Review: In the House of the Serpent Handler

Michael J. McVicar

Assistant Professor of Religion at Florida State University.

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Michael J. McVicar, "Review: In the House of the Serpent Handler," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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Julia C. Duin. In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2017. 227 pp. ISBN 978-1-62190-375-8.

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In 1914, George Went Hensley told a reporter from Chattanooga's Daily Times that he would walk on water across the Tennessee River as a miraculous sign of God's power. He also told reporters that he would handle any poisonous snakes brought by skeptics to his revival meeting. Hensley had caught reporters' attention by handling poisonous snakes during a frenzied religious revival promoted by the rapidly growing pentecostal Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee. News of Hensley's actions and wild claims spread via newspapers throughout the South and soon found their way into Northern papers. By the 1940s, accounts of Hensley's antics and those of other snake "fanatics" regularly appeared in newspapers across the United States. Following a fatal snake bite in 1955, Hensley was so famous that the New York Times and Washington Post ran wire coverage of his anguished demise. Hensley's fame and the explosion of interest in serpent handling in the South directly correlated with the rise of wire services in American mass media. Telegraphic, telephonic, and other network services made it possible for news of serpent handlers and dramatic images of their practices to spread throughout the United States and, eventually, around the globe.

Given serpent handling's historical relationship with mass media, it is hardly surprising that it has experienced something of a cultural and social renaissance in the Internet era. The Practice, it turns out, is especially well adapted to a cultural landscape shaped by social media, reality television, "hot takes," and a relentless twenty-four-hour news cycle driven by clicks, views, and "likes." Julia C. Duin's In the House of the Serpent Handler invites readers into this brave new world of perpetual media coverage and depicts its disturbing and brutal costs for a community of Appalachian serpent handlers. Duin, a veteran journalist specializing in religious topics, began covering Appalachian serpent handlers in the early 2010s as a freelancer reporter for the growing on-line platforms published by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. After Duin profiled Randy "Mack" Wolford for the Post in November 2011, the charismatic forty-four-year-old West Virginia serpent handler died of a snake bite the following May. Duin followed up her profile with an on-line story for the Post that, in her words, "went viral" (12). "Twenty-four hours after the Post put my story up on their site," Duin tells readers, "the article was still number one, with 1,254 comments. It was the biggest story in my entire career" (12). Her remembrance of Wolford ricocheted around Internet, print, and broadcast media: the massively influential Drudge Report linked to her post; print editions of USA Today, the Oregonian, and the Seattle Times republished it; CNN, NPR, and the BBC called for interviews.

Duin's coverage in the Post and other outlets coincided with new interest in handlers by photojournalists and reality television producers from the National Geographic channel.1 Wolford's high-profile death marked something of a generational passing-of-the-torch in the movement as Duin and other journalists turned their attention to Kentuckian Jamie Coots and his younger protégé Andrew Hamblin. Hamblin, whom Duin met in 2011, "was the first handler I'd met who was using social meeting to promote his unusual practices. His Facebook page was full of photos of him handling all manner of copperheads, cottonmouths, and various kinds of rattlesnakes, despite Tennessee's ban on possession and transport of poisonous reptiles" (30). Hamblin, just twenty as the book begins, quickly found himself in a swirl of religion reporters and TV crews as National Geographic hired him and Coots to star in a short-lived reality series called Snake Salvation.

Hamblin, from the town of LeFollette in northern Tennessee, emerges as the enigmatic protagonist of Duin's reporting. Publicly, Hamblin appears to be a guileless self-promoter and a welcoming pastor with a nuanced understanding of the sinful temptations faced by his flock. He is laxer with his enforcement of traditional holiness restrictions on his congregants: he tolerates smoking, looks past flashier clothes that do not necessarily meet the length requirements for sleeves or skirt hems, and he preaches more openly on themes of human weakness. More darkly, however, Duin also makes clear that he struggles to keep steady employment at the local IGA grocery store because he would rather hunt snakes and chase cameras than provide for his young, rapidly expanding family. His wife, Liz, begins the book as a shy, miserable woman committed to the restrictive codes of holiness-pentecostalism and the fervent, dangerous worship of serpent handling services. But, she is also starved for attention from her husband and in desperate need of his financial support to rear their brood of five children. Producers from National Geographic only exacerbate the Hamblins' tensions as they encourage Liz and Andrew to air more of their family life in front of the cameras. Andrew, who mostly wants to evangelize and raise money for his church, finds the producers' suggestions ridiculous while Liz is left with the burden of raising the children, keeping the peace, and cleaning up the emotional mess wrought by the media intrusion into their private lives.

