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The Snake-Handling Minister’s Venomous Murder Plot

The new HBO doc ‘Alabama Snake’ is the fascinating story of Glenn Summerford, a Pentecostal minister who wanted his wife dead — and the enduring allure of the bizarre crime that followed

There are many ways to approach Alabama Snake, the compelling documentary that premieres on December 9th on HBO and HBO Max. Recounting the story of Glenn Summerford, the film introduces us to an Alabama man who as an adult found God and became a Pentecostal minister in the 1980s, leading a small but fervent congregation that engaged in snake-handling. A charismatic, albeit intimidating and violent individual, Summerford was said to perform miracles. (People who couldn’t walk were supposedly cured at his church.) But things weren’t well in his homelife, and one night, tensions came to a head after an altercation with his second wife, Darlene. 

On the evening of October 4, 1991, EMTs received a call summoning them to the Summerford home, where they found Darlene in hysterics, claiming that her husband had tried to kill her with a rattlesnake. (“He took a pipe and hit the cages real hard so the snakes got real mad and then grabbed me by the hair and said he would push my face in there if I didn’t stick my hand in there,” she said during her husband’s subsequent trial. “He said I had to die because he wanted to marry another woman.”) Glenn told another story, insisting that she was having an affair and was suicidal. The jury believed Darlene, finding the 47-year-old defendant guilty of attempted murder. Because he’d had prior convictions, Summerford was sentenced to a 99-year term. 

Soon, the story became a sensation, propelling the small town of Scottsboro, Alabama, into the national limelight in an unflattering way. “[T]hat’s all people could talk about, was this snake and how this preacher forced his wife to get bit,” Huntsville Times journalist David Brewer later said in the book The Serpent and the Spirit. “I mean it was the talk of the town for a long time. And when Darlene went on Sally Jessy Raphael — the way she acted on the show — people probably found that more embarrassing than the original situation. It really made everybody come across as a bunch of hicks. That was the image being presented to the world.”

That book was written by Thomas Burton, a local historian and folklorist who compiled a series of interviews with people involved in this strange tale, including Summerford himself. The Serpent and the Spirit was published in 2004, more than a decade after the crime, but it continues to entice new readers — which is where the filmmaking team of Theo Love and Bryan Storkel enter the picture. 

Love (who directed, produced, co-edited and co-wrote Alabama Snake) and Storkel (who produced, co-edited and co-wrote the documentary) have specialized in nonfiction focusing on quirky true-life incidents, including 2018’s The Legend of Cocaine Island, and they were drawn to Burton’s extensive research. (Burton is featured in the film.) But pretty soon, it became clear to them that this odd saga was about more than attempted murder by rattlesnake.

“It’s about spirituality, it’s about mental health, it’s about abuse,” Love told me over Zoom on Monday. “It’s about a cycle of violence that’s taught to young children, and it’s about kids having to defend themselves, and about parents abandoning their children. It’s about looking for redemption. It’s a complex mixture of all those things. If you weave them together in the right way, it can be a compelling story. And I hope that we’ve done that and audiences find it to be a satisfying journey to go on.”

Drawing from Burton’s audio interviews with Summerford — and speaking to Darlene, Darlene and Glenn’s adult son Marty, as well as Glenn’s first wife Doris — Alabama Snake seeks to understand how this crime occurred, offering different perspectives depending on the participant telling the story. (And the participants’ assertions can sometimes be quite shocking, like Darlene’s insistence that her abusive husband was possessed by a demon.) The documentary weaves in reenactments to give a sense of the brutal, frightening man Summerford was — Doris says that she loved him but also feared him — as well as a snapshot of the community of Scottsboro, which remains haunted by this imprisoned snake-handler. The trick for Love and Storkel wasn’t repeating what happened on Sally Jessy Raphael — they didn’t want to depict their working-class subjects as hicks.

During our conversation, I asked them about that, as well as the fact that both men were raised in religious households. And I was curious how you balance such a scandalous, juicy story with the very real pain that underlines it. (As Love suggests, Alabama Snake raises disturbing questions about spousal abuse, and also alleged sexual assault.) But we also had to talk about the mythic allure of snake-handling.

This story is nearly 30 years old. Was it the sheer craziness of what happened that made you want to tell it?

