Across its subgenres, horror often takes place in various versions of Anytown, USA. It might be the quiet and idyllic (or highkey unsettling) sleepy town nestled a good drive from a major city. Or perhaps it’s a one stop light, “nothing ever happens here” rural place where everyone knows each other…or so they think. Leaves skip along sidewalks, trees and tall grass sway in the breeze, vacant buildings pepper the landscape, and life is slow. But, underneath that façade, there’s something sinister afoot. When you think about it, small towns are the perfect location for a horror story.
As a person who grew up in a small town in rural North Carolina, I am all too familiar with how they can be a real-life hotbed for urban legends, salacious stories, and haunted house narratives. You either hear about or silently wonder what happened to the fire-scorched old house you pass every day. There’s an abandoned building with scary stories and rumors attached to its history, piquing your curiosity and fear simultaneously.
A reclusive person living in a creepy house becomes fodder for outlandish speculation. Elders remember a tragic story of a murder that shook the town to its core. Gossip and news uncover the skeletons in people’s closets, revealing that they weren’t who they seemed to be. Those are all horrors that can happen anywhere but they feel exacerbated in a small town. So it is no surprise to me that countless horror films, TV shows, and books center their action in small towns and/or rural settings. Let’s take a closer look at some reasons why they work well for the genre.
The Fear of Isolation, Forgotteness, and High Visibility
Small towns and rural area residents are both isolated and extremely visible. There’s no crowd to dissolve and blend into like you can in a city. If the town is small enough, it’s likely that too many people know your business, for better or worse. Despite popular belief, a small town is not one big community. There are divisions and subsets that often lead to devisiveness and discord.
Take Midnight Mass for instance. Crockett Island is a remote New England place where every single face is recognizable. If you are new, they will notice and watch you. But, among its residents, there is brewing tension from past events that still permeates in present times. The town itself isn’t prominent but every single resident is highly visible.
A town’s location may result in a lack of access to certain resources, fostering an environment that feels sequestered from the larger “society.” It’s akin to being in a wilderness of sorts, especially if there is no major city nearby, where people have to rely on their ingenuity, survival instinct, and others nearby. You may even get that feeling that there’s “nowhere to run” if trouble arises. Death and mayhem can take place in these “forgotten” pockets of America with little to no attention. In short, their terror is their problem, whether it comes from supernatural roots, strange entities, or a human killer.
We see this in films like Night of the Living Dead, which utilizes a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse to amp up the terror of being chased by zombies. Ben and his cohorts don’t have a securer place to go. And, there’s no help coming any time soon. Before moving to Virginia, The Walking Dead follows this same concept starting its story in a small Georgia town a couple of hours away from Atlanta. The group does go into the abandoned city on occasion but much of its early storyline takes place in camps, on farmland, and in the woods. Again, they are on their own without the safety in larger numbers.
Stranger Things is a prominent example of the balance between isolation and high visibility, particularly through Joyce Byers. She lives on the outskirts of an already small town, a location that leaves her home vulnerable and leads to Will’s disappearance. Hawkins residents rally behind her looking for Will; however, their support soon turns into whispers and stares about her apparent emotional and mental spiral.
She becomes a small town archetype of the crazy local lady, the center of their attention while also being mostly alone. Again, this can happen in any community but those murmurs seem to reverberate louder in a smaller place. It plays into our real fears of being watched/judged, loneliness/isolation, and knowing that something is wrong but no one believing us.
The Othering of Small Towns
The feeling of being “othered” is big in horror. Hell, the genre itself is othered, as evidenced by award shows rarely recognizing horror’s contributions to cinema.
In many ways, small towns, specifically those in rural areas, are othered by people who have never lived in one. Residents are stereotyped and judged for “choosing” to live there despite it not always being a choice. Small town residents don’t all lack intelligence, speak with a thick accent, eschew progressive beliefs, or hate everyone who isn’t from their home. And all small towns and rural areas are not “shit-kicker” places for people with no future.
An excellent recent example of this is Shadyside, OH, the fictional town in the Fear Street trilogy. The entire community is under a decades-long generational curse that causes killing sprees. The city and its cycle of murder are written off by outsiders who think Shadysiders are just violent people who are ruining their own lives. And many Shadysiders simply accept things for what they are, believing the things said about them to be true.
But Deena Johnson is determined to discover the truth and break the curse over her town. A curse that is unsurprisingly tied to white cishet male privilege. Deena herself is othered in the story as a Black lesbian from the “wrong side of the tracks” but she ends up being the silent liberator for all Shadysiders, present and future. Small town horror stories give voice and narrative to places and people who are othered. Some of them become antagonists while others become the heroes that some never thought they would be.
The Juxtaposition Between Ideal Neighborhood and Deadly Foe
Picture it. A pretty street lined with large decorated houses, neat yards, and kids playing on the sidewalks. It’s the snapshot of a small town neighborhood where people seemingly have their slice of the American Dream. That image can quickly become sinister if you imagine a killer lurking behind one of those well-trimmed bushes. A tenet of horror is playing on our fears that things are not what they seem. This is certainly the case in many fictional and real small towns. A quick Google search about small town murders will affirm that they often happen in picturesque places, leaving residents stunned and upset.
This brings Halloween to mind. Haddonfield, Illinois goes into shock after a boy murders his big sister and comes back for a killing spree. It’s a horrific piece of the town’s history that they have grappled with (mostly silently) for years. If you took a look at Haddonfield, you’d never think something so gruesome could go down there.
