Series on snake handler features research of local professor

Dr. Ralph Hood (L) and serpent handler Verlin Short take a break during a recent taping of Animal Planet's new six-week series "Snake Man of Appalachia." (Photo: Dr. Ralph Hood)

Authored By Mary Barnett

A new series on Animal Planet premieres tonight and features contributions from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Professor of Psychology Dr. Ralph Hood.

“Snake Man of Appalachia” follows the lives of Verlin and Reva Short, an Appalachian family deeply involved in religious snake handling.

The six-episode series follows the lives of the Shorts, who keep more than 40 rattlesnakes and copperheads for use in religious services.

Watch tonight

“Snake Man of Appalachia”

Animal Planet, 9 p.m.

EPB-fi, channel 62
Comcast, channel 21

Hood’s area of specialty is religion and the psychological reasons people handle serpents. He has documented, befriended and studied the Shorts for many years as part of his interest and research in the psychology of religion. The UTC archives are filled with more than 200 DVDs of his research gathered over the last 25 years from around the Appalachian region.

“I have gone on serpent hunts with Verlin when he is getting serpents for the church. I count him as a close friend,” Dr. Hood said.

According to a description of the new series, Short attends serpent-handling churches and disappears into the mountains for snake hunts. He and his wife, Reva, are raising two daughters, 16-year-old Denisha and 13-year-old “Peetie,” and 8-year-old twin boys, Jeremiah and Mackenzie.

Hood served as a consultant for the series and was interviewed several times during the tapings. 

One of Hood’s research goals into the snake handlers is to get factual information to the general public, so there can be a better understanding of a practice that he says has been misperceived and misunderstood.

The long-standing ritual is the result of Pentecostal traditions that take the Gospel of Mark literally and seriously. Hood said there are still many people who identify themselves as “sign followers,” who believe, follow and practice signs in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 16:17-18 states, “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

“This show will give a sense of the commitment of these people who believe in this practice, but they live regular lives just like everyone else, dealing with poverty and raising their children in a difficult situation,” Hood said.

Hood said he is often called to testify on behalf of serpent handlers, a practice that is illegal in every state but West Virginia, he said.

“There is a real interesting prejudice in American culture that a religious practice can’t contain risk. You have an absolute right for religious belief, but you don’t have an absolute right for religious practice,” he said.

Hood said he argues that just like other high-risk activities, such as professional football or hang gliding-which are not legislated by the courts-consenting adults aware of the risks of handling snakes should be allowed to practice what they believe, even it means risking their own lives.