The Folklore Project
By Caroline McCoy
The house is part of the metaphor, an element of the chill in “The Big Chill.” Here is the plot of the movie: Seven college friends, now in their 30s, gather for another friend’s funeral. Alex, whose face never appears on screen but whose body is dressed for burial in the title sequence, is played by Kevin Costner. Alex had rounded the group of friends to an even eight until he slit his wrists in one of the bathrooms of the antebellum manse that belongs to a couple of these thirtysomethings. This white, neoclassical home, with its bi-level wrap-around porches and columned façade, with its marsh view and dock stretching to nearly the length of a football field, is also where the friends congregate.
They are narcissistic and disillusioned. Sam is a second-rate actor, and Michael writes for People Magazine. Nick worked in radio and now swallows pills to cope with a Vietnam War injury that rendered him impotent. Sarah and Harold are married with children and the kinds of careers that afford them the sprawling summer home. Meg is a chain-smoking real estate attorney who is desperate to become a mother. Karen hates her husband. Their foil is Alex’s girlfriend, Chloe, a naïve dancer in her early 20s who says of the hearse carrying her dead boyfriend, “I’ve always wanted to ride in a limo.”
The movie was released in 1983 and became a generational allegory for former ’60s radicals jaded by age and consumerism. The soundtrack of Motown hits encouraged nostalgia, and the obsessive self-analysis in which the characters engage registered as apropos in the early Reagan years of relative prosperity, when freedom from external turmoil prompted investigations of innermost despair. Not a lot happens in “The Big Chill.” The characters spend most of their time hanging out. They make theirs a weekend to literally chill, in the informal sense, and question their lives’ trajectories, as anyone might when confronted with suicide. Of course, the “big chill” is also figurative. It’s the recognition of friendships cooled through distance and circumstance: “A long time ago we knew each other for a short period,” says Nick, the impotent veteran. And it’s the draft from a billowing veil of white yuppie perfection: high paychecks hiding faded idealism, a faithful marriage strained by sexual dissatisfaction, and a picturesque mansion marred by blood: “It was a real mess,” Chloe says of the wrist-slitting.
In actuality, the house sits at 1 Laurens Street in Beaufort, South Carolina. In March it sold for just over $1.7 million, after spending a spell in foreclosure. The lending bank had listed the property “as is” and papered the broad front door with notices to trespassers, presumably movie fans. I know this because, about a year ago, I climbed over a thread of rusted barbed wire and wandered around the outside of the house. I stepped up onto the wide porch with its chipped gray paint and peered through the windows at mint-colored walls and the wooden countertops of a kitchen that, according to the listing, hadn’t been remodeled since 1980. My brother, who doesn’t break rules as much as he fails to realize they exist, encouraged my trespassing. “Come on,” he said, and on I went.
“As is” accounted for the decaying dock, the left side of which had collapsed inward, and whatever structural problems the still-white frame must have been hiding. Because the house looked fine. Two live oaks stood in the front yard, hugging the entryway with their arched branches, and the grass that blanketed their roots was June’s greenest green. Every wooden slat of the wrap-around porches was in place, and the screens covering the front windows were free of holes. It resembled nothing less than the idyll that appeared in the movie, but its formal listing state was “fixer-upper.”
In 1853, when he built the home at 1 Laurens Street as a retreat from his sea island plantation, Edgar Fripp called it Tidalholm. The name remains official, though locals often replace it with “The Big Chill House.” Like most pre-Civil War homes still standing in the region, Tidalholm’s origin story carries the weight of slavery. Census records from 1860 list Fripp as the owner of 123 slaves, so it is impossible to consider the construction of his summer retreat on the Beaufort River without the implication of forced labor. In the fall of 1861, the Union Army seized control of the city and converted Tidalholm into a hospital. The Fripp family regained ownership after the war. In the 1930s, it became a bed and breakfast; by 1979, it had returned to private ownership and made its first of two film appearances, as the home Robert Duvall’s character moves his family into in “The Great Santini.” (The movie is based on the novel by Pat Conroy, who lived in the region until his death last year.) The home’s role in “The Big Chill” several years later solidified it as a local landmark.
