A peaceful town, husbands kissing their wives goodbye in the morning on the front porch of their cookie-cutter homes, children laughing and riding their bikes down the street, a cop chatting with a barista at the local cafe. Nothing bad could ever happen here. And yet, something isn't quite what it seems.
Suburban Gothic is a subgenre within American Gothic media characterized by its focus on the anxieties associated with the widescale creation of suburban communities in the post-World War II United States and the rapid lifestyle changes that took place in the financial boom of the 1950s and 1960s.
The classic Suburban Gothic setting is a seemingly idyllic neighborhood filled with picturesque nuclear families who are hiding a dark secret. These towns usually feature a maximum of one family of color, and the protagonist rarely comes from this family. Frequent themes include the presence of imposters, the dangers of groupthink, and the conflict between individuality and conformity. Works may also focus on consumerism and the ecological damage caused by suburban development.
Characteristic of this trope, like other American Gothic traditions, is that utopian ideals meet a dark reality. The pristine appearance conceals a deep rot, and neither can exist without the other. Suburban Gothic seeks to turn the American Dream upside down. An idyllic town where the neighbors are friendly and children safely roam the streets that provides a hiding place from the outside world becomes a place where the protagonist is trapped and unhappy, where the neighbors have deadly secrets, the children are hunted, and the monsters are already inside the community. For every white picket fence, there's a dark basement or a crawl space.
Children and teenagers often feature as protagonists, and antagonists are often neighbors, family members, and even other children. Characters are generally preoccupied with the average day-to-day problems of suburban life and these works sometimes have incredibly mundane subplots. The genre often, but not always, relies on supernatural or sci-fi elements typical of Gothic literature in general. The emergence of Suburban Gothic as a subgenre is partially responsible for the resurgence of the Haunted House as a setting in the mid-twentieth century.
Shirley Jackson's The Road Through the Wall, published in 1948 is often considered a foundational text in the development of the subgenre, as is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, published in 1954. Other notable early Suburban Gothic authors include Ira Levin and Vladimir Nabokov. Today, this trope is most noticeable in horror movies, especially those of the 1970s and 1980s.
Suburban Gothic shares some history with Weird West, both drawing on the idea of the meeting place between civilization — in Suburban Gothic, the city — and the unknown — the undeveloped countryside. Interestingly, the rhetoric of suburbanization in the 1950s often paralleled the "Manifest Destiny" rhetoric of nineteenth century expansion in the American West (and turn-of-the-20th-century overseas colonial expansion into places like the Philippines, Hawaii and other Pacific islands), with those who left the cities for the unknown world of suburbia being referred to as "settlers" or "pioneers."
Compare also to Southern Gothic, another subgenre in the American Gothic tradition, and Lovecraft Country. However, unlike those tropes, Suburban Gothic is not regionally defined, and the fact that the suburbs are so interchangeable through the country arguably adds to the creepiness. Films that take place in Stepford Suburbia can be this trope, but unlike Stepford Suburbia, Suburban Gothic media does not require the town to be so perfect it's creepy.
- Monster House: A boy and his friends are terrorized by the house across the street, which is alive and malevolent but inactive when adults are around.
- ParaNorman: the quiet suburb of Blithe Hollow is filled to the brim with ghosts, who can only be seen by the protagonist, Norman. When the town is invaded by zombies, the human residents quickly prove to be more Ax-Crazy than the undead.
- In American Beauty, despite their idyllic public facing aspects of their lives, Lester Burnham's suburbia is already rotten. His marriage is unhappy, his daughter resents him, and he's trapped in a dead-end job that he hates. Also, all of his family and several of his neighbours are planning to kill him.
- Assassination Nation uses the revelation of a sleepy suburban town (subtly named Salem's) dark secrets to explore mob mentality
- In Blue Velvet, a college student returns to his suburban hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina, where he uncovers a drug dealing/human trafficking operation. The film opens with a montage of almost unnatural suburban wholesomeness, set to the eponymous song by Bobby Vinton.
- The 'Burbs: Gossipy neighbors in a very middle-America cul de sac deal with the very real possibility that the new neighbors might be a family of serial killers... Or they themselves might be going nuts.
- Disturbia is about a teenage boy under house arrest who, after having his cable and internet access cut, takes advantage of his ample free time to spy on the rest of the neighborhood and discovers that his nextdoor neighbor is a serial killer.
- Donnie Darko, set in the suburban town of Middlesex, Virginia, features many teen movie archetypes, like the outcast teenager and the high school romance, and posits that all of them are disguises. Donnie unveils some of the town's dark secrets but when he dies, all of this is undone and life carries on as it always has.
- Edward Scissorhands marries Suburban Gothic with traditional Gothic tropes to explore the themes of suburban conformity and mistrust of anything different.
- Fright Night (1985) and its 2011 remake are about a teenage boy living in suburban Las Vegas who realizes that his nextdoor neighbor is a vampire.
