In conclusion, the cultural life of punishment literature suggests that cultural products associated with punishment can—broadly speaking—be understood as employing different types of narratives to speak about and even justify the act of punishing. Fear narratives will likely focus on the victim, encouraging the audience to see themselves as potential victims. In addition, we will possibly find reference to the future dangerousness of offenders, which in turn constructs the prison both as a place to be feared and as a place in which feared objects can be contained. Within fear narratives, harsh punishment—be it execution or life without parole— becomes symbolic of the restoration of a safe society.
Similarly, punishment stories which employ a narrative of vengeance will likewise focus on the victim, yet future dangerousness of the offender need not be established. Instead, the brutality of the crime and the suffering of the victim is enough to justify demands for harsh punishment. The victim and their death is juxtaposed with that of the offender’s and as an audience we are encouraged to align ourselves with the pain and suffering associated with victimhood. Such an alignment helps to justify not only harsh punishment, but also demands for excess; we are invited to take pleasure in knowing that the offender will suffer. These fervent, angry and uncompromising cultural scripts serve to undermine the rational discourse of retribution, encouraging the audience to disregard proportionate sentencing or claims of mitigation, and instead to demand vengeance for the life of an innocent victim.
Lastly, a narrative of closure was found to manifest in more recent cultural stories told about harsh punishment. Once again we saw victim- hood take centre stage, yet unlike the fear narratives, it was the family members of the victim who take the starring role. Indeed, while closure still appears to be somewhat elusive and rather difficult to define (or indeed to achieve), that is not to suggest that such an ambiguity has hindered the development of the closure narrative. From webpages dedicated to individual victims to nationwide advertising campaigns, from the execution of Timothy McVeigh to statements made by the father of a murdered son, demands for closure have been used as a justification for both execution and life without parole sentences.
However, while this cultural life literature offers great insight into the ways in which harsh punishment is justified by way of ‘cultural sentencing rationales’ within American products, it makes little reference to the most pervasive feature of US punishment practices; the greater use of (and higher levels of support for) more severe punishment in the Southern states. Indeed, many of the cultural products analysed by the cultural life scholars—the movies, documentaries, advertising campaigns, TV series and so on—are broadcast across the whole of America and beyond, so we are left without any discussion about why these narratives of vengeance, fear and closure are associated with different styles of punishment in the North and the South. We are left wondering if the stories told about punishment in the South may be different to those told in the North. In order to progress then, we must now turn to a much smaller body of literature that seeks to explore the punishment stories told in and by specific regions. In the chapter that follows, we will look at the research that deals with the cultural life of punishment in the US South generally, and the cultural life of punishment within individual states.