There are few movies that feature the suburbs before the 1950s. Most movies, up to that point, were about city-living, because for most people, that was where the excitement was. All the action happened there, and the suburbs and small towns were places to escape from. You couldn’t have a life in those places. At least, not an interesting one. After the second world war, the suburban population exploded thanks to programs like the GI Bill, which allowed white people to buy homes away from the city, and the massive funding of the highway system, which allowed white people to flee the cities, and still be able to reach the places of work they left behind
While the GI Bill’s language did not specifically exclude African-American veterans from its benefits, it was structured in a way that ultimately shut doors for the 1.2 million black veterans who had bravely served their country during World War II, in segregated ranks.
If you want to discuss themes of conformity, existential angst, boredom, dullness, ennui, and escape from any of those issues, then you need to set your story in the suburbs, with its endless miles of strip malls, identical pastel housing, well kept patches of lawn, and daily rituals of pleasantness. The suburbs, in the movies, are used to represent stability, order, the status quo, and the mainstream. In other words, normalcy. In the ‘burbs, one day is much like the next, the unexpected doesn’t occur, and change is not encouraged.
The suburbs are often shown as unexciting places that are meant to be escaped from, or unexciting places into which some excitement falls, and the members of the community must deal with the repercussions, or the members of the community must fight off the encroachment of some thing, or someone, in order to keep the status quo, in order to return to “normal”. Many Horror movies set in suburbia followed the standard formula of something from the “outside” disrupting stability, and needed to be defeated.
The reason why Horror works so well in suburban settings, is because of the underlying sense of the suburbs as a safe space,. The suburbs were established as a place away from the “darkness” (i.e. PoC), and sins of the city, but in horror movies, the suburbs are invaded by something dangerous, that is either masquerading as a member of the community, like Fright Night. Sometimes the horror comes from within, when a disruption is caused by someone rebelling against a community which insists on controlling its members through authoritarianism, (The Stepford Wives), murder (Suburbia), or in one particular short story by Robert R. McCammon, He’ll Come Knocking At Your Door, being sacrificed to nameless gods, in exchange for good fortune. The theme is that the good fortune of living there comes at a price. It can cost the inhabitants their autonomy, their sense of individualism, or their lives.
The suburbs were created as a way to escape “the other”, (known as “White Flight”.) The suburbs themselves were supposed to be free from the encroachment of the violence, and incivility, and crime that white people were told, by the mainstream media, had overtaken the cities. What the residents did not take into account was that because of the inter-connectedness of American society, the decline of cities would eventually lead to the decline of the suburbs, as well. And, as PoC gained access to the suburbs, during the 80s, which was the height of the Slasher film era, those white people who could afford to leave, ran away to the ex-urbs, (a district outside a city, especially a prosperous area beyond the suburbs),leaving their poor white cousins behind. Since a system had already been set up, so that housing values declined with the “encroachment” of PoC, these white people were now trapped in these supposedly safe, but declining areas, being invaded by the poc they had been told they needed told to escape from, and unable to afford to leave.
In the early years of suburban movies and shows, the suburbs were a utopia, and saw the residents engaged in melodramas, or kids adventures, such as Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Peyton Place, but as television moved into the 60s, the movies, and shows, started hinting at the darker underbelly, as in the movies of Douglas Sirk, and shows about non-conformity, like The Addams Family. In these, the suburbs are shown to be a deceptive environment, where dark things could flourish behind its walls, like pedophilia, and domestic violence. It is not the actual environment of the suburbs that produce feelings of horror, and disquiet, but the people who live there. What kind of human beings could live in this boring, carefully arranged world, with its identical homes, and territorial picket fences? Apparently the kind who are hiding secrets.
This may seem obvious), but suburban horror is known for being made in spaces where people are, but a film’s tension comes from where people are not. Slasher movies, in suburban environments, focus attention on hidden, dark, out of the way spaces, like abandoned houses, empty schools, and even deserted streets at night. The 1978 Halloween, for example, took place largely at night, and the streets and neighborhoods are curiously empty. There is the sense that other people are around, but they are locked away in the well-lit houses, where they don’t answer their doors to people in distress. Several times, in the movie, Laurie Strode, the movie’s Final Girl, yells for help in the middle of the street, or hammers on doors, to no response. For most of the runtime of the movie, she appears to be entirely alone in this environment, as she frantically dashes from house to house.
And there are secrets here, too. Secrets that eventually come back to disrupt the lives of the inhabitants. This is the premise of The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, in which the sins of the parents are visited upon their children, in the form of a dead pedophile, on which they’d enacted vigilante justice, by burning him alive in a school basement. Their sons and daughters are systematically murdered by this angry ghost. Angry ghosts are also the motivation behind hauntings, in movies like the 1982 Poltergeist, in which the Freeling family are haunted by ghosts in their brand-spanking new, suburban development, which was built on a cemetery from which none of the bodies had been removed. The ghosts in the Amityville Horror from 1979, go back even further, as the movie posits that the house was built on Native American burial grounds. The metaphor here is that the suburbs are not as historically, or emotionally, sterile or pristine as its inhabitants are led to believe. This land has a backstory, and its foundation is built over a dark, and malignant, underbelly.
Sometimes, these stories are cautionary tales, about distrusting people, and usually follow a standard formula of something from “outside” infiltrating this peaceful space, and masquerading as one of its inhabitants, as in 1985’s Fright Night, in which a teenager becomes convinced that his new neighbor is a vampire, or that there is some form of corruption growing within it, like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, in which an ordinary looking menace is hiding in plain sight, or just living in the suburbs itself is the danger, in movies like The Stepford Wives from 1975, and 2007’s Disturbia.
