Barbarian: Suburbia is Still the Scariest Place in America
Barbarian reminds us that the best horror movies take place in what looks like most audiences' neighborhoods—not a far flung castle or Nordic commune.
Barbarian is filled with insane twists, but the most shocking might be the one that occurs just over an hour in. After we’ve already watched Keith (Bill Skarsgård) get brutally killed by a monster dwelling in the tunnels underneath the Detroit house he’s rented, and after we’ve seen disgraced actor AJ (Justin Long) discover the same tunnels, director Zach Cregger hard cuts to 40 years earlier.
In a shot that mirrors the opening image of the house, we witness the neighborhood as it was: blue skies, green lawns, and even a literal white picket fence. From the house emerges nondescript homeowner Frank (Richard Brake). The camera follows Frank in a long unbroken shot, watching him drive past kids on bikes and wave at neighbors watering the grass. Simply put, it’s the ideal neighborhood—a far cry from the collection of run-down homes and industrial spaces it has become in the movie’s present.
But the scene shocks us not because it shows us how far the neighborhood has fallen. Rather it shows us what the neighborhood has always been. The middle-class kindness on display as Frank makes his drive is only a veneer, a polite cover for the evil that lurks within. The juxtaposition connects Barbarian to the long history of suburban horror while also paying attention to our current economic moment.
Suburbia: America’s Home for Horror
Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) flees Michael Myers in Halloween, pleading for help from her neighbors, only to have them shut their doors and turn out the lights against her; A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) discovers that her father has put bars on her bedroom windows. He’s trying to keep her safe, yet inadvertently locking her in with Freddy; realtor Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) screams at his boss, realizing that the hauntings in Poltergeist occurred because the developer “moved the cemetery” but “left the bodies.”
For as long as there have been suburbs, Americans have been telling horror stories about them. The trope doesn’t come just from the delicious inversion of unleashing a monster into a seemingly banal space, nor from the fact that the Gothic castles of Universal don’t resonate as well with Americans. Rather it’s because the suburbs are built on fear.
Levittown in Long Island, New York became the first modern American suburb when developers Abraham Levitt & Sons found a way to quickly create houses for World War II veterans returning from battlegrounds. Not only did the GI Bill give these vets money to purchase affordable houses in Levittown, but it also encouraged troops to buy a single-family house as a way to distinguish the U.S. from its latest enemy, the Communists of the USSR.
Of course the offer wasn’t open to everyone, and racial covenants continued the practice of redlining to prevent non-white Americans from becoming neighbors. Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” only accelerated the divide, consolidating white Americans in the suburbs and keeping Black and Latino Americans in cities as their economic investment shrank. Even before the term “white flight” was coined to describe the practice of white Americans leaving cities because they’re “too dangerous” (read: too diverse), suburbia already advertised itself as a quiet place filled with the “right” people: a safe space to raise a family.
So when Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, or the spirits of Poltergeist started terrorizing teens, they reminded suburbanites of a truth they always knew. The danger wasn’t out there, a threat that they could escape by fleeing from the city. It was always right there with them. The danger was them.
The Fresh Hell of Suburbia
The 1980s sequence of Barbarian continues in the tradition of these suburban horrors. Throughout the flashback, we watch Frank be welcomed by others despite doing the bare minimum to conceal his intentions. The kindly midwestern store employee remains unphased when Frank mutters clipped requests for “plastic sheets,” and his eventual victim lets him enter her house without worry. Cregger lets the audience sit in the irony when neighbor Doug (Kurt Braunohler) stops Frank to say that he’s moving. “The whole neighborhood’s going to Hell,” Doug observes, unaware that he’s talking to a man with a kidnapped woman in his trunk.
But the scenes set in the present put a new spin on these suburban tropes, acknowledging the current state of the nation. While segregation continues unabated, it no longer looks like the simple white flight of old. Not only have suburbs become far more diverse, but white people have returned to cities in acts of gentrification, buying up properties rendered cheap by the suburbia’s vampiric relationship to metropolitan areas, and making homes unaffordable to people who did or would live there.
Barbarian acknowledges this reality in its central premise. Tess (Georgina Campbell) and Keith find themselves together because AJ’s generational wealth allowed him to inherit a house from his Michigan family. As an actor in California, AJ doesn’t need his Detroit home. But rather than sell it for someone else to live in, he rents it out on Airbnb, allowing him to reap profits while exacerbating a homelessness problem. He’s so disconnected from the property that he doesn’t even know about the vast tunnels underneath the house. And he’s so money hungry that he sees dollar signs when he discovers the tunnels, hoping he can jack up the house’s value.
While AJ’s property-mongering brings him to his much-deserved end, our heroes Keith and Tess aren’t completely innocent either. After all, Keith has come to Detroit to purchase cheap houses he and his collective will use for artists’ residences. Whatever the virtue of his motives may be, he’s still a white man taking advantage of suburban blight to amass houses for his collective, which could be used to help unhoused people and create local communities. Tess may not be white or a man, but she’s hoping to help a director who uses these spaces in her documentaries, even as she condescends to them. While less openly exploitative, Keith and Tess take advantage of the benefits offered when AJ rents out the house and ignore or outright fear unhoused people living in the area.
Neither Keith or Tess created these problems, nor do they have it in their power to make things better all by themselves. But then again, neither did Laurie, Nancy, or the Freeling children. Suburban horror isn’t about punishing the person responsible for the mess (partially because it’s never one person who does it); it’s about uncovering suburbia’s rotten core, turning its rhetoric of fear and safety into a twisted, grotesque mirror. By releasing its monster on Airbnb users, Barbarian reinvents suburban horror for the 21st century.