When I was growing up on Long Island in the seventies, New York City loomed in the distance as a large and dangerous place. The city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, the subway cars were covered in graffiti, and the local papers teemed with headlines about the explosion in urban crime. Rape, robbery, murder—all were at an all-time high, and the Son of Sam stalked the streets, shooting couples in the dark. The NYPD even released a pamphlet titled “Welcome to Fear City: A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York,” with a drawing of the grim reaper on the cover, complete with helpful tips like “Stay off the streets after 6 p.m.” and “Avoid public transportation.”
Popular culture reflected the conflation of city life with danger. This was the era of films like Deathwish, The Panic in Needle Park, and my personal favorite—The Warriors, which followed an epic battle of NYC gangs that stretched from Coney Island to the Bronx, terrorizing anyone in their path.
The suburbs, on the other hand, seemed safe—neighborhoods crisscrossed by tree-lined streets whose quiet was punctuated not by screams or gunshots, but by the hiss of sprinklers, the chimes of the ice-cream truck, and the squeal of children’s laughter. If the suburbs were scary at all, it was in a campy, Valley of the Dolls vein. How much damage could a bunch of housewives do anyway?
A lot, as we are finding out.
Look no further than Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynn’s smash hit Gone Girl, or Tessa Smyth in Jaime Lynn Hendrick’s recent debut Finding Tessa for suburban women who frame their own husbands for murder. There’s Millicent of Samantha Dowling’s My Lovely Wife, who lives in a gated community and punctuates the boredom of suburban life by killing people. And Mary from Kaira Rouda’s The Favorite Daughter, a sociopath who lives in a gated community in Orange County and may have pushed her daughter off a cliff to her death.
We are in the golden age of suburban noir. Noir is a slippery term, coined after World War II to describe books and films that presented a gritty take on life, rife with moral ambiguity, and marbled through with cynicism. Maybe it’s the conformity of manicured lawns, the pressure to fit in, the homogeneity of the life on the cul-de-sacs—but there is no doubt that the suburbs are creeping us out and providing the backdrop for some of the best mysteries and thrillers available on-screen and off today.
To be sure, writers have been mining the burbs for material for years. Patricia Highsmith set her dazzling 1952 psychological thriller The Price of Salt, later made into the movie Carol, partially in the stultifying New Jersey suburbs. It follows Therese, a stage designer working at a department store whose life is changed forever when she meets Carol, a beautiful suburban housewife. The two fall in love and are forced to flee the suburbs’ rigid social confines, and prying eyes, to pursue their relationship.
And there is an unsettling, dark undercurrent in the works of many of those who are not thriller writers but set their stories in the suburbs. Books like Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Tom Perrotta’s anything.
But it has really been in the last few years that the suburbs have blossomed from slightly sinister into a terrifying landscape.
Megan Abbott, author of eleven novels including the gripping psychological thriller You Will Know Me, has called the suburbs “halfway” places, replete with complication and mystery. “I think they occupy this strangely contradictory place between utter hidden-ness and this sense of vivid exposure. That tension is palpable, fascinating.”
That “halfway” status—without the privacy of rural life, but also without the anonymity of the city—feeds so many of today’s books and shows. Laura Lippman’s main character, Heloise, in her suspense novel When She Was Good, hides her true identity as a madam from her suburban neighbors, who believe her to be just another working mom. Heloise wonders what her neighbors think about her: “Scott’s mom. The quiet neighbor who keeps to herself. Nobody’s daughter, not as far as she’s concerned. Nobody’s wife, never anyone’s wife, although local gossip figures her for a young widow because divorcées never move into Turner’s Grove.”
The neighbors know her, but they don’t know her.
And in that gap between knowing but not knowing, dangerous things can happen. Just look to the two women in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, which was made into a popular series. In the upscale Ohio suburb of Shaker Heights, where the grass is not allowed to grow higher than six inches, the privileged Elena, and her tenant, the creative Mia, are set on a collision course. But it’s one that could only happen in a suburb, where motherhood is weaponized and you cannot simply retreat into your studio apartment, or log cabin in the mountains, and lock the door. In the suburbs, we are forced to interact—at the school, the community pool, the local Starbucks. People are watching, they are judging, and that sense of being observed is essential to suburban noir.
An affluent suburb is rocked to its core when a local teenager is violently raped in Wendy Walker’s debut thriller, All Is Not Forgotten. The ramifications of the crime ripple through the town, tearing at alliances, at families, at how parents view their own children. The perception of perfection is shattered. The illusion of safety, gone. These are not masked strangers wreaking havoc in darkened alleyways. They are the people we coordinate soccer games with, the folks at school pick-up.
We know our neighbors, but we don’t know them.
But not every story of suburban intrigue features a local who wakes up and realizes she is not living the dream, but the nightmare. The suburbs are just as lethal for those who wander in from the outside, whether they have gotten lost or are just visiting.
Take the opening scene of 2017’s hit film Get Out, in which a black man is walking on a darkened street in a nice neighborhood, talking on the phone to his girl about how unnerved he is to be in this “creepy, confusing-ass suburb.” And why shouldn’t he be unnerved? Just five years earlier, in 2012, a young Trayvon Martin was walking in a similar suburb when he was accosted by George Zimmerman. Trayvon’s crime? Being black.
“For white audiences,” the filmmaker Jordan Peele said, “they see how it is to be a black man in a suburban neighborhood at night.”
But in that first scene in Get Out, it isn’t an overzealous neighborhood watchman driving the white car that pulls up alongside Lakeith Stanfield. It is a white man, who craves his very soul.
And isn’t that what’s so terrifying about the suburbs? It’s not the poison, or the knives, the gossip or the judgement that we are really afraid of on those leafy streets. It’s the sameness of the houses. It’s the lawns that must not grow above six inches. It’s the smiles plastered on everyone’s faces, no matter what suffering is taking places behind closed doors.
It’s the loss of our soul.