Clearly in over his head as he struggles to navigate the complexities of marriage, fatherhood, pastoring, starring in a reality show, and talking to journalists such as Duin, Hamblin is both a sympathetic and frustrating character. To manage his newfound fame, he relies on the mentorship of his Snake Salvation costar, Pastor Jamie Coots. A veteran in the movement, Coots handled snakes for nearly twenty-two years before he died of a snake bite in February 2014. With his reality show cancelled in the fall of 2013 and the subsequent death of Coots, Hamblin quickly descends into trouble. First, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency authorities arrested Hamblin for violating a 1947 Tennessee law prohibiting the possession of poisonous snakes. Passed at midcentury after a series of high-profile deaths related to serpent handling, , the law reads, "It shall be unlawful for any person, or persons, to display, exhibit, handle or use any poisonous or dangerous snake or reptile in such a manner as to endanger the life or health of any person."2 Authorities eventually declined to charge Hamblin, but not before his legal troubles helped elevate his media stature after the cancellation of Snake Salvation, and intensified his family's financial strains.

Next, after separating from Liz, the two begin dating others, and Andrew descends into depression and alcohol abuse. Duin dutifully reports accusations and counteraccusations as they fly across social media. As the Hamblins arbitrate their marital troubles in the semipublic sphere of social media and rumors circulate at serpent handling churches throughout Appalachia, Andrew finds he has few friends left in the community. Ostracized and separated from his family, a dejected Hamblin tells Duin, "I was the Jimmy Swaggart of serpent handling" (160). Soon after their conversation, Hamblin drives to Liz's mother's house, pulls out a handgun, and fires two shots. An arrest, felony charges, a guilty plea, and a lengthy jail sentence ensue. In assessing the whole mess, an astute observer commented on Liz's Facebook feed, "Get in touch with NatGeo, I am sure that rise to fame did not help with Andrews [sic.] ego. They should help you because they helped make it happen. I am sure they won't but it infuriates me that reality shows insist on making a mockery out of people's lives and destroy so many in it's [sic] path" (193).

In spite of this depressing denouement, as a scholar who has followed the twists and turns of the serpent handling movement since the late 1990s, I found Duin's book to be a welcome opportunity to catch up with characters who appeared in earlier volumes such as Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (1995; reis., Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2009) and Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald's The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2000). Duin's book distinguishes itself from Covington's deeply personal memoir and Brown and McDonald's family histories by forcing the reader to reflect on the twisted and perverse relationship between serpent handling and media coverage of the practice. Duin is matter-of-fact about her own interest in the topic following the viral nature of her reporting on Wolford's death: "I began wondering whether I could get another article out of this," she tells readers (34). This is a refrain she returns to throughout her narrative.

Duin's use of electronic social media further distinguishes her work from previous reporting on this subject. Indeed, her adept use of social media platforms to source much of her reporting should prompt scholars of religion to read her book closely and consider the potentials and drawbacks of utilizing this rapidly metastasizing archive. Initially, her focus on social media allows Duin to track Hamblin's meteoric rise in the serpent handling community. His fame and recognition are driven, in part, by his skillful use of Facebook and YouTube to promote his meetings and to distribute dramatic images of serpent handling, fire handling, and poison drinking in his services. Duin uses social media comments to capture the perceptions of Hamblin by other handlers and, increasingly as Snake Salvation airs, viewers who find the practice bizarre, sickening, fascinating, or some combination of the three.

While Duin's underlying point—captured in the book's subtitle—relates to the ephemeral nature of reality-tv stardom and the social media memeification of contemporary celebrity are easy morals to draw from the book, it is hard to forget that these lessons came at a very high cost to the people involved. From the beginning, she skillfully uses social media to prise apart the personal lives of handlers, their tight-knit communities, and their extended families. It is impossible for a reader to miss that it was, in part, the desire of Duin, her editors, and the producers from National Geographic to break into these communities in search of viral digital content that set in motion the most disturbing events in the text. Serpent handling survives—to the limited extent that it has persisted for more than a century in Appalachian religious culture—precisely because of the symbiotic relationship between evangelical religious showmanship and media outlets hungry to put something new and sensational in front of consuming audiences.

