The road to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, takes us through the Smoky Mountains, slow rising and sinuous like cats moving under a blanket. It’s late April 2018 and blooming, budding trees stipple the stony hillsides with neon green and purple.
Descending into the foothills, we begin to see small towns. Old barns and mills collapse under vines, while neat blue trailers and tan prefab homes collect around intersections. Given the giant Confederate flag billowing over the interstate, I am surprised to find fewer such flags on these back roads, and only the same amount of anti-abortion billboards you might see in the rural, northernmost counties of California where I grew up.
We round a bend, make a right, and find ourselves driving down Pigeon Forge’s main tourist strip. Here, go-kart tracks spiral upward into coliseum-like plywood structures. Billboards flash steak platters and open-mouthed performers, advertising Motown, Dolly Parton, Bible- and barn animal–themed dinner theaters. Scrolling LED signs over souvenir shop entrances promise live sharks and baby goats inside. Mini-golf courses roil with enraged, fang-baring fiberglass animals, concrete replicas of world monuments, arthritic dragons, and several wrecked ships.
The so-muchness of it all transforms the town’s theming into a kind of anti-theming, a black hole that spaghettifies cultural signs into a symbolic goop. But then, who am I to judge?
The three of us — my partner, Luke, my 24-year-old brother, and me — fit quite well in this mismatched storm of visual information. My brother and I both look ethnically ambiguous anywhere Mexicans are not commonplace.
My brother — pale, tall, and dressed in baggy jeans and T-shirt — wouldn’t seem out of place in the South if the rest of him did not look so feral, his dark, long hair and matching untrimmed beard fraying in the humidity. My hair and beard are neater, but I’m wearing a woman’s bright-blue denim jacket with a tropical print and blousy hot-pink shirt, tight jeans, and acid-washed denim high-tops. Then there’s Luke, my partner of seven years, who looks both very Jewish and very genderqueer, an appearance that causes people to project whatever gender they please.
Here in Pigeon Forge, the three of us blend oddly well with our circus-like surroundings.
A joke, if you will: Two Mexicans and a Jew walk into a hotel, a sushi place, a mini-golf course, and a theme park in the South. Two of them are transsexuals, one is genderqueer. All of them are gay.
The punchline? Nothing happens. We are accepted by fellow tourists as something else to stare at and then forget, while the Southerners treat us with the courtesy, if not warmth, afforded to other tourists.
We are here for different reasons. My brother is a roller-coaster enthusiast. Luke, a writer like me, is fascinated by tourists and tourist traps. I too enjoy roller coasters, but I am particularly obsessed — if you haven’t already noticed — with theming and immersive environments, with their particular combination of trompe l’oeil, forced perspective, plastic likenesses, distressing, and special effects that transport me (or fail to transport me) into a different reality.
Entering Dollywood, I am surprised to find the theme park both beautiful and unsettling. Beyond the Elvis-crooning speakers of Jukebox Junction and the Music Man–esque pastels of Showstreet, paths twist into the mountainside, where roller-coaster tracks bank in and out of a rich, woodsy landscape. Frontier-style shops and houses made from distressed wood bear hand-painted signs, surrounded by running water wheels and elevated canals.
A distraught-looking man pounds holes into over-finished leather belts. A sunburned woman turns corn over a charcoal fire, while another organizes bags of pork rinds in metal tub displays. A blacksmith hammers on a piece of glowing metal, and at first glance, it is difficult to tell if he is actually making something or just creating atmospheric banging.
A chapel gapes open; a sign outside stating it is named after the doctor who delivered baby Dolly Parton. To the chapel’s right and up a steep hill, a cluster of actual, living bald eagles idle in the deep shade, panting and mewing sociably in the corner of a large, netted enclosure. Then there are the two fake trees: grossly compelling constructions of metal, fiberglass, and concrete painted bread-crust brown and dog-shit gray. The first tree, its trunk like braided turds, holds in its branches, without context, a riding wagon. The second tree appears to be growing pieces of toast instead of leaves, but the toasts have wood-like concentric grain painted in the middle. Is the tree wearing slices of another tree?
This second meat-dress tree gives me comfort, makes me feel at home. Standing in the transitional space between Timber Canyon and Showstreet, it represents a welcome weirdness, hybrid and inexplicable. Unlike what else of the park I’ve seen so far, I can see myself in this tree. But perhaps one doesn’t go to theme parks to see oneself. Perhaps one goes to see the Other.