Love: The headline speaks for itself: It’s attempted murder with the murder weapon being a rattlesnake. I don’t think in the next 30 years we’re going to get a headline quite like it. But what we’ve really responded to was the fact that people were still telling this story 30 years later, that it had almost become this legend in a way. There were people who were dedicated to telling [this story] in different forms — there’s been several books written about it, a couple of TV documentaries made about it — but the work of Dr. Thomas Burton was [what] really made us think, “Okay, this could be a feature-length documentary. We could tell this in a way that it’s never been told before.”

Was it because he’s a folklorist that made it appealing?

Love: He had published a book called The Serpent and the Spirit, which just had interviews from all of the major parties involved in this story, as well as church members. He collected all of these interviews and published the transcripts, and that was a goldmine for us as documentary filmmakers, because we could just see what material was already there. Then we found out that he had housed all of these interviews in the Archives of Appalachia, so we were able to go out there and tour the archives and listen to the audio tapes. 

The fact that he had all of those interviews made it really enticing for us, but [it was] also his approach as a folklorist and his fascination with snake-handling. He’s one of the foremost experts on snake-handling because he studied it for so long, and he studied it from the standpoint of folklore, which I found very interesting. As a filmmaker, I think of myself as a storyteller — Bryan and I both do. Storytelling is a theme in a lot of our work. We’re not necessarily trying to make historical documentaries as much as we are trying to just make oral histories.

The rattlesnakes of God

Snake-handling has this weird fascination in our culture. It feels like it harkens back to a bygone era. What is it that makes it so evocative?

Love: Snakes are the original scary thing. You’re going back to biblical times — the first image of evil that we get is a serpent. When you see a snake, it can just make your skin crawl. Within church, it really is such a powerful image to have somebody say, “I’m going to believe in God’s power to such a great extent that I will pick up a live rattlesnake and believe that it won’t hurt me.” That good-versus-evil pairing is just so interesting, it really is. You can disbelieve it, you can think that it’s a trick, but when you see [snake-handling], it’s hard to dispute it — especially when it doesn’t work out so well. We have a couple of scenes in the film where someone does get bit, and you can see that these snakes are very real and the consequences are very real.

While watching Alabama Snake, I found myself doubting the sincerity of Glenn’s later-in-life embrace of God. We see how angry and violent he could be, and starting a church didn’t seem to really quell that in him. Do you think he really believed that God had come into his life?

Storkel: I think Glenn really believed. One of the first things we did was we found all this archival footage of people handling these snakes. And when you watch the footage, it’s clear that they’re having some experience. Call it God, call it whatever you might, they believe in something strong enough to pick up a deadly rattlesnake — and that faith has to be real in order to do that. You can disagree whether or not God exists — or whether or not you believe in God — but these people are having an experience and they have a strong faith. Just watching that footage, it was clear that they were each having some experience that goes beyond what we deal with on an everyday level. It’s a spiritual experience, or whatever you want to call it. There’s something that’s happening there.

The other thing for me with the serpents is that I came up in a religious background — it’s not that [far removed] from where I grew up. [Snake-handling] seems like this crazy thing, but they’re just taking this one verse literally, Mark 16:17-18 [which says, in part, “They shall take up serpents”]. All the other things in that verse, the churches that I grew up in, they believed in all the other things except for serpent-handling. So, in some ways, it wasn’t so far off from other Evangelicals, even though it’s this crazy visual of this person handling the snake.

Bryan, were you raised in the South, too?

Storkel: Up in Seattle, actually. Both Theo and I have a Christian background, and the fascination [in] some of our work is that we wanted to study these things and understand people. Several of our films have been about people that have faith and are doing something unusual. That has become a theme that we keep exploring just because we’re interested in it personally.

Doris Summerford

People like Darlene or Doris, they’re characters — they have big Southern personalities. With Hillbilly Elegy out now, there’s a whole new wave of debate about how Hollywood portrays certain parts of the country — and the people in those parts of the country. How careful did you have to be in terms of how your subjects were going to come across?  

Love: That’s a conversation that we have with every subject of our film. We’re trying to earn their trust, first of all, and letting them know what we’re about. The big thing in Alabama that we found was they didn’t want people coming in and making fun of them. So the main hurdle was just saying, “Hey, we’re going to try our very best to make something serious here. We’re not coming at this from a skeptical standpoint about your religion. We’re wanting to more or less believe what you believe. If you say that a demon was responsible, then that’s what we’re going to portray in our film.” 