For scholars of religion, especially those thinking about doing ethnographic or historical research in the early twentieth-first century, Duin's methodology is both cutting-edge and deeply troubling. Duin essentially treats social media as a public space in which any and all posts can be reported. Although she frequently anonymizes the posters by only identifying their gender or location, she also commonly identifies friends and family members in the community. Given the friend-of-a-friend connectivity facilitated by platforms like Facebook, it is difficult to see how all of her sources might be understood as having consented to participating in her journalistic project. While she and other reporters might rightly counter that one has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the hyperconnected world of social media-especially when one is either lazy or ignorant regarding the privacy settings on their accounts-such journalistic norms should nonetheless give scholars pause. Internal Review Boards (IRB) at institutions across the United States have made it clear that the sort of research conducted by Duin could meet the threshold of "human subject research" that would require many of the safeguards related to consent, privacy protection, and the careful handling of "sensitive topics" such as illegal activities, the inclusion of children in the research, and so on. Further, IRBs do not necessarily consider Facebook and similar platforms to be transparent repositories of publicly available information. For example, the University of Wisconsin's policy notes, "The IRB does not consider [web] sites that require the user to create an account, and then provide a log in and password, to be publicly available data." While the standards for good journalism and rigorous ethnographically oriented academic research differ, Duin's methods should raise red flags in the academy—an exploited and frequently derided practice like serpent handling and the underrepresented population that perpetuates it do warrant careful ethical consideration and protection by researchers.

Beyond the ethical problems associated with using social media posts as Duin does, there is also the more basic problem of how seriously one can take their content. Sometimes Duin carefully vets social media posts by confirming their information with her sources in the community; other times it is not clear if she corroborates their content. As posts and counterposts march across the pages of the book, they become more and more personal as her sources make charges of infidelity, spousal abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, religious scandal, and on and on. Not only does the reliance on social media leave the reader to wonder how to assess some of the most hyperbolic claims, the charges also become repetitive and grossly unflattering to the characters in the text. This is particularly apparent in the later chapters of the book when Duin accepts a temporary academic position in Fairbanks, Alaska, and is forced to leave the hills and hollows of Appalachia far behind. Suddenly, a text once intimately rooted in the Appalachian geography of her sources becomes distant and vague as she increasingly relies on social media, local news reports, and long-distance telephone interviews to tell her story. Social media posts dominate the last chapters as Andrew and Liz's marriage falls apart—hardly the kind of event that one wants to document through the hot, fetid echo chamber of social media. Thus, without the context of her nitty-gritty, on-the-ground reporting, the climax—Andrew's drive-by shooting—feels particularly senseless and unconnected from the events in the rest of the book.

My reservations about Duin's use of social media should not distract from the fact that In the House of the Serpent Handler is an engaging read and a worthy entrant in the body of journalistic coverage and literary memoir associated with serpent handling. General readers who have enjoyed works like Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain will undoubtedly find Duin's work intriguing. Likewise, readers interested in the faddish journalistic rush to Appalachia in an effort to understand the 2016 presidential election will find all of the usual suspects—poverty, violence, vice, deindustrialization, subterranean racial anxiety, and general human depravity—splashed across Duin's pages. Scholars tracking serpent handling, historians of Southern religion, and researchers broadly interested in the way social media is changing contemporary religion will find the book rich with detail, troubling in its ethical implications regarding the use of social media in research, and useful for thinking about how new forms of electronic media are changing small, geographically disparate religious communities. In the end, as with early-twentieth-century media coverage of George Went Hensley's infamous snake revivals, Duin's book reiterates that serpent handling is an inherently modern phenomenon with roots in electronic communication systems, the mass-market appeal of shock journalism, and controversial church-growth schemes that seek to exploit new media to reach ever-wider audiences.

1 Readers interested in Duin's book should also consult Lauren Pond, Test of Faith: Signs, Serpents, Salvation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), a photograph collection. Pound spent time photographing Wolford and documenting his death. She crosses paths with Duin as she reports In the House of the Serpent Handler and appears in Duin's narrative.

2 Quoted in Thomas G. Burton, Serpent-Handling Believers (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993), 75.