Historicizing Dystopia: Suburban Fantastic Media and White Millennial Childhood
By Angus McFadzeanAugust 30, 2021
Through these audio-visual cues in the opening of RKSS’s Summer of 84 (2018), we recognize the “suburban fantastic,” a subgenre familiar to those (mostly) white millennials who grew up in suburbia. The idea of a utopian suburban landscape hiding a darker reality has been a staple of Americana storytelling since the establishment of the first modern suburbs in the postwar United States. But since the 1980s, this idea has been reconfigured around the premise of suburban pre-teens or teenagers being called upon to confront a fantastic force — ghosts, aliens, vampires, gremlins, robots, etc. — that disrupts their otherwise placid existence. This has defined the suburban fantastic and, over the last five years, this subgenre has undergone a notable renaissance that reflects the dystopian trajectory of the present day.
Suburban fantastic cinema emerged in large part from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin production company in the 1980s and was heavily shaped by directors like Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, and Spielberg himself. Amblin developed the formula in which an adolescent child dealing with a personal dilemma (divorced parents, bullying) finds an opportunity to resolve their personal issues through a conflict involving a heightened fantastic entity: Elliott accepts his parents’ divorce by letting E.T. “go home,” just as the Goonies overcome the developers who plan to buy their homes by discovering pirate treasure. These films appealed to suburban children by representing them on screen in idealized form, acknowledging the threat of the outside world, and promising a happy ending to their struggles of identity and belonging. Although governmental organizations, the military, and big business were conspiring to cut down the forest, knock down a favorite house, or split up the family, the heroism and daring of the protagonist prevented these outcomes and secured or improved upon the status quo.
The phenomenal and often unexpected success of these movies testified to their large audience demographic. E.T. (1982) was the highest grossing film of all time until Jurassic Park stomped its record in 1993. Suburban fantastic movies such as Gremlins (1984) and Back to the Future (1985) formed some of the biggest box-office hits of the ’80s and ’90s. Producers and studios imitated Amblin’s formula and blended it with preexisting genres, often moving away from the "fantastic" genre into fantasy (The NeverEnding Story), road movie (Flight of the Navigator), adult-focused mystery (The ’Burbs) and crime (Home Alone, one of the top-grossing movies of 1990). The popularity of these movies has never faded, even though the subgenre largely fell out of favor in the 2000s.
Why then has the suburban fantastic returned in the 2010s? It signifies more than simply producers and executives attempting to capture a lucrative market of now grown-up viewers. Over 30 years, Gen Xers and millennials have gone from bucolic suburban utopias full of exciting home technology like television, video cameras, VCRs, and PCs, to science-fictional technology of smart phones, social media, touchscreens, videocalls, and the internet. But rather than liberating us, this technology has led into a dystopian world of AI, drone strikes, and cyber warfare, a world ruled by global tech corporations that distract us with fake news, poisonous social media, and video game hyperviolence. In response, new suburban fantastic stories marry contemporary technophobia with nostalgia for an ’80s suburban childhood and its outdated technology, juxtaposing dystopia and utopia to uncover the history of our present state, looking back into the past for the signs that foretold our disquieting present day.
Nostalgia for ’80s childhood was deployed with dramatic effect in Netflix’s Stranger Things in 2016. Set in the early 1980s, it follows four kids who gradually uncover a conspiracy in their town involving experiments on children and a rift into a parallel dimension. By pastiching shots from beloved Amblin films, Stranger Things creates a retro aesthetic that evokes intense nostalgia in its Gen X and millennial viewers. The show has become a phenomenon, the most watched series on Netflix in its inaugural season, spawning two sequel series so far (with a third debuting in 2022), not to mention piles of merchandising, endless memes, and a dedicated fanbase. What J. J. Abrams had first attempted with Super 8 (2011, set in 1979) finally found its audience — although J. J. might now rue making a movie, rather than a TV show.
The success of Stranger Things encouraged filmmakers to shape preestablished properties toward the suburban fantastic to maximize their appeal. For example, Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017) split the original novel into two films, separating the childhood story line into a free-standing movie and reserving the adulthood scenes for a sequel (released in 2019). And although the childhood sections of King’s novel were set in 1957–’58, the 2017 movie updated this to 1988–’89 and added in telling references to 1980s pop culture. These changes made the first film seem more like a traditional suburban fantastic story and undoubtedly contributed to it becoming the highest-grossing horror film in history and the third-highest-grossing R-rated movie.
The combined success of Stranger Things and It has prompted a new wave of suburban fantastic storytelling over the last five years, titles such as Summer of 84 (2018), Kin (2018), Rim of the World (2019), Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019, an adaptation of popular children’s picture book), Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020), Tales from the Loop (2020), and Finding ‘Ohana (2021). These stories adhere closely to the subgenre’s narrative conventions and iconography to deliver its particular pleasures. The fantastic provokes fear, while the familiar provides comfort; scenes of everyday suburban normality are reassuring but are lent an edge of dread by the presence of the supernatural. And when the protagonists encounter the spectacle of the fantastic, protagonist and audience share a sense of sublime wonder, encapsulated in the classic Spielbergian “face” shot, where characters look up to the sky enraptured by something off-screen.