The property that now houses Dollywood was originally a tourist attraction called Rebel Railroad. Drawing on the South’s Civil War history, the theme park centered around a World War II–era locomotive that pulled passenger cars full of tourists through the foothills, encountering events including a battle with Union soldiers and an “Indian ambush.” In each encounter, Confederate soldiers emerged triumphant, protecting the passengers on the train, eventually escorting them to a Wild West–looking strip of shops where tourists could purchase refreshments.
Archival footage of Rebel Railroad from the ’60s shows the train pulling tourists past a replicated Civil War–era fort, flying a massive Confederate flag not unlike the one we’d seen from the road. The latter flag was erected earlier this year, about 40 minutes east of Asheville, North Carolina, in response to the recent removal of two Confederate monuments in Memphis. It is also part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ project to fly Confederate flags in every North Carolina county crossed by the I-40.
In 1976, brothers Jack and Pete Herschend, entrepreneurs armed with catchy faith-oriented mottos and strong support from their evangelical Pentecostal communities, purchased the property and turned it into a clone of their Missouri theme park, Silver Dollar City. The original Silver Dollar City, located in Branson, Missouri, began as a natural cave around which the Herschends built their vision of an authentic Ozark frontier village.
This included, among other attractions, a working church that straddled the line between theming and reality. In an interview with Evangelio Pentecostal, the Herschend brothers discuss how the park would close down for half an hour in order for them to “gather up” the employees and hold services. The church would remain a part of the theme park, even as the latter was developed into what is currently referred to on the Silver Dollar City website as an “1880s theme park” — a mishmash of historical and regional tropes that blends notions of the Wild West, rural Appalachian culture and industries, evangelical Pentecostal culture, and contemporary Americana.
Dollywood’s guests at this time of year seem to be mostly Americans. The crowd is perhaps racially diverse as it is on a summer day in Disneyland, but the clientele is not entirely white. What’s more, we are far from being the only queers at Dollywood. A white-haired daddy tosses rings at bottles, attempting to win his twink a large stuffed unicorn with a rainbow horn.
A genderqueer individual holds hands with their partner as the two wait for a ride on red, white, and blue rockets. Leaving the firefighter-themed indoor rollercoaster, I spot two large, middle-aged bearded men walking side by side in baseball caps. One wears brown, mid-calf, laced leather boots over his jeans; the other wears red low-top Nikes under fitted gray shorts. My brother catches me taking a picture of their backs and slaps my arm.
“Nazis or bears?” I ask him.
My brother snorts. “Well, they’re definitely not straight.”
Our strangest interaction of the trip happens while waiting in line for a second ride on the Wild Eagle wing coaster where riders sit with their legs hanging in the open air. A man in his late thirties — quiet, middle-school-aged child in tow — begins to chat with us compulsively. He’s clean-shaven and wearing sunglasses, red shorts, and a Christian kids’ camp T-shirt. The man says he’s from the area, and I remark on its beauty. The man preens momentarily, then turns back to my brother, with whom he seems most interested.
“Can I ask you a question,” he says. The child beside him twists away, evacuating from the conversation.
The man points at the graphic on my brother’s T-shirt, a minotaur holding a battle-ax.
“Minotaurs,” says the man. “Real or mythological?”
Dollywood set itself apart from its Missouri twin in 1986, when Dolly Parton, originally from the Sevier County area, bought a significant stake in the park and became its co-owner. This marked the beginning of a rebranding effort to center the park around Parton, adding attractions such as a museum full of Parton’s costumes and a replica of Parton’s childhood home.
In 1994, a “multisensory film experience” was added, featuring a mix of Parton’s songs set to vistas of the surrounding area. The use of Dolly Parton as a cultural figurehead for the sprawling scope of the park’s theming served as an important unifying thread. But despite the Dolly Parton branding, Dollywood retains the not-so-subtle undertones of evangelical Christianity and American patriotism that Jake and Pete Herschend described as the key to their commercial success, all part of a mission to “best serve the Lord by bringing families together.”
It is important to note the connections between this particular kind of faith-driven entrepreneurship and the Herschends’ own ties to Pentecostal evangelism, a culture whose entire MO could be seen as a process of narrative immersion intended to systematically convert-and-assert. Consider the effectiveness of Donald Trump’s own evangelical-style presidential campaign strategy, one recently used in California by evangelist Franklin Graham as part of an effort to increase conservative votes in the state.
