The Horror of Suburbia: What is “Universal” Horror?

Our tale of horror opens on a street. It is an unassuming street: the sun casts long shadows along the row of houses as it dips below the horizon. A car drives by. A low window blows. It is here, where we least expect it, where the everyday is safe and nice and familiar, that the monster strikes.

What did the town I described look like? 

Was it this:

A sunny suburban street with a man in a mask staring from the background

Or this:

Two street scenes, one with a school bus the other empty

Maybe this:

A sunny day

Starting in the 60s but really solidifying in the 70s and 80s, horror (cinema) took a turn towards realism. Gone were the Gothic mansions, lagoon creatures, and darkened museums. In their place: picket fences, manicured lawns, two-story houses in quaint brick red. In Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the Horror Film, Jonathan Lake Crane (cracking name, by the way), explains:

“After Halloween, contemporary horror films have been most effective when they are based within instantly recognizable locales during simple celebrations that once had signified the welcome renewal of shared bonds… Our town, the everyday present, is where menace is given substance. Monsters thrive along Main Street and Elm Street USA. It is on these avenues, common to all of the public, where terror implacably strikes.”

While there is certainly something to be said about the grounding of horror in an accessible public space, it strikes me how this vision of the everyday is treated as universal: “instantly recognizable locales,” “common to all of the public.” As someone who didn’t grow up in small-to-mid-size Americana, these images aren’t personally familiar. I mean, they are, because I grew up on American movies, American books, American television. But they aren’t what I saw when I stepped out my own front door. For me, they still represented a distant sort of horror, separated by the veneer of television dazzle. And I’m saying this as someone who grew up in (semi)-Suburbia. 

In her speech, “The Dangers of a Single Story”, author and angel Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the cultural disconnect between the kinds of stories she, as a child, wrote, and the reality she experienced day to day. Though she grew up in Nigeria, she explains “I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.”

The problem isn’t that suburban horror isn’t interesting. It definitely has its merits and it absolutely does represent an image of the everyday. The problem is when we call it “the” vision of the everyday. When suburban horror is treated as synonymous to universal horror, household horror. For decades, suburban horror has become the single story we’ve all been fed about everyday horror. 

So basically, here’s a breakdown of what suburban horror is, its tropes, and how the household horror scene is expanding to bring new perspectives into what qualifies as a “universal” setting.

Slashing Suburbia: A Killer in the Neighborhood*

*Disclaimer: this article is focusing on American history and American media (mostly) 

A row of middle class houses

Okay so: what the fuck was the deal with creepy-ass serial killers in the 1970s? The Manson Family, the Hillside Strangler, Ted Bundy, Son of Sam, and Jonestown all happened within the same decade. Many of the horror films that came out during and immediately after that decade take clear inspiration from what was coming out in the Sunday news. It’s no coincidence that John Carpenter’s Halloween, set in Haddonfield, Illinois, came out in 1978, the same year Illinois-based murderer John Wayne Gacy confessed to killing 33 boys. As Ryan Bergson describes in an article about notorious killers of the American 1970s, “If the ‘60s helped spread a message of living in harmony in America, the ‘70s brought one of living in fear.”

There was something unique about the killers of the 70s. They invaded spaces previously thought safe. Ted Bundy broke into University of Washington dorm rooms to attack his victims; John Wayne Gacy was known for performing as “Pogo the Clown” at children’s hospitals; The Golden State Killer would kill someone and then make a sandwich in their kitchen. Then we get the 1980s and the rise of stranger danger and faces on the milk carton. Now, you can’t even eat your school lunch without being reminded of child snatchers, creeps lurking just around the corner. 

It’s no wonder that it was this environment that birthed the modern slasher, not only Halloween but A Nightmare on Elm Street, steeped in suburbia down to its name, Friday the 13th, and then later Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. These films all share similar(ish) premises (I said “ish”; slasher fans do not come after me): evil invades an otherwise wholesome town. In some films, like I Know What You Did Last Summer, citizens of the town are revealed to be less wholesome than expected, not so innocent in the first place. The unveiling of suburban safety in films like this is two-fold: both physical and moral.

