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(Why) Is Rural America Scarier than Urban America? Experts Weigh in

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(Why) Is Rural America Scarier than Urban America? Experts Weigh in
8 min. read

Image: Mark Zhyhman / Shutterstock.com

With Halloween right around the corner, we thought it would be a good idea to put together a list with some of the best horror movies in the past decades. Getting spooked in pajamas on Halloween is a great pastime, with or without the pandemic adding the more sinister note. 

As art is by definition subjective, we picked the highest grossing horror movies adjusted for inflation, and we set to learn something from them, as well. Because why make a list if you can’t nitpick at it?

In the past decades, we noticed more and more horror films seem to take place in rural locations or in small towns. The action and tension are moving away from big city life and suburbia and toward more rural locations and small towns. Nowadays, it is the big, dilapidated homes and mansions in disrepair that give us the creeps.

Since we don’t know why that might happen, we reached out in search for answers to Professor Kyle Bishop from Southern Utah University and to Professor William Paul from The Washington University in St. Louis. You can find their thoughts below the list. 

Experts’ Insights

Kyle William Bishop
Professor of English
Southern Utah University

Do you believe people are generally more scared of rural surroundings than of larger, urban settings? Why? 

“I propose that fear of the rural is akin to fear of the ‘wilderness,’ which is an almost universal, ancient survival instinct, and I think this trepidation and anxiety has only gotten more severe in our modern day for those who are primarily familiar with urban living. 

Historically, the ‘rural’ has been the realm of wild animals, harsh conditions, insecurity, and struggles for survival. The colonial frontier, the ‘wild west,’ the ‘wild.’ For those who find safety and comfort in the crowds and institutions (grocery stores, police stations, fire departments, etc.) of the city, rural locales can be seen as remote, ‘cut off,’ and even lawless. (Conversely, I think those who live in rural environments are afraid of big cities–and those horror films also exist–but the largest target audience for films and television programs live in urban or at least suburban locations.)” 

Given people’s increased preference for the suburbs and rural areas due to the pandemic, do you believe we’ll see a shift to urban settings in horror movies in the years to come? 

“Great question! I do think we will likely see more horror films that take place in urban settings, narratives about the fear of crowds instead of the fear of isolation. I recently learned that National Park attendance is way up this year, as more and more people find camping and hiking in otherwise remote locations ‘safe’ and comforting. 

Right now, many people see urban streets, crowded shopping malls, movie theaters, and even schools as places of threat and anxiety. As a result, we will see an increase in urban horror, absolutely.” 

Why do you believe the “moving to a big house” trope exists? Are people scared of moving, especially to a large home? 

“I think large homes can be very frightening, but usually only if they are new or otherwise unfamiliar. A well-lit, comfortable, familiar mansion–no matter how large–remains homey. But if that dwelling is new, foreign, or otherwise unfamiliar, the larger it is, the more disturbing it can be (especially at night, in the dark, etc.). Part of this fear comes from a general fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, but I think it is worse in a house because a ‘home’ should be familiar and comfortable. 

Maybe it’s because we all play hide-and-seek as children… The more places there are for things to hide, to more frightening a space will be.”

 

William Paul
Professor Emeritus of Film and Media Studies
Washington University at St. Louis

Do you believe people are generally more scared of rural surroundings than of larger, urban settings? Why? 

“Evidence from the history of horror films says ‘no’ as urban areas are as likely to provide the setting for horror films, perhaps more so, than anywhere else. 

The three films that Stephen King posits as the foundation of the genre take place in a variety of settings: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde entirely in London, Dracula shifting from an isolated castle in Transylvania to London to a manor house in the countryside, Frankenstein in a remote village with the latter two films taking place primarily in interior settings. The crucial film for the development of the horror film as a high-budget genre, The Exorcist (1973) takes place almost entirely in Washington D.C. 

Setting is always important to the horror film because the genre always confronts us with a drama of space. And there is one constant the genre requires for that space: limited sightlines that derive their dramatic power from our inability to see what we fear might be lurking just beyond our sight. Perhaps the most famous sequence from a 1940s horror film comes in Cat People (1943), set entirely in New York City, as a woman walks on a deserted sidewalk alongside Central Park at night, worried she is being followed by another woman who had the magical ability to transform into a murderous leopard. She keeps looking behind her, but can see nothing in the darkness. She does hear footsteps which stop when she stops, resume when she resumes, but then the footsteps suddenly stop as she continues walking—has the other woman transformed? 

Urban settings are full of obstacles to our sight and so provide rich environments for horror. The emphasis on interiors in a more rural setting provides a similar limitation to our sight. The right kind of rural setting can also offer limitations, but you wouldn’t want to use settings you might expect in another genre that dramatizes space, the western with its vast plains and deserts. 

On the other hand, Them! (1953) first has its giant ants appear in the desert, but they must eventually move to the sewers of Los Angeles to become truly terrifying. And The Exorcist also begins in a desert, albeit at an archaeological dig which literally unearths a disturbing object that seems to invoke a (possibly hallucinatory) statue the archaeologist had not previously noted.” 

Given people’s increased preference for the suburbs and rural areas due to the pandemic, do you believe we’ll see a shift to urban settings in horror movies in the years to come? 

“This might seem a reasonable assumption given the cities were initially the principal site for the worst of the pandemic, but now that it has spread to rural areas which are increasingly responsible for high numbers of cases, I don’t think either setting can escape the monster of the virus—which seems like the premise for a horror movie. Might we be inclined in retrospect to see Contagion (2011) as the foundational film for later horror? Well, I am a film historian, so I try not to predict the future. 

Looking at the past, I can say that significant cultural changes do have an impact on genre development. So, there really is no suburban horror film before the growth of the suburbs post-World War II. Halloween (1978) is perhaps the defining film for suburban horror as it made the atomized social order with its isolating single-family homes, nuclear family (much discussed at the time) and empty streets a source of horror. Poltergeist (1982), another suburban horror film, derives its final horror from an eruption of the life the suburbs had eradicated, although much of the film is again about isolation, with the only communication to the outside world coming through the family’s television set, itself a source of horror.”

Why do you believe the “moving to a big house” trope exists? Are people scared of moving, especially to a large home? 

“I am not sure what specific films you have in mind here, but the looming mansion with its seemingly endless supply of rooms, some perhaps hidden, perhaps a mysterious attic space, is a trope from 19th century gothic novels, one of which was the source for I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Given the literary background, this can turn up in non-horror films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), recently remade, but its chief value for the horror film is, once again, the possibility for spatial surprises it offers. As in The Shining (1980), where a labyrinth-like hotel takes over for a mansion, you never know what will appear down the next corridor—or for that matter in an actual labyrinth adjacent to the hotel. 

Perhaps the ultimate Old Dark House film (the actual title of a 1932 horror movie) is not set in an actual house, but rather on board a spaceshipAlien (1979), almost single-mindedly focused on the terror of what we cannot see. 

A house sufficiently large and labyrinthine can undermine our sense of mastery, and that is sufficient to produce the anxiety necessary for horror.” 

 
 
The pandemic, with its isolation and physical distancing might have a silver lining. Given that significant social and cultural changes tend to have an impact on genre development, current events might be reflected in future movies. And so, horror movie lovers could be witnessing the rebirth of urban horror, which will terrify and daunt us for years to come.

 

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