Ethel Cain’s guide to the Southern Gothic
The musician describes a deeply unsettling atmosphere which haunts the US’s Southern states.
Ethel Cain is the alias of Hayden Silas Anhedönia, 24, a musician and writer living in Alabama. Growing up in a small town in the Florida panhandle, Anhedönia was part of a Southern Baptist community, before she became fascinated with true crime, horror and non-secular music, leaving the church at 16.
Anhedönia began developing the Ethel Cain character at the age of 19, coming out as trans the following year. Her 2022 debut album Preacher’s Daughter tells tales of sex, religion, and poverty via poignant Americana, sepia-toned piano balladry, and bombastic classic rock. Anhedönia plans to expand the narrative across a trilogy of albums, books and films, and is currently chipping away at an accompanying novel. Here, she explains what the Southern Gothic concept means to her.
The eeriness prevails in the sunshine
I think there are two types of Southern Gothic. There’s the theatrical version – which is how people who are not from the South think of it – and there’s the real Southern Gothic. Theatrical is old, spooky churches, the witches in the swamp, alligators and snakes. But there’s a subtlety to the real Southern Gothic. It’s still the churches, but it’s not dark and creepy – it’s actually bright and sunny and creepy. It’s hot, it’s humid, your head is swimming and you hear crickets and cicadas all day. Time moves differently down here. Other places in the country have a full four seasons. Down here, it’s just the same thing, every day, year round. You lose your sense of the passage of time.
There, smiles mask the darkness
A thing about the South that is so frightening to me is that there’s so much going on all the time but nobody talks about it. It’s this weird, secretive place where everyone gathers for lunch on Sunday mornings after church, they enjoy fellowship and community, and everybody’s all smiles. And then everyone goes home and they are deeply disturbed.
The TV series Sharp Objects captures it best
It’s not about creatures or monsters. It’s just the real bleakness and darkness of the human condition. I watched it for the first time after finishing my album and it’s in the same vein as what I was going for. It’s a story of three women and it’s such a smouldering Southern portrait of family and secrets. I’ve probably rewatched it about 10 times. It’s crazy, and it scares me.
It has a dark and nasty history
The people down here committed a lot of grave atrocities against other human beings. And I think that is something that you can feel in the air very palpably; there’s a tension that never really goes away. I want to be careful about describing it in any way that could make it sound like an aesthetic – because it’s not, it’s history. Too much has happened on this land to not be dark and terrifying, even years later. It’s like the ground is soaked in blood and the trees have drunk it up. A lot of people from California and New York have tried to buy up properties and renovate or develop the South. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. This is a corner of the United States of America that is going to crumble into oblivion, because that’s how it was built.
Televangelism epitomises the moral facade
When I was a kid, my granny would watch [Southern Baptist evangelist preacher] Billy Graham on TV. I grew up in church, so I’m not a stranger to pastors and preachers, and hearing men shout from the pulpit about God and hell and fire and brimstone. But there was something so interesting to me about Graham because he wasn’t in these little churches, he was in these big stadiums, dressed in a nice suit. When I got a little older I heard about how a lot of televangelists are scammers. I thought it was a very on-the-nose display of the way it feels to be in the South. Everything is too tall and kind of a charade.
I’m wearing it on my sleeve
The very first lyric on my album is “These crosses all over my body”. I feel like the South is covered in crosses and I feel like a piece of the South, so I’ve started covering myself in crosses. If I’m bored or I don’t feel good, or I’m upset or just in any kind of mood, I just get my needle out and add another cross to my arm. I want it to go all the way up my arm. Which is probably a little dramatic. But I’m all about the drama.
Hair: Holli Smith, make-up: Tayler Treadwell, stylist’s assistants: Toariki Dexter and Ava Van Osdol