When we started explaining that we wanted to make a film that was spiritual — it wasn’t just another crime documentary, we wanted it to focus on the spiritual side of things — then that opened people up a lot. They were on board with that, especially Darlene. She’s been through a lot, obviously. She’s the victim of these snakebites, and has been through quite a bit in her life. So we asked her, “What was the real motive here [behind your husband trying to kill you]?” And she started telling these stories about demons. And that was something that hadn’t been covered before in other interviews that she had done.

Storkel: What’s really interesting to us is that [Glenn and Darlene] both believe in these spiritual forces. They can disagree on what happened the night of the crime, but they’ll both talk about the fact that there were demons present causing these things to happen. And they believe still, both of them — Darlene really believes that there was a demon inside of her husband that caused him to do these things. Even though they strongly disagree about this crime, there’s still that common ground where they still believe in this spiritual world.

There’s also discussion in Alabama Snake that Glenn performed miracles at his church. What did you make of that?

Love: We didn’t see any evidence that proved things one way or the other, but I have to admit, we weren’t really looking in that direction. Our aim wasn’t to hold up a scientific magnifying glass to these things. Going back to the folklore aspect, we wanted to just hear the stories and take them at face value and believe that they meant something to the people who are telling them — that they were a part of their personal story and a part of their faith. I enjoy stories like that — I find them to be entertaining — and they lose some of their power when there’s a skeptical lens put up in front of them. So, truth be told, we weren’t out to prove or disprove whether the miracles happened. We were just happy to hear the stories.

Glenn is a fascinating figure, but he’s also a monster in terms of what he did to the people in his life. He was allegedly pretty abusive to his wives. 

Love: We spent a lot of time discussing how to portray Glenn, because there’s a mountain of evidence that he’s a monster. I mean, he was convicted in court. But there’s also this way of viewing his story, in the way he tells it, where it’s almost like he wants to be built up as a spiritual icon of some sort — that he’s a larger-than-life man of God. We were balancing in this story all of these different viewpoints, and we knew that we wanted to end with Glenn’s — that this was Glenn’s opportunity to portray himself the way he would like to be portrayed. So the ending of our film is, “What would the story be like if Glenn truly was the spiritual icon that he claims to be?”

Storkel: Along that theme of folklore, when we went to the town of Scottsboro the first time, everybody had heard about this story and everybody has their opinion on it. Everybody has their opinion on serpent-handling and how they do it: “Oh, they must chill the snakes or they defang them or they take out the venom.” Scottsboro was only known for three things, and this Glenn Summerford trial [was one of them]. Because of that, locally it had built up into this legend, or this piece of folklore. 

As we talked to more and more people, a lot of them did have these really strong opinions of Glenn being this man of God, this miracle worker that was their pastor and leader. They disagreed with Darlene’s side of the story. So in trying to tell that spiritual story, we wanted to lean into some of those things and portray the image that Glenn wanted to have of himself, but also present a strong case that he’s a monster.

I understand you want to tell an entertaining story and have your subjects speak for themselves, but Alabama Snake is also about spousal abuse. That balance between entertaining and talking about serious subjects, how did you approach that?

Love: There was a lot of discussion about this being a story about mental health as well. We knew that this was an area [of the country] where these are poor people that are not well-educated and their stories are complex. We’re not from Appalachia, we’re not from Alabama — we’re outsiders telling this story. So, first of all, we wanted to come in with a sense of curiosity and empathy more than anything. One of the ways that we tried to do that is by letting our subjects’ voices tell the story — we don’t like to have narration in these stories, and we don’t like to tell the audience what to think. We want the characters to speak for themselves — they can contradict themselves, but we want them to speak for [themselves]. 

Doris, who’s Glenn’s first wife, really wraps up the complexity of these issues with her statement about loving Glenn but also being afraid of him. What happens in a lot of abuse is that it’s fear and love — those two things are tied together. It’s always complex, and it’s always a very difficult thing to prosecute — it’s a difficult thing to get away from. And the other interesting thing is that it mirrors their faith in God — they believe in the same God that you would be introduced to if you went to your neighborhood church, a God of love, but there’s fear there, too. They wholeheartedly believe in the power of fearing God. 

When love and fear are packaged together in church services, that bleeds into the home life and enables a culture of abuse. Again, that’s something that we weren’t trying to go in and judge. We were trying to be as curious as possible and present their stories with all of the complexities, and do that with as much compassion as possible.

