Haunting the Suburbs: How White Flight Changed Paranormal Cinema

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Compass International Pictures

Where would horror cinema be without gothic fiction?

The careers of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, James Whale, Roger Corman and many a German expressionist owe a great deal to the storied architecture that characterized the settings of 18th and 19th century literary classics. Moreover, from The Uninvited and Rebecca in the 1940s to the modern takes of the early 1960s (The Haunting and The Innocents, just to name a couple), the grand haunted house has proven to be a mainstay in horror, whether as a foreboding living space harboring dark secrets, a site for challenging and torturing tourists and skeptics, or an active site of dark experiments. The notion that houses – namely, large estates – contain histories which resonate beyond mortal bodies that inhabited them has vastly defined and influenced not only the terms of a cinematic genre, but what we find scary in general.

But as postwar suburbanization came to redefine the relation between people and the places they reside, the horror genre had to redefine itself away from an increasingly archaic experience of housing. But haunting the suburbs has proven to possess its own unique set of problems: how does a place that has minimal history become haunted by spirits of the past?

New Developments

More so than paranormal horror, the suburbs have become the near-permanent site of the slasher film. From John Carpenter’s Halloween to Scream and anything in between, the suburbs are presented as a relatively nondescript place of comfort and leisure, a space especially made for Sunday football, lawn care and casual teen sex that is interrupted by violent, enigmatic killers.

However, the prehistory of the suburban slasher can be traced back to Hitchcock’s Psycho, a slasher film whose drama and horror takes place in a hotel that has been all but abandoned and forgotten by another mass geographic development: the interstate highway system, a major contributor to urban sprawl.

On the other side of the knife, suburban paranormal horror films developed along lines that never quite codified into a repeated generic trope like the slasher. Suburban paranormal horror films dealt variously with the problem of how exactly to haunt a house that was likely not in existence before its characters inhabited it. But most films addressed this question by haunting people (most often women) instead of places.

Royal Films International

It’s Coming From Inside Your House

Subsequent the claustrophobic corridors that trapped Roman Polanski’s haunted women in his London-set Repulsion and his New York-set Rosemary’s Baby, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist first fully realized the terrifying potential of placing the paranormal within a setting as innocuous as the Georgetown suburbs of the greater D.C. area. The routine doctor’s visit reveals no clear answers. A young daughter scales the walls and stairs of the suburban house like a demonic spider. A skeptical priest is launched violently out a window onto a mowed lawn.

The appeal of The Exorcist resided not only in depicting demonic possession, but locating a horror that defied logic within a house that seemed so positively ordinary, far away from an archeological dig on the other side of the world that opens the film. The Exorcist also played with the paradoxical narcissism of suburban logic: the notion that one can live away from the centrality of the city, in some guise of isolated comfort away from the hustling and bustling presence of a populace, yet have all of their everyday needs met.

The suburbs are simultaneously within and outside of the grind of daily life, remote communities that aren’t really communities at all. Thus, problems, difficulties and threats seem to forever belong to that abstract category of “other people.” But in The Exorcist, some house in Georgetown is, for a brief time, the most threatening place in the world.

Few films sincerely dealt with the question of suburban horror quite like Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, a tweak of the genre that addresses head-on the question of how to refit the haunted house film for the suburbs. In his recent book about the films of Steven Spielberg, film scholar/critic James Kendrick situates Poltergeist as the third film of Spielberg’s unofficial “suburban trilogy” following Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., with Poltergeist thoroughly fleshing out Spielberg’s juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extraordinary. In Kendrick’s words,

“For Spielberg, the suburbs represent an ordinary ‘norm,’ a kind of fundamental benchmark of middle-American existence that is then threatened or challenged by an otherworldly force…”

In the movie, Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) is so set on economic gain in expanding the planned community of Cuesta Verde, California, that he fails to see the very ground on which he stands. It’s only until a reluctant conversation Steve holds with his boss Mr. Teague (James Karen) well after his daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has been abducted by paranormal forces that Steve realizes Cuesta Verde has been built atop the restless graves of Californians past, who have come to reap their due for the disturbance.

In the case of Poltergeist, suburban housing and planned communities not only contain no history – and, thus, no authentic character – of their own, they are destroying and erasing history in the process. Realizing that capital gain should limit itself to the sacred, Mr. Teague sobs in regret when he sees the Freeling household – and, thus, all he has worked for – destroyed by supernatural forces.

Attack of the Sharper Image

As if attempting to define the generic skeleton of suburban paranormal horror, Poltergeist contains extended exposition by Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein) and Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) explaining the rules of the netherwordly bridge between life and death that has opened in their household. Dr, Lesh even explains the difference between a ghost, a spirit that haunts a place, and a poltergeist, a spirit that latches itself to a person. In the suburbs, conventional ghosts can no longer exist. But because of the suburbs’ unique nature, poltergeists can pose a serious threat.

In more recent filmmaking, the Paranormal Activity series seems to have hewed closest to the legacy established by Poltergeist. The settings of the first four entries in the series are (if such a thing is possible) distinctly suburban, and people (rather than places) are once again essential to the hauntings depicted. This conceit melds rather naturally with the functions of found footage, as found footage horror tends to work most effectively when fear and discomfort are added to familiar, mundane situations. Just as Poltergeist puts the familiar three-bedroom home at risk with the presence of an extraordinary supernatural force, Paranormal Activity turns family home videos into artifacts of the uncanny.

But what is unique about the Paranormal Activity movies in the trajectory of supernatural horror is that the leisure technologies that suburban homes adopt become part of the story itself. Consumer objects (like camcorders in 1 and 3 and the laptop in 4) and mechanisms for suburban comfort (like security cameras in 2) are no longer ordinary distractions, but means of documenting the extraordinary.

The Cost of Comfort

TriStar Pictures

While numerous paranormal horror movies have variously explored how the suburbs can be haunted, the other side of suburbanization – that is, urban decay, contemporary segregation, and the ghettoization of a city’s lower income residents – has rarely been the subject of genre. With one exception.

Bernard Rose’s 1992 film Candyman depicts a violent supernatural haunting within the run-down Cabrini-Green public housing projects of Chicago.

Cabrini-Green, like many postwar housing projects located in large cities, were built in part with the intention of providing lower income city residents with affordable housing accessible to city centers in hopes of creating a structural platform for social mobility. But as urban sprawl, or “white flight,” took much of these cities’ economies outside of the city centers and into the fringes of newly developed suburbs, members of housing projects found themselves at the intersection of rapidly decreasing public funding, structural racism, and concentrated poverty, making the dreams of places like Cabrini-Green and Pruitt-Igoe into nightmares of economic and social relegation that worked in tandem with other predatory housing practices that targeted African-Americans.

The filmic myth of Candyman (Tony Todd) surrounds the story of the artist son of a slave-turned-wealthy industrialist who is lynched after impregnating a white woman. It is an all-too-familiar story about how the arbitrary boundaries that racism draws brings limits on the agency and self-actualization of African-Americans. Thus, that Candyman haunts housing projects is essential for the film’s social commentary: it connects racism’s past with racism’s present, with Candyman himself functioning as a literalization of how the past haunts a present that goes ignored.

Where the best of suburban paranormal horror offer cautionary tales of how urban sprawl has attempted to erase history and created new spaces that supposedly aren’t burdened by any history, Candyman explores the corresponding horror of histories ignored, city residents abandoned and the greater social cost of ever-tenuous suburban comfort.