I fell in love with the idea of Tidalholm when I first saw “The Big Chill” nearly two decades after its release, without any complex consideration of its historical implication or the practicality of a seven-bedroom house built on a floodplain. The perfection it represented in my mind was pastoral and familial. In my imagination, I heard crickets chirping and the chug-a-wump of southern toads at dusk; I saw warm lights shining from windows and shadows of people I recognized gathered for drawn-out suppers. I have never been creative or optimistic enough to envision the specific details of my future, and I mentally rebel against creeping thoughts attempting to establish conditions for my happiness. Tidalholm was not a thing I allowed myself to want, but it functioned as an impression of a possibility, the essence of a familiar feeling, and, reasonably, a comfort. That the house symbolized for me something secure and self-preserving is not surprising. I had, after all, been raised in the South by white yuppie parents who threw dinner parties and played Motown records; and at the time I first laid eyes on Tidalholm, watching “The Big Chill” on DVD in someone’s dorm room, I was a homesick teenager waiting out boarding school in New Jersey. The movie made me miss my young parents the way it had made them miss their even younger selves.
Several years later, while reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Enduring Chill,” I wondered if it had inspired the movie I loved.
Beyond the titular similarity, the works share common themes: a reunion baked in self-absorption, fear of failure, and an ultimate existential revelation. Unlike the movie, though, O’Connor’s story, written more than 20 years before, is acutely aware of the problems of Southern romanticism and white liberalism, and it addresses both through dark comedic satire. Asbury, a failed writer, returns from New York to his childhood home in Georgia where he plans to die tragically of the mysterious illness that has been plaguing him. He considers his artistic disappointment a product of his upbringing — his mother’s fault — and he vows to make her aware “of all she had done to him.” Lying in his childhood bed, temperamental and weak with fever, he thinks the mere fact of his geography is an insult to his intelligence. He is incensed by his mother’s attempts at conversations “largely about cows with names like Daisy and Bessie Button and their intimate functions — their mastitis and their screwworms and their abortions.” For her part, his mother tries to “talk about subjects that [are] of interest to him.” As they sit on the front porch gazing at their expansive farmland, she says, “I think it would be nice if you wrote a book about down here. We need another good book like ‘Gone With the Wind.’ . . . Put the war in it. That always makes a long book.”
Asbury’s mother is the kind of Southern romantic he finds insufferable, and he clings to the wretched circumstances of his impending death not only as a redemption for his failure to write anything meaningful, but also as an opportunity to make her see herself for the dim and unworldly woman he believes her to be. In the end, though, the revelation, the “enduring chill,” is his. Asbury is not dying. Rather, he is afflicted with undulant fever — “the same as Bang’s in a cow” — which he acquired after drinking unpasteurized milk in an attempt to prove himself not a racist in front of a pair of indifferent field hands. Like the characters in “The Big Chill,” he is gripped by the reality of what he has become. His end is a tragedy, though not of the artistic variety he intended. (I should say that the culmination of “The Big Chill” is more upbeat. Each character resolves to make some kind of directional shift — most notably, Nick’s giving up drugs and, thanks to Sarah’s offer to share her husband, Harold, Meg might finally get her baby. Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” plays while credits roll over a scene in which the seven friends enjoy a final breakfast in what was then the recently remodeled kitchen of Tidalholm.)
When I found myself lurking around its grounds, it had been a long time since I had romanticized that mansion in Beaufort. That it remained beautiful to me was not unpredictable; but I was startled, disappointed, by how little I cared about seeing it in person. Maybe I had become as cynical as the movie characters, too constrained by the reality of adulthood to imagine that perfection could exist on a single patch of land. I was certainly, if subconsciously, conjuring Asbury’s willful resistance to romantic ideals. I saw, on that June day, nothing evocative of nostalgia, nothing symbolic of my own longing. Instead, I saw a pretty house hiding its flaws under a coat of paint. I saw a decently packaged “fixer-upper” with seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms and original flooring throughout. I saw Tidalholm finally for what it is: a big and enduring picture of the Old South, waiting to be leveled or rehabilitated.