Horror goes hand-in-hand with remote locations. Summer camps in the woods, Antarctica, the middle of Texas nowhere. Setting a horror film in places like these is a convenient way to isolate characters and force them to confront the idea that they may never get home. But when horror comes home, what then? Films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Amityville Horror, and Poltergeist have made generations afraid of what might lurk in their homes and neighborhoods. But what is it about the nature of suburbia that probes such a sensitive nerve in the minds of horror audiences? With the help of Fan Contributors Andrew Hawkins, Brandon Marcus, Danielle Ryan, and Drew Dietsch, I’ve put together a list of the films we think best represent suburban horror.
What makes suburbia a scary idea? It’s a concept that is supposed to exude security and community. But those things come at the cost of conformity. No other movie acutely addresses this like Tim Burton‘s ode to the outsider, Edward Scissorhands. When sweet, understanding Peg (Dianne Wiest) brings home a shy Frankenstein’s monster named Edward (Johnny Depp), she hopes to integrate this lonely soul into normal life. At first, he’s the highlight of Peg’s son’s show-and-tell. The neighbors have him trim their hedges into ornate designs, and he even ends up styling their hair.
However, it’s not long until the cruelty and darkness of suburbia seep into Edward’s new life. The fawning neighbors aren’t as warm-hearted as Peg — they view Edward as a curiosity. Local coquette Joyce even tries to have her way with Edward. When he shuns her advances, she immediately turns on him, badmouthing him to her friends. There’s also the most suburban of problems: rebellious youth. Jim (Anthony Michael Hall) takes advantage of Edward’s unique abilities (hint: it’s in the title) which gets Edward in trouble with the law. Another facet of suburbia’s devilish underbelly manifests in the form of Esmeralda (O-Lan Jones), the evangelical nutcase who everyone writes off until her religious fervor creates a justification for the community’s hatred of Edward.
But what’s truly terrifying about Edward Scissorhands is what it says about inclusion and the standards one must abide by to gain it. Edward is an artist with his misshapen hands; they are what make him so beautiful and rare. Not only does his oddity prevent him from joining this manufactured paradise, but he can’t even realize his love for Peg’s daughter Kim (Winona Ryder). As the town marches to Edward’s castle to possibly burn him alive, Kim fakes Edward’s death so that he may live alone in peace.
It’s an ending that showcases suburbia’s inability to accept anything outside of the box. It’s a place where a homeowners’ association regulates everything about how you appear to the outside world, and something as strange as Edward cannot exist there. Suburbia is a hostile land for anyone who dares to be different, and Edward Scissorhands illustrates this in the most horrific way possible: the weird ones are doomed to loneliness. There’s nothing scarier than that. [Drew Dietsch]
Welcome to Bailey Downs, the quaint Canadian suburb on the edge of Alberta’s vast prairies and dark woods. The suburb where you probably shouldn’t leave your dog outside at night because the resident werewolf might leave its half-eaten carcass still chained to the doghouse. Bailey Downs is the perfect setting for Ginger Snaps, which helps make it one of the best (and most vicious) werewolf movies ever made.
It’s flick with real teeth, but centers on a heartfelt and delicate story of Ginger and Brigitte, two outcast teen sisters, and how the social pressures of suburban life and high school tear them apart. When Ginger survives an attack from a wolf-like creature, she experiences a sexual awakening and a month-long transformation (a grotesque puberty metaphor) that serves up some of the best body horror since Cronenberg’s The Fly.
Suburbia molded Ginger and Brigitte. Their shared contempt for the Bailey Downs lifestyle reeks of stereotypical teen gloom. When Brigitte wonders why no one has caught the monster, she asks “How hard could it be in a place full of dead ends?” Fifteen years after its release, the film’s dialogue is still sharp and relevant enough to maintain a satirical edge. Ginger Snaps doesn’t just use the suburbs as a backdrop. It’s about the hostility of suburban privilege and the illusion of safety and security in places like Bailey Downs. [Travis Newton]
The House of the Devil
The House of the Devil isn’t the kind of suburban nightmare that takes place inside a quaint neighborhood. It’s the story of a college student duped by a family of murderous Satan worshipers in need of a sacrificial vessel to bring forth the antichrist. The characters, who they are, and how all the action takes place in the figurative house down the lane — that’s what makes it suburban horror. Once our main character is in place, The House of the Devil erupts into a horrorshow that could easily take place in the rundown old home on the edge of your suburb.
