It looks like domestic bliss, but it feels awful.
— stage direction, Trouble in Tahiti
: the sunny lanes, the friendly neighbours, the smiling children, the pastel colour scheme, the rotting skeletons hiding in everyone's closet
When they are too perfect to be true, the suburbs of The Fifties and the present
can be downright creepy
. Mom baking fresh apple pies every day, the kids getting A's in every subject on their report card, neighbours who grin like their teeth are wired open
... there's something unsettling
This is a Town with a Dark Secret
, with the added twist that the Dark Secret is hidden in this "idyllic" neighbourhood. The Trope Namer is, of course The Stepford Wives
, a thoroughly creepifying book about such a town.
is the sister-city to the Uncanny Village
, and both are located in the Crapsaccharine World
. Its residents include angsty teens
, The Beautiful Elite
and, of course, the Stepford Smiler
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Anime and Manga
- The homeland of Kino of Kino's Journey was one of these. Adults were all quite pleased and always smiling, happy to do their jobs. This turns out to be because when children turn twelve years old they go to the hospital and have an operation that changes their brains to think this way. It also seems to cause homicidal tendencies when someone questions this, as Kino herself is nearly killed for hesitantly asking if she could not have it. Things get particularly creepy when a man is stabbed and the town's residents cheerfully start trying to pull the knife out of him.
- The surface world in Texhnolyze. Everything is picture-perfect cross of early 20th century aesthetics and high technology, but everything is slightly too perfect: birdsong is heard all around, but no birds are visible, the roads are too straight and buildings too perfect - almost like setpieces in a giant miniature railroad display - and flowers wither from the slightest touch. The people who call themselves Theonormals eliminated all aggression from their ranks by exiling everybody with genetic tendency towards violence into the underground city of Lukuss, but in result they've degenerated into living dead who barely seem real, flickering like ghostly shadows due to some unknown technology at their disposal, and don't care about anything, even their own life or death.
- New Town from Soil: everything is neat and clean, the residents' flowers are oh so perfect, and the everyone is so nice and normal. The town council president is obsessed with maintaining its purity from "foreign organisms" like recent newcomers and possible interdimensional con artists the Suzushiro family. Privately he admits he too is a "foreign organism" what with the obsession and the secret video cameras, blackmail, and raping every boy in town thanks to being a dentist with laughing gas.
- An issue of Shade, the Changing Man featured a Stepford Suburbia run by a man who had created a madness-powered machine that turned people "normal"note . He started as a Heteronormative Crusader with mild racism and an inablility to understand young people, but as his madness increased, his definition of "normal" grew even narrower ("You take milk in your coffee, right, Joe?")
- The Walking Dead: Woodbury appears to be a type of this. It initially looks like a pleasant enough place inside the walls that protect it from the rest of the Zombie Apocalypse, but then the viewer is given views behind the facade, including but not limited to a leader that has aquariums with severed zombie heads and prevents anyone from permanently leaving the town.
- The community of Stepford, Connecticut from The Stepford Wives. (Trope Namer)
- The town in Edward Scissorhands (shown above) was very much the creepy little 1950-'60s town.
- Hot Fuzz is a British example. Sandford however starts off rather boringly idyllic, and only really enters creepy territory when its denizens start dropping like flies. Or more precisely, when the protagonist notices that denizens are dropping like flies. The locals are used to the attrition. "Accidents happen every day!"
- The eerily monochrome suburb of Pleasantville would certainly fit.
- The Chicago neighborhood in Stir of Echoes qualifies, in a comfortable, scruffy, working-class way.
- American Beauty.
- Seahaven, in The Truman Show.
- Revolutionary Road.
- Rebel Without a Cause was set in an idyllic American Dream suburbia filled with dysfunction and neuroses - and it was made during the Fifties.
- Disturbia. A good pair of binoculars can reveal that the children next door are secretly watching porn, the man across the road is having an affair with his maid, and the quiet next-door neighbor is a serial killer with several rooms of his house designed to accommodate this...unusual habit.
- The Graduate is, in many ways, about Ben and Elaine trying to escape this.
- Downloading Nancy, though it may have been skewed by the protagonist's bleak outlook.
- The films of Todd Solondz feature this. He uses deceivingly peaceful and idealistic settings to hide the fact that the worlds they're set in are exceedingly grim places.
- Blue Velvet
- Fido is set in an idyllic 50's community... Which just happens to employ zombies for menial labor.
- In The Cat in the Hat live action film, the kids' neighboorhood could be described as this.
