Two looks at snake handling in Letcher County, Kentucky
By Art Menius January 14, 2012
[Update, Feb 9, 2012: “With Signs Following is a documentary film that chronicles one of the last known serpent handling churches, and its decline. It serves as a visual history of the deeply spiritual and humble people that practice this faith, as well as a narrative on the struggle ‘fringe’ religions have in maintaining their congregation in the technology era.” ]
Commercial cable television has addressed snake handling in Appalachia with a new series that debuted on Animal Planet on January 12, “Snake Man of Appalachia.” That a religious practice can become commercial entertainment seems rather remarkable. That the new series features my former neighbor of almost four years proves even more so.
One can watch the opening episode online, free in a fashion by watching one clip after another at http://animal.discovery.com/videos/snake-man-of-appalachia-boys-help-catch-snakes.html. This episode focuses on Letcher County, Kentucky’s Verlin Short and his 2008 arrest for snakes, followed by his redemptive attainment of a reptile license, thus finally rolling legit. The show makes it appear that it just occurred to his long time lawyer and friend to advise him to do this in 2008. Becky Johnson, my spouse, fondly remembers seeing the friendly production crew each morning at the since closed Hoboes Café in downtown Whitesburg, where she tended the plants for the town.
Becky and I lived very near Verlin Short for almost 4 years, spanning the time of the events in the episode. “Snake Man” isn’t a bad show, in that it doesn’t play up stereotypes gratuitously. It shows mountain people living in ordinary houses and setting mainstream goals and achieving them, such as making the girls basketball team at Letcher Central. It doesn’t make Verlin look weird, just different. On the other hand, “Snake Man” doesn’t explore his beliefs that deeply, but – and I suppose this fits “Animal Planet” after all – focuses on the wow factor of the snakes. The message becomes isn’t it cool that this guy was able to get out of the coal mines through his marvelous snakes that he keeps because of his unusual religion.
The debut of “Snake Man of Appalachia” focuses on the hunting and keeping of snakes, not the profound expression of unquestioning faith. Not much different from an Alligator hunter, really. This is Animal Planet. Were there a cool channel that was about religion without advocating for any religion, we would see a different show, much like the 1995 short “Those Who Believe.”
You can see “Those Who Believe” at http://vimeo.com/14453822
A young Verlin Short also appears “Those Who Believe,” which, in contrast, seeks to understand why people handle snakes as part of their Holiness church services. You see the serpents here as essential, sacred religious objects rather than the commodities in “Snake Man.” Also set in Letcher County, KY, “Those Who Believe” is a fifteen years old student film made by Derek Mullins (then 16, now an Appalshop employee) and others as part of Appalshop’s extraordinary Appalachian Media Institute (AMI). AMI pays talented mountain teens to learn media making as a means for addressing community issues. Like pretty much all Appalshop films, it permits people from the mountains to tell their stories in their own voice, their own way. The sincerity and depth of belief in signs following is what comes through from start to finish, along with the religious joy in taking up serpents.
Signs following certainly doesn’t lack for media coverage these days in print as well. The Washington Post Magazine ran an extensive article about snake handling services in West Virginia back in November 2011 that included some truly excellent photography. The Post story provides a decent overview of the history of the century old faith, places it in local context, and respectfully describes the efforts of an aging group to keep their religion alive in the face of demographic and generational change.
The best known book about signs following remains Salvation on Sand Mountain from 1995 by Dennis Covington. Like “Snake Man of Appalachia,” it follows a trial. Unlike Verlin, this defendant allegedly used a church snake as a murder weapon.
As for me, I have only been called to step on serpents, not handle them. Signs following doesn’t express my faith, but in my view signs followers have the right as American citizens to practice their religion. Each of these four media makes it clear that no one is forced into the religion. In fact, many more kids leave the faith than stay with it. Those who take up serpents or drink poison know the risks. With true Appalachian fatalism, they believe they will be called to Heaven only when their time comes. This is a personal religious choice, from which less than 100 people have died in 103 years of the practice.
The state has no legitimate right to suppress signs following. If it were the throw copperheads and poison at unsuspecting strangers faith, that would be entirely different. The snake handlers offer pure undiluted faith here in America, the same as you see with the pilgrims in Mecca. “Those Who Believe” includes some graphic footage of the religious ecstasy of those called to take up serpents, for which they grab with joyous, not fearful, faces.
Mainstream America remains uncomfortable with that level of unrestrained, emotional religious expression. That, in my mind, underlies the legal suppression of signs following in most states rather than the increasingly rare death.