The slasher film represents the violent unearthing of a darker side of humanity. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, the monster sprouts literally from our subconscious. The suburbs offer the perfect backdrop to this: a whole milk and white bread environment where confrontation is smoothed with a casserole, and terrible family secrets languish behind locked doors. According to Caleb Allison in “Ticky Tacky Terror: Horror in the Suburban Landscape”: 

“The suburbs, from one perspective popularized by cultural critics in the 1960s, were a symbol of normativity, conformity, and mass consumption. Away from the ills and diversity of the big city are row upon row of slightly altered floor plans, lush front lawns, and red flag mailboxes (i.e. ticky tacky), which produce a form of homogeneity that ostensibly breeds feelings of safety, comfort, and unity, if not cultural status.”

Suburban horror leans into the assumed safety of the suburbs. It is a horror of invasion: reality is threatened by a senseless violence that, if defeated, will allow us and the characters to return to a desired state of homeostasis. As Philip J. Nickel explains in “The Horror and the Idea of Everyday Life: on Skeptical Threats in Psycho and The Birds”, suburban horror places before audiences vivid threats to their everyday existence in a place of established security. 

“It is necessary that we construct an idea of the everyday in which the intellectual backing for our practical trust feels secure, even when we know it is not… we cannot focus on all possible paranoid scenarios at once… we must concentrate on the most salient threats to trust. This forces us to keep some of the myriad other paranoid scenarios off the table, at least provisionally.”

Suburban horror places paranoid scenarios right back on the table. 

Household Horror and the Invasive Other

If suburban horror relies on an invasive other, who exactly is this “other”? In the question of “us” versus “them”, what constitutes “them”? What constitutes “us”? Where, in this dichotomy, do members of the audience fall? Who is the real monster: the doctor or the creature? (I mean it’s obviously the doctor – Victor sucks – but you catch my drift)

To explore these ideas, let’s take a look at Anne Rivers Siddons’ The House Next Door. Set in a well-off Atlanta suburb, the novel follows Colquitt and Walter Kennedy, an idyllic couple whose life consists of fulfilling work, lazy weekends, and marital bliss. All this comes undone when the vacant lot next door gets built into a beautiful, but possibly haunted and likely evil, house that destroys any who come near. 

As Will Errickson explains in “The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons (1978): The Dinner Party Horror, “the book masterfully identifies a specific type of terror that terrorizes its upper-middle class audience of “well-to-do folk in the New South in the modern age. They don’t believe in boogeymen or poltergeists or their ilk, but an untended lawn in the dog days of August, or a family with too many kids’ toys on the lawn, or a car in the drive that wasn’t traded in this year, those are the types of things that make the neighborhood collectively shudder.”

What is actually threatened is the Kennedy’s and their neighbors’ sense of established security in their lives as the upper echelon. The contrasting architecture of the classically Southern “established” neighborhood houses and the modern-style “evil” house next door highlights the characters’ fear of anything disruptive to their fairly homogenous culture. Because it is fear of cultural disruption, many of the evils associated to the house next door are social scandals: miscarriage, affair, a child suddenly ill soiling herself in the middle of a party. 

While the fear of the other is palpable throughout, exactly what constitutes the other is left unsaid. The characters in the book exist in a world of privilege unacknowledged: white, well-to-do, likely from family money. I’ll be honest, I can’t tell if the book believes what it’s saying. That is:

  • The very generous reading is that the horror is satirical, portraying an old style mentality that is unsustainable in a more equitable, diverse society. The house only brings out the worst in people because that seed of evil already existed. When the microscope turns inward, highlighting what’s been lurking beneath the surface all along, we blame the other as the source of the conflict – things were fine before they got here. 
  • The ungenerous reading is that it’s true: the other destroys an otherwise idyllic neighborhood like an invasive species. There are good and moral and righteous traits that tend to be found in a certain class of people and the best way to preserve their purity is by ensuring the society they keep is homogenous. 

