“Stranger Things”: Horror in Midwestern Suburbia

Set in a small Indiana town, “Stranger Things” extends a long tradition of horror in the Midwestern landscape. But after several decades of capitalizing on regional tropes, is it time to retire (or least, think more critically about) the suburban Midwest as the home of horror? Cover graphic by Sophia-Rose Diodati for Midstory.

It’s a familiar tale. There’s an otherwise uneventful, untroubled suburb enjoying a slice of quiet American life — until a malevolent supernatural force arrives, upsetting the community’s otherwise sturdy and well-constructed sense of comfort and security. The story’s horror (and cinematic pull factor) usually lies in the gory spectacle that follows, but also in its sense of reversal and unlikeliness — if those events could befall a seemingly “normal,” sleepy town, perhaps they could befall yours, too.

So goes the setting for some of the biggest horror blockbusters of all-time.

The Duffer Brothers’ “Stranger Things” — unfolding in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana — isn’t the first story with supernatural themes to be set in the Midwest. It is, however, perhaps the most recent one to captivate popular culture and the national (and global) imagination on such an expansive scale: in the last week of May, after the show’s Season 4 Volume I release, “Stranger Things” accumulated over 5.1 billion minutes (or, to put things into perspective, about 9,700 years) of viewing time on Netflix.

Although the series seems more interested in reproducing the aesthetic charm and atmosphere of the 1980s in its setting than in anything essentially Midwestern, it still builds upon a decades-old pattern in film and television: horror in (and of) the Midwest.

Besides housing cultural hallmarks like Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, of the 107 films set in the United States on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the Top 200 horror films of all time, just under 16% of them take place or were filmed in the Midwest. These films often fit loosely into one of three categories: rural, urban and suburban — delineations that, while not exclusive to Middle America, represent three vastly different landscapes spanning the region that have uniquely Midwestern characteristics.

With a large portion of the Midwest also known as the Corn Belt, perhaps it was inevitable that rural-set Midwestern horror films manifested the crop itself and farm towns into their own horror tropes. In films like the Nebraska-set “Children of the Corn” (1984), fear often plays off the rural environment itself and its perceived isolation from suburbia and urban centers: far from more densely populated areas, there’s no nearby police station or hospital to call for help. Corn fields feature as their own scare factor, too: maze-like, and rife with potential hiding places, jump scares, and chase sequences. (Bonus points if farm equipment, like sickles or pitchforks, are used as murder weapons). Merging a sinister mood with the “flyover country” trope, it suggests the viewer might want to be afraid of the place as much as the people.

Burt Stanton (Peter Horton) encounters a bloodied briefcase in a corn field in “Children of the Corn.” Image courtesy of Apple TV.

As tempting as it is to pigeonhole the Midwestern landscape to agriculture and prairies, its urban areas bear vestiges of post-industrialization and abandonment that make the region yet again an ideal backdrop for horror films. Visible in the urban-set horror of Chicago’s “Candyman,” (2021) as well as in the 1992 original of the same name, the urban landscape of the Cabrini-Green housing projects themselves are antagonistically incarnated in the form of the titular character — seemingly manifested from the very vilified condition, treatment, and history of violence visited upon the community and the land beneath them. Other urban-set Midwestern horror films like Detroit’s “The Crow” (1994) also suggest the idea of a boogeyman created by, on, and from aspects of the very landscape he haunts — a supernatural force created in part by the environment itself.

But among all iconic horror sets, perhaps the most enduring in American cultural memory to-date is Midwestern suburbia. Producing the setting for some of the most recognizable horror films of all-time, the Midwestern suburbs also house the first installment in what would become a 12-film franchise, “Halloween” (1978), set in the fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois. Centered around high school student and babysitter Laurie Strode’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) escape from silent serial killer Michael Myers, “Halloween” is often credited with shaping horror — particularly “slasher” films — as a genre, cementing conventions like the “final girl” trope, emphases on scenes filmed from the killer’s perspective and the use of a theme song for a killer.

Perhaps among the most famous (and unsettling) of shots from “Halloween,” Laurie Strode reels from finding the bodies of her three friends, with Michael Myers lurking just past her shoulder. Image courtesy of Apple TV.

The critical and commercial success of “Halloween” popularized the subgenre such that a wave of slasher films followed throughout the 80s, including classics like the Springwood, Ohio-set “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984).

