Mysterious America

Five Things You Didn’t Notice in The ‘Burbs

From obscure film references to subliminal messages, this ’80s dark comedy has it all.

The ‘Burbs, my favorite comedy horror film from the 1980s, turns 30 today. It premiered in theaters on February 17, 1989 and grossed $11 million in its opening weekend, though it was panned by critics who couldn’t see past its campy premise. While on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delved deep into the American psyche.

This film had a profound effect on me as a kid, and every time I watch it I discover something new. Have you spotted these subtle hints and references?

Breakfast at the Peterson’s

Ray and Carol Peterson (Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher) live in a quaint home on Mayfield Place in suburban Hinkley Hills with their son, Dave (Cory Danziger) and their dog, Vince. The Petersons live next door to a dilapidated house owned by a reclusive family named the Klopeks. When Ray looks out the kitchen window to comment on the Klopek’s barren yard, you can see a box of Gremlins Cereal sitting on the counter. Joe Dante, director of The ‘Burbs, also directed Gremlins (1984).

Art eats dog food

Since the Klopeks moved in, a murder of crows has descended on the neighborhood. Ray’s friend, Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun), invites himself in for breakfast after unsuccessfully trying to shoot the crows with a rifle. Art begins raiding their refrigerator, and even takes a handful from Vince’s dog bowl as Carol walks past. We briefly see him react with disgust as he shoves it into his mouth and Carol sets down the bowl and calls to Vince in the background. It happens so fast I never noticed he ate dog food the first couple times I watched this film. Subtle but funny!

The Theory and Practice of Demonology

After their elderly neighbor Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon) disappears, Art and Ray lock themselves in Ray’s basement, where Art tries to convince Ray the Klopeks are Satanists who kidnapped Walter as a human sacrifice. Art shows Ray passages from a (fictional) tome called The Theory and Practice of Demonology by Julian Karswell.

“Black masses, mutilations… Mutilations! The incubus, the succubus… I’m telling you, Walter was a human sacrifice!”

Art Weingartner

Dr. Julian Karswell was a character in the British horror film Night of the Demon (1957), in which an American psychologist travels to England to investigate a Satanic cult. Karswell was leader of the cult.


Race with the Devil

His mind racing with Art’s “half-cocked theories”, Ray settles down with Carol to watch television in bed. As she gets up to use the bathroom, he flips through three channels, all playing horror films. While The Exorcist (1973) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) are easily identifiable, the first film, showing the ritual murder of a woman behind a bonfire, is not. The clip comes from an obscure horror film called Race with the Devil (1975), in which motorists accidentally witness a Satanic ritual and have to fight for their lives.

House of Horrors

When Ray and Carol, and their neighbors Mark and Bonnie Rumsfield (Bruce Dern and Wendy Schaal), finally decide to meet the Klopeks in person, they discover a polite but eccentric family. However, the filmmakers inserted several visual cues that things aren’t what they seem. When Reuben Klopek (Brother Theodore) first enters the room, you can see the shadow of a noose on the wall. It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. Also, when Reuben walks past the front door, the window frame forms a large, backlit inverted cross, which has come to symbolize anti-Christianity in pop culture.

Leave a comment with your favorite scene from The ‘Burbs. If you still haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it!

4 replies on “Five Things You Didn’t Notice in The ‘Burbs”

Another curiosity: the Klopek’s dog is called “Landru”. Landru is the surname of Henri Désiré Landru, a serial killer in France (Ss. XIX-XX). He was also known as “Bluebeard of Gambais”.


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