A classic “the horror comes from outside” story is Steven Spielberg’s 1976 Jaws. Amity is a small New England suburban town, that is visited by an avatar of death, in the form of a mindless killing machine, a Great White shark. The town’s new Sheriff, Martin Brody, himself an outsider, along with a local boat captain, and a wealthy marine biologist, have to destroy the shark to restore order, because, according to the Mayor, no tourist will visit a Summer town where they can’t swim at the beach, and without tourists the town can’t survive. The presence of the shark threatens to throw the entire economic system into disorder, and destroy the town. Along with an intrusion from an indifferent outside force, such movies also included trash talkin’, about cities, as hellish landscapes, filled with crime and poverty. In one scene, Martin Brody explains to Richard Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper, the reasons why he left the city:
Brody : [Drunk] I’m tellin’ ya, the crime rate in New York’ll kill you. There’s so many problems, you never feel like you’re accomplishing anything. Violence, rip-offs, muggings… kids can’t leave the house — you gotta walk them to school. But in Amity one man can make a difference. In twenty-five years, there’s never been a shooting or a murder in this town.
The idea of the suburbs, as a safe haven from the death and disorder found in cities, didn’t get it’s start in horror films, but it was one of the reasons used to get White citizens to buy into the value of living so far from the it. That nothing ever happened there was part of the appeal. Brody’s postioning of Amity as an innocent, place that is free of danger, is thoroughly ironic, considering one of his kids is almost eaten by the shark.
Because Horror films, (and real life), have shown us that terror and death will come for us all, and cannot simply be escaped by driving further away, across some water, or in the movie, It Follows, in the water.
In It Follows from 2016, several teens living in the declining suburbs of Chicago, are hunted by an avatar of death that is transmitted via sexual activity. The beautiful, but listless, Jay has already experienced tragedy with her father’s death, but after a sexual encounter with a young man who is not who he claims to be, she finds she is being stalked by an invisible, powerful entity, whose only purpose is to kill her. She can stave off death by having sex with someone else, thereby passing it on, but she will never escape it entirely, because just as in the real world, one cannot pass off death to another to save oneself, nor know the hour of one’s death. The film’s theme is based on the existential angst, that comes to the young, only after they begin to realize their own mortality.
…and you have no suspicion that death, which has been making its way towards you along another plane, shrouded in an impenetrable darkness, has chosen precisely this day of all days to make its appearance, in a few minutes’ time, more or less…
— — — Marcel Proust — The Guermantes Way
In Suburban Horror, the suburbs can be infiltrated by something dangerous, that may be masquerading as a member of the community, as in the movie Fright Night, from 1985. Jerry Dandridge is a vampire, able to successfully blend into the suburban environment, by simply conforming to the manner of dress, rituals, and behavior of its inhabitants. He is handsome, polite, charming, and friendly, introducing himself to his neighbors and accepting, and extending, invitations. His house is well taken care of and he causes no disruptions. He fits right in, thereby not arousing suspicion, except from a single teenage boy, that no one believes. Not because no one believes in vampires, but because Jerry laughs at people’s jokes, and wears turtleneck sweaters. Witness the scene when Charlie calls the police to investigate Jerry. The detective visits Jerry’s home and finds no signs of disorder. The lawn and hedges are nicely kept, the garbage is taken out, and the “gardener” says Jerry is away on a business trip. The horror comes from the idea that this “safe” place is harboring a creature that is only pretending to be human. It is especially telling that this movie was released in the 80’s, at the height of the AIDs crisis, as Jerry Dandridge is also a metaphor for another hidden monstrosity, the “predatory gay man” with his pretty face, loyal male hangers-on, and effete European mannerisms, who moves to the suburbs, so he can “infect” the children.
The suburbs are a stand in for conformity and authoritarianism. Sometimes suburbia doesn’t just produce, or expose, darkness, but actually IS the horror. Homeowners Associations, with their stifling and authoritarian rules about the length of the grass on one’s lawn, the color of one’s home, how many Christmas lights can be used, and/or the number of cars that can be parked in one’s driveway, eliminate any forms of individual expression, in favor of suffocating monotony. Obedient wives, toxic masculinity, and forced camaraderie are the norms illustrated in the film, The Stepford Wives. Based on the satire by Ira Levin, the movie takes place during 70’s First Wave feminism, as Joanna, a successful photographer, moves to the well to do town of Stepford Connecticut, with her husband and children. She grows increasingly frightened of her neighbors, and her gaslighting husband, who tells her there is nothing for her to fear. The horror in Stepford Wives is not the death of Joanna’s body, (although that’s part of it), but that she can see the death of her sense of self, through the deliberate destruction of her individuality. By the mid-70’s, the suburbs had received a reputation as the place where a woman’s dreams go to die.
As more PoC could afford to move into suburban areas in the 80’s, a siege mentality set in, as the residents believed their territory was being encroached upon, which partially accounts for the glut of slasher films released between 1980, and 1989, and all of the other suburban invasion films released along the same timeline, which pictured the suburbs being invaded by violent beings of all kinds, from aliens (Critters), to serial killers (Freddie Krueger), to creatures of folklore (Gremlins), that came there to kill, rape, or create disorder.
What the residents failed to take into account, and still do, was in fleeing the cities, they simply carried all of their pathologies with them, engaging in the same activities, from which, they were attempting to flee. After all, you cannot run away from yourself.
It’s a cheesy old adage, but it’s true. Wherever you go, there you are. What does it mean? It means that if you don’t like yourself, or you haven’t made peace with yourself for things you’ve done in the past, you will be dealing with that baggage forever.
You may even be cursed to make endless movies about it.