Small towns are rife with stereotypes—most of which are well-deserved, justly earned, documentary-like observations. Comforting familiarity, slow pace, and the charm of knowing several generations of the same bloodline give certain people an ease that cannot be achieved in more sophisticated, sprawling environs. We generally like the idea of a small town with its quirky neighbors, stories everyone knows, quaint—if not hokey—parades and celebrations.
In contrast, there’s also the concept of the backwards small town, the rural area from which all people worth their salt are trying to flee. The escape from which is romantic and esteemed. Of course, no one wants to live amongst all of these knuckle-draggers and simpletons. The best of us move on.
There’s also the tragic small town. Larry McMurtry did disappearing small-town-America best. There are other tragedies, though. Places that have been irreversibly affected by seemingly inexplicable violent crime. There are thousands of creepy corners where something awful happened, and it was a big enough shock to change the character of the place forever. It is now the “place where that happened” and little else.
The endearing but paltry community mixed with a tragic crime is a most fascinating combination. Murder in a sleepy dot on the map has its own cocktail of nuance and sinister revelation. There’s no comparison with the big city. The reasons, the reactions, and the victims will all be entirely different. There’s no attributing anything to a system; there is no system. It’s personal.
It can be assumed that people are drawn to life in a small town either because they crave intimacy or because they wish to be left alone. People are obviously born into these communities and find it difficult to leave them, and have no other reason but history or habit tethering them. Even those who wish to be left alone are known, however. They’re known as the-guy-who-wants-to-be-left-alone, or the-creepy-old-lady-who-never-leaves-the-house, and so on. Anonymity is granted but on the single condition that they remain anonymous under a heading of: weirdo who wants to remain anonymous. Stories are either known too well or supposed, assumed because of of a distinct, and purposeful lack of information.
It is in these hollows that one would expect to find a killer, the basis of a crime, the pulp of a mystery. It would be easier that way—to blame the purposeful outcast, but it’s more commonly someone on the fringes of normalcy, not obscurity.
My husband grew up in a very small town in Sweden. There is a house in his childhood neighborhood that is still referred to as “the murder house”, because of one, single violent act that took place there. Ultimately it was a burglary gone wrong—a man entered the home with the intention of robbing the family and was shot and killed by the homeowner with a hunting rifle. An open-and-shut case morphed into a treasure trove of drama and sordid ruminations on what else might have been going on. Talk of affairs, a relationship between the homeowner and the burglar that predated the confrontation, that the shooting was not a reaction to a break-in but premeditated murder; the list goes on and on. The house and the family was never looked at the same again, irrevocably tainted by this one evening. My husband admits that he and his friends entertained a morbid curiosity with the place for years, always assuming there was something lurking behind closed doors, something wicked in the soil, in the fabric of the family’s clothes.
The same can be said of places where accidents happen that also result in tragedy. A home in the small town where I grew up was being used as a methamphetamine lab. It exploded one night killing several residents inside the home including children. Within two months of the horrific incident, nearly half the homes in the otherwise lovely neighborhood were for sale. The residents were desperate to disassociate themselves with the incident, to absolve themselves of involvement, detach themselves from what they had not participated in but in which they felt like accomplices. Families more or less abandoned the street and the homes where they had lived for years, because the horror of what was going on behind closed doors leaked out and covered their own lawns, driveways, the cul-de-sacs where their children played baseball. They had nothing to do with what happened in the ‘meth house’, but they couldn’t shake the suspicion they had that they did.
Closeness breeds contempt—and long memories, without a lot of people to share them with, can poison a small town’s well. The minute something really bad happens in a small community, locals start to wonder where the rot came from—like trying to locate termites destroying the frame of a house. In a big city or a rolling suburb, a bad seed can be chalked up to very specific poor breeding or considered a fluke. When the proverbial shit hits the fan in an underpopulated spot of earth, the dismay is more collective. One of our own. We did this. How could we have let this happen? The phrase “it takes a village” has new meaning. What kind of village raises a person who could do this? It’s not a stranger or someone known only through distant, foggy recollection. It’s your neighbor’s kid, the one who used to work at the gas station and who had a green bike when he was in fifth grade. You shared a beer last summer…and the summer before that.
Crime is often an expression of unearthed turmoil, taking form once an irritant has disturbed the surface. This is an altogether easier nut to swallow if you feel absolutely no connection with a perpetrator, or victim. When you’ve known this person for most of your life, had hundreds of exchanges, shared memories, you cannot as easily separate yourself from the cause. You’re the root, or the soil, or the water that helped this thing grow. There’s a fear that the depravity is catching, or worse—a reaction to something you said, did, didn’t do or say.
An unsolved murder in a small town casts a wide and ever-spreading shadow over a group of people not large or agile enough to get out of its cover. One can’t find a slice of sun for years—the edge of lost trust and discomfort keeps creeping. In a place that’s on the edge of nothing, outside nothing else, and not on its way to becoming anything, something like a violent murder causes a giant, contagious loss of faith. We hold one another in grief while quietly wondering who exactly let this happen, and if we find out, we turn them out like a horse unfit to carry a rider anymore. The association is so strong and then evaporates completely. The place will always be ‘where it happened’, but the person who did it will no longer be one of us.