My guess is that the novel lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. One of the most contentious representations of the invasive other is when, towards the end of the novel, the protagonists are discussing whether Kim, the architect behind the evil house, has in himself a seed of evil:

“‘Don’t be silly, Colquitt,” he said, “He’s no god-damned vampire carrying the family curse down through the generations. We know all about his family; they’re good people, substantial people, wealthy – celebrities even, in a minor way. If there was anything like that in the family, don’t you think somebody would know about it?’

‘They’re not his family,’ I said, ‘Don’t you remember? He’s adopted. He doesn’t know who his parents are.’

We stared at each other. I watched as the life wavered and ebbed out of his eyes. He nodded finally.’”

The House Next Door, Anne Rivers Siddons

To me, Kim’s adopted status is like Edgar Allan Poe’s orangutan. You could honestly, genuinely read it either way: parody of middle-to-upper class sensibilities about family and dynasty or genuine belief in the mistrust of the outsider? Is it there to horrify us, or to horrify only Walter and Colquitt? 

Ultimately, I don’t think it matters, at least not for this reading (someone who’s read more Anne Rivers Siddons books, please reach out with your opinions). What matters is that, for Walter and Colquitt, Kim’s status as the other imbues him with the potential for evil. It is the justification for his murder – his invasive root must be weeded to protect the otherwise placid garden. 

Who is “the Other”: A (Brief-ish) History of the Suburbs

Okay, I’ll put the TLDR up front: the suburbs in America aren’t “universal spaces” because they are primarily white as a result of decades of deliberate and systemic segregation practices called “redlining.” I got my info from “The Rise of Suburbs” by Lumen Learning. But also, The Root has a great video called How Redlining Shaped Black America As We Know It that is a great look at redlining practices and their lasting effects.

Anyway, here goes the long (but still very compressed) version:

It’s 1932 and the Great Depression is raging outside like a mofo. By 1933, half of all mortgages are in default and the foreclosure rate stands at 1,000 a day. Frankie D. says enough is enough and creates the Home Owners Loan Corporation to purchase and refinance existing mortgages, stretching loan payment time from five years to 20-30. 11 years later, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act offers low-interest home loans to bolster World War 2 veterans’ return to society. 

Home ownership booms. In 1946, William Levitt builds one of the first deliberate suburbs outside Long Island New York and offers its affordable housing to veterans and their families. In 1940, around 20% of people live in suburbs. By 1960, that number has shot up to 62%. So, lots of people moving into suburbia: it’s safe! It’s cheap! It’s perfect for the family. By 1970, 74 million people live in suburbs. No wonder they become a major feature of horror (and other) media in the 1980s and 1990s: many creators likely grew up in one. 

But, even with suburb populations reaching record highs, suburbs still weren’t universal symbols of safety and everyday life. At least, not for everyone. Let’s go back to the late 1930s. Appraisers from the Home Owners Loan Corporation are assessing the viability of neighborhoods for ownership and their property value. They come to the… uh, terrible conclusion that areas with black families have an inherently lower property value. 

A form outlining an area description based on HOLC standards

Based on this conclusion, the association creates an appraisal technique we know today as redlining. Redlining divides neighborhoods into “high” and “low” risk areas, assuming that mixed-race and minority-dominated neighborhoods are massive credit risks. GREAT. The Home Owners Loan Corporation then partners with local lenders and real estate agents to create Residential Security Maps that outline redlined neighborhoods, which banks flat out refuse to lend to. Eventually, private mortgage companies also adopt redlining practices, making it essentially impossible to borrow money to buy property in a suburb unless you are white.