- Get Out (2017): In the opening scene, Andre lampshades this trope and says that he feels deeply uncomfortable in the suburbs, where everything looks identical and he can't figure out how to get home. He's then kidnapped off the white-picketed fenced lawns, which is also where Chris and Rose go for their supposedly peaceful vacation. Only for Chris to learn that Rose and her family kidnap, brainwash, and torture black people as part of a cult obsessed with immortality.
- In Heathers, a deconstruction of 1980s teen dramas, a teenage girl and her boyfriend kill several popular students at their suburban Ohio high school and stage them to look like suicides, prompting other classmates to attempt suicide as well.
- The original film and most of its sequels take place in sleepy Haddonfield, Illinois where kids walk to school by themselves and the biggest problem on our protagonist's mind is asking out a boy she likes. The only murder in the town's history is treated almost like an urban legend, it's so abstracted from day-to-day life. Until, that is, the murderer himself comes back to town.
- In one version of Halloween canon, Haddonfield is also home to a demonic cult.
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is an early example with a strong focus of loss of individuality. Residents of a peaceful suburb in California are gradually replaced by emotionless "pod people" who look identical to them, causing the protagonists' friends and loved ones and even some of the protagonists themselves to become villains.
- Averted in the 1978 remake, which moves the setting to downtown San Francisco and turns the story into a metaphor for urban alienation, and the 2007 version, titled simply The Invasion, which moves it to Washington, D.C.. However, the 1993 version, titled simply Body Snatchers, keeps the suburban setting, in this case making it the housing at an Army base and juxtaposing the conformity of suburbia with that of the military.
- In It Follows, the danger lies in a curse that's passed from one person to another by sex and is traveling invisibly between teenagers and young adults in suburban Detroit.
- In Jennifer's Body, the titular character, a teenage cheerleader, is sacrificed to Satan in the woods behind a local bar and then becomes a succubus, eating her way through the boys at her suburban Minnesota high school.
- Kid Detective (2020) is set in a quaint town which has ample drug & gang activity and it still haunted by the disappearance of a young girl nearly 20 years ago.
- Miss Meadows: An apparently "nice neighborhood" is the haunt of kidnappers, killers, and child molesters, and the only person who can help is the eponymous (and almost equally disturbed) heroine.
- In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the teenagers of Springwood, Ohio are haunted one by one in their sleep by the ghost of Freddy Krueger, a child murderer who was burned alive by their parents after being let Off on a Technicality. In the original script and the remake, he was a pedophile instead.
- Poltergeist follows a family living in a new planned community in California being terrorized by a poltergeist. It turns out that the community was built on top of an old cemetery and only the headstones were moved prior to construction.
- Scream (1996) falls into this trope, since most of the movies it pays homage to fall into this trope. High school students in an upper class suburban town begin turning up dead and the killers are two of their classmates, born and raised in town, who have been planning this murder spree for the past year since they killed the protagonist's mother.
- Summer of '84 actually takes its existence as its central thesis. During the '80s, in the supposedly nice suburbs, a boy becomes convinced that his seemingly-ordinary, very polite cop neighbor is actually preying on and murdering teenage boys. And he is. In his ordinary suburban home, he even has a horrific Torture Cellar set up to look like a wholesome 1950s bedroom. At the end, Mackay specifically leaves Davey alive because he wants him to never feel safe - not even in the suburbs - ever again.
- Trick 'r Treat takes place in the suburban town of Warren Valley, Ohio, which has many dark secrets to hide including a high school principle who is a serial killer, a coven of werewolves, and the ghosts of a group of disable children whose parents arranged their murder.
- Vivarium is this trope crossed with Surreal Horror; the suburban development of Yonder is a very nice neighborhood, even if all the houses look the same. However, a couple is trapped inside when Yonder turns out to be built with Alien Geometry, impossible to escape from. No matter how far they drive, they keep returning to the same house, and begin going mad from the experience.
- We Need to Talk About Kevin and the book it is based on follow a mother's memories of raising her son in the wake of a massacre he committed at his high school, after killing his father and sister. The book and film explore the dynamic between Kevin, his mother (who didn't want children and was abusive toward him when he was young), and his father (who is unfailingly optimistic about the prospect of having a happy family, causing him to overlook Kevin's behavioral warning signs).
- Though not an American film, Parasite has a suburbia-adjacent setting, lots of commentary on consumerism and the nuclear family, and a strong Gothic influence—particularly the part where a man lives in a secret passage under the house, totally unbeknownst to the other residents.
- Gone Girl focuses on a married couple, Amy and Nick, who were forced to move from New York City to the suburbs of Missouri when Nick's mother got sick. Much of the narrative focuses on how their formerly-happy marriage became troubled and downright cruel over the course of five years, culminating in Amy's disappearance on their anniversary, and the subsequent murder investigation. Secrets, betrayals, and shocking twists abound, especially around part two, which is when the book becomes a pure psychological thriller. Emphasized in this quote from Amy's diary, just after they move:
Nick promised to take care of me, and yet I feel afraid. I feel like something is going wrong, very wrong, and that it will get even worse. I don't feel like Nick's wife. I don't feel like a person at all: I am something to be loaded and unloaded, like a sofa or a cuckoo clock. I am something to be tossed into a junkyard, thrown into the river, if necessary. I don't feel real anymore. I feel like I could disappear.
