Tagged suburbia

american dream and nightmare: suburbia in film


‘Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,  

Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,

And they all look just the same.’

                                                                             – Malvina Reynolds, 1962

As pro-suburban policies were launched in conjunction with a national construction program of 1945, suburbs sprouted all over America and increased the attainability of the American Dream. Surviving from frontier to front-line, this ethos saw nuclear families in pastel neighbourhoods supplanting the horrors of war with their picket fences, Tupperware parties, and flowerbeds.

William Levitt, hailed as the ‘father of suburbia’, developed a scheme with his firm Levitt & Sons that allowed them to build mass-producible and inexpensive housing for the flood of returning veterans in America. In the three separate developments of New York (1947-51), Pennsylvania (1952-58) and New Jersey (1958), the firm offered small houses that could be built in just one day. Despite the modern approach to assembly, the homes themselves strayed little from the conventions of house design upheld by Americans at the time. The structures were revolutionary in their construction, but nostalgia was manifest in their appearance. Within the settings of the ‘Colonial’ or ‘Ranch’ type, the lives of nuclear families were aided and improved by efficient, hygienic and top-of-the-range appliances. Returning from the horrors of war, the veterans were awarded with domesticity.

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A neighbourhood of Jubilee models, Levittown, Pennsylvania, c. 1953

However, due to the standardisation of the Levittown houses, the homogeneity of the streets became a popular criticism. As Levitt sorted his residents by income, each house-type was grouped by neighbourhood, rendering swathes of streets indistinguishable. The long history of racial segregation further upturns this narrative of a suburban utopia. The development in New York was founded on the basis that it was only available to white people alone. Indeed, this stipulation was written into the house contracts by Levitt stating, ‘no dwelling shall be used or occupied except by members of the caucasian race’. Sales agents were advised to turn away black families and automatically register their applications as unsuccessful. Even after the states enforced a non-discrimination law, sales agents located the black applicants away from their white neighbours. The homogeneity of the residents is thus facilitated by this aim to constitute a community with a specific racial identity.

The suburban landscape of Levittown, New York, c. 1952

The little boxes of American suburbia are some of film’s most frequented locations, its homogeneity frequently rendering the protagonist or narrative as extraordinary in comparison. In films that centre around a singular character, think Carrie, Donnie Darko and The Truman Show, the protagonists display their deviation within a stifling suburban setting.

In Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma), the title character faces unanticipated menstruation, peer-bullying, and abuse from her Christian fundamentalist mother. Carrie Whites’s telekinetic powers are the ultimate deviation from the claustrophobic household and school her mother and peers respectively enforce. Following Carrie’s murderous revenge and the burning down of her house, the final scene begins with an opening shot of suburbia. Birds sing and the sun casts shadows on a manicured lawn. The scorched plot where the White house once stood is set up as its inverse. This contrast serves as a reminder of suburbia’s nightmarish potentiality, one that is shown in the final scene, to still haunt the sole survivor of Carrie’s rage.

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Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)
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Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma)

In Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly), suburbia is first introduced as a landscape of mundane yet tranquil normality. In the opening scene, Darko cycles through the streets, the camera panning to the morning joggers. Darko’s father is shown blowing leaves off his lawn, and his sister plays on a trampoline. Immediately Darko is set up as the anomaly – an adolescent who frequents a psychotherapist, disturbs classes, and treats his family with hostility. Again the underside of suburbia is unleashed. The tranquility first introduced is done away with by the end of the film and instead suburbia is set as the home of supernatural powers, multiple universes and sexual deviants.

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Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)
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Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly)

In The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir), suburbia is a simulation. As a product of a corporation, the life of Truman Burbank is broadcasted live around the world as reality entertainment. Here suburbia is not intended to be residential. Instead, cameras are hidden within each wall and suburbia is presented as the ultimate facilitator of voyeurism. When Burbank realises the reality of his situation, this realisation marks his deviation from the suburbia. He becomes transgressive, determined and defiant, assets the suburban simulation attempted to suppress.

The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)
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The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir)

The placidity regularly assigned to suburbia is exploited in the genre of horror. Films like Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter) set the horrific actions of Michael Myers within the sleepy streets of Haddonfield. Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele) subverts this in the setting of the Armitage country-estate. However, despite its isolation, the systematic racism and manicured appearance of the estate seem Levittownian in their presentation.

Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter)
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Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele)

American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes) has been described by critics as a satire of middle-class notions of beauty, sexuality, materialism and personal satisfaction. In the opening monologue, Lester Burnham introduces his suburban place of residence with contempt:

‘This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead … And in a way I’m dead already’.

