two dolls sit on swings in the middle of a desolate town
Posted on June 19, 2022

10 Scary Small Towns in US Horror

Guest Post

The culture wars in US politics have become fixated on the rural-urban divide ever since rural voters in just the right mix of states elected Donald Trump to the Presidency in 2016, launching a thousand ethnographic think-pieces in big city news outlets about the worldview of small-town white folks who had long been overlooked by mainstream media.

But anxieties about rural America have long animated a certain corner of the US horror tradition, in stories about seemingly wholesome small towns hiding dark secrets behind their façade of normalcy. Or stories of decrepit small towns where the people and communities left behind by globalization and urbanization have turned monstrous and vengeful, at least in horror films.

Given these dynamics, horror films can tell us a compelling story about the anxieties and resentments animating the rural-urban divide in the US (and elsewhere), a divide that has defined contemporary US politics since Trump. Often, the US horror film has envisioned rural spaces as bastions of corruption and degradation, a space of danger for modern, progressive travelers, rather than addressing the fears and anxieties of rural folks.

At times, these films offer a subset of the “hillbilly horror” trope, in which rural white people are imagined as threats to the urbanites or suburbanites who don’t belong. In films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or higher-brow thrillers such as Deliverance (1972), psychopathic rural folks exact revenge on middle-class (or aspiring middle-class) outsiders, playing out the class-politics of the rural-urban divide.

Other times, thriving rural communities are depicted as corrupt or demonic, as if rural prosperity in an age of modernization can only be found through Faustian bargains, as in classics such as The Fog (1980). Such stories hint at the kinds of violence against Indigenous peoples or racial Others that made white rural communities in the US prosperous in the first place.

The scary small town wallows in these political tensions, focusing not just on rural psychopaths but on the unfulfilled promises of prosperity for rural communities, the festering resentments of a culture that idealizes white, small-town life but has left so many rural communities to wither in the global economy.

Not surprisingly, then, the scary small town has been a prime target for nostalgic re-imaginings of classic horror fare. Seven of the ten scary small towns listed here are remakes or re-adaptations of past horror films, as filmmakers look to past depictions of rurality to inform our current cultural moment. As the US ponders its political future, many of these films seek to update our past perspectives on rural life and the supposed horrors found there.

a desolate town with a church steeple in the distance

10. Harlow, Texas (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2022). Building on the success of the 2018 Halloween reboot that pits an aging slasher monster against the gray-haired, ass-kicking final girl that got away, the 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre “requel” decided to set its showdown between Sally Hardesty and Leatherface in a practically-abandoned town in Texas about to be gentrified by urban hipsters and social media influencers. The crumbling infrastructure of Harlow—especially the old orphanage, where Leatherface has been hiding out, and the dilapidated movie theatre—make for some appropriately dingy and creaky spaces for tension and splatter. And the storyline (or what passes for one) deliberately pits gun-toting, Confederate flag-flying, white, rural hillbillies who want to preserve the dignity of their small town against a multi-racial coalition of Millennials and Gen Y-ers obsessed with social media and cancel culture. Of course, an aging Leatherface doesn’t really care for the politics of gentrification, just the thrill of that chainsaw blade slashing human flesh. The crass stereotypes of both the right and the left here are comically superficial as the writers attempt to delve into the culture wars of the rural urban divide, but the fact that rural gentrification provides the backdrop for another round of chainsaw massacres says a lot about the state of the culture.

a man stands alone in the center of an empty street

9. Ambrose (House of Wax, 2005). An incredibly loose remake of the 1953 Vincent Price film of the same name, this 2005 slasher sends a group of teens on a road trip where they inevitably veer off the beaten path, have car troubles, and are confronted by highly stereotypical rural whites, a common plot device that has highlighted cultural fears of rural outsiders since The Hills Have Eyes (see below). They end up in Ambrose, which looks to be a quaint small town with 1950s charm. Except everyone is made of wax. All the shops are populated with life-like wax figures, part of a futile attempt to build a simulacrum of the perfect American town as a tourist attraction. The trouble is, creating wax figures takes way too long, so the mysterious caretakers have taken to ensconcing wayward travelers in hot wax to keep the town populated. The desperate attempt of the town’s caretakers to create a perfect fantasy of 1950s America offers a nice commentary on the violence and repression necessary to sustain our impossible cultural ideals. Unfortunately, that commentary is tacked onto a mediocre slasher plot whose only fun comes from casting Paris Hilton as slasher-bait.

people gaze at a large, robot like structure made of earth materials

8. Summerisle (The Wicker Man, 2006). This Nicolas Cage adaption of the classic 1973 British folk horror film of the same name has been rightfully panned by critics and earned its own cult following for its campy performances and outright oddities. Set on an idyllic island off the coast of Washington that is home to a neo-pagan colony of beekeepers, the film follows a police detective searching for a missing girl on the island, against the wishes of the town’s matriarchal leaders. The original film is enjoyable and intriguing, as a conservative, Christian, rule-following policeman attempts to navigate the randy and sensual neo-pagans, who worship fertility and enjoy some public copulation. The 2006 remake is decidedly joyless and unsexy, as the small town horrors explore the supposed emasculation of traditional male authority.

smoke obscures two figures, one of which appears to be a burned person

7. Aylesbury, Massachusetts (We Are Still Here, 2015). This low budget horror film is set in the late 1970s and follows a middle-aged couple who moves to a remote New England village to grieve the recent loss of their son. After noticing strange, paranormal activity in the home, they find themselves under attack by the charred spirits of the home’s previous owners from the 1870s. But they soon discover a darker truth: the town’s prickly and distant occupants intend to sacrifice the newcomers to the dark spirits that dwell under the house, just as they had the previous occupants. In the way, the darkness won’t overtake the quaint village. Despite being a period piece, We Are Still Here dramatizes the contemporary tensions of migrants to rural communities and the lengths to which small locals will go to sustain their withering communities.