Political use of evangelism is a fairly obvious example of evangelism as active narrative creation and dissemination. But it is interesting, and possibly less obvious, to consider this nexus of corporate, nationalist, and Christian narrative-making as it appears in something as seemingly innocuous as a Dolly Parton theme park.
Dollywood and Silver Dollar City are not the only “immersive” experiences the Herschends have their names attached to. Pete Herschend’s bio on the Herschend Family Entertainment corporate website mentions his “service” to multiple Christian organizations in the South, including Lives Under Construction Boys Ranch and the National Institute of Marriage.
The story behind Lives Under Construction Boys Ranch, a residential home for boys and young men with moderate to severe behavioral and mental health issues, is a grim one that has been scrutinized in the past year due to unresolved issues of mismanagement, which have led to two murders and multiple incidents of sexual assault among residents.
This outcome is somewhat unsurprising, given that one of the ranch’s philosophies is “skills before pills,” which translates to residents having their medications taken away in favor of rigorous physical, religious, and social training and indoctrination.
The National Institute of Marriage, known more recently as Hope Restored: A Marriage Intensive Experience, offers a different kind of all-consuming immersion. An informational video on Hope Restored’s Vimeo page explains the Christian couples’ retreat, demonstrating the luxury and care one can expect — lush lawns, stacked slate fountains, craftsman-style cottages, ripe fruit bowls, plumped pillows, upholstered headboards — and highlighting the role God, acting through a counselor, plays in the marital healing process.
Dolly Parton has her own narratives to uphold, namely the story of her path from “humble” beginnings to her return home as a philanthropist. Parton’s body alone plays a significant role in the park’s narrative, referenced in sly jokes about her many plastic surgeries, in the presence of Dolly’s Closet — “her style, your size” — and in the constant use of her image and voice.
Chasing Rainbows: The Dolly Parton Story is guarded by an older woman reading a romance novel while eating pretzels from a small bag. The narrow entrance leads to a whitewashed concrete-block hallway lined with several hundred small, framed photographs of Parton posing with other celebrities. Oprah, Andy Warhol, Barbra Streisand, Grace Jones, Boy George, Whitney Houston, Siegfried and Roy, Madonna, Miss Piggy, and others press cheeks to and wrap arms around a grinning Parton.
Deeper into the museum, Parton’s heavily sequined, puffed, and ruffled costumes are arranged on mannequins mimicking her hourglass shape. In a room made up to look like an attic full of keepsakes — butterflies made out of nylons, ’80s airbrushed portraits, ceramic clowns and dogs — a hologram of Dolly Parton welcomes guests. The detailed facade of a small cabin retells the story of Parton’s childhood: 12 siblings all living in a one-room house in rural Tennessee, a coat hand-sewn from scraps, an experience of poverty made wonderful and carefree by an abstracted familial love and an equally abstracted God.
“Take me back, take me back, take me back to the country,” chants the introductory number of Heartsong, the multisensory film experience.
I am huddled on one of the long, pew-like benches, between my partner and my brother, and the three of us are surrounded by boughs of plastic foliage, faux flowers growing out of faux boulders, and fountains that turn on whenever a waterfall or river appears onscreen. Colored lights shift around the theater as Dolly Parton, warmed and softened by ’90s film quality, weaves her songs with cloying narration about God’s love, God’s power, and “God’s coloring book.”
Dressed in old-timey clothes, white men, women, and children play-act their way through square dancing, church services, household chores, and outdoor fun, the Smoky Mountain landscape kaleidoscoped around them. A group of women talk as they sew a quilt. An old man telling a story roughly grabs a child. A girl running through a meadow is ringed by psychedelic animated butterflies.
It is this attraction that accomplishes the Herschends’ mission of “honoring God, honoring Christ as our savior without going to church.” For it is here that I remember myself. It is here that I remember I am a transgender Mexican traveling through the American South. A tan, bearded man with a pussy, wearing a woman’s hot-pink blouse, walking around with his Jewish genderqueer partner and his wild-haired queer brother.
But it is not my Mexican-ness or queerness that make me feel so suddenly out of place, though the erasure of anyone not white or not straight or not cisgendered in the film we are watching certainly informs the feeling. It is the assuredness of the film’s religious narrative that casts me, and us, freakishly on the outside of its Christian world. It is a world so natural, so given, that to find yourself outside of it or in antithesis to it is unthinkable.
In this moment, I realize that this is how evangelism works. It invents an inside and an outside. It manufactures a narrative of belonging, where to not belong is to not exist.
