Scary Cities: The Urban as Protagonist / Antagonist in Horror Films

The Georgetown ‘Exorcist Steps’

It’s October, which means only two things: Halloween, and horror films.

Within the genre of horror, cities play an active role as settings, characters, and themes. In William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), Georgetown, Washington (DC) is the setting of a demonic possession. But the city takes on a greater role, as Friedkin’s demon pulses through its Catholic infrastructures (the Jesuit namesake university, churches), and the infamous stairwell which animates the film’s visceral defenestration-finale (spoiler).

In Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) it is New York City which serves as the backdrop of demonic activity, but, more importantly, a specific building: The Dakota, an exclusive Victorian apartment building. In the film, The Dakota casts dark shadows over not only Central Park, but the lives of the characters living within it, including Rosemary (Mia Farrow). Famous residents of The Dakota have included John Lennon and the actress Lauren Bacall. John Lennon’s assassination in 1980 was, some have suggested, to do with the demonic vortex The Dakota represents.

The Dakota, Central Park West, New York

‘Candyman’, first released in 1992 (Bernard Rose) and re-made in 2021 (Nia DaCosta), may be the most urban of urban horror films in the way it directly engages with themes of urban semiotics, racial injustice, housing injustice, neighborhood development, displacement and change, and place-identity. The original film was set in the notorious Cabrini Green public housing estate in Chicago’s African-American West Side; the remake (2021) is set in a now-redeveloped Cabrini Green, which has been demolished and redeveloped into a row-house neighborhood. In Candyman, historical racial / spatial injustice comes raging into the present through the murderous monster ‘Candyman’, conjured by saying the name once, twice, thrice, into the mirror. Gentrification and development are dangerous. Very dangerous.

Cities have always been scary. Georg Simmel (1976[1903]) wrote of the anxiety and dread of electrified, fast-paced, industrial urban modernity, the “…intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli.” The modern city, for Simmel, was a nervous place, an anxious place, a spooky place. Picking up on the idea of the spectral, or the haunted, Walter Benjamin (1927-1940) denoted the capitalist, commodified city as a “phantasmagoria”, likening the experience of drifting through Parisian shopping-scapes to watching a parade of ghosts (Cohen, 1989:90), a sort of troubling dream, a half-waking nightmare.

The urban nightmare, or phantasmagoric-experience ,is a common motif in horror films. In John Carpenter’s ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ slasher series (1980s), sleep itself is death, when the monster Freddy Krueger comes to terrorize. Staying alive, in these films, means not sleeping. Staying awake to avoid Freddy slowly leads to a perpetual half-sleep, a hazy dream-state, where the city’s sunshine is filtered in a menacing, hallucinagenic sepia.

Perhaps most troubling within urban horror is the role of the suburb, which takes a primary role across the genre as a space of alienation, loneliness, vulnerability. It is in the suburb that horror is able to be rendered so familiar, so close to home, and so terrifying. In 2018’s ‘Hereditary’ (Ari Aster), a family is terrorized by demonic possession in an un-named, affluent suburb: scenes take place in shopping center parking lots, pleasant-looking schools, and architect-designed log-mansions. These symbols of safety, security and class-comfort are ripped away as a satanic cult destroys a family from the inside-out.

House from ‘The Grudge’ (Japan)

While these examples have been North American films, it would seem there are cross-cultural convergences. ‘The Grudge’, for example, a Japanese horror franchise first released in 2002 as ‘Ju-On: The Grudge’ (Takashi Shimizu) and subsequently remade in Hollywood-style (2004 and 2020), has a decidedly suburban-slant to it. The house of horror is not a Tokyo high-rise, but a low-slung suburban home surrounded by dark forest. Similarly, in Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 ‘Parasite’, (sort of a horror film, sort of not), a suburban mansion contains horrific secrets, in an oasis within high-density Seoul.

Cities, to conclude, induce screams.

References:

Benjamin, Walter. [1927–1940] 1999a. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cohen, M. (1989). Walter Benjamin’s Phantasmagoria. New German Critique, 48, 87–107. https://doi.org/10.2307/488234

Simmel, Georg (1976[1903]) The Metropolis and Mental Life: The Sociology of Georg Simmel‘ New York: Free Press.

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