To the left an assessment of a Birmingham, Alabama neighborhood with a D rank. Note questions 2c and 2d. Redling deliberately targeted black and immigrant families. This wasn’t subtly racist. This was a conscientious, multi-decade attempt to debilitate the potential success of non-white families. (Data pulled from: Mapping Inequality)

Two stories took place in the book of American home ownership of the mid 1900s. Postwar economic structures create fertile land for middle and lower class white American families to climb the social ladder by offering ample loans and opportunity. Families of color, on the other hand, were given dead end after dead end. The message was clear: suburbs were a white space. 

“On the one hand FHA [Federal Housing Authority] and VA [Veteran’s Administration] backed loans were an enormous boon to those who qualified for them. Millions of Americans received mortgages that they otherwise would not have qualified for. But FHA-backed mortgages were not available to all. Racial minorities could not get loans for property improvements in their own neighborhoods—seen as credit risks—and were denied mortgages to purchase property in other areas for fear that their presence would extend the red line into a new community. Levittown, the poster-child of the new suburban America, only allowed whites to purchase homes. Thus HOLC policies and private developers increased home ownership and stability for white Americans while simultaneously creating and enforcing racial segregation.”

“The Rise of Suburbs”, Lumen Learning

So, essentially this is why the view of suburban horror as universal is narrow and dismissive of a wide array of backgrounds. There’s a reason so many of the horror films set in suburbia are pretty white-centric. The problem isn’t setting movies in white suburbia. For many creators, using this setting was an effective way to pull elements from their everyday to build a more relatable horror story. The problem isn’t the story itself; it is that, for years and years, it was the single story we had available.

The Changing Horror Landscape (subtitle: Jordan Peele is Excellent)

Horror as we know it is changing. Getting the exact box office numbers on the demographics of horror-goers is not easy, especially in times of Covid when the main way people are consuming film is via their college roommate’s Netflix account, even though they graduated five years ago but what are they going to do, buy their own? But in broad strokes, horror tends to attract a slightly more diverse audience. While the average blockbuster garners an audience of roughly 15% African American and 19% Hispanic ticket buyers, sci-fi horror viewership is 16% driven by African American sales and 23% Hispanic. When it comes to paranormal horror, a study by Movio found that 31% of ticket buyers are Hispanic. Gender-wise, paranormal and blockbuster horror is split somewhat evenly (if still slightly male – worth noting the study doesn’t actually bring up non-binary perspectives at all, which may shift the numbers). 

All of this is to say that the audience of people consuming these stories is varied, with varied cultural and social touchstones that can be used to build a more personalized sense of dread. On the other side of the camera, we are also starting to see more diverse creators becoming known in the mainstream. 

Jordan Peele offers a perfect example of how creators can subvert horror audience expectations of the “other”. His movies center on black protagonists and storylines, decentering whiteness. In Get Out, for instance, he starts chipping away at the “suburbs are safety” concept from the very first scene. 

Peele explains, “…the first scene in the movie is very important… the audience [needed] to be immersed in the experience of being a black man walking down the street in a white neighborhood. …I felt like if we could start there, the audience would receive that promise and, from that point forward, know that race is the monster that we’re fearing.”

In Get Out, the suburbs and white middle class spaces are not to be trusted. This doesn’t mean that “all middle class white people are evil”, but that, for protagonist Chris, these spaces and characters are not hallmarks of comfort and security. In fact, as the film progresses, the spaces shift from vaguely uncomfortable to actively hostile. 

Reframing suburbia is not merely done for the sake of breaking with a decades’ long horror trope. It is a reflection of Peele’s lived experiences; “For Chris, he’s in this place where everyone is looking at him and we the audience are getting the same feeling as he is… the reality of the situation is it’s not far off from a party I’ve been to.”

The creator behind the media influences the way stories are framed. The feminine notes and gaze of films like Promising Young Woman and Cam are heavily influenced by the background of their directors, writers, and cinematographers. In Peele’s case, his experiences as a black man living in America have a palpable effect on the characters, settings, and modes of horror he represents in his movies. 

