This December marked Shirley Jackson‘s 100th birthday and my annual reading of “The Lottery.” This short story describes the annual lottery of a village and the stoning of the unfortunate “winner.” What is so frightening about “The Lottery” is that the reader never knows why someone is stoned to death and it’s almost implied the reason has been lost in history (“The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago […]” “Because so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded […]”). The randomness of the victim, by lottery draw, also makes the reader uneasy. The villagers go to the lottery not knowing if they will be the thrower or the stoned.
The supernatural itself gives meaning to the unseen and the unexplained and, in the case of “The Lottery,” an explanation for human sacrifice in small town America. I explore “The Lottery’s” connection to two monster-of-the-week episodes of The X-Files and Supernatural. Grouping together the two shows is not outrageous. The X-Files’ influence on Supernatural is quite evident in the first few seasons and Kim Manners worked on both shows as an executive producer. Both episodes begin in the dark woods of a small town, but lead us to two very different explanations for human sacrifice.
“Our Town,” The X-Files (1995)
In this episode (Season 2, Episode 24) we learn the story behind the small town of Dudley, Arkansas, home of Chaco Chicken. Mulder and Scully’s initial missing persons case is soon complicated when they find two deaths and later a bloody stream of bones. Autopsies reveal these victims were much older than they appeared and that they also suffered from the rare Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (which causes holes in the brain). Further, the bones from the stream had smooth edges, most likely caused by boiling.
The investigation reveals the beginnings of the ritual. Walter Chaco (owner of Chaco chicken), while flying a war plane in WWII, was shot down and stranded in New Guinea. He eventually brought Dudley a prosperous chicken industry and a cannibalistic ritual he learned from the Jale tribe.
The townspeople participated in the ritual sacrifice of town members, particularly outsiders to the group. The outsider was captured and decapitated by a man (the sheriff) wearing a tribal mask. Then, the body would be prepared and eaten by the townspeople. Why? To prolong their lives. Unfortunately though, their cannibalism would do the opposite. The town fell ill after eating someone with Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (an obvious nod to the kuru disease contracted by the Fore tribe).
“Scarecrow,” Supernatural (2006)
A young missing couple leads Sam and Dean to the small town of Burkitsville, Indiana (Season 1, Episode 11). Their investigation reveals that the wholesome townspeople, so welcoming of young traveling couples, are actually preparing them for a fertility rite sacrifice. The mechanic creates a problem with the car that will be fixed by sundown. The restaurant owner feeds the young couple a delicious and large meal, complete with apple pie. Then when night falls, the couple’s car conveniently breaks down next to an apple orchard. The couple, full of food and ready for sacrifice, is chased by a scarecrow and murdered.
A discussion with a local professor (played by The X-Files Smoking Man) reveals that the townspeople are descendants of Scandinavian immigrants that brought over the ritual. The scarecrow is inhabited by the prosperity god Vanir and receives his power from a magic tree planted by their ancestors. By offering a young couple to the pagan god, the town insures a prosperous apple crop for the next year.
In the end of the episode, Dean and Sam stop the ritual by burning down the sacred tree.
There are similarities between these two episodes and “The Lottery,” beyond the scapegoating, sacrifice, and a small town setting. First, all three function within a patriarchal system. In “Our Town” the ritual was started by the town elder, Walter, and the sacrifice is preformed by a male sheriff. In “Scarecrow,” the town elders are all men (except for one woman). And, in “The Lottery,” the ritual is overseen by a Mr. Summers and the lottery is organized by head of household.
Second is the primitive nature of the sacrifices. In “The Lottery,” as described by scholar Gayle Wittier, the sacrifice “requires only the most primitive technology, on which ‘Mother Earth’ ironically supplies”: the rock (Women’s Studies 360). In “Our Town” the victims are beheaded with an axe and in “Scarecrow” the victims are chased down and slaughtered with a sickle.
The largest factor that separates these television episodes from “The Lottery” is their exploration of the why, the scapegoat on The X-Files and Supernatural die for a reason (although obviously unethical). With the elaborate imagery of ritual in both episodes, the simplicity of “The Lottery” is still the most frightening. The writers of Supernatural and The X-Files both provide the audience with measurable reasons for human sacrifice: a longer life and agricultural success. Jackson, on the other hand, keeps the reason a mystery. After “The Lottery’s” first publication in 1948, reader Miriam Friend wrote to the The New Yorker: “Will you please send us a brief explanation before my husband and I scratch right through our scalps trying to fathom it?” (Franklin). We are still scratching our heads Miriam, but at least we have television to fill our why desires.
Whittier, Gayle. “‘The Lottery’ as Misogynist Parable.” Women’s Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 1991, pp. 353-366.