In the 2000 episode of « X-Files, » Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) examine the Church of God with Signs and Wonders in the fictional town of Blessing, Tennessee, where a number of ritualistic Snake killings have taken place. There was a multi-part arch in « Justified » in 2013 in which Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) comes across the head with Preacher Billy (Joseph Mazzello), a pastor who handles snakes, who eventually dies on his own altar after being got a bite from a wild rattlesnake. This happens shortly after it became known that Billy’s sister had been milking the ritual snakes of the church of their poison the whole time.
The concept is briefly mentioned in « The Simpsons » (Moe tells Homer, « I was born a snake dealer and I will die a snake dealer ») and Netflix’s « Teenage Bounty Hunters ». « Then, in 2019, Goggins – again! – and Olivia Colman played in Them That Follow, » a drama / thriller about a Pentecostal sect that includes dealing with snakes in its service.
In these fictional accounts, the snake-handling characters serve the scripts in different ways, with varying degrees of subtlety and success: their churches are usually located in the American South or in Appalachians, a detail that stays true to life but depends on the depictions can come bundled with tired and harmful stereotypes about these regions. There is often an element of charlatanism associated with the dealer’s act, a nod to the hypocrisy that sometimes strengthens self-proclaimed religious power.
At best, these depictions provide an opportunity to shed light on the very human desire to believe in something – love, way of life, God – that they would be willing to risk their physical body. In the worst case, they portray the gathering who have been betrayed as culturally backward and ignorant.
These are the themes that HBO Max’s new documentary « Alabama Snake, » directed and co-written by Theo Love, could have drawn into the real world. The premise is there as it deals with the events surrounding the conviction of Pentecostal preacher Glenn Summerford after he was found guilty of murdering his wife Darlene with a rattlesnake that he used in church.
Unfortunately, the film is so tightly wrapped around atmospheric reenactments – which are undeniably evocative but stagnant – and a wavy « he said she said » narrative that it doesn’t deliver much of a bite.
« Alabama Snake » opens the two academics who answered Darlene’s 911 call. They describe how they found a woman with a severe bite on her hand who stumbled down a remote street. The paramedics had no antidote, and neither did the Scottsboro local emergency room, so they took her to Birmingham, 90 miles away.
Darlene survived and, once fully cured, accused Glenn of immediately forcing her at gunpoint to stick her hand into the snake pen in her backyard shed. Why? Shades of the same answer are offered throughout the documentary: it was a test of Darlene’s faith after she deviated from their marriage, or it was punishment for Darlene’s infidelity to the series, or it was retaliation for molesting Glenn’s two teenage sons.
The filmmakers never press Darlene on this final allegation, which is shown on screen during a cutaway scene and is confirmed by one of Glenn’s sons, although it is denied by the other. This is just one example of troubling details introduced into the narrative that provide context but not explored fully enough to really substantiate the narrative. Instead, it’s a Tiger King-like pile of weirdness that, when you memorize the documentary, keep pausing to say, « Oh my god, and that happened too. «
There’s a brawl where Glenn supposedly knocks someone’s eyes out of the eye sockets. There is an unresolved house fire that killed his toddler daughter (this may be related to the man losing his eyes, but there is no evidence). . There is divorce and delusion and finding Jesus.
And don’t get me wrong, I like weird – but in a documentary, weirdness needs context. Alabama Snake tries, but it focuses on the wrong things.
There are lengthy – and sometimes slightly cartoonish – reenactments that focus on how Glenn’s stepfather taught him how to fight and how that training, combined with alcoholism and personal tragedy, could have turned him into an irrevocably angry man. The filmmakers interview a court stenographer who provides context to Glenn and Darlene’s testimony in court, but also pauses to explain how shorthand works.
We hear about today’s Darlene, but she seems deeply uncomfortable. Her words are incredibly blurry (to the point where her parts are subtitled) and she talks about suicidal thoughts and being surrounded and cast out by literal demons. We also hear Glenn’s voice, but it is from archived tapes made after his conviction.
The filmmakers try to add some level of ambiguity to the narrative. Investigators found a suicide note from Darlene that Glenn allegedly forced to write, and Glenn’s family say if he really wanted Darlene dead, he might have killed her. But from the looks of the narrative, there is no concrete reason to believe that Darlene is lying about the central story of being forced to put her hand in a snake pen.
In this form « Alabama Snake » could easily have been called « Alabama Gun » or « Alabama German Shepherd ». « The murder weapon may be enough to lure someone into the story, but it is never analyzed in such a way that viewers understand its true meaning.
This despite the fact that Appalchian historian Dr. . Thomas Burton, who also produced the documentary « They Shall Take Up Serpents » in 1973, acts as the film’s lead scientist. He introduces interesting ideas: the biblical interpretations (or misinterpretations) that led some Pentecostal sects to deal with snakes, the skepticism some in the community had about Glenn, the idea that Glenn was more because of his general religious practices than because of him The individual’s trial was crimes with Darlene.
But after the credits, these concepts still remain a little murky. And while « Alabama Snake » has been promoted as an Appalachian-rooted story, it’s not clear why marginal rituals persist in the area, and how or if the town of Scottsboro was changed by the media hype that surrounded Glenn’s 1991 Conviction.
In the end, « Alabama Snake » is a cursory investigation into a tale of zippy characters and a strange twist on true crime. For a fuller understanding of the subject, please contact Dr. . Burton’s 2004 book on The Serpent and the Ghost. «
« Alabama Snake » will be available to stream starting Wednesday, December. 9 at 9 p. m. on HBO max.
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Snake, Alabama, Dealing with Snakes in Religion
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