I grew up near Twin Peaks. Actually, I grew up in a suburb of Seattle. But it was closer to Twin Peaks (better known as Snoqualmie Falls, WA) than Seattle. And my suburb, with its looming trees and truck-mounted gun racks, was a lot scarier than the big city. In elementary school, we thought the old man who tended barrel fires outside his modular home killed children. Knowing that somewhere out there, the Green River Killer was still active likely informed that suspicion. Deep down, we all knew that we could wind up like Laura Palmer: violated, dead, wrapped in plastic. The fact that an entire generation of middle class American parents had fled concrete jungles for engineered greenbelts meant nothing. In the suburbs, no one can hear you scream.
It should come as no surprise that contemporary horror fiction has come to explore and exploit this truth. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic nightmare of urban propinquity Rear Window (1954), in which a housebound New York apartment-dweller gathers clues implicating his neighbour in a murder plot, has since been reshaped into Disturbia (2007), in which a teenaged boy living in the suburbs and serving a sentence for house arrest gathers similar clues in a similar plot, this time assisted by the internet and surveillance technology but handicapped by his court-ordered ankle monitor. Both films were the subjects of lawsuits from the Sheldon Abend Trust, which holds the license to the Cornell Woolrich short story “It Had to Be Murder,” that inspired Hitchcock’s film.
But these three are stories of suspense, not necessarily horror. Horror is an emotion as natural and as difficult as any other. Like passion it is fleeting, like love it cannot be cured. For me it is a sensation of deep despair, the kind of speechless reaction to the systemic and ongoing evil that can be found in novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four and House of Stairs. This is not the brief arousal of terror that comes from a cat leaping off a garbage can, or a xenomorph uncurling herself from a heating coil. It’s the bone-deep understanding that there is suffering in the world, and that it proceeds unencumbered and uninterrupted because we humans are too small and insignificant to stop it.
This is the nightmare of suburban sprawl.
Beyond the apocalyptic horror that is the only sane response to the genocide of entire ecosystems, the suburbs are just plain spooky in their own right. They are the site of uncanny replication, each house the same as the other, each lifestyle uncomfortably similar. Tim Burton’s film Edward Scissorhands (1990) uses sweeping shots of pastel ramblers to emphasize this point. The film’s climax relies on the suburbanites reacting no differently than the villagers in one of James Whale’s Frankenstein pictures, their pitchforks replaced by weed-whackers, their paranoia fed by a real estate developer’s plan for isolation.
Susie Maloney’s recent novel The Thirteen makes good on this paranoia, proposing a coven of witches installing themselves in a gated community and living the good life of clean homes, well-behaved children and attractive husbands that our culture says every loyal soccer mom should yearn for. The novel is a feminist reply to Stephen King’s vampire novel Salem’s Lot, in which a small town’s capacity for evil draws a vampire who preys on the moral decrepitude of select community members. He promises them only the most banal of pleasures in exchange for their agency, and they steadily swarm, kill, and change the neighbours they once trusted and treasured.
In 1979, Tobe Hooper directed a miniseries adaptation of the novel. In 1982, he directed Poltergeist. Whereas the former focused on small-town horror and the loss of community bonds to individual selfishness, the latter indicts the suburbs directly as irredeemably evil. When developers build the suburb of Cuesta Verde over graveyards and move only the headstones but not the corpses, the dead respond by stealing a real estate agent’s youngest child. When her parents retrieve her, the dead rise from the earth, emerging from a half-dug swimming pool. Rather than saying that there are some things man is not meant to know, the film seems to argue that there are places man is not meant to go.
These themes of isolation, replication, and environmental destruction in the supposedly-improved world of suburbia are by now so prevalent that they show up in pop music. In 2010, Montreal band Arcade Fire released their third album, The Suburbs, to critical and popular acclaim. Alongside the record, they released a 28-minute companion film called Scenes from Suburbs, directed by genre great Spike Jonze. In it, an alternate history is full of American suburbs that function as warring states. The film’s first line of dialogue is: “When I think about that time, I don’t think about the army.”
This is not to say that cities have the answer. Cities have long been sites of deep horror and existential dread. In fiction, they are the vectors of disease and the hiding place of fearsome killers. Stoker’s Dracula characterized the vampire’s threat as viral — one man had the power to change an entire city with his bite. Stoker’s novel played upon Londoners’ anxiety regarding immigation, that Eastern Europeans (read: Jews) would seduce England’s daughters and forever alter the cultural landscape of the Empire.
Zombie stories still rely on this vector model of a small number of undead quickly transforming a tight-knit urban space. When people are packed so close together, catching the lethal McGuffin virus is as inevitable as catching a cold. The Day of the Triffids, I Am Legend, The Stand, 28 Days Later, REC/Quarantine, and The Walking Dead have made great stories out of this theme.
Even when the city has no such virus inhabiting it, the smothering nearness of one’s neighbours and the precious little one knows about them makes for great horror, or at least disgust. David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and Darren Aranofsky’s Pi (1998) do great things with this feature of city life. Both films are set in densely-populated cities that still feel so lonely that their inhabitants will go to inhuman lengths to achieve connection and enlightenment. China Miéville exploits this for surrealist dystopian satire in The City and the City, in which one half of the city’s residents strives to “unsee” the other half on pain of death, but the audacity and absurdity of that policy is an echo of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil — itself a nightmare of unchecked sprawl and mediocrity under totalitarianism.
In reality, urban planners are often just as misguided as suburban developers. Both can fail to see the long-term consequences of emerging cultural and economic trends, demographic shifts, and human needs. While they may not be building over graveyards, their buildings can become graveyards given enough time and administrative apathy. This is the story of Pruitt-Igoe, one of St. Louis’ most famous subsidized housing projects. Built in 1956, it was demolished in 1972.
So, where can you flee? If the city is suffocating, and the suburbs are desolate, where can you hide? Increasingly, the answer is “online.” I mean, you’re here, aren’t you? But outside your room, outside your front door, there are other doors and other rooms and other people, some near and some far, some good and some not so good, and most of them don’t know you and most of them don’t care. Nearly seven billion of them and counting, all consuming, all doing his or her bit to accelerate entropy.
It’s a little frightening, when you think about it.
Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer, futurist, and anime fan living in Toronto. Her debut novel, vN will be available in the summer of 2012 from Angry Robot Books.