This quintessential Suburban Gothic tale lampooned middle class fears in the 1980s, but remains refreshingly relevant.
Yesterday, my favorite comedy horror film from the 1980s, The ‘Burbs, turned 30. It premiered in theaters on February 17, 1989 and grossed $11 million in its opening weekend, ultimately raking in over $36 million. Though panned by clueless critics who couldn’t see past its campy premise, The ‘Burbs has since become something of a cult classic.
This film had a profound effect on me as a kid. While on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delved deep into the American psyche. It stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun as three friends who suspect an eccentric and reclusive family is up to no good in their neighborhood. Carrie Fisher and Corey Feldman also play prominent roles.
The ‘Burbs was written by Dana Olsen and directed by Joe Dante. Olsen, who is usually known for sillier comedies like George of the Jungle (1997) and Inspector Gadget (1999), was inspired to write the script after hearing about gruesome crimes in his own hometown. Joe Dante directed Gremlins (1984), Gremlins 2 (1990), and the TV series Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992), Witches of East End (2013-2014), and Salem (2015-2016). Eerie, Indiana was also about the strange and unusual underbelly of a quaint, unassuming town.
Welcome to Mayfield Place
Ray and Carol Peterson (Hanks and Fisher) live in a picturesque home on Mayfield Place, a cul-de-sac 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. Dr. Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson), his son, Hans (Courtney Gains), and his brother, Reuben (Brother Theodore), quietly moved into the old Victorian home, which used to be owned by Mr. and Mrs. Knapp.
Since the Klopeks arrived, their lawn goes unattended, and strange noises and lights can be seen emanating from the basement windows at night. They receive no packages or visitors, and keep to themselves.
The other residents of the street are Mark and Bonnie Rumsfield (Dern and Wendy Schaal), Art Weingartner (Ducommun), a teenager named Ricky Butler (Feldman), and an elderly man with a manicured lawn named Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon). Mark and Art believe the Klopeks are up to no good, and Art in particular is convinced they’re a family of Satan worshipers.
At first, Ray Peterson finds every reason to dismiss his friends’ paranoia. As Ricky Butler explains to his girlfriend, Mr. Peterson is “basically grounded in reality and he doesn’t want to believe his neighbors are up to something strange. ‘Cause if they were, he’d have to deal with it.” As events unfold and circumstantial evidence mounts, however, he gets swept up in the hysteria.
The ‘Burbs was filmed entirely on the Colonial Street set on the backlot at Universal Studios Hollywood. Colonial Street was home many iconic locations, including the Leave it to Beaver house and The Munsters house. Most recently, it served as Wisteria Lane on Desperate Housewives, a show about mysterious occurrences in a quaint suburban neighborhood.
The ‘Burbs is a quintessential example of what I call “Suburban Gothic”, and it’s fitting it was filmed on the same street as Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963). Mayfield Place is even named after the fictional town of Mayfield. Where Leave it to Beaver advertised idyllic suburban life to postwar audiences, The ‘Burbs subverted that ideal and suggested the artificial order and safety of the suburbs only serves to mask the sinister reality lurking beneath the surface.
As American cities become overcrowded in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the growing middle class sought refuge outside their urban confines from high crime rates, congestion, and unsanitary conditions. The resulting planned communities were designed to alleviate inner city problems through open spaces, meandering roads, strict zoning laws, and community standards. Entrepreneurs began marketing mass-produced housing developments to returning veterans after World War 2. By 1970, America’s suburban population had grown to 74 million, with 83 percent of all population growth occurring in the suburbs.
The nineteenth century also gave rise to the artistic and intellectual movement of Romanticism, which in turn spawned Transcendentalism and Dark Romanticism. Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of man and nature, and that humanity is perfectible. In contrast, Dark Romantics believed humans are inherently fallible and prone to sin and self destruction. Suburban Gothic is a form of Dark Romantic storytelling set in a suburban environment.
The American suburb was essentially a Transcendentalist experiment in creating an ideal community through design. The architects of suburbia believed a carefully planned community could create a new, happier, and more productive life away from the corrupting influences of the city. Suburban Gothic film and literature argues that experiment will never succeed because humans are inherently flawed. The surface is merely a facade, while the strange and terrible is the reality.
