Suburban Gothic is a form of Dark Romantic storytelling set in a suburban environment. Traditionally associated with aging Victorian mansions, crypts, and other macabre settings, the neat rows of white picket fences, manicured lawns, and modern tract housing of the suburbs may seem like an unusual home for Gothic tales. The suburbs, however, are a logical place for writers and filmmakers to express American Gothic sentiment, and episodes from two television shows in particular, The X-Files (1993-2002) and Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992), help us understand why.
American Gothic is our unique expression of Dark Romanticism, a broader nineteenth century literary and artistic movement. In early nineteenth century America, Romanticism gave rise to two opposing artistic and intellectual movements: Transcendentalism and Dark Romanticism. Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of both people and nature, and that humanity is perfectible. In contrast, Dark Romantics like Edgar Allen Poe (who described Transcendentalism as a disease) believed humans were inherently fallible and prone to sin and self destruction. The modern Suburban Gothic tale is essentially a Dark Romantic argument against Transcendentalism.
In the nineteenth century, some Transcendentalists tried to put their ideas into practice by building utopian communities away from what they considered to be the corrupting influence of modern society. The idea that a carefully planned community could create a new, happier, and more productive life lived on into the twentieth century. As cities become overcrowded, the growing middle class sought refuge from high crime rates, congestion, and unsanitary conditions in nearby planned communities. These housing developments were designed to alleviate inner city problems through strict zoning laws and community standards. Economic growth after World War 2 made it possible for millions of people to buy mass-produced homes and seek out the “American dream” in the suburbs.
At first, American television promoted this new way of living. TV shows like Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), and Family Ties (1982-1989) portrayed suburbs like the fictional Mayfield as idyllic and ideal for domestic family life. Pretty moms and wise, handsome dads were models of morality and temperance, and safely mentored their children to adulthood. In the 1990s, however, a contrary view began to appear on television. It not only rejected the ideals of Leave it to Beaver as superficial and inauthentic, it also claimed something sinister lurked in Mayfield.
Season One, Episode One of Eerie, Indiana, “Foreverware,” and Season Six, Episode Fifteen of The X-Files, “Arcadia,” portrayed the suburbs not as places of refuge, but of mind-numbing conformity and horror. In both, the main characters travel to a quaint, tidy suburban neighborhood and discover all is not what it seems. The reigning tranquility and perfection is the result of supernatural forces imposing artificial normality on its residents. The apparent is merely a facade, while the strange and terrible is the reality.
Eerie, Indiana starred Omri Katz as Marshall Teller, a teenage boy who moves with his parents from a city in New Jersey to the small town of Eerie, Indiana, because “statistically speaking, Eerie’s the most normal place in the entire country.” Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker described the show’s atmosphere as “suburban dread,” and its opening narration perfectly captures Suburban Gothic sentiment:
My name is Marshall Teller. Not long ago, I was living in New Jersey, just across the river from New York City. It was crowded, polluted, and full of crime. I loved it. But my parents wanted a better life for my sister and me. So we moved to a place so wholesome, so squeaky clean, you could only find it on TV. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, my new hometown looks normal enough, but look again. What’s wrong with this picture? The American Dream come true, right? Wrong. Nobody believes me, but this is the center of weirdness for the entire planet: Eerie, Indiana. My home, sweet home. Still don’t believe me? You will.
Eerie, Indiana’s first episode, “Foreverware,” aired on September 15, 1991. It was written by Jose Rivera and Karl Schaefer and directed by Joe Dante (Dante also directed the 1989 dark comedy about suburban dread The ‘Burbs). Shortly after moving to Eerie, a woman named Mrs. Wilson pays a visit to the Teller household to welcome them to the neighborhood. Mrs. Wilson is an odd parody of June Cleaver, seemingly stuck in the early 1960s. She tries to sell Mrs. Teller a plastic container called ForeverWare, which keeps things fresh forever.
Her sons, chubby twins named Bertrand and Ernest, are well mannered and politely dressed. They seem to be the perfect family. Sadly, the perfection is an illusion. Marshall discovers that Mrs. Wilson has been preserving herself and her sons each night in ForeverWare. Bertrand and Ernest are desperate for someone to save them and let them grow up, so Marshall sneaks into their bedroom and breaks the seal, freeing them from a sterile, ageless prison.
Like the suburbs themselves, the Wilsons were artificially preserved in the past, particularly the early 1960s in which the suburbs were idealized. The Wilsons were not just preserved in any material–Foreverware is a satire of Tupperware, plastic containers made famous by enterprising 1950s housewives. Critics often accuse the suburbs of being home to fake, “plastic” people. In this case, the implication is clear.
The X-Files stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. The duo travels the U.S. investigating strange cases for the bureau, often involving aliens or psychic phenomena. “Arcadia” aired on March 7, 1999. Mulder and Scully pose as a married couple and move into a planned community called Falls of Arcadia in California to investigate a series of suspicious disappearances. They discover that homeowner association president Gene Gogolak has summoned a Tibetan thoughtform to help him ruthlessly enforce every rule in the community. The thoughtform arises from the garbage dump Arcadia was built over. In the end, it turns on Gogolak and kills him. The episode ends by informing the audience Arcadia won an award for best planned community in America.
Scully is typically all business in this episode, while Mulder seems to have fun challenging the community’s rules. He grates against the apparent conformity and normality of Arcadia, and from the beginning suspects something dark is lurking beneath the surface. In one scene, Mulder and Scully go to Win and Cami Schroeder’s house to have dinner and ask them about the disappearances. Mulder directly confronts the couple, and they have this revealing exchange. “Every community has its dark underbelly, don’t you think?” Mulder asks.
“We don’t have an underbelly,” Win Schroeder replies. “As far as I’m concerned, this community is the American dream.”
The Dark Romantic theme of wild, uncontrollable monsters as a metaphor for human imperfection is clearly present in Arcadia. The Falls of Arcadia was built over an old garbage dump–an attempt to beautify and perfect the ugly. But this primordial monster emerges from the subterranean sludge to punish those who dare violate the smallest infraction. In an ending reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein, this monster turns on and destroys its creator, who lost control of it.
In opposition to TV shows like Leave it to Beaver, both Eerie, Indiana and The X-Files portray the suburbs as a place of denial–denial of danger and the human passions that cause it, where the normal obscures the abnormal through supernatural means. The artificial order and safety of the suburbs only serves to mask the sinister reality lurking beneath the surface. No one is safe from life’s horrors, not even in the carefully controlled environment of suburbia. Eerie, Indiana and The X-Files eloquently brought this argument to television audiences, paving the way for popular shows like Desperate Housewives.