October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about suburban horror films is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Ah suburbia. The place where the grass is well manicured, the pies are freshly baked, and the social and sexual repressions are deeply, deeply buried. Since the beginning of suburbanization post-World War II, the suburbs were seen as the endgame of the American Dream; a place where families could shelter themselves from the outside world in a warm blanket of homogeny.
The rose colored glasses every suburban Homeowners Association handed out however obscured the reality of the suburbs. They aren’t safe havens protecting middle-class Americans from the ills of society. They were exclusionary enclaves that denied a way of life to countless families who didn’t fit into their cookie-cutter world. This bred its own uniquely American style of hate, dictated by prejudice and inequality, that are a perfect storm to surface a horror story.
Because of this dichotomy – safe spaces that ain’t so safe – horror has used the suburbs to leverage the creeps for the past forty years. Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Mary Beth McAndrews, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, and I have compiled a list of the best suburban horror films that uniquely show the horrifying nightmares that can exist in the neighborhood experience.
10. Blue Velvet (1986)
Despite being one of the best examples of this subgenre, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is also one of the most straightforward representations of the horrors that exist in suburbia. The story is told through the lens of Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), a young man born and bred in the shadow of suburbia who puts on his Hardy Boys hat to try and solve the mystery of a severed ear. As the amateur sleuth, covertly helping a very real detective, we watch Jeffrey gleefully act out a fantasy he had seen in the literature and television that populated his sheltered upbringing.
But as Lynch pulls back the curtain to show us the true underbelly of the suburban experience, Jeffrey’s pursuit of the truth looks a bit like a kid wearing the shoes of his parents, which is an apt metaphor for suburbia. The suburban experience has been perpetuated, in part, by the expectations of the generation that preceded us, who themselves had to contend with the expectations of the generation before them. We’re wearing shoes passed down through centuries of belief that suburbia represents American Exceptionalism. But that’s the lie the suburbs attempt to obscure. As Jeffrey breaks down in front of Sandy, asking why people like Frank have to exist, we see his world shattered. He’s angry, and confused, because he was led to believe that those types of people can’t exist in the homogeneous oasis of the suburbs. But what Jeffrey doesnt realize, and that Lynch surfaces throughout, is that he is only living in a fantasy: it’s Frank that exists in reality. (Jacob Trussell)
9. The ‘Burbs (1989)
I’ve long said that The ‘Burbs is the greatest movie of all time, and I don’t see myself budging from that stance anytime soon. Joe Dante‘s dark comedy about suburban paranoia is expertly cast and perfectly executed. Tom Hanks gives a career-defining performance (he should’ve won the Oscar for this) as Ray Peterson, a man desperately trying to relax at home on vacation but unable to get around the fact that his new neighbors, the Klopeks, are a little strange. With the help of fellow suburbanites Art (Rick Ducommun) and Lt. Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), Ray decides to investigate the Klopeks to see what they’re hiding. Hilarity ensues. I want to kill everyone. The ‘Burbs is good. The ‘Burbs is our pal. The ‘Burbs is quintessential suburban horror. (Chris Coffel)
8. Scream (1995)
The setting of Wes Craven’s Scream is more small west coastal town than a typical middle America suburb, but Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson hits us over the head with the suburban metaphor in the film’s closing lines. Moments after Sidney kills Billy Loomis, Gale Weathers grabs a camera crew and begins reporting what just happened, “It all began with the scream of a 911 call, and ended with a bloodbath that has rocked the small town of Woodsboro. All played out here in the peaceful farmhouse far from the crimes and sirens of the larger cities that its residents have fled.”
This is the essential mission statement of all suburban horror: white picket fences won’t stop the evils of the world seeping into the walled gardens of suburban America. If anything, what new horrors have the suburbs created? Suburbia was a shelter to protect the nation’s youth from becoming products of their environment, without taking into consideration the kinds of people these homogeneous environments would produce. And in Woodsboro’s case, they created a pair of lunatic cinephiles with a killer love for movie trivia. (Jacob Trussell)
7. Serial Mom (1994)
Sweet mother Mary, whatever you do, do not wear white shoes after Labor Day. You just don’t do it. Those are the rules, and they are there for a reason. Who’s reason? Shut up, don’t ask questions. And if you do wear white after Labor Day, you better not do so while Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is skulking about. She’ll become a matchmaker between your neck and her scissors. Serial Mom is a rollicking, savage takedown of suburban life told by cinemas’ most mischievous trickster god, John Waters. The film makes its jokes knowing that some folks in the audience are wringing their pearls with every sharp jab and dumb, sophomoric bathroom reference. Serial Mom is made for the perverts in the crowd too, but they’re not nearly as fun to engage with as those hardheaded, humorless dolts pretending to be fine, decent citizens. Waters makes a meal of their outrage. (Brad Gullickson)
6. Ginger Snaps (2000)
There’s a lot to be said about movies that reflect our experiences and show us ourselves represented on screen. And while I can’t speak for all horror nerds from the Greater Toronto Area, I can promise that chief among films that offer representation, there is Ginger Snaps. The lycanthropic coming-of-age tale was filmed across several different suburban locations, including writer Kris Lemche‘s hometown of Brampton, and you can feel the personal experience in the film’s locale. If you’ve spent any time in Toronto’s suburbs, you can’t watch Ginger Snaps without recognizing a location. Or, rather, you can’t watch Ginger Snaps without feeling like you recognize a location. And that’s probably what’s most important.
From the palpable sensation of being one of the weirdos in a town of normcore subdivisions to the cul-de-sacs and nondescript houses, this is a film full of recognizable mundanity. But the suburban-ness of the film isn’t only present in its locations, it also conveys the shifting presence of suburbia. The suburbs are, after all, an unnatural construction meant to bridge the rural and the urban. And if you want to talk about unnatural states of being that are caught between two disparate identities, a werewolf movie nestled into suburban horror is the way to do it. (Anna Swanson)
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