Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes all the same
There’s a pink one and a green 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
— “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds (album, Sings the Truth)
“Not today, not me. You know how they like to do motherf*ckers out here. I’m gone.”
— Lakeith Stanfield in Get Out (2017)
Spoilers for the film The ‘Burbs.
It’s no coincidence that Jordan Peele’s superbly ambitious Get Out opens in the suburbs. Depending on a film’s genre and context representations of the ‘burbs run the gamut from homogeneous safe-haven to psychopathic feeding ground. Get Out’s opening suburban landscape falls hard into the psychopathic feeding ground category.
We open to Andre King (Lakeith Stanfield) justifiably lost in the ‘burbs between Edgewood Way and Edgewood Lane. His dialogue here is prophetic: “They got me out here in this creepy, confusing ass suburb. I’m serious though, I’m like a sore thumb out here.” This is just before he notices a white car stalking him and immediately changes direction, but it’s already too late. It is a disturbing sequence, but not an unfamiliar one.
The suburbs, from one perspective popularized by cultural critics in the 1960s, were a symbol of normativity, conformity, and mass consumption. Away from the ills and diversity of the big city are row upon row of slightly altered floor plans, lush front lawns, and red flag mailboxes (i.e. ticky tacky), which produce a form of homogeneity that ostensibly breeds feelings of safety, comfort, and unity, if not cultural status.
However, as Jordan Peele and Andre King assert, this is just one perspective, and normally a white one. As Andre’s confusion, discomfort, and eventual kidnapping confirm, the ‘burbs are also dangerous and subversive. In film the suburbs are particularly dangerous for women — think Halloween (1978) or almost any other slasher film of the 1970s — and people of color, as most recently depicted in Suburbicon (2017), where an African American family moves into an all-white 1950s suburb and are constantly and viciously harassed by white neighbors.
The suburb’s idealized homogeneity was historically cordoned off through racial prejudice and segregated by way of unfair housing practices. Its constructed boundaries, literal and imaginary, have offered the horror and thriller genres ample room to exploit, subvert, or reinforce social anxieties and biases. Andre King is literally poached from the ‘burbs, effectively removing his “difference” from the landscape, but by the end of Get Out, those tables, well, they are deliciously turned.
Peele’s comedic background perfectly informed his horror in Get Out. Another, maybe all-too-obvious, film relying on horror and comedy (albeit in a different ratio) is Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989). The film is particularly interesting for its total immersion within a white suburban landscape, ironic awareness of horror conventions, and ultimately conservative (yet nearly confessional) commentary on the threat of difference in the suburbs.
The ‘Burbs takes place in a cul-de-sac, prized for its seclusion and dangerous because of it. One garbage man in the film comments, “I hate cul-de-sacs. There’s only one way out and the people are kinda weird.” If anyone at all has the clout to make a statement like this it’s the garbage man. They’ve surveyed more cul-de-sacs than anyone and are privy to all manner of waste and detritus the ‘burbs produces from its weird inhabitants. The film opens to Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks) regarding his new neighbors’ unkempt house, the first sign of difference, from his neat and tidy ticky-tacky. He places one toe over the property line — cue the wind machine and ominous score!
Ray’s neighbors, the Klopeks, are markedly different (maybe German) than the rest of the cast and suspected of kidnapping and murdering one of their neighbors on the cul-de-sac. This leads to the formation of a neighborhood watch group-gone-witch-hunting, as they try to expose their suspicions about the Klopeks through increasingly outrageous stunts. This inevitably results in the complete and total destruction of the Klopeks’ house, ablaze after Ray hits the gas line looking for buried bodies in the basement. This last-ditch failure to uncover any evidence brings about a sudden epiphany in Ray, who shouts a rant-turned-confession at Art, his accomplice and neighbor-in-crime:
“Remember what you were saying about people in the ‘burbs, Art, people like Skip, people who mow their lawn for the 800th time, and then snap? Well, that’s us. It’s not them, that’s us. We’re the ones who are vaulting over the fences, and peeking in through people’s windows. We’re the ones who are throwing garbage in the street, and lighting fires. We’re the ones who are acting suspicious and paranoid, Art. We’re the lunatics. Us. It’s not them, it’s us.”
It’s an arresting moment, not quite in step with the rest of the film. I can’t believe I’m going to make this comparison, but it feels similar (similar, mind you) to the narrative-halting speech in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). Sandwiched between comedy and horror lie these two monologues reaching for a greater social message. Chaplin’s speech, on the heels of WWII, is resoundingly humanistic and uncharacteristically dogmatic. Ray Peterson, realizing the utter devastation and harassment he’s inflicted on the Klopeks, spews his confession and takes rightful responsibility for his actions. He desperately pleads, “We’re the lunatics. Us. It’s not them, it’s us.” This moment bears some semblance of acknowledgement or self-awareness that nearly bleeds through the film’s diegesis into reality. Ironic awareness elevated to explicit social commentary… almost.
But here’s where the conservatism comes back in — just as this moment’s possibility sinks in, the narrative quickly reaffirms the Klopeks’ difference as a marker of threat. Turns out the Klopeks were indeed kidnapping and murdering people for Dr. Werner Klopek’s (Henry Gibson) mad science experiments.The ‘Burbs would have been a far different film if it had ended after Ray’s confession, infusing the entire film with a critical edge, instead of just a moment (which is why Get Out is such a compelling film).
Alas, it was the suburban landscape and horror conventions that even allowed The ‘Burbs to brush up against something more. The suburb’s fraught history haunts its progress through time and film, offering us a diverse set piece for projecting our deepest fears, resisting oppression, and sometimes reinforcing it. It’s all just ticky-tacky anyway though, so go ahead and blow the house down.
For more engaging films of the horror variety, check out the IU Cinema’s Not-Quite Midnights series. Dedicated to all things subversive and kitschy, the Midnight Movies series has been a mainstay of the Cinema since its opening in 2011.
Caleb Allison usually prefers his films slow, cryptic or menacing and doesn’t always understand why. A Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Caleb researches home-video cultures, film history, and production and distribution industries. He is an unrestrained collector of the Criterion Collection, a fan of Super 8 filmmaking, and a Tarkovsky nut.