Suburbia is often depicted as a dull place where nothing happens. It’s an environment defined by conformity and middle-class values. The prevailing culture is one of tasteful materialism, you’re defined by your home and by what car you drive. Social conformity creates a suffocating environment and narrow-minded conservative attitudes.
This environment also has a darker side to it. It’s a place where families go into meltdown, where teenagers rebel against adults, and the veneer of respectability may conceal a living hell.
In Disturbia (2007) Kale Brecht punches a Spanish teacher and gets three months house arrest with an ankle monitor to ensure that he doesn’t leave the house. Through boredom, as much as anything else, he spies on his neighbours: an unfaithful husband, children watching porn, an attractive female neighbour, and someone he suspects may be a serial killer.
Disturbia is a reworking of Rear Window, this time with a young adult protagonist and the help of modern technology. Eventually, Kale is forced to enter into the monster’s layer, to go into the serial killer’s house. The climactic action takes place underground, in the dark, as Kale desperately attempts to rescue his mother from the serial killer. Like many stories set in suburbia, the all-too normal neighbours are not what they appear to be.
The suburban environment seems ‘normal’, but it’s a kind of prison. In The Truman Show (1998) it really is a prison, one with cameras, and in The Swimmer (1968) it’s a place of social confinement, where you are part of a wealthy elite – or locked out of it.
The stifling conformity of suburbia breeds rebellion. In The Graduate (1967) and Suburbia, the characters strive to escape social expectations, the confines of class and conformity. This sense of personal alienation becomes a medicated disconnect in Donnie Darko (2001), a moral vacuum in The Ice Storm (1997) and American Beauty (1999). Suburbia can turn into a fairy-tale dystopia, like the one in Edward Scissorhands (1990) or the surreal nightmare of Blue Velvet (1986). Even when it’s presented realistically, as an ordinary place, it can be filled with bitterness and despair, like the characters in Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).
It’s a place where children turn into adults, almost overnight in American Graffiti (1973) or across many years, in Boyhood (2014).
It’s not all bad though, because suburbia can be a place where transcendence takes place. In Bachelor Party (1984), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and in Gran Torino (2008), the protagonists are celebrated for overcoming their challenges and creating something positive from a potential crisis.
The suburban housewife isn’t so lucky in The Stepford Wives (1974) women are treated like slaves and replaced by robots. And no one seems to notice. Suburbia can be a paranoid place. Who knows who or what your neighbours are or do? In The ’Burbs (1989), and Arlington Road (1999) they could be killers, communists, or terrorists.
Or, even worse, the safe and comfortable suburbia you expected could actually be a living hell, a place of horror. And in Get Out (2017), Poltergeist (1982), The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2014), and Halloween (1978) it really is.
Suburbia’s superficial normality can hide many things: romance, teenage rebellion, anarchy, or terror. Be careful, things are not what they appear – surprise and fear lurks beyond the neatly mown lawns.