As opposed to a vilification of the landscape, suburban horror often positions the setting as a foil to the violence typical of the genre. Where horror can most palpably dwell is in the anticipation of where it’s going to confront you from, and more specifically, in the knowledge that formerly innocuous features of your daily landscape now hold a newfound capacity for harboring something (or someone) violent. Unlike in rural- or urban-set horror, where the setting is part of the terror, suburban horror induces fear because the landscape is so fundamentally unlike the entity troubling it.

In “Halloween” as well as “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” the suburban Midwestern setting can be a substitute for the viewer’s own home, as a kind of “Anytown, U.S.” — a way for viewers to imagine (and fear) their own capability for encountering the same kind of horror, and their susceptibility to it. It’s scarier to imagine Michael Myers prowling about a home or street like yours, assuming that a neighborhood like Haddonfield or Springwood is the American default. As Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), Myers’ psychiatrist, says to the town’s sheriff in “Halloween,” “Death has come to your little town.” Haddonfield’s graveyard keeper Angus Taylor (Arthur Malet) even tells Loomis, while leading him to the headstone of Michael’s first victim, “Every town has something like this happen.”

The influence of these films — aesthetically and conceptually — is still going strong in today’s media. Just look for the Easter eggs in “Stranger Things.” Season 4’s newest antagonist, Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower), resembles and seems to be inspired by (in addition to his Dungeons & Dragons namesake) Freddy Krueger: his misshapen, seemingly desiccated skin and psychic attacks, or his long, clawed left hand not unlike Krueger’s gruesome burn scars, dream-entering abilities and instantly recognizable knife glove. Like Vecna, Krueger also targets four teenage victims from a supposedly quiet town, and “Stranger Things” heroine Max Mayfield may remind some viewers of Nancy Thompson in “Elm Street,” with both characters being the fourth and final victims, as well as the only ones to successfully resist and fight their pursuers. The Duffer Brothers even include a small homage to “Halloween” in the season finale, as Vecna, like Michael Myers, is shot multiple times, falls from the upper stories of a house, and yet has his body mysteriously disappear (and seemingly, survive) once the heroes check the ground to confirm his death.

The terror of the outstretched hand, grip at the neck and narrow escape into Vecna’s telepathic attack in “Stranger Things” Season 4, Episode 4: “Dear Billy” echoes the bedroom fight that takes place about 40 minutes into “Elm Street.” In both scenes, the heroine is saved by a sensory input from the outside world: for Max, it’s Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God),” and for Nancy, it’s her alarm clock. Images courtesy of Netflix.

In image and in concept, the influence of Midwestern suburban horror still shapes the horror of today, and often with it comes the assumed normalcy and ubiquity of its setting. As Krueger himself says in “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare,” “Every town has an Elm Street!” Now, while this isn’t literally true, it’s not a bad approximation. According to the Washington Post, based on road data as of 2014, “trees, numbers, and presidents are the most popular names for streets” nationwide. If you’re looking for Elm streets in the Midwest in particular, there are 246 in Missouri, 209 in Ohio, and 234 in Wisconsin which contribute to the 5,233 total Elm streets that make the tree the 15th most popular street name in the United States.

But even if every town doesn’t actually have an Elm street (or a Maple, or an Oak), the implication of Freddy’s words (and of the suburban, Midwestern setting) is that they could — and consequently, that he could target you, too. Underlying all this seems to be an assumption of the Midwest (or at least, of the Illinois and Ohio suburbs) as the location of a standard, baseline American experience that will provide the furthest possible tonal contrast once the monster arrives. Haddonfield’s orderly, picturesque trees and neatly trimmed front yard hedges become lurking spots, bedrooms become dead-ends and closets like coffins, locked doors are made pitifully frail — sometimes, the least scary part of a scene is the actual attack.

Bad things can still happen during the daytime, too — here, Michael Myers peeks out from behind a hedge on one of Haddonfield’s lawns, staring down Laurie and her friend Annie. Daylight can sometimes be a perceived shield against evil supernatural forces, and “renature” elements of the environment that generate fear in the dark (for example, casting shadows). But part of the creation of suspense here is that even in seemingly secure places like a sunny suburban lawn, there’s no guarantee of safety from the killer. Adult Michael Myers’ first kill of the film — an unnamed mechanic — is even revealed to the viewer during the day, and Freddy Krueger stages his first on-screen dream attack on Nancy while she’s at school, as well. Image courtesy of Apple TV.

Often stylized as America’s “heartland,” the (suburban) Midwest has long been mythologized as a quintessentially “normal” region, and oftentimes, implied to be a kind of default America. Attitudes introducing and upholding this idea can date back to the late 19th and early 20th century, when discourse surrounding the definitions of America, its frontier of colonization, the then-known-as “Middle West,” and their respective roles was especially active. 

