The Backwater Gospel animation is a unique short film. In a matter of nine and a half minutes, The Backwater Gospel tells a story that is rich with symbolism, distinct characters, and layered interpretations. On the surface, The Backwater Gospel meaning is simple. The film is about a town that is cursed by regular visits of The Undertaker (death), leading to one day when the town decides to help death along. However, there is much more to be gleaned from a deeper analysis of the short film. First, let’s outline the backstory for the characters, the setting, and the intention behind The Backwater Gospel.
If you haven’t seen The Backwater Gospel yet, we recommend you check it out before reading this article.
The Backwater Gospel Meaning and Backstory
Although there are many characters in The Backwater Gospel, there are four main characters at the center of the story: The Tramp, Minister, Undertaker, and the townspeople. Each of the four characters has a distinct purpose in the film.
The tramp or vagrant has the most tragic story of all the characters as he was the only one who could claim innocence amongst the townsfolk. He ended up in town by accident after drunk driving and crashing into a tree. He lost his leg in the crash and has been stuck in the town of Backwater ever since. He enjoys using his creativity to pass the time to make songs or draw in the sand. The tramp takes great joy in calling out the minister for being a false church leader and believes the Undertaker is a force of nature that can’t be stopped.
The minister wants to control everyone and everything. He has kept the town from new technology and stuck in the old ways to maintain his power. The people of Backwater are starved and desperate which makes them easy to control. The minister rips off his congregation, convincing them to give him the little money they have as taxation to feed himself and fund the “spiritual war” that is going on. He has no love for God and instead sees him as a tool to generate fear. He speaks about the fear of God and death to control people, but he actually wants the townsfolk to be afraid of and controlled by him. The tramp and The Undertaker are the only two things that the minister can’t control and he detests that The Undertaker is feared more than he is. He blames the tramp for The Undertaker coming to town and being the cause of him losing his grip over his congregation.
Despite the belief that The Undertaker is evil, he was actually sent by God to test the people of Backwater. He is an Angel of God who was sent to the town to wait and eventually leave at the end of the seventh day. The Undertaker comes when there will be a death but he does not bring death with him. The tramp understands this, which is why he does not fear him.
The town of Backwater has had a long drought. The people are living in times of famine and they believe the minister to be the only semblance of hope in their town. They follow the minister in the hope of salvation but through the minister’s teachings, they believe salvation comes from the fear of God. They have no love for God and have a hollow faith, only praising God in times of plenty and cursing him in times of famine.
All of the information above comes from the ‘Making of The Backwater Gospel’ video created by Bo Mathorne on YouTube.
The Symbolism in The Backwater Gospel
There are many layers and interpretations to be found in The Backwater Gospel. Religious symbolism is rampant throughout the short film but the message isn’t as simple as “religion is bad”. The short film is much more nuanced and complicated than that. Now that we know the backstory of The Backwater Gospel, let’s take a look at some of the symbolism in the short film.
The Townspeople Are Zombies
When the church bells ring, the congregation approaches like zombies. Zombies, of course, are popular for not having brains of their own and being easily influenced. Many times throughout history a congregation has blindly followed their religious leaders without question. Bubba is the only person in town to realize that the minister has deceived them, but he is too late. He had already been led to the slaughter. Nothing is outside of your ability to critically examine, especially not religion.
“Submit To The Lord!”
As the congregation first enters the church, the minister yells to the tramp, “Submit to the Lord!” and the tramp responds, “Why don’t you try it!”. This exchange perfectly captures the relationship between the tramp and the minister. The tramp sees right through the minister and knows that the minister only wants people to submit to him. The minister sees through the tramp and knows that the tramp will eventually draw people away from him.
“One Bad Apple.”
The minister makes a point that one bad apple will poison the entire barrel, referencing the tramp. The minister believes that the tramp is a bad influence on the town and if he is not removed, the entire town will fall. However, the bad apple is actually himself. He is the one who has poisoned the town with his fear-mongering.
Punished For The Sins of One Man
The minister tells a story about a city where everyone was punished for one man’s sins and the punishment was death. It’s ironic and foreshadowing that it will be the minister who is the sole cause of the entire town’s downfall.
The Minister Loses Control
Fear can be an effective way to control people but it is not reliable. Constantly being afraid isn’t a sustainable way to live and will drive people to do things that are completely desperate. The minister loses control of his congregation when the fear of The Undertaker sends them into a frenzy, ultimately destroying the town.
Minister Desecrates Cross
After his congregation abandons him, the minister chucks his cross through the window at the tramp. Not only does he blatantly disregard of Jesus Christ’s teachings by acting out in violence but he also desecrates the cross, showing his complete lack of care for The Bible. If you examine what makes people angry, you will find their true character.
Tramp Runs To The Undertaker
To escape the angry mob running toward him, the tramp runs toward The Undertaker. It’s a powerful image that reveals an essential truth about the characters – the townsfolk believe that death is what they should fear but the tramp sees death as an end to suffering.
The Mob Stones The Tramp
In the saddest scene of the film, the mob ends up stoning the tramp after the minister states, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” It’s telling that the mob throws their stones all at once. The minister has bastardized The Bible by equating sin with a lack of fear in God.
The Tramp’s Death
The tramp’s corpse is positioned similarly to that of Jesus Christ on the cross. In the Bible, Jesus was killed in large part because he didn’t submit to the powers that were in control. Many of those people in power, known as the Pharisees, claimed to follow God but were really only interested in maintaining their control which led to his crucifixion. The tramp’s death is similar in that he didn’t submit to the minister and ultimately paid the price even though he would be the only one who is innocent of bloodshed. At the end of the film, you’ll see that the tramp’s corpse is the only one not covered in anything but his own blood.
The Minister’s Bible Has a Gun
Just when you think the minister can’t go any lower, he opens his Bible to reveal that he cut out all of the pages to hide a gun inside. This is the perfect metaphor for the minister’s character. He may look like someone who worships God but he only twists religion to uplift his own authority. We never saw anyone else carrying a Bible which means it’s possible that there was never anyone reading the Bible in the short film, only perverting it. The minister also has a penchant for violence. He refers to The Bible as is sword, throws the cross at the tramp, has a gun in his Bible, and advocates for stoning. Notice how he only references scriptures when it supports the use of violence out of context.
The Minister Attempts To Kill The Undertaker
You could see The Undertaker as a representation of death or as a representation of God. As much as the congregation and minister claim to be faithful, they have more fear of death than someone who has no faith. The minister attempting to kill The Undertaker could symbolize the many claimed Christians who would reveal their faith to be hollow if they met God because their actions don’t line up with what they claim to believe.
Crushed By The Cross
Bubba kills the minister by smashing his head in with the huge cross he was carrying. This could symbolize many things. It could symbolize the fact that no matter how much control the minister had in The Backwater Gospel, it was God who always had control. Or it could be the consistent desecration of a cross by using it for violence, showcasing the town’s lack of knowledge about Jesus Christ’s teachings.
The Only Thing To Fear…
At the core of the story, The Backwater Gospel meaning is about fear. Blind faith in fear will always lead to violence and fear of death is meaningless because it’s inevitable. Death as we know it is a construct and the fear we have of it is actually a fear of the unknown. If there is anything to take away from the short film, it’s that there is nothing to fear but fear itself.
Watch The Backwater Gospel for free on Reveel, which is available on iOS devices, Android devices, Macbooks, PCs, Roku, and Fire TV.