a miner stares at another miner whose face is obscured by a helmet that covers their face

6. Harmony (My Bloody Valentine, 2009). Another of the mid-2000s horror remake bonanza, My Bloody Valentine adds a more overt layer of class-tension on the plot of the original, Canadian slasher film about fun-loving miners paying for the sins of corporate management. The US remake wallows in the duality of small towns in rural America, which still hold a place as idyllic bastions of white, patriotic wholesomeness but, at the same time, are seen as havens of poverty and moral degradation thanks to the economic decline of extractive industries. In the film, Harmony is a quaint, predominately white town where even low-wage workers can afford middle-class homes. But, thanks to the declining fortunes of the coal industry, the margins of the town are spaces of moral decay, like the sleazy motel where the mysterious killer dispatches horny truckers. And the return of a psychopathic miner on a killing spree just happens to coincide with the threat that the coal mine might close its doors forever, linking economic decline with the horrors of bloody violence.

figures stand in a graveyard obscured by a green mist

5. Antonio Island, Oregon (The Fog, 2005). Just as in the John Carpenter classic from 1980, this 2005 remake tells the story of an idyllic small town whose history reveals dark secrets about the costs of prosperity and settlement in the rural west (this time in Oregon instead of the California of the original film). In both films, the inhabitants of a quaint seaside village are tormented by a paranormal fog that brings with it the spirits of angry mariners with a grudge against the village. And for good reason. In a horrific act of NIMBYism, it turns out that the town’s founders murdered a group of wealthy lepers seeking to establish a colony nearby and used the ill-gotten booty to bankroll their struggling settlement. In either 1980 or 2005, few horror films are so overt about the historical legacies of white settlement, even if the films use lepers instead of the real historical victims of white violence and duplicity: Indigenous peoples and many people of color.

two dolls sit on swings in the middle of a desolate town

4. Test Village 3-B (The Hills Have Eyes, 2006). Easily the best of the Bush-era horror remakes, Alexandre Aja’s 2006 version of The Hills Have Eyes accentuates the class politics, environmental anxieties, and rural-urban tensions of the original, low budget classic. Building on the original film’s foundational and much copied plot device—in which an urban or suburban family finds itself too far off the beaten path and is threatened by mysterious rural sociopaths—the remake adds a tension-filled foray into a mock village used to test nuclear radiation, long abandoned by the US government but now home to a clan of mutated and grotesque cannibals who prey on travelers. Much like the faux small-town Americana in House of Wax, the nuclear testing village wallows in an uncanny bizzarro version of the 1950s suburb that makes clear the hidden costs of the American Dream with its vision of small town prosperity.

a black and white image of people walking in a town square

3. Santa Mira, California (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956). Santa Mira is one of the OG scary small towns in US horror and science fiction. In the film, alien invaders grow exact duplicates of the inhabitants of Santa Mira in oversized, plant-like pods, and these pod people retain all the original person’s memories but are now slaves to a collective unconscious bent on colonizing the planet. Neighbors you have known your whole life might actually be pod people, and you never know who you can trust, making this film an easy allegory for the McCarthy era (although its vision of paranoia speaks to broader 1950s concerns around race, gender, and corporate conformity). Interestingly, the core fears around small-town Americana in the film are inverted compared to the other films on this list: in 1956, the real fear is that our wholesome small towns might be infected by outsiders, mirroring dominant discourses of race at the time, while in post-1970 horror the small towns themselves are often a source of degradation and terror.

a man hides behind a wall from a group of homicidal children

2. Gatlin, Nebraska (Children of the Corn, 1984). This film adaptation of a Stephen King short story encapsulates the politics of the rural-urban divide that were festering in the 1980s: a liberal, unmarried, big-city couple takes a road trip and winds up trapped in a small, conservative town whose religiosity made the town’s children susceptible to a demonic cult. After murdering all the adults in the town, the town’s children now worship a mysterious entity in the corn, and the liberal couple must fight for survival against a horde of creepy, zealous children. Casting the rural, Bible-thumping fly-over zones of the Midwest as a site of violent, religious extremism, Children of the Corn taps into the same anxieties about the supposed horrors of rural America that would become central to the culture wars of the next several decades.

four children on bikes look up at an old house that is falling down

1. Derry, Maine (It, parts 1 and 2, 2017 and 2019). It shouldn’t be surprising that the top two picks here are based on the works of Stephen King, who is a master at exploring the uncanny horrors of small towns and rural spaces. One of his most iconic is Derry, Maine, home of the murderous clown Pennywise, who feasts upon the terror of children every 27 years in this bucolic town. The film adaptations in the late 20-teens draw out the implication from King’s work that the town itself has been tainted by Pennywise, filled with bullies, abusers, and indifferent adults who allow for degradation to thrive. By tracking the lives of pre-teens who face off with Pennywise in the youth and then return to Derry 27 years later, the recent adaptions also reflect US cultural concerns about the rural-urban divide: highly successful urbanites are forced to reckon with the horrors of small town American that they thought had been left behind.

Russell Meeuf is Professor of Film, Media and Popular Culture at the university of Idaho and the author of White Terror: The Horror Film from Obama to Trump (Indiana University Press, 2022). You can find out more about him on his website.

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