- In Targets, Vietnam vet Bobby Thompson's empty existence in one of these is what finally sends him on a shooting spree.
- Camelot Gardens, the gated community in Lawn Dogs.
- The relatively obscure 1989 film Parents is set in lovely '50s suburbia... and centers around a boy who's beginning to wonder where his parents buy all the meat they cook.
- Over The Edge is about what happens when a bunch of suburban parents neglect their kids and their needs.
- The makers of Kings Row, set in a nice quiet small town, had to tone down the material quite a bit, as the source novel featured things like homosexuality and incest. But the film as it was made still features a Madwoman in the Attic, a murder-suicide, and a psychotic doctor who maims or kills patients that he deems to be morally unworthy.
- The title space station in Elysium is this, only Recycled In Space
- In Mike Heimbach's novel "The Suburban Chronicles" The Suburban Estates subdivision and surrounding area is nothing but endless streets of identical, pastel colored tract homes with everyone perfect to the point that in over thirty years there has been not even one crime in the town. Apparently the threat of the owner of everything as your neighbor makes everyone act as though nothing ever goes wrong there, even when things do.
- Jasper Fforde's The Fourth Bear opens in one of these, where creatures from cautionary tales, such as monsters under the bed, really exist to keep the kids in line.
- Camazotz from A Wrinkle in Time appears to be an entire planet of Stepford Suburbia. Controlled by a disembodied brain.
- "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin is about a town where everyone's happiness is Powered by a Forsaken Child - literally.
- Waverton in the story of the same name. In this case, everyone in the neighborhood is a cannibal. But the new couple in town doesn't know that.
- Candor by Pam Bachorz is about a town that uses subliminal messages to create its Stepford Suburbia—especially creepy in the teens, who love their SAT study parties a bit too much for comfort. The town was planned by the protagonist's father as a way to have a perfect world after his other son died.
- The town of Joyful Travail in Revenant, although it's run in a far more coldly efficient fashion than most examples of this trope.
- Rosewood in Pretty Little Liars.
- Little Whinging, or at least the neighborhood roundabout Privet Drive, in the Harry Potter series, at least if the Dursleys are typical residents, which seems likely since the neighbors are apparently "the sort of people who thought scruffiness ought to be punishable by law." The Dursleys' attempts to appear as normal (read: boring) as possible are Played for Laughs and, of course, complicated by the fact that Harry is secretly a wizard.
- This is played with in the films, where Privet Drive residents live precisely identical houses, and all drive exactly the same car.
- Possibly the whole town since Harry came and went from the same house as pampered Dudley, scrawny and bruised and dressed in rags, and no one did anything. At least, anything successful enough for Harry to know about it. This is sometimes blamed on Dumbledore.
- Parodied in a Doctor Who short story, where the Doctor insists the true horror of suburbia is that there aren't sinister secrets behind the net curtains - it really is that boring.
- The eponymous town in the novel Tangerine is like this, to the extent that early in the story you start expecting mind-sucking aliens or an ancient curse or something. People are struck by lightning and part of the middle school is sucked into
hell a natural sinkhole, and the viewpoint character's path to confronting this in the town and in his family forms the backbone of the story.
- From The Regulators, we have Poplar Street in Wentworth, Ohio. Stephen King spends the first 5 or 6 pages of the novel practically gushing over its all-American normalness with narration so upbeat it's almost manic. And then everything goes straight to hell, in typical King style.
- Erma Bombeck's humor is based on this.
Live Action TV
- Desperate Housewives' Wisteria Lane.
- The Twilight Zone:
- The first episode of the 2002 series revival (titled "Evergreen") features an exclusive gated community where troublesome teens were turned into fertilizer to maintain idyllic family harmony.
- The episode of the original series "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" and its remake in the UPN series are examples of this trope and a deconstruction of it. Each version of this classic ends with the same twist, but two very different antagonists.
- The X-Files episodes "Arcadia" and "Chimera".
- The hell dimension in the Angel episode "Underneath" invoked this trope. Lindsey is condemned with no memory in a cheerful, happy suburban home with a loving wife and son. The cellar of the house is a medieval torture cell where a monstrous demon cuts out his heart every night. When they try to escape, the wife, son, and postman pull out submachine guns and start firing. Gunn later describes the worst of it being the buried knowledge that the happy facade concealed horrors without ever being able to know what they were. Angel, who had his son's memories wiped and placed him with a happy, suburban family to conceal the horrors of his past, is silently but noticeably troubled by the description.
- Agrestic in Weeds. The reason why the Theme Tune is "Little Boxes" (see below).