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American Beauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes)

Films like Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton) and The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola) use suburbia to emphasise the abnormality of their central storyline. In the former, Edward’s behaviour, appearance and physicality are stark contrasts to the pastel utopia of the suburb. As the film progresses, his disruption to the homogeneity of the community ultimately results in his eviction by mob force. In the 1999 film, it is the suicide of the youngest daughter that disrupts – the setting of suburbia heightening the atypicality of her action.

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Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton)
The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola)

For Levitt, suburbia offered security. In film, that veneer is firmly pulled back.







space, suburbia and architecture: constructing tension in film

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s distinction between suspense and surprise can be applied to the architecture of film. Here is a guided tour through architectural features that manufacture and encourage tension, a blueprint of a cinematic dream house, orienting its components through noteworthy film stills.


Corridors are seldom occupied. In the empty space and junctions they create, they become a means to keep moving, or escape.

The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)


The lack of windows and seemingly garish design promote the confinement of rooms and ability to ostracise an audience in A Clockwork Orange. The camera angles are invasive and uncomfortably close to interactions that feel altogether private or perverse, relocating the audience to a position of intrusion and discomfort as a framework for their anticipation.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)


Suburban staircases are continually and gradually icons of deterioration in The Exorcist. Visually allegorising a descent into possession, the crab-walking scene is one of the more memorable moments from what is still heralded as the scariest film to date. Separated from scenes that are far more graphic and perverse, the staircase scene is terrifying for its very banal setting. We are lead to believe that we are safe when we leave Regan’s bedroom, but even the safe spaces in the house become infiltrated.

The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist (1973)


Through the networks of water and noise, entities are carried to the outside world and inward.

Psycho (1960)
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Psycho (1960)
Psycho (1960)
The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1980)
Slither (2006)
IT (2017)

open plan spaces

Paradoxically, open spaces are a symbol of claustrophobia in Sleeping with the Enemy. The wide shots of the spacious beach house, its floor length windows and modern interior design add to the film’s sense of emptiness and the psychological claustrophobia that manifests between episodes of violence. What seems easier to escape from, at least seemingly easier than a cellar as one classic site of entrapment, becomes impossible. Psychological claustrophobia, as manufactured here by the risk of escaping a violent man, is what distorts the idea of open space as freeing and emancipating, and is instead demonstratively empty and tormenting.

Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)
Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)
Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

the closet

Childhood psychological fears of monsters and darkness play into the role of the closet in the cinematic dream house. Often, the closet is where an entity resides to then be unleashed and wreak havoc, in The Grudge, the closet dweller retreats, taking those who peer inside.

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The Grudge (2004)
The Grudge (2004)

the attic

Both a place to escape to and a place that is difficult to escape from, the attic’s function is dual and conflicting. Its moments of relief and its resurgence of tension and confinement occur within moments of each other.

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Sinister (2012)
Sinister (2012)


The Conjuring franchise use doors as a way to visually demonstrate paranormal movements, but also, as the house grows more unrelentingly ‘possessed’, the doors themselves seem to physically confine the family indoors.

The Conjuring franchise
The Conjuring franchise
The Conjuring franchise
The Conjuring franchise
The Conjuring franchise


Windows create tension for their very literal and visual function to preview an interiority or exteriority. To see inside a building, or for this view to be blocked or hindered, is very symbolically connected to the idea of darkness vs light. The windows are metaphorically connected to the ways we physically watch film, we cover our eyes from what we can see and we are caught off guard when tension obstructs our vision.

If necessary, windows are a means to escape. Thus even their size in a room impacts our sense of tension and our prediction for the likelihood a protagonist is able to escape, how sealed their fate is. In Mother! windows are a way to see what’s coming before there is a knock at the door.

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Mother! (2017)
Mother! (2017)
Mother! (2017)

the treehouse

Hereditary’s treehouse is extremely allegorical, as a location for grieving, and by the end of the film, as a site of ritualistic sacrifice and worship. Two of the films major themes, mourning and ritualistic satanism, connect only here, at the bottom of the garden amongst ominously fake looking trees that resemble one of Annie’s models.

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Hereditary (2018)
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Hereditary (2018)

using space: wide shots and reflections

Suspiria (1977)
Suspiria (1977)
Black Swan (2010)
Carrie (1976)
It Follows (2014)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
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Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Get Out (2017)

How the camera is positioned in relation to these spaces is the second motion in the construction of tension. Suspiria and Black Swan, similar in their subject matter, use reflective surfaces and mirrors for distortion and conflicting focal points. It Follows uses wide-shots of dark industrial and suburban locations as traps for ‘it’ (the following, morphing entity that orients the narrative) that challenges its audience to find a focus point to latch onto for safety. Either way, there is an exercise of predicting where in our vision is safest, or most thrilling, to look.