The following article contains spoilers for Resident Evil 7.
Dumb. Poor. Missing most of their teeth and all of their good sense. Bible-thumping, gun-loving, cousin-marrying hillbillies. Did I miss any Southern stereotypes? Oh, right, racist, fried-food eating NASCAR fans. Got it. Residents of the Southern United States aren’t typically portrayed in a flattering light, perhaps because of the accent or the fondness for okra. (Look, okra is straight-up gross and the sooner we all admit that, the faster we can heal.) Resident Evil 7 (opens in new tab) serves up the Baker family, a trio of huckleberries who kidnap and torture people for kicks, but this isn’t the same old stereotype - it’s a brilliant trick, and you’re the chump falling for it.
Let me pause for just a moment and come clean about my own geography. While I’ve been living in North Carolina for the past decade, I originally hail from very firmly above the Mason-Dixon line, and as a result, have the perspective of a snooty yankee. Name a Northern sin, and I’ve committed it, right down to categorizing Southerners as everything I’ve already mentioned - dumb, violent, and most of all Not Good Enough to be Northern. Yeah, I know, it’s kind of a dick move, but I’ve thankfully had the chance to have my mind changed. And while it’s undeniable some people still hew to the days of the Confederacy, the truth is that most people in the South are just that - people in the South. Some good, some bad, some brilliant, some not. It’s not difficult to see why Southerners get portrayed in such a consistently negative light, but it does get a bit tiresome, which is why I adored the way Resident Evil 7 handled the Bakers.
We’re told the Bakers are a perfectly lovely family, which is somewhat difficult to believe when we first meet them, what with them trying to force-feed you… what was that, even? Intestines? Jack is having way too much fun trying to kill you, Marguerite is bat-shit crazy (and then there’s the whole bug thing), and Lucas reminds you of that guy who just watches you across the parking lot. They live in a swamp, their house is a ramshackle affair of old wood, peeling paint, and more riding mowers than seems reasonable. They’re obsessed with the notion of family and are so backwards they still have VCRs connected to their TV sets. And really, how much of that shocked you? Because hicks, right?
It’s not entirely your fault that Resident Evil so easily preys on your preconceived notions about the South. Movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jeepers Creepers, and House of Wax, to name just a few, have been telling us for years that a big house in the deep south means inconceivable murder is but a few steps away. We’re preprogrammed to equate ‘rural’ with ‘scary’, and a Southern accent with behavior that defies reason. You won’t just die in the South, you’ll die horribly as course yokels laugh and quote scripture. Resident Evil 7 is well aware of the tropes and uses them fully to help create an immediate sense of dread and fear. As you sit at that kitchen table, you know nothing about the Bakers and yet you feel like you know everything, which is exactly how the trick is done.
Resident Evil knows what you’re afraid of, and feeds that fear to set you up for the horrible realization that the Bakers are victims themselves. They aren’t monsters, aren’t psychopaths, aren’t cruel hicks getting jollies from locking passersby in their basement. They really are the ordinary family you were told about - or were, before your wife showed up with Eveline in tow. Eveline is a bioweapon, created to infect and control enemy combatants, which is exactly what she’s doing to Jack and Marguerite. They took in strangers who needed help, and as a result became victims of their own kindness, trapped in their home with their jailer. Every awful thing they did was because of Evie, but once you see Jack as he truly is, you start to reconsider your perspective about the Baker house.
There’s a trailer in the back yard, the steps to the greenhouse are overgrown, and the gate is rusty, but other than that, is it really so very scary? It’s old, a bit run down, and the mosquitos are probably terrible in July, but remove Evie’s influence and it’s just… a house in Louisiana. Most of the unease it creates is what you brought with you when you walked through the front door, and honestly, how much of that was because the South gives you the heebie jeebies? Ok, fair, the horse-leg gate probably had something to do with it, too, but I have a feeling that if the Bakers sounded like they were from the Bronx and not the bayou, you’d have been just a bit more confident as you explored that house.
The Baker home was a bold, fresh new setting for Resident Evil, but it’s not one that could sustain more than a sole story. Resident Evil 7 pulls a bait and switch, showing you people you’re ready to consider evil, only to reveal that they’re totally innocent. It’s a brilliant move that makes wise use of player bias to create surprise while also laying the foundation for future entries in the series - not bad for a 20 year old franchise that many thought had nothing new to offer.