The Burbs

In Praise of Suburban Horror

Sometimes, there’s nothing scarier than a white picket fence.

Originally Published: 
Michael Myers stands next to a hedge in 'Halloween'
Compass International Pictures/Aquarius Releasing

The suburbs are supposed to be perfect neighborhoods devoid of the claustrophobia and urban grime of the cities they surround. They have two-story houses, green lawns, no violence or crime. They are, on the surface, peaceful pockets of domestic perfection. But there’s no such thing as perfection in our world, and that’s where Suburban Horror comes in.

For nearly 50 years, the subgenre has posited that Suburban America is no freer from the world’s dangers than the cities and farmlands its communities were constructed as an escape from. Some horror films have argued there are great evils lurking beneath the surface of America’s suburbs, an idea partially rooted in the fact that the expansion and construction of many American suburbs was born from the white flight phenomenon of the 1950s and ’60s. Other horror films have delighted in disrupting the peacefulness of suburbia by brutally invading it.

Night Swim, the latest PG-13 horror offering from Blumhouse and Atomic Monster, follows a perfect American family who moves into a new suburban home, only to discover that its backyard swimming pool is haunted. The film, which formally kicked off the 2024 movie season, introduces ideas about the unseen evils and unspoken histories of Suburban America that it doesn’t fully explore. Thankfully, plenty of other horror movies have brought an acidic perspective to America’s subworld of cul-de-sacs, white picket fences, and perfectly manicured lawns, and many have done it better than Night Swim.

With that in mind, here are five stellar suburban horror movies worth seeking out either in honor of Night Swim’s release, or as an alternative to the new C-grade thriller.

5. Fright Night (2011)

Fright Night (2011) is one of the 21st century’s most underrated horror remakes.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Director Craig Gillespie’s underrated Fright Night remake is a hilarious and brutal horror film. Set in a suburb outside Las Vegas, the film follows Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin), a teenager who begins to suspect that his neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), may secretly be a vampire. The thriller makes excellent use of its central suburban neighborhoods, initially laying out the homogenous community its hero calls home via a series of sun-baked aerial shots.

Later, the film subverts its sunny opening with the fiery death of one of Charlie’s neighbors, whose recent vampire bite results in her burning up the second she steps back into the suburban sunlight. By digitally transforming Jerry every time he bites a victim, the film also reveals the ugliness hidden behind his handsome exterior, an idea that reinforces its juxtaposition of well-maintained suburban perfection and the dangers that lie beneath it.

These choices, as well as three pitch-perfect performances by Yelchin, Farrell, and David Tennant, allow Fright Night to rise above its remake status and become a movie that can stand on its own. It might not be the most insightful or original addition to its genre, but suburban horror movies rarely get more entertaining.

4. The Stepford Wives (1975)

The Stepford Wives is the prototypical social thriller — and an unforgettable skewering of suburban life.

Columbia Pictures

Most suburban horror exploits their viewers’ fears of invasion by revealing just how false suburbia’s facade of security really is. That’s not the case with The Stepford Wives, which follows a young woman (Katharine Ross) who relocates with her husband (Peter Masterson) and family to a quiet community in Connecticut where the local wives are unnervingly submissive, subservient, and robotic, in an argument that the real threat is Suburban America itself.

The Stepford Wives is a thriller about the danger of being subsumed by the sterility and suffocatingly traditional ideals that have been associated with suburbia since the 1950s, and it argues the nuclear families found in the suburbs can only really be achieved through coercion, murder, and deception. The film helped set the template for the social thriller, and its influence is still felt today.

Modern horror auteurs like Jordan Peele have repeatedly listed it as an influence on their work, and recent films like Barbie and Don’t Worry, Darling have pulled several pages out of its playbook. It’s easy to see why The Stepford Wives, with its terrifying story about a community of men hellbent on turning their spouses into obedient housewives, remains such a touchstone for so many. It isn’t exactly subtle, but a sledgehammer doesn’t need to be.

3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

If you want to see an example of how surreal and terrifying the suburban horror genre can get, then look no further than A Nightmare on Elm Street.

New Line Cinema

A young girl’s corpse is lifted by an invisible force and dragged through the halls of her picturesque suburban high school. A trio of girls in white dresses sing a nursery rhyme about a serial killer as they jump rope on their parents’ green lawn. These are just two memorable images featured in Wes Craven’s 1984 horror classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film that explores the unseen insidiousness and fragility of suburban life in an unnervingly surreal fashion.

The movie, which follows a group of teenagers as they fall victim to the vengeful ghost of a child murderer killed by their parents years prior, is about as vicious as a horror film can get. While the whole movie benefits from the innocent, soft sheen that covers many of its scenes, it’s the twisty final moments that prove unforgettable.

For most of its runtime, Elm Street is an argument for how the sins of suburbia’s past can come back to haunt it, before a brutal ending makes its ideas about the inescapability of suburban life disturbingly clear. There’s not much that can be said about Craven’s masterpiece that hasn’t been said already, but it hasn’t lost an ounce of its power in the 40 years since it came out.

2. Halloween (1978)

Halloween not only helped invent the suburban horror genre, but it also perfected it.

Compass International Pictures/Aquarius Releasing

It’s impossible to talk about the history of suburban horror genre without mentioning John Carpenter’s Halloween. Made with very little money, it follows a group of high schoolers as they’re attacked by a man who, as a child, killed his sister. After escaping from a sanitarium, he returns to his hometown and proceeds to stalk and kill the teens over the course of Halloween night.

When it was released in 1978, Halloween shattered whatever ideas Americans had about the peaceful and protected nature of their suburban communities. Murder comes straight to its characters’ homes: whether it’s Michael Myers lurking around the perfectly trimmed hedges and backyards of his Illinois hometown or the way that he literally invades his victims’ houses, Halloween never runs out of ways to slash through the artificial stillness and security of its setting. Nearly 50 years later, no movie has managed to more effectively juxtapose the dueling, defining qualities of horror and Suburban America.

1. Poltergeist (1982)

There aren’t many suburban horror movies as entertaining, fun, and purely terrifying as Poltergeist.

MGM/UA Entertainment Co.

If you’re looking for a suburban horror movie that will grab you by the throat and refuse to let go, look no further than Poltergeist. This 1982 thriller follows a family who moves into a new community built atop an old cemetery and quickly finds themselves haunted by ghosts. The film’s ideas about the recklessness of suburban gentrification are obvious in its premise, and the points Poltergeist makes about the horrors of suburbia aren’t all that different from those made by the films above. However, none of those movies express their ideas quite as loudly or spectacularly as Poltergeist.

The film repeatedly throws its characters around their beige and white house, and even sees corpses bubble up through the surface of their swimming pool. It ruthlessly tears apart the dream of quiet suburban domesticity, and it does so in such a technically impressive fashion that it will make your jaw drop while also making you want to hide under your sheets.

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