What’s important here is not that people are limited to telling the stories “appropropriate” to their backgrounds, but that people’s lived experiences can reframe the way they engage with storytelling techniques. Diversity of experience leads to diversity of thought leads to diversity of content. 

Recently, there’s been a rise in social horror that is very well-suited to household horror settings as both question the idea of the everyday. Both social and household horror question everything we take for granted. Recent social horror films expand household horror past the bounds of suburbia and the middle class to openly confront societal structures that lurk beneath the surface of what we accept as normal. 

Parasite and His House: A Clash of Worlds

Here’s where I suddenly turn my gaze outside of America. Mostly, this is a personal limitation. I’ve only seen so many movies and read so many books. If asked about household horror stories that are set outside of or are critical of suburbia, and are interested in class struggles, my mind immediately goes to Parasite and His House. If you know of any great American horror films that fit the ticket, please reach out. I’m always trying to expand my boundaries. 

The second reason I turn outside the United States is that I think that when we talk about diversity, we should also consider diversity of background. Mainstream content skews American, which can limit the types of stories that get told and shared. While the horror scene has generally been quite open to works by Asian creators (namely Japanese and South Korean horror), I feel like, in the last couple years, we’ve really seen an explosion of horror content from around the world being brought into the mainstream

His House, which follows the story of South Sudan refugees in the UK, is currently being distributed by Netflix, the largest streaming site in the world, and was nominated for a Bafta. South Korean film Parasite cleaned the floor at the 2020 Oscars, becoming the first non-English language film to win Best Picture and joining the rare ranks of horror movies that actually get acknowledged by the Oscars. And, yes, I’m classing Parasite as a horror film. In my opinion thrillers are horror. Feel free to fight me; I’ll be in the parking lot after work. 

Both Parasite and His House focus on a clash of worlds. In the case of Parasite, it is the comfortable upper class world of the Parks against the destitute, uncertain world of the Kims. While there is an element of invasion, it’s literally in the name, we as the audience are asked to empathize with the “invaders”. One roots for the Kims as they become more and more entrenched in the Parks’ house and life because the story is told through their perspective. 

In Parasite, there really is someone secretly lurking in the shadows. The real question, though, is “who is the Parasite?” The Parks are perfectly nice and probably don’t “deserve to suffer”. Yet, as we see the Kim family’s struggles juxtaposed against the excesses passed off as day-to-day living within the Park household, it is hard not to hold them accountable, even in their ignorance. As film critic Jessica Kiang so eloquently puts it, “Parasite is a tick fat with the bitter blood of class rage.”

Meanwhile, His House explores the intersection between class, race, and community in its story of two South Sudan refugees trying to make a new life in England. The theme of invasion operates on two levels in His House. There are the supernatural forces that are invading Bol and Rial’s government-assigned home, elements that pull from Dinka mythology and function to represent a strange sort of survivor’s guilt. Meanwhile, Bol and Rial are treated by neighbors as an invasive species to British soil. In The House Next Door, Kim is the invasive outsider, but the story is told by those within the established community. In His House, it’s the opposite. The film explores the experiences of an immigrant couple as they try to rebuild a life while grappling with their status as “other.”

Director Remi Weekes explains that the movie takes inspiration from his lived experiences: “Growing up in London as a person of color, a conversation we had in our community was of assimilation, and how much of yourself do you give up or let go to give in. That’s the crux of the story.”

But by opening the focus to new types of protagonists, household horror has broadened its range of what counts as “other.” Suburbia in horror remains a fixture, but is no longer the ubiquitously safe haven it once was. Now, it is a setting element like any other, one that can be picked up or set aside based on the decisions of different creators, one that can be picked apart, and questioned. One that, if people aren’t inclined, doesn’t need to be there at all. It is one story of many, but it is no longer the single story it once was.

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