Contemporary suburban media uses this combination of affects to express anxieties over smart phones (Earth to Echo), particle accelerators (Tales from the Loop) and advanced weaponry (Kin). By combining technophobia with images of ’80s suburbia, recent suburban fantastic media traces the origins of the present back to Reagan’s otherwise “idyllic” 1980s, when such technophobia began to be culturally expressed through preexisting genres like science fiction and noir; indeed, cyberpunk visualized the emergence of a high-tech world out of the decaying post-industrial landscape and appeared at the same time as the original suburban fantastic films. Rather than addressing this historical change directly, the suburban fantastic encodes it in the disruptive appearance of a supernatural fantastic that realizes in heightened form the effects of this change on society. This resonated with audiences until the bubble of digital utopianism of the 2000s. But as society has become more pessimistic about the future, expressed in stories of zombie apocalypses, post-nuclear waste lands, and survivalism, the suburban fantastic has returned to historicize our present, to look back 30 years and purport to tell us how we got from there to here.
The suburban fantastic’s attitude to technology and social change is comparable to the way noir encodes the threat of European fascism of the ’40s and ’50s into what Nino Frank called the “social fantastic,” scenes of murder, blackmail, infidelity, and criminality occurring in small towns or urban cities of the United States. Noir disappeared in the 1960s only to return as neo-noir from the 1970s onward (in Chinatown, Body Heat, and others) to convey the perils of an emerging neoliberal culture while maintaining the dramatic lighting and erotic emphases of the originals. Similarly, the original suburban fantastic of the 1980s and ’90s encoded an emerging neoliberal culture into sinister elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror invading suburbia, and has reemerged in our present in a self-consciously “neo-” form designed to historicize the troubles of the present.
Suburban fantastic media is an ideal vehicle for historicizing the present, because suburban fantastics of the 1980s already look to the past to warn others about the future. In Back to the Future, Reagan’s neoliberal politics have transformed Hill Valley’s town square into a place of hobos, garbage, and graffiti. When Marty (Michael J. Fox) travels back 30 years to 1955, he discovers a simpler world where danger is still far away. (When Doc [Christopher Lloyd] is told that Reagan is president, he can’t believe it — “Then who’s vice president? Jerry Lewis?”) Marty’s time-travel adventure allows him to remake his life in the 1980s, so when he returns, his family’s life has transformed for the better. Stephen King’s It also shows how a group of friends change their lives in the 1980s, by recalling the shared trauma of their ’50s childhood and confronting its legacy in the present.
Stranger Things similarly looks 30 years back from the present to the 1980s and implicitly purports to reveal the secret origins for our present condition. For example, the original cause of the crises that affect the town of Hawkins lies in MKUltra experiments with hallucinogenic drugs in the ’70s. What was previously a catalyst into a utopian expanded consciousness accidentally causes the birth of children with psychokinetic powers. And when one of them (Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown) creates a rift between reality and “the Other Side,” chthonic creatures manage to enter reality and plague the town. The show suggests that the utopian expectations of the baby boomer generation have both superpowered and damaged the next generation.
Furthermore, to represent the dangers facing the kids, Stranger Things offers monsters modeled on those from Aliens, Predator, The Terminator, and The Thing, popular science-fiction-adventure films that suburban children watched at home on VHS in the ’80s and ’90s. Their appearance in Hawkins implies that these monsters have broken out of the television screen and entered the real world of the characters. In this, Stranger Things plays on the moral panics of 1980s and ’90s, in which concerned parents accused Dungeons & Dragons board games, heavy metal music, sex on television, and violent video games of being malign influences on impressionable teenagers. Stranger Things posits a counterfactual: What if our parents were right? What if pop culture media actually was actually traumatizing young millennials, not with images of blood, gore, and “driller killers,” but with dystopian visions of the future that, à la the 1982 film Poltergeist, refused to be contained behind the screen? After all, today’s world of global conglomerates, data piracy, AI, and drone wars is not so far away from the familiar imagery from dystopian science fiction thrillers such as The Terminator, Blade Runner, and Escape from New York.
As a subgenre, suburban fantastic has the potential to trace an even longer historical trajectory and reveal even older roots of dystopia, extending back through the 20th century and beyond. The Back to the Future trilogy offers one of the most fully developed visions of the suburban fantastic by situating the suburban present of 1985 in the context of a historical rise and fall: from the town’s origins in the Wild West of 1885, to its classical period in 1955, to a utopian future in 2015, and to a dystopian hellscape of an alternate 1985, when the bully Biff Tannen had taken over Hill Valley (after Trump won the presidency, this was seen as an uncanny premonition of Trumpian politics). Stephen King’s It is also fixated on historical cycles of violence erupting every 27 years, which the book traces back to 1930 and 1891 and relates to racism, homophobia, and the sins of America generally.
