Vanity Fair’s ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’: A horror movie version of rural America

Exploiting political divisions and making things worse

December 9, 2022 6:45 am
Wisconsin farm | Screenshot from the film “Get Loud: The Fight for the Soul of Agriculture” on YouTube

Wisconsin farm | Screenshot from the film “Get Loud: The Fight for the Soul of Agriculture” on YouTube

I first heard about the new “Wisconsin Death Trip” story from a friend in North Carolina. “After reading this Vanity Fair piece, not so sure I wanna come visit y’all,” she wrote. 

Wisconsin winters often scare away visitors from the South. But a Nov. 30 glossy magazine feature by journalist, best-selling author and Dartmouth professor Jeff Sharlet depicts America’s Dairyland as downright dangerous. 

Sharlet spent part of last summer knocking on doors with “F– Biden” and “Don’t Tread on Me” signs and interviewing locals in Marinette, Black River Falls and Waukesha to create a composite portrait of deranged, tattooed, gun-toting insurrectionists readying themselves for imminent civil war. 

It seems to me that Southerners, who’ve had a bellyful of such stereotypes, ought to know better than to fall for this Midwestern version of “Deliverance.” But shuddering in horror at exotic rural people is an increasingly popular pastime in liberal urban enclaves across the U.S.

Sharlet follows in the footsteps of his former teacher Michael Lesy, who wrote the original, 1973 “Wisconsin Death Trip” book when he was a graduate student in history at the University of Wisconsin. Lesy’s eerie collection of black and white photos and newspaper clippings about arson, madness, murder, deadly disease and suicide in Black River Falls between the years 1885 and 1900 became a cult classic. A 1999 documentary film version added ominous contemporary footage of Wisconsin and dramatizations of the exploits of serial killers Ed Gein and Jeffery Dahmer. 

Call me defensive, but all three versions of Wisconsin Death Trip strike me as a cheap shot.

Sharlet connects state politics — especially the refusal of the gerrymandered Republican majority in our state Legislature to take up Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ call to repeal the state’s 1849 abortion ban — to the sheer weirdness of the rural people he meets who let their F-Biden freak flags fly. He ingratiates himself with a family of gun enthusiasts in Marinette led by a militia member with some complicated political theories — he calls himself pro-choice, joined both the Jan. 6 insurrection and the Native American protests at Standing Rock, and, though Jewish, spouts neo-Nazi ideology. Wallowing in the family’s weirdness, and snapping pictures of their semi-automatic weapons and Gothic tattoos, Sharlet paints a broad-strokes portrait of rural degradation and American cultural decay.

This exercise in pointing and laughing, or gasping, is not meant to bridge a cultural divide or build understanding. Instead, Sharlet revels in what UW political scientist Katherine Cramer has labeled the politics of resentment. He gins up the idea of rural and urban people dividing into warring camps, and ends his piece describing a group of progressive-minded teens, one of whom holds a homemade “F-Off” sign at an intersection in Waukesha to protest abortion restrictions. The progressive teens have guns, too, and are enthusiastic about the idea of a coming armed conflict with the right. Yuck.

The idea of this inevitable violent clash between people with different political views would be scarier if it didn’t seem so far-fetched. I happen to know a few progressive, politically active teens in Wisconsin, none of whom are interested in solving their differences with the other side in a shootout. And despite Republican propaganda about lawless Black Lives Matter protesters, most anti-police-violence protests of the last two years have been peaceful. Pushing the idea that both sides are armed and ready for violence is dangerously delusional.

Like his mentor Lesy, Sharlet lumps a lot of disparate stories together to create his dark collage of paranoia and dysfunction in Wisconsin. To Gein, Dahmer and pro-Trump militiamen he adds the 2021 Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy in which a not-politically-motivated SUV driver killed six people as well as the 2014 Slender Man episode, in which two middle-school girls stabbed a classmate in the woods, saying a fictional internet character told them to do it.

There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of sick, violent stuff in American culture, both in our past and in the present. But what links it all together?

In his 1973 book Lesy writes about rural people at the turn of the last century afflicted by epidemic disease and economic hardship. I suppose you could say we are enduring similar afflictions now. One important difference, though, is that we are not losing little children to disease at an astounding rate and being driven mad with grief. Nor are we in the midst of a killing economic depression.

When I told my dad about the Vanity Fair piece, he unearthed his copy of Wisconsin Death Trip, which I remember paging through when I was a kid. My father, the photographer, pointed out at the time that the eerie looks on the faces in the photographs were not attributable as much to insanity and cultural strangeness as they were to technology, since 19th century photographers required people to hold still and keep their eyes wide open during long exposures. Hence all those stiff, alien gazes.

In Lesy’s book the photos, including portraits of dead children, asylum inmates, and ordinary citizens of various races and ages, have no captions. The people are not identified. It’s more of a surreal art piece than journalism. You’re not meant to understand or empathize with these people, who are held up like exhibits in a freak show.

What was the point of this massive collection of macabre newspaper clippings and creepy portraits?

In his conclusion, Lesy writes about the brutal economic forces that bore down on workers and farmers alike in the late 19th century. Bankruptcy was as much an epidemic in the late 1800s as diphtheria and smallpox. Ruined farmers frequently committed suicide. Paranoia was a natural reaction to the chaos and cruelty of the world at the time, Lesy theorizes.

But for all the descriptions of pathology and pathos in the local newspaper clippings he assembles from the Badger State Banner, Lesy never pans back to the bigger political picture of the time which, like the newspaper clippings and all those weird pictures he found, is readily available in the Wisconsin Historical Society archives. It was during the same period of Lesy’s “death trip” at the turn of the century that the progressive movement got rolling in Wisconsin. Fighting Bob La Follette began speaking to big crowds denouncing corrupt politicians, lumber barons, the railroad trusts and the monopolies that kept farmers from getting a fair price for the food they produced. La Follette was elected governor of Wisconsin in 1900 on a platform of historic progressive reforms that offered protections to exploited workers and farmers against the rapacious predations of what he called the “money interests.” Child labor laws, trust-busting, laws protecting small farmers, land conservation, workers compensation, the formation of cooperatives – all those reforms were passed during La Follette’s 1900-1905 term.

Today, in Wisconsin, though Sharlet doesn’t mention it, we once again have the No. 1 rate of farm bankruptcy in the nation and a spiraling problem of farmer suicide. There are good reasons for people to feel distrustful, disillusioned, inclined to believe conspiracy theories about a system that’s been rigged against them. The progressive, prairie populism of La Follette’s era is all but gone. When Donald Trump stepped into the gap, talking about global trade agreements that hurt farmers and promising to speak up for  “the forgotten men and women of America,”  he was onto something. 

The way back from all that darkness in Sharlet’s story and Lesy’s book is not to point to stories of individual pathology and despair in horror, but to try to understand people, both as individuals and as members of a society in which we all have a stake. We need to surface and address what’s actually wrong, to de-escalate threatening rhetoric, to back off from seeing people who are not like us as an alien “other” and instead to try to forge a path to solving our problems together.

The failure of a pro-Trump red wave to materialize in the recent midterm elections, in Wisconsin and across the country, should help tamp down the darkest paranoid fantasies about rural America. Evers won reelection in Wisconsin in part by peeling off votes in deep-red, rural parts of the state. It shows that there still is some prospect for pulling together, as Wisconsinites and Americans, and overcoming toxic partisanship, to try to forge a better future.

The other alternative is to stay on a death trip, which leads us nowhere.


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.