Urban Horror

American Urban Horrors: The American City in Horror Cinema

A typical "Best of American Horror Movies" would include such well-known films as Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), Psycho (1960), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Jaws (1975), Carrie (1976), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), The Shining (1980), The Evil Dead (1981), The Thing (1982), and Candyman (1992). Apart from the telling preference for pre-1985 movies, one can identify a second remarkable trend: When looking at the settings of these movies, one will notice that Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man are typical pre-WWII horror movies, as they are set in faraway places in Europe. But even the majority of the abovementioned movies produced after WWII are set away from the everyday experiences of the average American: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is set in rural Texas, Carrie in small-town America, Jaws on Martha's Vineyard (albeit the main action takes place on the Atlantic Ocean), Halloween in some Californian suburb, The Shining in a remote hotel in Colorado's mountain ranges, Alien in outer space, The Evil Dead in a cabin in the woods, and The Thing in an Antarctic research station. Indeed, if one excludes Psycho´'s first twenty-five minutes, which take place in Phoenix (a fact that can easily be forgotten), and ignores The Exorcist's macro-setting of Georgetown—since it plays a subordinate role compared to the setting in an American home (not to mention that, following Barbara Creed, the action's primary setting is, in fact, Regan's adolescent female body1)—and Candyman in its entirety (which will be touched upon below), a pattern emerges: Overall, urban areas are rarely featured in American horror movies.

Considering the city's significance in the American imagination, the minor role cities have played in American horror cinema seems surprising, especially since America's feelings towards the city have always been ambiguous, and the horror film would seem to offer an ideal vehicle for interrogating this ambiguity. After all, as early as 1630, John Winthrop imagined the 'city upon the hill' symbolizing American exceptionalism and the victory of civilization over the wilderness. To this day, the city has remained a symbol of American progress. Yet while Plymouth represented one of the earliest instances of American optimism, William Bradford derided Thomas Morton-led Merry Mount as the place where the "scum of the country" enjoyed "the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians."2 Moreover, about 170 years later, Thomas Jefferson wrote that if Americans "g[o]t piled upon one another in large cities, [they] sh[ould] become as corrupt as Europe,"3 and that cities were "pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of men."4 "[T]hose who labour in the earth," on the other hand, "are the chosen people of God."5 Urban life clearly had no place in Jefferson's agrarian utopia.

Nevertheless, in the decades following Jefferson's skeptic prophecies, America witnessed an unprecedented expansion of urban society. As a reaction to this increasing urbanization, the urban gothic emerged as a distinct literary mode that transformed the suspicions evoked by the city, as Chad Luck puts it, "into a fully realized cartography of urban terror."6 As Luck goes on to emphasize, "the Urban Gothic has received a good deal more critical attention from scholars of British literature than it has from Americanists," even though "the genre emerged concurrently on both sides of the Atlantic."7 Similar to the relative dearth of studies on the urban gothic in American literature, the functions and meanings of the city in American horror cinema have also been largely neglected to this day.

This neglect is particularly noteworthy when one considers the gradual emergence of more notable horror movies (such as the abovementioned Candyman, Mimic [1997], and American Psycho [2000]) which capitalize on their urban settings since the 1980s. With the exception of a few articles and book chapters that discuss specific movies (e.g. Cloverfield [2008]8) and critical overviews of specific themes or sub-genres that briefly touch upon the issue of urbanity,9 the relative scholarly neglect of the functions of the city in horror cinema has continued apace. This lack of academic engagement is surprising not only in light of the history shared by the city and cinema, but also considering the increased interest in the interrelations between the city and cinema in the last decade. If, as Jerrold E. Hogle has argued, horror "helps us address and disguise some of the most important desires, quandaries, and sources of anxiety, from the most internal and mental to the widely social and cultural,"10 a study on the increasing importance of the city in horror cinema is, indeed, needed.

My study will fill this research lacuna and shed new light on the varied functions and roles of cityscapes in horror cinema. In their Introduction to American Culture, Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean acknowledge that the American "city has always been a focus for human desires and dreams, a place of possibility, success and threat."11 Still, Campbell and Kean conclude that "[a]bove all, the American city is a [...] story written by people who sought to impose their vision of order, their designs upon the world, and to some extent to control the wilderness into a contained and disciplined environment."12 American urban horror, however, is committed to unearthing the chaos simmering beneath the apparent order and to revealing the primitive instincts and dark desires lurking behind the urban façade of civility and reason. In this way, American urban horror is "in many senses a re-enactment of the paradigm which informs so much of the American gothic in general: initial settlement and construction of an idealised community is succeeded by creeping disillusionment and the sense that all is not well."13


1 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993), 32–43. | return to main text |
2 William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (New York: Random House, 1981), 230; 227. | return to main text |
3 Thomas Jefferson, "To James Madison; Paris, December 20, 1787," in Letters (n.p., 2014), par. 2. | return to main text |
4 Thomas Jefferson, "To Dr. Benjamin Rush Monticello; Sep. 23, 1800," in Letters (n.p., 2014), par. 1. | return to main text |
5 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston, MA: Wells & Lilly, 1829), 172. | return to main text |
6 Chad Luck, "George Lippard and the Rise of the Urban Gothic," in A Companion to American Gothic (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 125. | return to main text |
7 Ibid. | return to main text |
8 See, for example, Stephanie Simon, "Disaster, Pre-Emptive Security and Urban Space in the Post-9/11 New York City of Cloverfield and The Visitor," Journal of Urban Cultural Studies 1, no. 1 (2014): 19–42. | return to main text |
9 See, for example, the chapter "Retribution and the Urban Terrain" in Robin R. Means Coleman's book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films (New York: Routledge, 2011) and Stacey Abbott's "Urban Vampires in American Films of the Eighties and Nineties" in Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), edited by Peter Day. | return to main text |
10 Jerrold E. Hogle, "Introduction: The Gothic in Western Culture," in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4. | return to main text |
11 Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean, American Cultural Studies: An Introduction to American Culture (London: Routledge, 1997), 160. | return to main text |
12 Ibid. | return to main text |
13 Bernice M. Murphy, The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009), 199. | return to main text |

This book is under contract with the University of Wales Press.


"Urban Nightmares Beneath the City: The Subway in Urban Horror Movies" at "Space Oddities: Urbanity, American Identity, and Cultural Exchange," the 41st Annual Conference of the Austrian Association for American Studies University of Graz, Austria, November 22, 2014