Some 13.9 million viewers tuned in to the debut of the History Channel’s miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” on Memorial Day weekend. The unexpected success of the miniseries has been attributed to everything from the quality of production to Kevin Costner’s star power, yet no one can really put a finger on why a viewing audience just short of the size of “American Idol’s” would become so enraptured by a historical drama centered on frontier Appalachia. Why would this well-worn tale from American history suddenly appeal to so many? The answer to its success may very well be found in the timeless adage—sex and violence sell.
With its overnight success, the History Channel’s “Hatfields & McCoys” has created an outpouring of interest, causing a book from the University Press of Kentucky’s backlist to climb to the top of Amazon’s and Barnes and Noble’s bestseller lists. Originally published by the University Press of Kentucky in 1982, “The Hatfields & the McCoys” by Otis K. Rice is making new waves, speeding past books by Bill O’Reilly, Erik Larson and Rebecca Skloot on its way to the top.
Using court records, public documents, official correspondence, and other documentary evidence, Rice presents an account that frees (as much as possible) fact from fiction, event from legend. By examining the legacy of the Civil War, the weakness of religious and educational institutions, the exaggerated importance of family, the impotence of the law, and the isolation of the residents, Rice traces the origins of the feud that has inspired the History Channel’s surprise hit.
It doesn’t take a producer’s mind to figure out that violence sells. The image of Appalachia as lawless and inherently violent has fascinated the public for centuries. Rice, in his book, notes that the feud between the two families, which reached its peak in 1888 with the New Year’s Night Massacre, has excited more interest than any other regional vendetta.
According to Bruce E. Stewart, author of “Blood in the Hills: The History of Violence in Appalachia,” the “nature of violence in Appalachia was not exceptional but a reflection and product of deeper tensions within the fabric of all of American society.” Though scholars of Appalachia have worked to remove the region’s reputation for violence, stories like the Hatfields and the McCoys perpetuate these popular stereotypes.
Appalachia, it seems, is also very “now.” The region is ripe for stories that always garner the public’s attention through their larger-than-life mythologies, which often play out in violence or tales of romance crossing family lines. The recent success of TNT’s “Justified” and Suzanne Collins’ bestselling “The Hunger Games,” both set in Appalachia, demonstrate the crowd appeal of frontier survivor mentality where big personalities attract the most attention and inevitably, the love of their fans.
The legend of the Hatfields and the McCoys is no exception. Set in a time when urban regions were rapidly industrializing, Appalachia stood as the rural counterpart where myths of lawlessness remained at the forefront of public understanding of the region—a mythology that remains partly intact even today.
The only topic that has the ability to gain a larger audience than violence is sex. E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” is currently at the top of the bestseller lists, but its content, instead of violence, relies on the instant attention that always surrounds sex. The Hatfields and McCoys maintain their own sex appeal with the tragic love affair of Rosanna McCoy and Johnse Hatfield.
Though Rice acknowledges that the origins of the Hatfield-McCoy feud are complex and cannot be identified with one event, many accounts recognize the role that Rosanna and Johnse’s relationship had in escalating an already bitter rivalry, echoing Romeo and Juliet. The combination of sex and violence already present in the oldest stories of the Hatfield-McCoy feud provides more potential than a producer could ever hope for.
While sex and violence sell, the success of “Hatfields & McCoys” may be tied to more salient issues in today’s political landscape. According to Ann Kingsolver, director of the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky, “The intransience of our current political climate has only helped to spur interest in long-time blood feuds like the Hatfields and McCoys.”
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the pro-Confederate McCoys would no doubt have clashed with a prominent, pro-Union family like the Hatfields. Such division is analogous to the current right-left divide that generated the Occupy Wall Street movement and other partisan divisions that we see playing out in our nation today, a connection which may have reverberated in the minds of viewers who helped to make the History Channel’s miniseries its largest hit to date.
“Hatfields & McCoys” has sex, violence and intrigue to rival any blockbuster movie out this summer, yet its record-breaking viewership speaks to some intangible aspect that appeals to such a wide viewership and seems so very “now.” Though it is hard to pinpoint the source of its popularity, the “Hatfields & McCoys” miniseries has become an overnight success that will no doubt garner the attention of both the Emmy and the Golden Globe voters, demonstrating that when it comes to TV, the drama of sex and violence still sells.
Note: Otis K. Rice (1919–2003) was professor emeritus of history at West Virginia University Institute of Technology. He was the recipient of many awards and was named West Virginia’s first Historian Laureate on July 22, 2003.
Mack McCormick is director of publicity for University Press of Kentucky.
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