The threat of dystopia is particularly apparent in Netflix’s other suburban fantastic hit Dark, which was released in parallel to Stranger Things. While set in the present of 2019–’20, the show time-travels back continually to 1986–’87, 1953–’54, 1921, and 1888, while also looking forward to a post-apocalyptic wasteland of 2053. By moving through these periods, it relates the emergence of a futuristic dystopia to the choices of the protagonists in the present and follows the roots of these choices a hundred years into the past. It directly addresses the way that nuclear power, hubristic science experiments, and human fallibility have planted the seeds of dystopia in the 20th century which are bearing fruit in the 21st.
This summer, Netflix adapted R. L. Stine’s popular Fear Street books from the 1990s into a trilogy of teen horror films. These films offer another generational history in which teens face a supernatural terror in 1994, which the sequels trace back to 1978 and to witch trials in 1666. The trilogy places the origins of present troubles in the past’s misogyny rather than technology, but it does so by packaging this history within the suburban fantastic subgenre. Stine’s books are the object of sentimental attachment for the millennial generation, and his Goosebumps series has already been successfully adapted into a suburban fantastic movie in 2015. With a striking retro-aesthetic and the familiar casting of Maya Hawke and Sadie Sink from Stranger Things, the trilogy has played well with an audience already versed in the pleasures of the suburban fantastic.
Each media property comes to different ideas about where the original sins of the present lie. As Helen Young, a critic on fantasy media, says, “Suburban Fantasy, with its intrusions of the supernatural, can be understood as the suppressed history of modernity resurfacing.” In practice, the suburban fantastic often identifies this modernity with technology and the military-industrial complex, yet setting these stories in homogeneous suburban communities suggests a further identification. As Kyle Riismandel, a scholar of the suburbs, notes, suburbia in the ’80s and ’90s was predominantly a “white” enclave segregated from urban ethnic diversity. Suburban fantastic media then plays out white fantasies of an otherwise safe and secure neighbourhood being imperilled by alien others. The protagonists’ actions save suburbia and reaffirm Hollywood’s (and society’s) investment in suburbia as a privileged community, the one place most worth protecting against outside threats. While some suburban fantastic stories have included greater diversity (for example, Finding ‘Ohana involves the protagonists reconnecting with their roots by symbolically saving Hawaiian culture), suburban fantastic stories often regressively duplicate the homogeneity of the original films.
Suburbia’s whiteness is thrown into relief when the racial character of the suburban fantastic is flipped and a community of color is framed as one worth protecting against these dark forces. For example, in Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020), a group of boys representing different ethnic groups — Black and Latino — do battle with vampires who overtly represent white developers and gentrification. The narrative conventions of the suburban fantastic are adhered to, but the very fact that the film inverts the racial polarity (and alters the setting to the inner city) indicates the presence of a racialized binary baked into the conventions of the suburban fantastic itself. Just as critic James Naremore writes of how “the ordinary run of films noirs in the 1940s made black people almost invisible,” yet noir is still “preoccupied […] with people of color,” so too does the absence of diversity in suburban fantastic fiction suggest the centrality of whiteness within it. As Ebony Elizabeth Thomas says in her consideration of the “dark fantastic”: “[T]he Dark Other is the engine that drives the fantastic.” So, even though these threats are rarely explicitly racialized, the whiteness of suburbia affects the representation of the fantastic threat that intrudes upon it.
Most immediately, however, suburban fantastic stories are about American youth coming of age by confronting an abstracted “fantastic” form of the personal problems that plague them. This has always involved the protagonist’s connection to the past: in fighting the fantastic intrusion, the heroes come to understand the scary old man who lives down the street or the reality of their parents’ lives or the history of their town. But because the dystopian visions from media from 30 years ago anticipated the social and technological problems of the present, contemporary suburban fantastic media can draw upon that iconography to trace the roots of our current problems into the histories of race, gender, and technology. Stories like Stranger Things, Dark, and Fear Street imagine a time when the future was still open and full of utopian possibilities, and the invading terrors could still be defeated before they took hold. We can only hope that rather than consuming these stories for nostalgic pleasure, today’s audience will learn from the examples of its protagonists, and the ways they simultaneously contain, absorb, and reject these fantastical threats.
Angus McFadzean is a writer and academic based in Oxford. His book Suburban Fantastic Cinema: Growing Up in the Late Twentieth Century was published by Wallflower Press in 2019.
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This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: The Occult, No. 22 To receive the Quarterly Journal, become a member or...
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