- The Riches
- One episode featured a cul-de-sac which appeared idyllic but was actually filled with "ennui", affairs and feuding neighbors. Bones learned that the key to dealing with the residents of the cul-de-sac was to treat them each as a component of a single large organism.
- All suburbs in the show feature Hiveminds.
- In "Chuck Versus the Suburbs" the main characters of Chuck go undercover in a suburban cul de sac to figure out which of the residents is an evil spy. They all are
- The ABC series The Gates, where everyone concentrates on petty issues of town status to distract from their bloodlust, channel the traditional vampire/werewolf enmity into less destructive competition, and conceal two witches warring over the town.
- Featured in one episode of Fear Itself.
- This Is Not My Life's Waimoana, an eerily perfect and homogenous New Zealand town of the future.
- Where Dexter moves to in season 4.
- Suburgatory, of course.
- The Walking Dead: Like in its original comic book incarnation, Woodbury has dark secrets behind the cheerful facade of an "everytown USA" suburbia that are hidden from most of the populace.
- Charmed: What our world would be like without sufficient evil to balance it out — sure, everybody would be friendly and nice, but parking your car in the wrong place is a capital offense and using your cellphone in a hospital gets your hand lopped off.
- In the Supernatural episode "What Is And What Should Never Be" (S02, Ep20), Dean seems to feel the Lawrence, Kansas, with his mother still living in their childhood home is about as perfect an existence as he can expect, but the neighbor seems confused by Dean's cheerful wave while mowing the lawn.
- The Tim & Eric's Bedtime Stories episode "Holes" is set in an idyllic, wealthy cul-de-sac where the neighbors torment you if you don't attend their sports parties.
- "Little Boxes", the 1962 folk song composed by Malvina Reynolds and popularized by Pete Seeger (and used as the original opening theme to Weeds). It was covered by The Decemberists, whose choice of chord progression drags the subtext kicking and screaming to the fore.
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky... And they all look just the same.
- "The Kids Aren't Alright", by The Offspring, tells the story of a neighborhood full of promising lives that went From Bad to Worse: Jamie got pregnant and dropped from high school, Mark has no job and spends all his days playing guitar and smoking pot, Jay committed suicide, and Brandon OD'd and died. Supposedly, Dexter Holland wrote this song after finding his old neighborhood torn apart by tragedy.
- "Subdivisions", by Rush, details the oppression of conformity in the "mass-production zone" — and the inevitable draw they have on those who manage, briefly, to escape. In particular, from the chorus-verse bridge:
Any escape might help to smoothe
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
The restless dreams of youth
- "Pleasant Valley Sunday", written for The Monkees by Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
- "Shangri-La" and "Well Respected Man" by The Kinks are about suburbia and the people who inhabit it. It was a regular theme with them, although there are subversions such as "Village Green" (where the singer longs for the "simple people," "fresh air" and 'Sunday school" of his idyllic hometown, and laments how modernization is turning it into The Theme Park Version).
- The video for Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." The song doesn't explicitly mention suburbia, but... this trope hardly seems out of place.
- "Shop Vac" by nerd favorite Jonathan Coulton is about a couple that moves from the big city to suburbia to start a family... only the husband really isn't happy with the move.
We hung a flag above the door
Checked out the gourmet grocery store
I bought a mower I can ride around the yard
But we haven't got real friends
And now even the fake ones have stopped calling
- The video for Das Weisse Licht by Oomph! shows that this order is maintained by replacing the inhabitants with robots, in a Stepford sort of way.
- Ben Folds' re-envisioned "Rockin' the Suburbs" for the movie Over the Hedge:
We're rockin' the suburbs
We part the shades and face the facts
They've got better lookin' fescue
Right across the cul-de-sac
- Living on XTC's "Respectable Street":
Sunday church and they look fetching
Saturday night saw him retching over our fence
Bang the wall for me to turn down
I can see them with their stern frowns
As they dispense
The kind of look that says they're perfect
- [The] Arcade Fire's third album, The Suburbs, is a Concept Album which focuses on, well, the suburbs. It takes a somewhat nuanced view of the subject (Win Butler is on record as saying that it's a letter "from" the suburbs, not for them or against them), but the Stepford form is definitely visible (particularly "Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains").
- The Smashing Pumpkins' video for "Try, Try, Try" contains a sequence that takes place in a dark Stepford Suburbia.
- blur often sang about apparently normal suburban characters who are a lot weirder under the surface. Tracy Jacks and Stereotypes are two examples.
