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There’s Nothing Scarier Than Suburbia

4 min read

Thirty familiar houses, neatly spaced, are set behind neat lawns and high hedges, themselves framing delicate fences. One such picturesque home is tarnished only by a discarded, red, kids sized bike on the drive as a child runs back inside as the sun goes down. Absolutely horrifying, isn't it?

Suburbia is, unless you are a teenager from the , often seen as a sort of haven for well-to-do families to escape to from the city. We often see these cosy homes on screen, particularly as a setting for holiday festivities. Nothing says Christmas like a big fireplace in a detached home, elaborate wreath hung on the red door. But equally, it seems that nothing says like the very same neighbourhoods. And nothing says Tim Burton like a healthy mix of both.

I suppose at some point setting  in the suburbs was supposed to subvert expectations: make the safe unsafe. Especially given that bored teens seemingly have a penchant for horror, the victims should reflect the audience for maximum impact, shouldn't they? The idyllic town in Invasion of the Body Snatchers must have made people in similar towns more concerned than anyone. Who knew that bad things could happen in the suburbs? And to a doctor at that! I suppose it's why creepy children in horror get to us so much, the innocent turned evil, The Omen and The Exorcist certainly made good use of corrupted youth in elegant homes. But did viewers really find the suburbs that innocent?

Nothing about the suburbs seems safe in the context of a horror , or even many movies in general. Edward Scissorhands, a family favourite, if a little creepy, relies on the uncanniness of the suburbs, and the veneer of joy and perfection the inhabitants feign. It seems that 1950s style suburban neighbourhoods are the perfect setting for disturbing events. Nothing gives a false veneer of happiness like the repressed inhabitants of an idyllic, mid-century town. This is seemingly used to full effect in Olivia Wilde's 2022 Don't Worry Darling, where cracks begin to appear in an experimental, utopian town.

Stepping forward a little, , another 2022 release, is set in a Denver suburb, and features a winning combination of an evil local  and supernatural elements hidden in plain sight. The 1970's suburb can be seen as a sight of similar horrors on screen both at the time and in contemporary movies. Almost every slasher torments suburban kids at home, and if not it is suburban kids at camp. Whether it was due to the rise in serial killers in the 1970s, or a sense of corrupting nostalgia similar (and parallel) to innocence, the 1970s are prime slasher time. The 1950s offered an illusion to crack, and the 1970s show neighbourhoods unprepared for what horrors await.

For audiences of all generations, there is a nostalgic element to these time periods, whether for ourselves or stories from our parents childhood, but the suburban setting is crucial to the horror of so many films. These homes could be backdrops to family photos on our mantles, and it certainly touches a nerve to see what can unfold within them on the screen, from films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Screram, or Halloween, to TV shows such as Twin Peaks and Stranger Things, the suburbs and nostalgia combine for audiences today to unsettling results. The fictitious ending of A Nightmare on Elm Street in particular reveals an uncanniness to the suburbs, and even outside of horror this uncanniness is played out to uncomfortable results such as in The Virgin Suicides or The Perks of being a Wallflower.

Candyman, released in 1992, stands out as an interesting exception to the rule. Also in the 1990s, perhaps a time when there were attempts to turn away from the suburban settings of the 70s and 80s, there were slashers such as Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan, which was just not particularly scary and, if anything, a bit bizarre. My favourite city-based horror would have to be An American Werewolf in London, which beside also being a comedy does begin in a town, and a werewolf seemed infinitely easier to track down in London than on the moors. Also notable is the Child's Play series, which is again a bit bizarre but Chucky's antics are iconic, and the fear hinges on the innocence of a child doll rather than the safety of the suburbs, another common trope.

Equally, thing on the border tend to be the most uncomfortable. Abject horror lies in what refuses to pick a side. Neither city nor the country, the suburbs can have the worst of both worlds, and there are elements which most viewers will relate to more than, say, a city kid watching Hush or The Blair Witch Project. In the suburbs there are enough people around to pose danger, but not in the close proximity of apartment blocks to provide safety in numbers. When nobody would choose to stay in an abandoned cabin in the woods, the large gardens around a suburban family home offer enough isolation for a slasher villain to work his magic. So when you are next choosing a horror to watch, whether it is Trick ‘r Treat, Ginger Snaps, Blue Velvet, Poltergeist or an Amityville adaptation, consider for a moment if it would be quite as scary in a bustling city as it is in a neighbourhood which promises, and fails to deliver, safety.