In the upcoming installment of its retconned storyline, the direct survivors of Michael’s terror and other residents will come together to put an end to this looming evil. This ties into that tight-knit community aspect and how, when terror arises, it is up to the aware residents to save themselves.
Much of the Scream franchise takes place in Woodsboro, California, an idyllic and wealthy town. It is certainly not a place where you’d expect a teen killing spree. Downtown Woodsboro is rather adorable and everyone lives in really nice houses in the middle of nowhere. It all sets up a great place to cause mayhem. Think about it. Casey Becker could have run but where the hell would she have gone? You couldn’t even see her neighbors.
Stu Macher’s house was the perfect place to carry out a massacre because it took the police all damn night to get there. And, the film leans into the aforementioned reality of small towns: the gossip circle. I hate to admit it but it is a thing. Rumors about Maureen and Sidney are interweaved in this tale, making Sidney’s journey a social nightmare. It’s easy to picture horror in the “grim” streets of a city or a crumbling/abandoned place or town. But the terror of friendly streets mixed with the stabby action is a dynamic duo.
Slasher stories with flesh and blood killers are one thing. You can’t ignore literal murder. But when you throw supernatural elements into these tiny slices of paradise, it becomes another animal, playing into the notion that “perfect” small towns have the most secrets. Some of them that the majority may not know. The majority of residents in Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Sunnydale remain in general oblivion about their town’s vampiric happenings. But, a few of those who do know are up to some sinister stuff of their own.
A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Springwood, Ohio harbors the very dark secret of Freddy Krueger, the child killer whom the townspeople killed years prior. He comes back, taking kids out in their dreams, and the adults around them are largely unaware. Again, these are places that look great on the outside but have a dark soul. Pairing pretty with gruesome is a horror trope classic.
The Examination of Safeness
Even if a small town has some creepy, dilapidated buildings or isn’t so pretty, many people associate them with being “safer.” It makes sense in many ways. Neighbors know each other from their kids playing together. Generations of families grow up in the same place. There are fewer people who could hurt you, right? Wrong. Small towns make for good horror settings because it breaks down that assumption.
Hawkins isn’t a fancy small town. It’s a normal, working-class place. But people assume they know each other very well. They allow their children to roam the streets all day and half the night on their bikes with little worry. In fact, before 1983, there hadn’t been a missing person for decades. And the biggest scandal was an owl attacking a woman’s head because it looked like a nest. So, when multiple kids go missing, it puts fear into the hearts of its residents. The same goes for pretty much any other ’80s or ’90s era horror film set in a small town with a kid or teen ensemble. They are just out in the streets and the parents do not care until something goes down. And sometimes they still don’t care.
This goes for quite a few Stephen King stories. You might know him. He’s the King of Small Town Horror. Maine towns Derry (It) and Chamberlain (Carrie) are places that not only fit into the “lovely” or “safe” aesthetic but also seem safe…until you look closer. Carrie certainly wasn’t safe from her mother and horrible peers. And the adults in It have no idea that a dancing weird clown is killing their kids. It is a reminder that there’s nowhere on Earth where humans live and horror cannot ensue.
The Outsider and a Town with Secrets
Perhaps the scariest marriage of horror and small towns is when everyone knows…except you. And they don’t just know what’s going on, they accept it as a norm and perhaps participate in it. It’s not harmful to them but boy, if you are an outsider, you have something to worry about. The concept of being new to a place with people who have an established bond, culture, and general daily flow is scary enough.
Throw some dark secrets, possible supernatural mess, and murder into the mix and it’s a solid foundation for horror. There’s Dead & Buried, where the townspeople are killing visitors and a sheriff realizes no one is who they seem to be. Potter’s Bluff is a very bad place, indeed.
The aforementioned Midnight Mass also plays with this in a different way through its Sheriff Omar Hassan, who is not only an outsider but an “other” because he’s not Christian. There are secrets that he’s constantly unraveling in town. Or Children of the Corn, where a small Nebraska town is full of a kiddle cult who murder adults to the chagrin of some travelers. Get Out also fits here with its rural location and poor Chris not knowing the family’s sinister plans.
There’s also a particular brand of secretiveness in small town horror that I call “we don’t go there.” The residents know some BS went down at a specific house/location and they don’t fool with it. But, they also really don’t warn others to stay away either. Or if they do, it is an afterthought or not very convincing. Friday the 13th is a prime example. The people of Crystal Lake disassociate themselves from the murders that took place at Camp Crystal Lake.
What transpired there is a secret of sorts that they don’t care to divulge to newcomers. It’s keeping “our business” to ourselves, perhaps out of shame, fear, or distrust of outsiders. We see this in the first film when everyone looks at Annie like she’s nuts for taking a job at Camp Crystal Lake. They express shock that the place is opening back up. But damn, y’all could’ve told her that some MESS went down so maybe don’t go there. Ralph tells her about “Camp Blood,” but of course she doesn’t believe the “local kooky man.” And, of course, the truck man decides to tell her when they are already on the way there. Not that she was bright enough to listen anyway, but I digress.
This also applies to Stephen King’s Jerusalem’s Lot. The people of Preacher’s Corner know this abandoned place and Chapelwaithe ain’t kosher at all. And when Charles and Calvin decide they want to take residence there, the locals are like “if you go down this path, that’s on you.” It’s rather amusing to me as a small town person because it screams “stop coming here for your investigative thrills and leave us alone.”
Of course, there are far too many small town narratives to name. And that’s a testament to how well these settings work in horror. From secrets to rumors to being seen and isolated, small towns and rural areas will always reign supreme in thrilling, gory, and twisted tales.