In his 1893 essay “The Frontier in American History,” (which has since been disputed by other historians, but was embraced at the time) historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote that “the task of the Middle West is of adapting democracy to the vast economic organization of the present,” and that “it is important that the Middle West should accomplish this; the future of the Republic is with her.” Further literature between 1902 and 1920 depicted the Middle West as comfortingly rural and containing idealized rural traits like being “pragmatic and industrious,” and “idealistic, moral, and humble,” while also portraying the region as modern and industrialized: a place that unified the best of agricultural and industrial society.

With the West upheld as an ever-youthful region, and the East as old and siphoned of its former vitality by emigration, the Midwest “rapidly became the standard by which to judge the rest of the nation.” While this opinion wavered between the 1920s and 1950s, with the idealization of urban America being transferred back to the East and the Midwest being viewed as increasingly rural, a rise in homesickness and nostalgia felt by city and urban center residents in the 1960s supported a rebranding of the Midwest’s small towns and their culture as quaint, providing a space for “America’s ‘collective’ hometown.”

The mechanics of fear in Midwestern suburban horror, then, can play on stereotypically suburban (and often, white) imaginings of the Midwest. The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, quoting journalist Joel Garreau, even writes that he “found ‘social calm’ to be the [Midwest’s] most identifiable regional feature, a calm that enabled this place to define America’s cultural limits to be ‘the ratifier of what constitutes a truly mainstream continental idea.’”

After seemingly defeating Freddy Krueger, Nancy emerges into a misty, tranquil version of her neighborhood. Her friends are mystically all alive again and waiting for her in Glen’s car. Her mother is alive, too: speaking in suspiciously serene, singsongy, almost Stepford wife-like tones. Image courtesy of Netflix.
The illusion, however, doesn’t last: the car locks itself and drives down Elm street, seemingly controlled by Freddy, whose arm bursts through the door window to grab Nancy’s mother. Image courtesy of Netflix.
The return to a peaceful Ohio suburb at the film’s end is thwarted — an attempt at lulling Nancy into a false state of comfort that exists so it can be shattered. Image courtesy of Netflix.

With the scare factor in films like “Halloween” being at least bolstered by the abrupt disruption of this social calm by supernatural and criminally violent forces, part of what sustains the horror is the idealistically safe environment becoming perilous: suburbia itself, or at least the idea of its peace, can be a key to the mechanisms of what magnifies the horror. (You might even identify echoes of a similar dynamic in “Stranger Things,” with the townspeople more and more vocally describing the once-sleepy town of Hawkins as “cursed” as more and more uncharacteristic violence and misfortune befalls them.) That is, is the story scarier because it’s happening in the supposedly least-expected, yet most generically “relatable” place possible?

Is it time to retire the (suburban) Midwest as a setting for horror stories? Not necessarily — but perhaps “Stranger Things” is an invitation to think more critically about and actually isolate what it is we’re afraid of, and how our own fear plays out in different settings. That’s not to overcomplicate things: (slasher) villains can simply be scary by virtue of the fact that they’re (slasher) villains. A large blade-wielding man is terrifying in any setting. But at least in the case of “Halloween” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” perhaps it’s not unimportant to keep in mind that both Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger are products of, or at least originate from, the suburbs themselves. In “Stranger Things,” Vecna, FKA Henry Creel, is even seemingly the product of an artificially constructed “family” whose home is Hawkins. As uncharacteristic as the villains seem relative to the historical tone and mood of their hometowns, their horror still originates from, not outside of, their respective towns.

One of the apparent reminders of “ Stranger Things” is that there are ways to execute tropes that can reinforce them and also ways to execute them that question characteristics of a genre. Depending on the hands it’s in, the Midwest is often used as a kind of supposed mirror — a way to insert a setting that is assumedly likely to be similar to the viewer’s own — in a horror of similarities. You could know or have known Laurie Strode, or Nancy Thompson or the Wheelers — or people like them; you could have memories you could substitute for the characters or places on screen.

Or, you couldn’t. Normality is relative, and across a region as large as the Midwest, assumptions and constructions of a default can obfuscate the reality of the actual region. Many of these films fear, as anyone might, revoked “guarantees” of security, paradigm shifts in how a setting compels its residents to live their daily lives, and the often irreversible, denaturing quality of horrific experiences — making those fears hypervisible by casting them against a calm backdrop. But as one considers what landscape to contrast our fears against in visual media, where a story anchors itself can inform us about our own perceptions and assumptions as much as it can (re)characterize — for better or worse — the place itself.


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