In The ‘Burbs, Ray Peterson wants nothing more than to spend a relaxing week-long vacation at home on Mayfield Place, where the worst things to happen are a dog pooping in the wrong yard and a paperboy with bad aim. Things like murder aren’t supposed to happen there, but Art reminds Ray about “Skip”, who murdered his family with an ice pick when they were kids, and that “These towns are full of those stories. Sometimes they’re happening right under your nose.” You never know when that friendly neighbor might snap…
Screenwriter Dana Olsen was inspired to write The ‘Burbs by real events he remembered as a child. “I had an ultranormal middle-class upbringing, but our town had its share of psychos,” he said in The Films of Tom Hanks. “There was a legendary hatchet murder in the thirties, and every once in a while, you’d pick up the local paper and read something like ‘LIBRARIAN KILLS FAMILY, SELF’. As a kid, it was fascinating to think that Mr. Flanagan down the street could turn out to be Jack the Ripper.”
Director Joe Dante agreed that their film struck a familiar chord with audiences, saying, “When I tell people about the story, a remarkable number say, ‘On my grandmother’s block there were people like that. They never mowed their lawn, and they never came out, and they let their mail stack up, and nobody knew who they were’.”
But The ‘Burbs played on one fear in particular that resonated with 1980s suburban families: Satanism. The “satanic panic” was triggered in 1980 with the release of Michelle Remembers, a book purporting to give an account of a woman who learned through recovered memories that she had been the victim of satanic ritual abuse. A feeling of dread spread through the suburbs that satanic cults were lurking everywhere, and even games like Dungeons & Dragons were caught up in the hysteria.
Tom Hanks was no stranger to this moral panic: one of his earliest roles was in the television movie Mazes and Monsters (1982), based on the supposed dangers of role playing games.
Horror films often reflect the fears of their time, and The ‘Burbs is no different. It contains references to at least four satanic-themed horror films: Night of the Demon (1957), The Sentinel (1977), The Exorcist (1973), and Race with the Devil (1975), and shows how popular culture seeds Ray Peterson’s mind with dark, occult imagery. Ray’s deepest fear, stoked by his friend Art, is that the Klopeks are murdering people as offerings to the Devil. In a feverish dream, he imagines the Klopeks tying him to a giant barbecue grill during a satanic ritual.
If horror films reflect social fears, comedies ridicule them, and The ‘Burbs does this as well. Ray, Art, and Mark’s paranoid and over-the-top response to an unusual family in their neighborhood hilariously lampoons public outcry during the satanic panic, even if they turned out to be partially right in the end.
The ‘Burbs paved the way for television shows like Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992), which was also directed by Joe Dante, and Desperate Housewives (2004-2012), which was filmed on the same Colonial Street Lot. Both shows echo the theme of sinister events lurking behind the facade of manicured lawns and white picket fences. The 2018 horror film Summer of 84, about a group of young friends who investigate a possible serial killer in their neighborhood, borrows heavily from The ‘Burbs both visually and thematically.
In both films, the protagonists work to expose a hidden threat in their otherwise tranquil and unassuming cul-de-sac. They dig through a neighbor’s trash and backyard for clues, break into a neighbor’s house to investigate a possible disappearance, accidentally bury their walkie talkie in dirt so they can’t hear warnings the suspect is returning home, and so on. The protagonists in Summer of 84 could easily be adolescent versions of Ray, Mark, and Art in The ‘Burbs.
The suburbs occupy a weird space in the public consciousness. On one hand, they evoke nostalgic yearning for a simpler time and represent idyllic domestic life. On the other, they elicit fears of supernatural horror lurking behind that pleasant facade, and more poignantly, a fear that those picket fences aren’t enough to constrain our worst instincts. The ‘Burbs perfectly encapsulated those sentiments.
Thirty years later, this film still feels relevant, although the suburbs are starting to lose some of their hold on American life. When you read the news headlines today, Ray might as well be speaking directly to us when, in the final scene, he shouts: “Remember what you were saying about people in the ‘burbs, Art, people like Skip, people who mow their lawn for the eight hundredth time, and then snap? Well, that’s us! … We’re the lunatics!”