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Focus on the Frightful: Welcome to Our Town

Small town horror is a staple of the genre. It has a different flavour from urban horror. In urban horror the horror comes from the unknown. Of feeling small in a big city. Decay, uncertainty, and strangers. Small town horror stems from the familiar becoming unfamiliar. From people that you’ve known for ages suddenly dropping their masks and seeing them for what they really are. Of being judged and being the judge.

Needful Things

The ‘Small’ Town

I live in a small town. It’s a little bigger than it used to be but we still have precisely one small supermarket, one gas station, a Dairy Queen-a-like, a party store, a very small library (that’s technically in the next town over but close enough to count) and a Dollar General. And I’ve been to small towns that have less. So it’s always amusing to me to see how the small town is usually represented in media.

Take Stephen King’s IT for example. Even the fifties version of Derry it’s got a bandstand, a good-sized sounding library, a movie theatre, and a pharmacy. In eighties Derry the bandstand is big enough to tempt big band acts such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and has a mall. These are not exactly attributes of a ‘small’ town. But somehow he does make it seem small enough to make it realistic that everyone can know your business enough to know whose great-grandparent stole a horse and therefore you shouldn’t be trusted around the silverware either.

It feels like many authors and filmmakers want their cake and be able to eat it too. They want a town small enough to be believably isolated but also large enough so that readers won’t get bored if their characters are sitting around their house for the tenth day in a row because there’s literally nothing to do.

Small town Derry – IT

Twilight Zone and the Small Town

The Creepy (or Nostalgic) Small Town is almost a trademark of The Twilight Zone. It’s definitely real estate that Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone have visited often. It’s usually in the form of wanting to get back to simpler times ala Walking Distance. Or an escape such as A Stop at Willoughby. I can also be critical of small towns and the mob mindset that can result in pushing back against the crowd or questioning the status quo as in The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.

Even in the Twilight Zones set in the city they still manage to either give it a small-town feel by confining it to a small group of characters or using it as a counter-point to show how scary the big city is and how some ‘oddballs’ just don’t fit into the established norms. Like in Cavendar is Coming or Mr. Bevis.

What horrific small towns do you like to visit? Let me know! We’ll go more in-depth next week with part two.

Published inFocus on the Frightful


  1. The “have your cake and eat it, too” approach to small towns is not confined to horror. “Peyton Place,” the scandalous novel of the late 1950s, describes the town as being quite small, but gives it institutions that belong to a much larger town. (Having grown up in one that was in-between in size, I spotted that the first time I read it.)

    Lovecraft’s Dunwich and Insmouth naturally fall into this category. So does Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Starting in 2015, Paul Cornell’s done a whole series of short supernatural-plotted novels based in the fictional town of Lychford. And I’ve created a few fictional small towns for stories on my blog.

    I had several more examples in mind, but in taking a more careful look at them, many of them are really about individual houses or a few people, rather than a village. And for some, we get only a brief glimpse of the town, as in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or John Anthony West’s “Gladys’s Gregory,” both about small towns with a single horrific custom.

    • I’m going to try to go more into specific ones next post. I wanted to in this one but the gremlins apparently decided to camp out in my laptop for the day and everything was freezing and crashing so I had to keep it short, lol.

      It has always amused me all of the stuff a ‘small’ town seems to have – hospitals, carousels (Walking Distance) and band spaces.

      • Aye, I grew up in a “small” town of 5,000. We did have a community hospital (I was born there) but a carousel? Ha! The 4th of July band concert was on a temporary platform, a truck flatbed parked on “Legion Common,” a triangular piece of grass probably originally slated to be part of the old town cemetery, but now outside its walls. We had a credit union, but no bank. The nearest cinema was a 2-screen 7 miles away in the next town, where, oddly enough, I saw “Videodrome” when it first came out. Some idiot had brought his small kid to the theater for that one! They walked out during the first sex scene.

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