Drawing connections between mellow Americana and horror

The Miscellany News.

There is something horrific in cookie-cutter homes with hospital white trim and manicured lawns greener than any wild evergreen. The silence of suburbia, broken only by the sound of a car’s engine kicking alive. Even while biking through the warm autumn sun, seeing light reflected through amber leaves, there was a nauseating feeling that it was all too good to be true. And yes, this dreamy Americana afternoon I floated through with three friends ended full stop with startled faces, a red gash flowing fast and the mutilated bike with its front wheel still spinning in the grass. Mellow Americana, broken by senseless horror.

*My friend is fine; if you see him at the Deece with a huge scab on his forehead, give him some much deserved sympathy.*

In the days after this accident, which happened the first Saturday of October break, the sudden rupture of the mellow dreaminess of suburban America stuck with me. I have never lived in the suburbs. I’ve never mowed a lawn; I’ve rarely watched football on Sunday; I rarely ever barbequed; I never went camping with my family. While I think I am glad that I didn’t grow up behind a white picket fence on a street with a cul-de-sac, in a place where you have to drive to get anywhere, I do sometimes romanticize this aura of life. It’s a nostalgia for something I never had, a look into the snowglobe life of mellow Americana. As real as this yearning can sometimes be, it has always come married to a real sense of horror, a queasiness that puts me on edge. For me, it is in scenes of the most intense mellowness where horror can strike deepest. 

The film industry since the ’70s gets this. It was around this time that American horror cinema turned away from the gothic and into realism. The setting of horror turned away from vampire castles, gothic mansions and dark museums to give way to suburbia, Main Street, the family home. Horror entered the recognizable spaces from day-to-day life; it seeped into the suburbs that were, at the time, new and fashionable; it invaded spaces that seemed safe. With films like “Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), “Poltergeist” (1982) and “Halloween” (1978), an entire genre of horror was built around the icons of suburbia, which were easily recognizable to millions of people.

Suburban horror didn’t only exist in film; in fact, the craze in Hollywood came after the real-life horror stories of Ted Bundy, the Golden State killer and John Wayne Gacy. The killings committed by these psychopaths ruptured the manicured calm of suburban life and exposed a frightening psychological underbelly of America. It’s no wonder these events became inspiration for filmmakers to explore the unveiling of suburban life in sudden psychological and then physical violence. In these suburban horror films, the safety, comfort, cultural homogeneity and homeostasis so desperately desired in the suburbs were suddenly invaded by senseless violence. In an instant, the everyday becomes horrific. 

My status as an outsider to this mellow suburban American life and my love for horror films synthesize to manufacture a real fear for anything suburban, for anything too calm. Both in film and in real life, the image of calm suburbia feels like a very thin veil hiding horror beneath.

And it’s true: suburbia not only fails to prevent horror, its veiled aesthetic only increases the feeling that it’s hiding something. It hides the horror of the racist history behind property ownership, it hides the violence of land accumulation by white settlers, it hides the violent psychological distress of millions of Americans, it hides violent homelife and abusive relationships, it distracts from the violence of the American project abroad and it hides the randomness of life and all its horrific accidents. 

Happy Halloween. 


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