Impossible Spaces: Horror Suburbs and New Towns

Posted by jessicageorge on October 16, 2013 in Guest Blog, Jessica George tagged with ,

In the second of my Impossible Spaces blog tour posts, I’m going to talk about horror suburbs, and about the kind of urban space that inspired my contribution to the anthology—‘New Town’. In his A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, Owen Hatherley describes the oft-expressed distaste for New Towns thus:

Apparently, we all know what that [‘New Town’] means—towns full of eyesores, concrete cows and unsightly proletarians, bereft of the ‘heritage’ that so obsesses the British psyche.1

Class snobbery probably does have something to do with it, but it’s the idea of ‘heritage’—or, rather, the lack of it—that I’m more interested in talking about here. I’ve written elsewhere about growing up in a New Town, and realising only in retrospect how unusual a place it was. What’s interesting to me is something Hatherley touches on later in his book, where he writes about the ‘hostility to planning and to the planned cities of social democracy’ shared by left- and right-wingers, property developers, psychogeographers, and punks.They romanticise ‘unplanned’ nineteenth-century cities, instead: those that appear to have ‘[risen] autonomously out of the activities of entrepreneurs and businessmen’.2 Hatherley is interested in economic and social implications of this idea of the city or town; I’m interested in what it means for the New Town as narrative. New Towns, in their homogeneity, lack tangible evidence of progression. They make no pretence of having grown up organically—thus robbing the would-be writer of many a fruitful metaphor. And in their carefully-planned designs, they embody an attempt to direct modes of living that had hitherto been regarded as ‘natural’, as stemming from an unproblematically-definable ‘human nature’.

The New Town of Cwmbran, Torfaen. Copyright Robin Drayton and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence.

In doing this, they resonate with a break in thinking about the ‘human’ that took place in the second half of the twentieth century. Neil Badmington has named Lacan, Foucault, and Althusser as ‘anti-humanists[…]declaring a departure from the legacy of humanism’;3 I would suggest that the work of sociologists such as Bourdieu and Hebdige did something similar, making explicit the notion that personal preferences stemmed from, or grew up in opposition to, our social positions, rather than arising from an innate and inviolable individuality. This break with traditional humanism continued a trend that already stretched from Darwinism in the nineteenth century to Freudian psychoanalysis in the early twentieth. New Towns, effectively, acknowledge that we will not always, ‘naturally’, inevitably inhabit space in the same way; that we might be induced to live differently. We might be changed.

The New Town appears to me to have much in common with the kind of all-American suburbia that has long been a fixture of horror and the Gothic—from the slasher films of the eighties to the more recent Dexter, taking in the pastel fifties pastiche of Edward Scissorhands and vampire-infested Sunnydale, California along the way. (Built in the twentieth century, and lacking in visible continuity between ancient Hellmouth and modern urban space, Sunnydale is in many ways a New Town.) The kind of Gothic narrative in which dark forces rise amid neat, identical houses might seem to be rather reactionary, asserting the resurgence of a human nature that refuses to be suppressed (albeit perhaps a sinister one). I find it more interesting, though, to look at the horror suburb—or the New Town—as a place that, in acknowledging ‘human nature’ as fragmented and unstable, allows itself—even requires—to be inhabited in multiple ways. It offers myriad positions to be occupied. So Buffy’s high school nerds and cheerleaders find themselves doubling as monster-fighters and even as monsters themselves. In the third series, where we learn that the series villain, the Mayor, has ‘built this town for demons to feed on’,4 the humans who inhabit Sunnydale are forced to consider that it may have been created to contain them, not to serve them. They are lab rats or cattle, rather than scientists or farmers. Even the Mayor himself—the town’s cheerily evil personification—undergoes a dramatic physical metamorphosis, as well playing a variety of different roles in relation to other characters, from murderous supernatural boss-figure to doting substitute father. Homeowners have to consider that this town may not actually be theirs; consumers, the possibility of being consumed. The multiplicity of available identities, though, means that there is always also a position from which they can fight back.

The eventual fate of Sunnydale, California.

The break in history—in coherent narrative—leads to a break in the coherent self who might otherwise inhabit that narrative. But this is also an escape. Locations like the New Town and the horror suburb, dislocated in history, lend themselves to fictions wherein the inconsistencies of narrative and of self are foregrounded. When I wrote, in my earlier post for Hannah Kate, that ‘clone towns’ may not necessarily produce ‘clone people’, it was perhaps because of this. We can’t all be the same—because in places and in stories like this, none of us is even quite the same as him- or herself.

More information about Impossible Spaces, which contains ‘New Town’, and twenty other stories about unsettling places, can be found here.

1 Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (London: Verso, 2010), p, 49.

2 Ibid., p. 122.

3 Neil Badmington, ‘Introduction: Approaching Posthumanism’, in Posthumanism, ed. by Neil Badmington (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), p. 9.

4 Buffy the Vampire Slayer, s03e17, ‘Enemies’ (1999).

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