant, rest area, whatever.
These signs are easy to make. Let’s say the town of 600 people 10 miles off the highway has a high cannibal contingent. If they’ve been thriving for years, then they have to have their hooks into the police department, the town government, the local newspaper, everything down to the butcher. Making a sign to snare wayward travelers would be a lay-up. They don’t even need to leave it up. They just put it up for a few weeks each year, catch enough meat to feed themselves for the next twelve months, and then take it back down so they can remain unnoticed until the next time.
- If your cell service suddenly drops, drive faster.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking people in small towns are dumb or technologically backwards. They have Amazon now too. They can order all the parts needed to make a signal jammer, and small towns have birthed their fair share of electrical engineers. They’ve had to adjust to this new world where their food supply is put at risk by a visit from the FBI because someone was talking to their girlfriend as they get off the highway, only to never be heard from again.
- Never use the shortcut mentioned by that person you met in a diner.
I can’t believe you even considered it. Did you see that person’s teeth? They were oddly sharp. Do you think he files them to points or was he born that way? Why did everything in that bar taste like almonds.
- In fact, why are you eating at that diner in the first place?
If history teaches you anything about stopping in random small towns, you can’t trust local food. Don’t eat the chili. Don’t eat the local yogurt. Don’t drink milk. Don’t fall asleep next to any gourds. C’mon, this goes back to Homer warning you about eating random flowers.
- Watch out for vampires.
Why are there vampires? What do you think the cannibals do with all of the blood? These are the questions you’ll ask yourself as you’re hanging upside down over a bucket with your wrists sliced open with a man in a butcher’s apron standing in the corner muttering something about this being better than Halal butchering, because at least here you can see the fear in the meat’s eyes.
So yeah, small towns freak me out. I don’t stop in them. And, yeah, you die in a big city. In fact, it’s probably statistically more dangerous in a lot of ways. For the most part, city deaths don’t lead to a fifteen episode podcast about your death. My goal is to not have my death be so entertaining that it’s enjoyed over two glasses of wine every Wednesday night as parents finally exhale because their kids finally fell asleep. This is my plan to avoid that.