SERPENTS IN SCRIPTURE
Practitioners of serpent handling point to the following Biblical verse as the origin of their form of worship:
"And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."
-- Mark 16: 17-18 (New International Version)
"Snake Man of Appalachia" airs on Animal Planet (Comcast 21/Direct TV 282/Dish Network 184/EPB 62) Thursday nights at 9 through Feb. 16.
For most of his 40-year academic career, Ralph Hood, 69, has documented the beliefs of those at the religious margins, but he's always been particularly fascinated with serpent handlers.
Hood is a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who specializes in the psychology of religions. Decades of work documenting Appalachian serpent handlers have made Hood one of the foremost experts on the practice and a well-known figure in the serpent-handling community.
He recently was tapped as a contributor to "Snake Man of Appalachia," an ongoing six-part Animal Planet documentary about Verlin Short, an East Kentucky serpent handler.
Hood appears on-screen only during the first episode, but he said he helped facilitate interactions between the serpent handlers and Dan Sexton Media, a Corte Madera, Calif.-based film company.
"I wanted my role to be minimal," Hood said as he sat in his book-filled office on the third floor of UTC's Holt Hall. "But without me, they wouldn't have gotten any kind of cooperation, because the serpent-handling tradition is so reluctant to accept this media thing because they've been burned so many times."
Hood was introduced to serpent handling in 1973 after reading about two deaths during a worship service in Carson Springs, a rural community east of Knoxville.
As is usual following deaths resulting from serpent handling, the Carson Springs incident was highly publicized. Hood said he was inspired to gain greater insight into the practice after reading questionable comments made by a sociologist and a psychologist about the incident.
"They just had this book, stereotypical knowledge," Hood said. "Since I knew these people -- I go in the mountains a lot -- I decided I would document their tradition. I spent 25 years doing that."
The practice of serpent handling originated with George Hensley, a Church of God minister on White Oak Mountain near Cleveland, Tenn.
In the early 1900s, Hensley, who was experiencing a crisis of faith, had a religious revelation that inspired him to handle a venomous snake. When he was unharmed by the act, Hensley interpreted it as a fulfillment of a line of Scripture in the Bible's book of Mark and began preaching about his experience to his congregation.
From his church, the practice of serpent handling eventually spread throughout the Appalachian Mountains, from Georgia to West Virginia.
As its popularity increased, so did the number of associated deaths and injuries, such as the deaths at Carson Springs that attracted Hood's attention. These incidents incited fear and prejudice among outsiders, who often stereotyped serpent handlers, Hood said.
In the 1980s, he and a student, W. Paul Williamson, began a systematic field study of serpent handling to document the practice.
Although he has never participated in serpent handling, Hood gained his first insights into the ritual through pastor Carl Porter, whose services he regularly attended in Kingston, Ga.
Eventually he earned the pastor's trust and was allowed to film entire services, the footage of which eventually became part of an extensive documentary archive housed in Holt Hall.
"It took me at least five years before I wrote or did anything," Hood said. "I got to know these people before I got to interview them or they would let me film them.
"They knew my goal wasn't to proselytize for them but to make sure people understood them from their perspective."
IN THE FIELD
Hood has given many speeches about serpent handling in addition to writing 50 academic articles and co-writing a pair of books on the subject: "Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent-Handling Tradition" and "Handling Serpents: Pastor Jimmy."
These and other works are housed in the UTC archives on shelves next to dozens of DVDs, CDs and video cassettes. The latter contain hundreds of hours of recordings of services, interviews and, on occasion, deaths caused by bites or from drinking poisonous substances, another act practiced in some serpent-handling congregations.
In all, Hood said, he has documented 99 deaths from bites and seven deaths resulting from drinking substances such as strychnine, carbolic acid or battery acid.
Even after years of observing services, Hood said he has never lost a sense of the inherent danger serpent handlers face during their worship.
"I'm still awed when I see somebody go in, reach in there and pull out a serpent because I know how real it is," he said. "I'm still awed when somebody can do that."
After his initial introduction to Porter, Hood eventually worked his way throughout the major congregations on the serpent-handling circuit, which encompassed locations throughout Appalachia, including Sand Mountain, Ala., Del Rio, Tenn., and Marshall, N.C.
Serpent handlers are often stereotyped as being poor and uneducated, but Hood said his observations proved that, although many serpent handlers were comparatively impoverished, the community was more diverse than many supposed.
"While serpent handling emerged among the poor, it's a fourth-generation movement now," he said. "Many serpent handlers live in nice houses, their kids go to college and they have college degrees."
the Snake man
As his studies continued, Hood was welcomed at annual serpent-handling homecomings, annual gatherings at which practitioners from throughout the region converge on a single church for a weekend to worship together.
It was at one of these events 20 years ago that he first met Short, the subject of Animal Planet's documentary. As with many serpent handlers he has met over the years, Hood said Short came to be more than just a subject of observation.
"I've been with them so long that many of them are friends," he said. "That's why I feel like I have an obligation [in the documentary], because they trust me. Many of them I have come to admire."
That relationship, as well as Hood's trusted status within the serpent-handling community, made him the ideal liaison for finding a willing subject for "Snake Man," said Dan Sexton, president and executive producer of Dan Sexton Media.
Sexton previously worked on a documentary for the Discovery Channel about American subcultures, which included serpent handlers. Raised in Eastern Kentucky, Sexton said he, like Hood, has been fascinated by the practice for years and knew he would have difficulty getting permission to film from practitioners.
"You don't just go knock on the church door and ask, 'Can we start filming here?' " he said, laughing. "I got a hold of Dr. Hood and, through the process of gaining trust and him finding out what we're about, he hooked us up with the homecoming in West Virginia. That's where we met Verlin."
That meeting would never have happened without Hood serving as an intermediary, Sexton added.
"Dr. Hood has been my liaison, the person I call first, because they trust him because of his involvement for all these years," he said. "They know him as a friend. That's what has helped me out because, if it's OK with Dr. Hood, it would be OK with them.
"He's the main man behind the scenes that made it happen."
The process of selling the show took eight months after the initial pilot was filmed in 2009.
After receiving Animal Planet's approval, material for the six-episode initial series was filmed during a two-month period that ended last October. The first episode, in which Hood accompanies Short on a snake hunt, aired Jan. 12. The final episode will air Feb. 16. Sexton said he plans to return to Mayking, Ky., to film additional episodes in late spring, pending Animal Planet renewing the contract.
Hood has only seen a draft of the first episode, but he said the feedback he has received from those who study serpent handlers indicates the series provides an unbiased perspective on the Appalachian serpent handler's lifestyle.
Ultimately, Hood said, he will be satisfied if the series demonstrates that serpent handlers are just as sincere in their beliefs as those of other faiths.
"I was convinced that, if these people were allowed to speak for themselves, they would be able to show others that this religion, if it's anything, is a form of life," he said. "It's a viable form of life that works well, especially in this Appalachian region, where these people are sincere in what they do and where they gain a sense of mastery and meaning from their beliefs.
"As long as that message gets out, then I feel like I've made a contribution."