Horror movies have taught us that there are some areas we should avoid, like summer camps and anything rural. Those locales are such effective settings for horror films because they play upon our fear of the unknown. We think summer camps, the woods, and remote rural locales are crawling with killers, mutants, and monsters because we don’t live there. Early horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft understood that. They wrote tales that primarily took readers to strange places that weren’t part of their everyday life. Those stories about the unknown horrors of remote and rural areas still scare us today, but in the latter half of the 20th century a new setting for horror tales and movies began to emerge that was even more chilling . . . home, specifically suburban ones.
Post-war economies and the rise in the spending power of citizens made suburban homes affordable, but the reason why so many people flocked to America’s suburbs in the latter half of the 20th century was fear. They were afraid of the influx of people who were moving into the city in pursuit of opportunity. So they fled out to the new communities that were springing up around cities; communities that offered them safety from what they saw as the chaos and violence of urban living.
“…in the latter half of the 20th century a new setting for horror tales and movies began to emerge that was even more chilling…”
Of course, that safety was an illusion. Suburbs have to deal with the same problems cities do. They just hide behind closed doors, fake smiles, and well-manicured lawns. So, that’s part of the reason the suburbs are such an effective setting for horror films they illustrate that evil is everywhere and can’t be kept out by gated communities, and when it does arise, a small suburban police force is ill-equipped in dealing with it.
I suspect that’s part of the reason the original Halloween (1978) did so well. John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and their collaborators showed that homicidal maniacs aren’t just a big city or rural phenomenon. They can be born right there in the safe suburbs that were exploding in popularity at the time. They can also return, and when they do the police won’t be able to do anything about them.
Wes Craven and Robert Englund further illustrated that in 1984 in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street with their depiction of Freddy Krueger. When he was still alive Freddy was a monstrous killer that preyed upon the children of the suburban community of Springwood, and the police did such a horrible job confronting him that the parents of the town were forced to band together and take justice into their own hands. In doing so, they made matters worse by turning a killer into a dream demon that could violate the sanctity of the most sacred of spaces . . . their own bedroom.
Suburban slashers like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street are also effective because they recognize certain unspoken truths about suburban living. The first is that there’s a sense of isolation in suburban communities. You may be surrounded by other families, but as far as problems go you’re on your own. If you cry for help or act strangely, your neighbors won’t always react with genuine concern. More often than not you’ll be greeted with fear, suspicion, or apathy.
“If you cry for help or act strangely, your neighbors won’t always react with genuine concern. More often than not you’ll be greeted with fear, suspicion, or apathy.”
You see that in the original Halloween when Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) first escapes from Michael Meyers. She runs into the night screaming for help. She even bangs on the door of a next-door neighbor in desperation. The neighbor turns on the light and sees Laurie, but does nothing to help her. Another example is Glenn Lantz’s parents In the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. They can see that Nancy Thompson is in some form of distress and refuse to do anything even though Nancy is a neighbor, and dating their son.
The other fact of suburban living that perfectly suits horror films is that the suburbs can be incredibly boring, especially if you’re a teenager. Engaging things like concert venues and clubs are off-limits or many miles away. So teens are often forced to look for things that make the mind-numbing mundanity of suburban living tolerable. Sometimes the things they turn to are the excesses that would make them a target of a slasher’s murderous rage like drinking, drugs, and sex. Those excesses all come together in one place in the suburban house party, which is a perfect place for a slasher to inflict maximum carnage. So, the idea that parties in films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) and the original Scream (1996) can be both metaphorically and literally “killer” makes those films more engrossing for an adolescent audience.
The suburbs aren’t just great settings for films about masked killers. They’re perfect for monster stories too, be they human or supernatural. In the suburbs, Monsters can hide in plain sight. They lurk behind the privacy of locked doors and yard fences. People who try to expose these fiendish killers risk being ostracized by their neighbors or the police. Films like The Stepfather (1987) and both the original Fright Night (1985) and the 2011 remake perfectly illustrate how monsters can use the quiet and private nature of the suburbs to their own advantage.
The most chilling type of suburban horror movie though has to be the haunted house film because at a primal level it represents a betrayal of the whole idea the suburbs were founded on; A place that protects you from the elements and the outside world. But what happens when that safe space turns against you? Older haunted house films and stories usually took place in abandoned castles or sprawling mansions, but 1979’s The Amityville Horror and 1982’s Poltergeist brought the haunted house experience to the suburbs and were incredibly popular partly because of their unique settings.
“[…]a haunted house is the betrayal of the idea the suburbs were founded upon”
Poltergeist especially illustrates how the idea of a haunted house is the betrayal of the idea the suburbs were founded upon. In the film, the Freeling family moves into a new home that they believe will be a source of comfort and safety, and it’s anything but. Their new house used to be a cemetery and the developers never removed the bodies buried beneath it. So the Freeling’s home is infested by the spirits of the unquiet dead, and by a seemingly infernal presence which is manipulating the other ghosts. These spirits attack the Freelings with objects from and areas of their new home designed to bring comfort; a swimming pool, a clown doll, and even the TV.
Films like Poltergeist also allow homeowners a way to deal with the fears that come with buying and maintaining a house. Your realty company may not have hid the fact that there are bodies buried under your home, but perhaps they didn’t mention the bad shape of your basement? Or maybe your roof needs some much needed and very expensive repairs? These are very real anxieties that gnaw at a homeowner’s guts. So to be given a film where other people are confronting home problems of a supernatural nature allows them to deal with their fears on a safe and satisfying metaphorical level.
Ultimately, that’s why suburban horror films are so effective. They allow us to confront some of our most prevalent fears; that our neighborhood and home will be invaded by violence, that our neighbors are not what they seem to be, and that there is something wrong with the place we call home. Those fears aren’t found out in the wild. They live with us as noisy roommates.
Do you call the suburbs home? How scary is your neighborhood? Let us know what keeps you up at night on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!