- The House Next Door is a classic of suburban Gothic, taking place in a wealthy Atlanta suburb and involving a snazzy house that does nasty. things to its inhabitants.
- It begins with a boy being murdered by a clown living in the sewers under his suburban Maine town and continues with his brother and a group of friends investigating the mystery behind his death while being stalked by the town bully.
- The Lovely Bones is told from the point of view of a teenage girl watching her family from the afterlife after she is raped and murdered by a neighbor on her way home from school. The novel follows Susie as she learns that her neighbor is a serial killer and her family as her father looses himself in trying to find her killer and her mother has an affair and eventually leaves the family.
- Mass has the super-elite suburb (or rather, gated subdivision) of Pobres Park play setting to The Narrator's murder of oligarch Juan Puneta, though as said narrator, Pepe Samson, is a working-class activist, this isn't necessarily portrayed as an out-and-out bad thingbut it's also triggered by a pretty Gothic trope: Pepe's discovering the terrible secret that Puneta was involved in a False Flag Operation to violently suppress and kill many street protesters.
- Scenes From Outer Suburbia is based entirely around this concept, consisting of a series of short stories and snippets depicting supernatural or simply surreal events all set in or based around the suburban sprawl of American cities, with even the most absurd events being treated as just regular features of suburbia.
- Played for Laughs in The Addams Family. Like The Munsters, this suburban family is eccentric and macabre in the extreme — they blow up model trains, own a lion and a meat-eating plant, enjoy sleeping on nail beds, snip the buds off roses while keeping just the thorny stems, and inadvertently make their more staid guests extremely uncomfortable, among other things — but they're a loving, tightly-knit family and ultimately a good-hearted bunch.
- Angel: In Season Five, first Lyndsey and then Gunn are trapped in a hell-dimension where they apparently have an idyllic suburban life with a perfect wife and children, except that after breakfast every day they are dragged down into the Torture Cellar and tortured to death by a demon. The scenes include direct visual references to Edward Scissorhands.
- Dark (2017) is set in Winden, a small German town surrounded by dense forests, vaguely eerie and yet unremarkable except for hosting a nuclear power plant and beneath it, a series of caves and tunnels concealing a time portal that opens into other specific eras, always at 33-year intervals away from the present. Many reviewers have described the series as a Nordic Noir (or in this case, Germanic Noir) version of Stranger Things.
- Desperate Housewives often discussed the trope and kept it central to every single season. In the apparently perfect suburb. of Wisteria Lane, neighbors committed suicide, kept the dismembered body parts of a former drug addict under their pool for years so that they could raise her kidnapped son as their own, raised an Enfant Terrible, kept a falsely accused murderous son chained up in the basement, and murder Gaby's abusive stepfather and cover up the crime.
- Eerie, Indiana: Teenager Marshall Teller and his family move to the title suburbia-style town, which hides all manner of sinister, nightmarish doings beneath its white-bread surface. Haunted places, creepy clubs, weirdly menacing townsfolk, extraterrestrials, sentient killer tornadoes, and dogs that want to take over the world populate this ominous place. Even Bigfoot, a werewolf, and a still-living Elvis Presley are encountered.
- Played for Laughs in The Munsters. Like The Addams Family, this suburban family is eccentric and ghoulish to a fault — they are all (except for Marilyn) dead-ringers for classic Universal Studios horror monsters, they own a fire-breathing dragon and a bat and a roaring cat as pets, have a mad-scientist grandfather who whips up all manner of weird potions, drive a souped-up hearse around the neighborhood, and often inadvertently frighten off visitors, among other things — but they're a loving, tightly-knit family and ultimately a good-hearted bunch.
- Stranger Things focuses on a group of teenagers living in Hawkins, Indiana, where a number of destructive supernatural events stemming from research at a local laboratory begin to occur.
- Twin Peaks: The bulk of the series is set in mundane suburbs in various cities, and all of them are a front for either criminal activity or the extradimensional horror from the Black Lodge.
- The secret occult horror lurking beneath America's small towns and suburbs is one of the main recurring themes of Supernatural. (In fact, there's been a whole book published about the show's relationship to the Gothic tradition.)
- Six Feet Under has elements of this. The show takes place mainly in a funeral home which doubles as the Fisher family's house, and often features appearances by the "ghosts" of the people whose bodies are being held there.
- In Hitman: Blood Money, you are sent to kill a former Cuban Crime Lord and his Wife in his suburban home.
- Hitman 2, as a Callback to Blood Money, has you invade yet another suburban town, to kill a former KGB Agent, and his bodyguard. This level also features a muffin baking granny, who spikes her muffins with addictive drugs, and has what the game literally refers to as a "Murder Basement".