Director Ti West is a divisive and polarizing horror director. Many viewers who see The House of the Devil either love it, hate it, or find it insufferably boring and bland. The film takes place in the 1970s and West does an excellent job of laying out a solid narrative that works as a throwback to Satanic Panic movies and the works of Wes Craven. Jocelin Donahue is excellent as Samantha, the “babysitter” protagonist. But the real gold of the film comes from the threatening and unsettlingly subtle performances laid out by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov. The House of the Devil holds shocks and surprises that’ll make you think twice before answering that help wanted ad posted in the quad. [Andrew Hawkins]
The original Fright Night is a perfect suburban horror film and easily one of the best genre films of all time. Child’s Play director Tom Holland crafted an amazing story that is entertaining and shocking and insanely rewatchable. While at times very lighthearted, the real weight of the film comes from just how good of a horror movie it is. Chris Sarandon is charismatic and dangerous as Jerry, the vampire who moves in next door. His performance alone makes this one a classic.
Fright Night was the first horror film that spent over a million dollars on its practical effects budget. The death scenes, transformations, and creatures are all fantastic in the film. But without an amazing cast (Roddy McDowall, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse and Stephen Geoffreys) holding it all down and connecting us with the film, the movie would have been just another forgotten relic of the 80s horror era. At its heart, Fright Night is Dracula set in the suburbs, but somehow it managed to be lightning in a bottle. It’s also the best Peter Vincent movie of all time. [Andrew Hawkins]
The wonderful thing about living in a new suburban house is that there are no ghosts in it. Right? Wrong. Paranormal Activity took the security and safety of a new, modern home and tossed it right out the window.
Despite its less-than-impressive sequels, the first Paranormal Activity is quite good. It’s creepy and clever and shows just how effective found footage films are when done well. Plus, there are the scares. So, so many scares. By the end of the film, the fade-in of the timecode in the bottom corner of the screen is nearly as haunting as the theme from Jaws. You just knew bad stuff was coming when those numbers showed up.
The scariest thing about Paranormal Activity is the fact that it doesn’t take place in some old castle or space station or haunted forest. It takes place in the kind of house your neighbors could live in. The kind of house that maybe you live in. [Brandon Marcus]
Having sex in horror films has always been dangerous. Characters that have sex on-screen are almost always going to die in horrible, bloody ways. It Follows takes the concept and twists it a little, following a small group of twenty-somethings stuck in a Detroit suburb. They start off trying to escape boredom. Later, they try to escape the monster at their backs. One of the girls, Yara, describes their surroundings late in the film, saying: “When I was a little girl, my parents wouldn’t allow me to go south of 8 Mile. And I didn’t even know what that meant until I got a little older. And I started realizing that that’s where the city started and the suburbs ended.” While Yara’s parents believed that danger lurked outside of suburbia, It Follows reveals that the danger is within.
The “it” in It Follows passes from one person to another through sex. It stalks a victim until that person has sex with someone else, passing the curse onward, or the entity kills its intended victim. Once that victim is dead, the entity moves backward through the sexual chain, attempting to kill each of the previous victims unless they pass it on once more. This spooky STD is like something from a seventh-grade health class, a warning on the dangers of casual sex.
Then again, the characters use sex to free themselves of the curse, so the movie is morally ambiguous. The curse is just a symptom of the sickness that plagues all of suburbia: the “it can’t happen to me” mindset that many of the characters seem to have. There are set definitions within the suburbs regarding what’s safe and what isn’t, but It Follows shows that sometimes there’s a danger in being too comfortable. [Danielle Ryan]
John Carpenter litters the suburban streets of Halloween with details recognizable by anyone who grew up in the ‘burbs. Kids riding bikes up and down the street. Tacky Halloween decorations on neighbor’s lawns. A sense of protection and entitlement, as if the neighborhood itself were covered with a safety blanket. Haddonfield is idyllic and peaceful. Protagonist Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a typical (if bookish) teenage girl for her era. Her day is fairly standard as well. She sits through boring classes, does errands for her parents, and eventually goes to babysit a neighbor child for some extra spending money. It’s all so normal that Michael Myers‘ intrusion into any shot instantly breaks the feeling of peace. He doesn’t belong there, but he is there all the same.
Despite Myers’ unnatural inclusion in the world, in a way he is a product of it. He is a monster of suburbia, wearing a flimsy rubber Halloween mask (a modified Captain Kirk one, at that) and wielding a kitchen knife. He is the darkness lurking even in the safest places, a reminder that you can’t escape death even if you live on Lampkin Lane and drive a moderately-priced car. The setting is undeniably authentic, which makes every slash of Myers’ knife that much scarier. [Danielle Ryan]