For decades, quaint small towns and rural settings have been a go-to location of both the horror and mystery genres. We have seen countless small town whodunnits, monster stories, small towns with dark secrets, and of course, plots where outsiders get trapped in isolated towns and meet locals who hold odd beliefs, exhibit strange behaviour or have a fondness for murder.
Time and time again we see movies, tv shows and books utilising the creepy small town trope.
TV brought us the towns, Hawkins Indiana, White Pine Bay, Hemlock Grove, and Wayward Pines. Cinema brought us, Bridgton Maine, Woodsboro California and Haddonfield Illinois. And literature brought us, Innsmouth, Green Town and of course, Derry Maine.
So what makes us so scared of small towns?
We have compiled a list of reasons small towns are our favourite setting for murder, mystery, and supernatural occurrences:
(Note: We are talking about fictional towns here, I’m sure your small town is great.)
1. The illusion of closeness:
Small towns bring a cosy but lethal illusion of emotional intimacy. Everyone knows everything about their fellow locals, or at least, they think they do.
The small timid woman next door who bakes cakes for charity might have a secret passion for karate; the resentful retired doctor across the road might have saved your mother’s life. While there is nothing inherently scary about knowing your neighbour, what we think we know about a person only scratches the surface.
This illusion of closeness gives the small town a vulnerability that larger communities don’t have. While city folk may know a thing or two about the people who live close to them, they are less likely to discount the involvement of someone who lives a couple of houses away.
Similarly, small communities are more likely to suspect someone who doesn’t quite fit their small town ideals. Perhaps the strange isolated kid the mothers’ gossip about in the supermarket is responsible, or the new family in town. It makes sense, suspecting an outsider who doesn’t fit in is much more comforting than suspecting the post office clerk you have a friendly chat with each morning.
This illusion of knowing all there is to know about friends and neighbours can shield the protagonists from the truth. For this reason, small towns make a perfect location for creepy mysteries.
As quoted by Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck in his novel East of Eden:
“In a small town where everyone knows everyone it is almost impossible to believe that one of your acquaintance could murder anyone. For that reason, if the signs are not pretty strong in a particular direction, it must be some dark stranger, some wanderer from the outside world where such things happen.”
This illusion of closeness heightens audience anxiety. If we have learnt anything about small town mysteries, it is that someone has a secret, and it is probably someone the protagonist doesn’t suspect.
As such, as the plot unfolds we as an audience feel suspicious and hyper vigilant. Even when we have figured out the mystery, the anxiety continues, because, subconsciously we know these stories serve as a reminder that any small town Joe can be lethal. Not every murderer is an outsider, sometimes the people you should be most afraid are the ones located right next door.
2. Slow investigative response
Small towns are known for the mantra ‘but nothing exciting ever happens here’. While this makes the town seem safe, pleasant and predictable, the idea that a town has some sort of impenetrable forcefield of mundanity makes it especially susceptible to unsavoury or downright horrific incidents.
This illusion of safety is both a blessing and a curse. A low crime rate is often what drives families to a small town, allows them comfort in the idea of letting their children run around and explore, and gives them day to day peace of mind. However, if, or when, something does eventually go wrong, they are also more likely to be caught off guard.
When you live in a small town and a child or family member doesn’t come home on time, the thought typically isn’t ‘something must be wrong’. If a young rural living child is late for dinner it could be because he met with friends, lost track of time, or perhaps one of the locals invited him around for a meal. His mother might call around the town, take a trip to the park, and eventually, after exhausting all other options, decide to call the local police department.
If it isn’t already too late by the time the sheriff gets involved, I wouldn’t hold out hope for a thorough investigation.
If small town whodunits have taught us anything, we know it is difficult to conduct an unbiased and thorough investigation when you’re chummy with the entire town. Not to mention, with a consistently low crime rate, the department’s investigative skills are bound to be rusty. This can lead protagonists to conduct their own investigations, thrusting them into danger.
Being surrounded by a small tight-knit group can feel refreshing and add to the small town charm, but it can also make you feel cut off from the rest of the world.
Small town populations are often thought to share political or religious beliefs, values, and ideals. While, in the real world, this can be a great way to build a close community bond, in the world of mystery and horror, these kinds of shared beliefs can make small towns the optimal breeding ground for bizarre behaviour, scary cult-like rituals, dirty secrets, or good old fashioned corruption.
Most commonly, the entire town is in on a secret so terrible that nobody in the outside world must know. In order to hide the secret, the town is painted as a sweet as honey idyllic suburban paradise. But, if you stay there long enough, the town’s secrets start to unravel. When that happens – it is too late for you to turn back – you already know too much.
The ‘small town with a secret’ trope has been around for centuries and is often associated with the works of the cult favourite horror author H.P. Lovecraft.
4. The stakes are much higher
When you live in a small town, everyone sees everything you do, so, If a bloodthirsty ‘big bad’ is among your ranks, there will be nowhere to hide. Chances are you will shop at the same supermarket – hell, you will probably pass by one another in the deli aisle with a friendly smile and a nod hello.
While city life gives you the option to disappear in a crowd, not only does living in a small town leave you exposed, it puts all of your local friends and family at equal risk.
This kind of openness can leave the villain spoilt for power. Small town closeness and gossip can keep potential threats clued up on protagonists whereabouts, as well as keeping them informed of the existence and location of potential partners, friends, local family and any personal ties they might have.
Which leaves the protagonist with three options …run, fight, or prepare to be slaughtered.
5. The town is a character of its own
There is something special about how a small town weaves itself into the lives of its characters, to the point where it almost becomes a character in and of itself.
In fiction, the location typically acts as a backdrop for a story, sitting rigid and uninvolved. But sometimes, a location begins to shape its characters, affecting the actions they take and the decisions they make, seemingly, becoming more and more involved in their lives.
A small town in fiction can act as a unique setting for the character in terms of physical characteristics, often featuring quaint town centres, dark weaving forests, long windy roads, and a distinct old-timey atmosphere. But small towns can also evolve with its characters, seemingly understanding and adapting to them, and even reacting to what they do. This can, in turn, make the setting feel unpredictable – as if at any moment the town itself could change the story, or eat its characters whole.
A prime example of setting as a character can be seen in the television series Fargo, where the snowy, quirky Minasotta location seemingly becomes the protagonist. Throughout the three season series, the Minnesota setting is the only stable aspect of the time shifting noir anthology series, other than the murders themselves. While each season places us in a different town within Minnesota, each small town becomes entangled within the characters plots, become as important, or perhaps more important, than the characters themselves.
“A lot of what happens is ‘people come to town and they leave town’ and there’s this sense of outside elements coming in and turning a town on its head that I really wanted to play with. And Bemidji struck my fancy,” said Fargo writer and producer Noah Hawley in a discussion about season one.