The film seems to go on forever and ever, although it only lasts 15 minutes. I resist the urge to run away, to leap the pews and escape this church-trap made of plastic and cement. Perhaps I will run back to the tree made of toast slices and worship its ambiguity and contradiction.
To what extent does Dolly Parton actually believe all this? If her childhood was so ideal, why did she move away the day after she graduated high school? How much of the Herschends’ project is about actual Christian belief and how much is about corporate success? And what do I find most striking about this evangelical project? The evangelizers’ doe-eyed dogma, that flattening of human experience? Or people’s genuine hunger, their willingness to be guided and instructed? Or the ease with which a myth repeated often enough becomes history?
And what role do the rides themselves play in this? Do they play some role in the way we absorb narratives and information? A roller coaster asks for a surrender of our bodies to gravitational powers, and we are thrilled — well, some of us are — to give ourselves over to that hyper-embodiment.
A dark ride — those indoor rides that usually involve little trains, cars, or boats moving past animatronics, artificially lit sets, and smoke-and-mirrors effects — asks us to surrender to an imaginary world of ghosts, pirates, miners, or colonial explorers, shaping a sequential narrative that builds from one hazy, humming room to the next.
If you wish to understand the United States of America and its obsession with anti-history, manufactured nostalgia, and simulacratic realities, go to Dollywood. If you wish to understand how fascism works, and, simultaneously, how the subaltern persists, go to Dollywood. For Dollywood is a self-complicating creature that, despite its attempt to run business “all in a manner consistent with Christian values and ethics,” is also rife with fissures through which the queer and the heathen seeps through.
Dollywood is a hot mess of camp and kitsch perpetually outing itself. Dolly Parton herself, who has, throughout her career, openly acknowledged her LGBTQ fans despite death threats from her conservative fan base, represents an alteration of body and extreme performance of gender, culture, and emotion that is inherently queer. Dollywood is the site where the camp of Americana clashes spectacularly with an earnest lust for an Edenic white, Christian, rural past that has never existed.
“The South is garbage,” announces my brother, his large frame silhouetted in the passenger side of our rental. He attempts to gather loose strands of his wild hair, but it whips out the open window. “It’s so fake,” he continues, “It’s so white, and it has no history and no culture.” We are driving back through the Smoky Mountains, headed to Durham, where my brother has been living for the past nine months, his first time living outside of Washington state as an adult.
How can my brother possibly believe that our two-day trip to a theme park and two mini-golf courses has given him a full picture of the South? Luke and I both interject with things like, “What do you mean?” and, “How can you say that?” and, “But you never leave your apartment!” My brother presses on, arguing in favor of what he is calling the “North.”
“Everything north of Sacramento, up to Oregon, you know, Jefferson. The gold rush. Prospectors. That’s history.”
Later I will realize that my brother’s gold-panning North is likely informed by Yukon Trail — a sister video game of Oregon Trail — which we played together as kids, giving ourselves names like “Klon+Dyke” and always hiring the brown-skinned guide who called herself Linda because her name was “hard for outsiders to pronounce.” But it would be unfair to blame a computer game for my brother’s insularity.
My brother who was raised within our own family’s cultish back-to-the-land Chicano hippie ideologies until he found the internet. And although I’m used to my brother’s provocations, I am still stunned by the confidence with which he brandishes his self-contradicting convictions. How can he feel so strongly about that which he knows next to nothing? And if my brother is like this, am I? What narratives instilled in me by my parents, who lived their entire adult lives in the West, do I regurgitate on a daily basis without any critical thought?
From the back of the rental, Luke, who cares about things like clarity, common sense, and the truth — things that my brother and the rest of our family find dull and silly — comes to the rescue. Leaning forward between the two front seats, Luke assails my brother with questions.
“You know that Northern California and Oregon are not considered the North, right? You do know who Jefferson was? Do you know why they fly the Confederate flag in that part of California?”
“I don’t mean North and South geographically,” says my brother, as if we’re overreacting.
“Do you know what the Civil War was?”
He says this with laughing disbelief, as if knowledge of the Civil War is as esoteric as the nomenclatures for plumbing parts or knowing what kinds of grape yeasts make what kinds of wine.
“Do you know what the Confederate flag is referencing?”
“Do you know what the Mason-Dixon Line was?”
“Do you know how the KKK started?”
“You know there were slaves.”
“Okay, well when slavery was still legal — ”
“Wait,” I interrupt. “You should probably start earlier.”
So Luke begins at the beginning.