- "The Sound of the Suburbs" by The Members is a late '70s punk anthem about teenagers bored by suburban conformity.
- "No Birds" by Public Image Ltd.
- "This Could Be Anywhere" by The Dead Kennedys.
- "The Spectator" by Misery Index.
- Happily averted in Richard Thomson's Cul De Sac, set in a tightly-packed suburban neighborhood of lookalike houses - the inhabitants are all charmingly "off" in some way or other.
- The Ur Example is Leonard Bernstein's 1952 mini-opera Trouble In Tahiti, whose generic American setting is even called Suburbia. It has a vocal trio cheerfully singing about the lovely life of a Happily Married couple, providing extreme Mood Dissonance counterpoint to the couple actually featured in the show, who are so "sharing, smiling, confiding, loving" that they struggle to remain on speaking terms with each other.
- Flaming Tree Grove, setting for the Australian play Ruby Moon.
- In Shrek The Musical, Duloc under Farquaad's rule is well on its way to becoming this. Donkey even lampshades it early on, saying that the whole place is "going Stepford".
- The Zaibatsu corporation owns an upscale suburb in Grand Theft Auto II called "The Village", apparently a shout out to The Prisoner. It's a swanky community with pink cobblestone streets, art deco houses, and luxury cars roving the streets.
- In Hitman Blood Money, Agent 47 pays a visit on a gated community located in southern California. The target of the day, Vinnie, is a mob informant living under witness protection with his family in an idyllic house. Scratch the surface, though, and the American dream isn't exactly working out for Vinnie: his wife is getting hammered on wine while hitting on pool boys, the feds are upstairs sniffing his daughter's panties, and Vinnie is too terrified to leave his bodyguard's side for even a second.
- In Mercenaries, North Korean dictator General Song builds one as a backdrop for his propaganda films. What's creepy is that the buildings themselves are just facades with nothing behind them.
- The trope-naming "The Milkman Conspiracy" level of Psychonauts is a literally twisted (i.e. it looks like an Escher engraving), evil little suburb where the lawn flamingos turn to watch you and everyone is either a Rainbow Squirt or a G-Man. It's hilarious, but rather creepy once you realize that this is how Boyd sees the entire world, as a sham Stepford Suburbia that's watching him all the time.
- Fallout 3:
- The towns of Andale and Tranquility Lane, the virtual world of Vault 112. Suffice to say, there are other factors that make them both even creepier than the standard Stepford Suburbia.
- This applies to much of suburban America in it's pre-war days, where people were being killed in everything from government experiments, to malfunctioning factory robots, to taste-testing soda. Chinese Americans were also being rounded up and imprisoned after the Sino-American war began in 2066, and fears of Communism and sabotage led to the Unites States becoming a police state in everything but name.
- Although most of the human characters in the first Destroy All Humans! game fit comfortable into the Stepford Smiler trope, Santa Modesta is set in a pleasant 1950s suburbia... in which everyone has various psychological hang-ups seething just underneath the surface.
- Harvester runs with this. The protagonist's mother bakes cookies all day, ignoring her children even though one is clearly ill; his father is covered in bandages from an S&M session gone wrong; the neighbor is clearly a pedophile, but no one seems to notice; and everyone won't stop talking about "the Lodge" that everyone important in town is a member of. There's a reason it's like this: it's not a real town. It's a computer simulation designed solely for the purpose of twisting the protagonist into a serial killer as part of a government experiment.
- Podunk in MOTHER 1.
- Onett, Twoson, and Threed in EarthBound.
- At first, Tazmily Village in MOTHER 3 is a beautiful Sugar Bowl where no one locks their doors and even the concept of money is foreign. Then the timeskip rolls around. All of a sudden it's a modernized suburbia with stores, a train station, cars, and all sorts of modern conveniences... and anyone who doesn't join in has their house struck by lightning. The guy who ran the inn has it bought out from under him, every house has a "Happy Box" that people are compelled to stare at, anyone old and not rich is forced to live in a complete dump, everyone else (even the kids) is expected to slave away in a factory for a living, and becoming a Pigmask is treated as a great career goal. It gets worse.
- The eponymous town of Silent Hill looks like a quaint resort town, but looks can be deceiving. Shepard's Glen, its neighboring town that Silent Hill: Homecoming features prominently, has some secrets of its own.
- In Welcome to Night Vale, Desert Bluffs, run by Strexcorp, seems to be this. They desire to keep growing, spreading across the world, making everyone as Happy and Productive as they are, even Night Vale. They even succeeded for a while.
