I was a sophomore in college when I first realized that people who don’t live in the suburbs don't actually know anything about the suburbs. “Is it like Gilmore Girls?” one of my Brooklyn, New York-based friends asked. “Do you have a driveway and a mailbox you have to walk to?” another city dweller inquired. Basically, yes and yes. But while those questions centered around things that seemed normal, follow-ups indicated that plenty of people find the suburbs abnormal, and even scary. One person asked, “Aren’t you afraid your neighbors might be crazy?” A friend from college said, “I couldn’t sleep the first month I came to college because it was too quiet.” We went to school in Syracuse, New York, which isn’t actually a suburb, but the message was clear: silence equals spooky, sirens equal safe.
But while the suburban lifestyle now seems like the more typical American one, it wasn't always that way. For a long time, the country's population lived in urban or rural locations, there was no in-between. Then came the large-scale migration of Americans into the suburbs in the 1950s after World War II. Commonly referred to as “white flight,” it was a time when newly prosperous (aka white) families moved out of cramped cities and into spacious houses with actual backyards. This type of move was facilitated by a booming post-war economy, the rise in car ownership, the construction of superior highways, and new transportation infrastructure which allowed for commuter culture. Suddenly, the white picket fence lifestyle became the blueprint for an idyllic life. Just look at the ads from that time; having a dog, happy children, a backyard for them to play in, and a wife holed up in the kitchen became aspirational. This was The American Dream.
But as Peter Mascuch, an associate English professor and chair of cinema studies at St. Joseph’s College, explained in an interview with Newsweek, it also became a false paradise for some. “We’re always trying to build a utopian society, and for the baby boomers, suburbia became that utopia,” he said. “The flip side is, the utopia never lived up to its promise. People became disenchanted, and then they react to that with critical and dark depictions of the reality of it.” Thus giving birth to the suburban horror film.
First came The Stepford Wives in 1975, which played off of the concept of suburban conformity, particularly as it pertained to women. (Interestingly, the novel upon which The Stepford Wives film was based was written by Ira Levin, who also wrote Rosemary's Baby, a classic urban horror tale.) Then we have Halloween, Poltergeist, and a Nightmare on Elm Street, which all worked to slash the idea of small-town nirvana and security. The seemingly tranquil residential zone was depicted as vulnerable, with plot lines that centered around home invasions and killers from within. Suburbia suddenly became the perfect place to commit a crime and, more times than not, to get away with it—at least onscreen.
There’s a scene in the just-released, highly entertaining Better Watch Out (a film that can only be described as Scream-meets-Home Alone-meets-this super-disturbing episode of Law and Order: SVU I saw once), where a teenage babysitter is running away from a killer. Just as she begins to scream for help, she’s hit in the head with a brick, knocking her unconscious. A few feet away, a young woman from a Christmas caroling group turns around—because she suspects she heard something—then shrugs her shoulders, and turns back around to continue singing. There are many moments like this in the film—and in many horror films in general—moments that reveal how closely evil and banality coexist.
“There's a time and place for cabins in the woods, plenty of them in fact, but movies like Better Watch Out belong in Anytown, USA,” Zack Kahn, the screenwriter for Better Watch Out, tells me. “When horny teenagers get high and wander through the woods, we generally know what to expect, and oftentimes, their fates seem deserved. But when a killer rings your doorbell, all bets are off.” A scary movie is scary though, despite the location, Kahn says. But the suburbs do add a hint of flavor to a film—especially when that flavor is assumed to be sweet and turns sour without warning. It's why the trope continues to be used today, most recently in films like Suburbicon and shows like Stranger Things.
I grew up on the bottom of a cul-de-sac hill in what can only be described as quintessential suburbia. At the top of my street was a cemetery that wrapped around the edge of my town and into the neighboring one. If shit was ever going to go down, it was going to be in my backyard. But it never did. One time, my mom saw some teenagers wandering through her garden and called the cops, but nothing came of it. Another time, someone broke into my dad’s car, but that’s only because he absentmindedly left the door open. They also only stole a bunch of change he keeps handy for tolls, so we probably weren’t looking at the most skilled or ambitious robbers.
So then, the question still remains: Are the suburbs scary? They can be! Especially for outsiders not used to seeing a tree-lined street. But they can also be quite lovely! I’ve never not felt safe in my town the 25 years I lived there. (Then again, I moved to Brooklyn about three years ago, so maybe I shouldn’t talk.)
Horror, then, isn't merely about location; it's situational. It's about what eerie thing might be lurking outside your own front door, wherever that may be. Or, as Kahn says: “Different things scare different people, but whether it's a human threat or a paranormal entity, setting the story in the picturesque suburbs challenges the status quo that many audiences know as their own reality. The it-could-happen-to-you factor goes a long way.”