According to TV in 2018, you can’t go home again. But if you do and nothing has changed, then there is a high chance something nefarious is going on. This is the case for Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) in Sharp Objects as well as Castle Rock’s Henry Deaver (André Holland), when they return to the respective small towns they fled long ago. Work calls them back, but nothing ever good comes from picking at an old wound, no matter how many years have passed. Distance and time can make the events of the past seem less awful, but Camille and Henry have not forgotten what happened in their youth. And they are both viewed with suspicion upon their return by local residents who are blind to the corruption and crimes of those that live among them.
In 2018, certain political rhetoric continues to focus on a desire to return to the so-called “good old days.” At the same time, this language stokes fears regarding the motivations of outsiders. However, this rose-tinted version of the past doesn’t really exist; Sharp Objects, Castle Rock and even Chilling Adventures of Sabrina reveal the more insidious side of hearkening back to the way things were. Here, the danger lies in the very fabric of these towns; blood stains the foundations of Wind Gap, Castle Rock, and Greendale. Why would anyone want to go back to that?
Horror (in its many forms) isn’t just about scaring an audience, as this genre often holds a mirror up to events occurring in the real world. David Cronenberg’s The Fly and other ‘80s Body Horror was a reaction to the AIDs epidemic. The Dead series by George A. Romero tackled consumerism and the turmoil of the late 1960s via the zombie apocalypse. Recently, Get Out by Jordan Peele shined a light on liberal hypocrisy. It is fitting that one of 2019’s most anticipated new TV shows is Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone, as Rod Serling’s iconic series often used scary stories as a form of political and social commentary. Not all horror is a metaphor, sometimes a slasher flick is just a slasher flick. But the subtext of this genre often reflects the anxieties of the present.
Amy Nicholson’s excellent Halloween Unmasked podcast is a deep dive into John Carpenter’s Halloween, including the sequels and imitations it spawned. In Episode 6 “The Joy of Fear,” Nicholson explores what audiences find so appealing about scary entertainment. A conversation with Carpenter, in which he explains the difference between the two overarching types of scary stories, underscores the way the residents of these small-town set shows react to the crimes committed; “Right-wing evil is always outside, it’s them.” Whereas left-wing evil comes from inside us: “we have the capability to commit evil.” Sharp Objects and Castle Rock fall into the view these must be outsiders committing or causing these horrific acts, but they should also look closer to home.
In Sharp Objects, Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) is the newcomer investigating the disappearance and subsequent murders of two young girls. He believes someone local to the town is the killer, whereas the popular opinion is that a drifter passing through is the culprit. When the finger is pointed at someone who lives in Wind Gap, that person has only lived in this town for a few years. For all intents and purposes, John Keene (Taylor John Smith) is an outsider to the Wind Gap community. As the thinking goes, it couldn’t have been a member of this community, because things like that don’t happen in places like Wind Gap. Except, of course, they do.
Though Sharp Objects is grounded in the real world, it’s also very much a Gothic horror exploring if violent behavior or acts of suppression is inherited. Horrors that soaked this land a long time ago still bubbles to the surface via this lineage. In preparation for Calhoon Day, Camille quips “My backyard’s about to be littered with Confederate flags.” This celebration of Camille’s ancestor includes a gang rape reenactment performed by teenage girls and boys. If this is what passes as Wind Gap celebratory entertainment, it is no wonder everyone is so fucked up beneath the shiny veneer of small-town pleasantries.
But over in Castle Rock, this is a town stained with violence, so the residents have a different perspective when it comes to the way things used to be, even if some are drawn to those dark stories. “People bitch about the bad old days when there were serial killers and psychopathic dogs,” quips the horror-legacy-loving Jackie Torrance (Jane Levy). Her dream of this town being turned into a “murder theme park” becomes a reality when a new couple to Castle Rock open a B&B with a bloody mannequin twist. This might sound ghoulish, but the infamous Lizzie Borden House is also open for business. However, soon the walls are covered in real blood; Jackie should be careful what she wishes for.
The Hulu anthology series draws on Stephen King’s work, including stories set in this fictional Maine town, so horror is in its DNA. But for 27 years, Castle Rock has not been subject to so-called acts of evil. Even if the last three decades have been steeped in corruption, as well as the cruelty of keeping someone locked in a cage for the duration. The discovery of the Kid (Bill Skarsgård) in the belly of Shawshank Prison changes everything in this town. He is the outsider infecting Castle Rock with uncontrollable rage. Or is he unleashing something that is already in the bones of this town?
The Kid is considered to be the devil incarnate, but Castle Rock’s misfortunes can’t simply be blamed on a man who hasn’t aged a day since Warden Lacy (Terry O’Quinn) found him out in the woods in 1991. This community is resistant to change, including Molly’s (Melanie Lynskey) regeneration proposal. They’d rather be stuck in the past, which is what they get when The Kid is back out in the world; a return to acts of violence that shaped this community. The cause-and-effect of the Kid’s presence is not disputed, but the motive and reasoning are purposefully ambiguous, depending on how much you believe the events shown in “Henry Deaver.”
Small towns stuck in an aesthetic time warp are rarely what they seem on the surface. In the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Greendale has a quaint vibe, but with a dark past buried out in the woods. Salem has turned its dark history into a tourist haven, but the witches who died in the Greendale Trials have been kept secret. A secret that literally comes back to life in the Season 1 finale to wreak vengeance on the ancestors of those who killed them. Chilling Adventures is a stylized version of a small town, but the ‘60s aesthetic is significant. Yes, it is the period in which the source material is set, but it also represents a time when America experienced social upheaval, international turmoil, and an identity crisis. Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) is being pulled between two communities; mortals and witches. She belongs to both and neither.
These themes ran throughout so many TV series in 2018 that were all tinged with or overtly courting horror. In another example, Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) experiences a more acute version of Sabrina’s dilemma in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. The community of ghosts — and particularly Poppy Hill (Catherine Parker) — prey on Olivia’s “sensitivity” and her ability to see things that others cannot. By focusing on her natural fears about what the outside world will do to her children, they usher her toward committing a horrific act, ensuring she will never leave. This is small town scares on a micro level; Hill House is not a haven, the ghostly residents have ulterior motives. On a much larger scale, Gilead in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a nation predicated on returning to the way things were. But once again, the true horror lies within.
This isn’t a phenomena for just this year, although it was a strong connective thread. In 2019, Stranger Things will also return with its version of small-town America (and its dark Upside Down) that is no doubt inspired by the work of Stephen King. Pop culture nostalgia is, of course, a big part of this production, but the Cold War is also a vital ingredient. This is another form of being afraid of the Other, however, the monsters of the Upside Down are also homegrown, shining a light on another troubling chapter in history.
The lesson in these series is that the “good old days” were actually drenched in blood, from the dark past of Wind Gap to the murderous reputation Castle Rock can’t ever shed. The witches who died in Greendale have a right to be angry about this miscarriage of justice. Nostalgia is dangerous when acts of horror are turned into a cute pageant and viewed with rose-tinted spectacles. These small town historical moments shouldn’t be viewed as a roadmap to greater things, instead, these shows treat them as a cautionary tale.