- The Town Called Malice in The Venture Bros..
- Moralton in Moral Orel. For all the Davey and Goliath stylings, it is a place filled with self-hating, hypocritical, abusive Jerkasses that seem dead set on crushing the naive and hopelessly optimistic protagonist. And that's when said protagonist isn't wreaking carnage because he takes the bad advice of his authority figures to extreme and unfortunate ends.
- The episode "Mooving Day" of The Fairly OddParents involves Timmy moving to a very creepy suburb inspired by the Trope Namer.
Truth In Television
- "Planned communities," such as Seaside and Celebration in Florida, are particularly subject to this trope. Some actually attempt to use this trope on purpose. More than 25% of Orange County, California is made of such communities, with the crown jewels being Irvine and Mission Viejo, which regularly top the FBI's Safest Cities in America list. See also Hollywood California for some useful notes on Orange County's lack of personality and vapid suburban sprawl.
- One thing that both renders them extremely safe but also extremely monotonous is the sheer amount of these communities being started for religious purposes. Granted, sometimes the founders genuinely ARE that religious and not out to create a cult-like Wretched Hive. Both Amish and Mormon communes qualify well under that regard.
- Also, note that the Hollywood California entry is explicitly describing the way Hollywood portrays California rather than how it actually is. Orange County is highly sub-urbanized and generally politically conservative but, just like everywhere else, the people who live there are varied and pretty much like the people who live everywhere else (i.e.: they're people).
- Many of the more upscale suburbs of Detroit and Flint, MI fit this trope, as it's one of the most segregated metro areas in the United States and many of its "idyllic" suburbs flourished due to the phenomenon known as "white flight." Further west in Livingston County, Howell, MI is probably best known for being the former headquarters of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan.
- Much like the Detroit example from above, pretty much any suburb of Milwaukee that's in a county other than Milwaukee County (and even a few that are) could be described as this. Nearly all of them began as planned communities that came of age in the "white flight" era, and most of the few that already existed were "sundown towns" (town where it was illegal for people of color to be in after sundown) at some point in their history. In fact, the segregation index is so high in Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington Counties that even if people of color were distributed evenly throughout Milwaukee County, it would still rank as the most segregated metro area in the United States.
- New Berlin, Wisconsin, which is in Waukesha County is a specifically good example of this trope. Not only do they pronounce the name of the town New BER-lin in an effort to hide the town's obviously German roots, but it is actually being investigated by the Federal Government to see if the local government and civic leaders purposefully sabotaged an attempt to build mixed-income housing in the town out of fear that Black and Hispanic people from Milwaukee's inner-city might move there. Although in what could be seen as a subversion, the towns' now-former Mayor (who was in favor of the housing) claimed in a letter that the racism of New Berlin residents was the reason he was having trouble going through with the project.
- Really, this could apply to 90% of the suburbs of any major city in the American Midwest.
- In Cleveland, not only do you have all the attendant white flight problems, but there was also a housing boom in the years after World War II, with entire neighborhoods springing up overnight, most of which were built on one or two floor plans, meaning every house looks eerily similar.
- Britain built a number of entire towns this way between the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the mid-sixties. Most of them are still infamous for this trope, but at least one became a Wretched Hive instead.
- Poundbury in Dorset was a direct response to "New Towns" and an attempt to defy this trope. The results were... mixed, at best.
- Darien, Connecticut: filming location for Revolutionary Road, both Stepford Wives films, and the basis for the book and film Gentlemen's Agreement.
- The Levittown communities built by Levitt & Sons in Long Island, New Jersey (in Willingboro, which briefly changed its name to Levittown), and Pennsylvania were among the first pre-planned communities in the United States, and helped pioneer the development of pre-made suburban communities. At its peak size, the Long Island Levittown contained over 17,000 homes built using the exact same floor plan for each house. Even in just aerial photographs from history textbooks, the eeriness of the unending rows of similarity can't be ignored.
- Ironically, despite it (like the other Levittowns and many other pre-planned suburbs) having been racially segregated initially, the New Jersey Levittown is now a majority black community (and still a middle-class one, at that).
- North Pole, Alaska, a town where it is literally Christmas every day. Every business is Christmas-themed (even the McDonald's!), and sixth-graders are enlisted to reply to all the letters to Santa that the US Postal Service delivers to the town. Jon Ronson visited the town to shoot a documentary called Death in Santaland, about a foiled school shooting plot in 2006 by a group of 13-year-olds who, allegedly, had grown sick of/been driven mad by the Crapsaccharine World they lived in.