Marty Summerford

You talk to Glenn and Darlene’s adult son Marty, who’s still very shaken by what happened in his childhood to his mom. How easy was it to get him to go on camera?

Love: He was hesitant. I spent a lot of time with him and his wife, and their story was just heartbreaking. The first time that we sat down together, we all had tears in our eyes as he just recounted stories of his difficult childhood. This story basically orphaned him. 

But one of the things that really made him want to do this was the fact that we had audio interviews of his father — we weren’t just going to tell a story about how evil his father was. [Marty] has a complex view of the story, and more than anybody wanted to see all sides of it told. So when we said that we were going to give his father a chance to share his side, that opened him up quite a bit to participating. But it was a difficult thing, and in many ways it felt like a therapy session. He’s seen the film now, though, and he liked the film, even though it was hard to watch. 

Alabama Snake mentions that Glenn claimed that Darlene said she sexually abused the children he’d had with Doris. In Glenn’s version of events, that revelation sent him into a rage and helped speed along his desire to get a divorce. That’s a shocking claim, and you asked Darlene about it.

Love: We approached it very delicately. We had audio interviews from Burton’s book that confirmed that the allegations were made, but we weren’t able to secure interviews with the victims. We knew that it wasn’t going to be a major part of the documentary — we weren’t going to focus on it a ton — and I didn’t want to ambush Darlene after all that she had been through. But I brought it up to her, and she knew exactly what I was talking about with [the] allegations made about her. She outright denied it and said that they were lies. 

The reason that we included it in the film was because it’s important to understand Glenn’s side of the story — not only does it give a reason for all the turmoil that Glenn and Darlene were going through that day [of the snakebite], but it also, in some ways, gives a reason why he would have committed such a violent act. And it gives a reason why she would have [supposedly] wanted to commit suicide — that’s the story that he’s trying to convince us of, that she did this to herself. If she had just been found out to have been abusing his children, then she would be facing criminal charges, and that would be a reason why she would want to commit suicide. 

And, if [the allegations] were true, it would give Glenn a reason why he would be so angry and commit such a violent act. It wouldn’t justify it at all, but in his interviews, he talked about those allegations over and over and over. It was important for him to say, “Hey, I had just found out this information.” But again, as I asked Darlene about it, she outright denied it and said that they were all lies. And certainly, there’s been many lies told about Darlene, so it’s not hard to believe that these were also lies as well. But because we did have audio recordings of one of the [alleged] victims, we felt like it was important to include [those allegations] in the story.

We hear Glenn’s stories of being a boy and his own father beating him up to make him tougher. It’s such an antiquated view of masculinity, but when you get that ingrained in you as a kid, it’s hard to unlearn it.

Love: Absolutely, and he did pass that on, in some ways, to his son Marty — at the end of the story, Marty has to confront his father in a very violent way with a bow and arrow just to save his mother. But there’s hope in the conclusion of the film with Marty having his own family — and, as far as we can tell, he’s ending that cycle of violence. I think that there is a little bit of hope at the end of our story.

We see footage from Darlene’s appearance on Sally Jessy Raphael, and it made me think how those daytime shows used to have such a leering, classist quality: “Let’s look at the small-town freaks with their trashy scandals.” With a movie like Alabama Snake, there’s a certain portion of the audience who will watch for the same reason — no matter what you do as a filmmaker, they’re not interested in the complexity. Do you have to make peace with that?

Love: There’s an element to things like this that are a Rorschach test — you see what you want to see in it. I like to view how well I did based on how the subjects of my films react to them. I’ve made three films in the South, and all three of them have involved people that don’t have a lot of money. My goal was always to come at it with compassion. I often start off my introduction when I ask them if they would like to be a part of a film [by saying], “My job is to help you tell your own story.” 

I also tell [my subjects] that my job is to entertain audiences, but the most entertaining thing that we can do as storytellers is present the truth and present an emotional truth. I think that these people are being as honest as they possibly can. It’s a culture that not a lot of people know of — snake-handling in rural Alabama. A lot of people are going to assume that this is poverty porn, and I don’t think that it is. We’re giving a microphone to people that don’t often get a chance to be heard. We’re not coming at it and saying that they’re less-than. We’re saying that they have a story to tell, just like anybody else, and that they deserve to be understood.

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