Horror Stalking Our Streets
When we migrated to the cities, the isolation and terrors of an uncaring rural nature should have been left behind. Instead, as Melissa Elborn discovers, terror has followed us into our towns...
Remote and rural places haunt much of our horror fiction – a cut-off rural community, a deep forest, an old haunted manor, or an abandoned asylum. These are the places that dominate horror fiction. For the majority of us, though, these settings are not places we are overly familiar with or where we experience our everyday fears.
Today, over 80% of the total British population live in urban areas. The shift from the countryside to the city started in the 18th-century and this trend has never reversed with urbanisation still increasing every year.
The attraction to cities and towns centuries ago is very similar to what still draws people today – more jobs, a chance to earn a better income, and access to entertainment, transport and amenities.
By their very nature, towns and cities have been designed for humans to live in. It’s the ultimate show of our dominance against the natural world – we can create an environment where we have the best chance of survival and enjoyment.
In urban places, we have more protection from the threats of nature and the ancestral fight or flight response designed to protect us from predators could appear to be an antiquated brain function.
However, just as the perceptions of the idyllic and pastoral countryside can be wrong, so can the idea of towns and cities as safe and fun living spaces. With over 300 years of British urbanisation under our belts, we have discovered the darker side of our cities from the very air we breathe to the behaviours of the people surrounding us. Scientists have evidenced that major air pollutants are more concentrated in urban areas ; and that sensory overload in cities causes heightened stress levels and mental illness.  There is also an increased incidence of crime, especially violent and sexual crime.
When we bring large numbers of people together in cities, why do crime rates rise when we are a social species? Research has shown that humans are the most lethal of all mammals – the rate of lethal violence is seven times higher amongst humans than other mammals. While carnivores kill for food, we not only kill for food, we kill for revenge, to gain an advantage, out of hate and fear, for entertainment, and we kill ourselves. Driving this lethal behaviour are evolutionary instincts around territoriality, population and resource pressures, and competition. All these factors are heightened by bringing large populations of people together in the same area.
The sense of isolation, such a common theme underpinning horror, is also possible within the urban environment. At first, it seems unlikely that people could feel isolated or lonely in a city surrounded by people and connected by communications technology, but in urban horror we see people falling through the cracks of modern society. People can be isolated from others due to mental illness, fears of contagion, or become marginalised and ignored – the homeless, refugees, the demonised youth and the poor. These are the cracks that horror seeps into and reveals the darkest side of human nature.
When we bring all this together, it is no surprise that the monsters in urban horror are human in origin and focus on our fear and mistrust of other people. However, alongside these psychological fears, there are some geographical features that occur more frequently and perhaps could even be the urban version of the gothic castle or forest.
Tower blocks are one such feature. British tower blocks first appeared in the 1950s and were seen as a solution to the overcrowded slum housing of post-war Britain. Building upwards also had the advantage of countering the space pressures on the ground. When the first ‘streets in the skies’ development was built in Sheffield in 1958, the lord mayor said: ‘Out of ugliness we are to create something of beauty and utility.’ By 1975, over 440,000 high-rise flats had been built including the Grenfell Tower block. But as every horror fan knows, beauty can reverse into repulsion and hope can turn to despair.
Long before the Grenfell Tragedy in 2017, the tower block had turned into a metaphor for all that was wrong with city living. Idyllic ‘streets in the skies’ turned into slums, and tower blocks became hot spots for crime and places lacking a sense of community. It is perhaps fitting that the dystopian nightmare of A Clockwork Orange (USA, Stanley Kubrick, 1971) was filmed set against the Thamesmead estate in London.
In Citadel (Ireland, Ciarán Foy, 2012) many of these themes are brought together powerfully. In a scene set in a graveyard, the tower blocks fill the horizon loom in the background like giant concrete tombstones against the sky. The main character, Tommy, a traumatised young father, is isolated by his agoraphobia after the violent death of his partner inside the tower block. He battles intense symptoms and sensory overload every time he leaves his flat. He is being stalked by feral teenage hoodies who are infected, blind, and feed on fear. Tommy with his agoraphobia and overloaded senses is a walking vessel of fear. When fear overwhelms us, we start to be afraid of fear itself which Citadel effectively demonstrates.
The tower block’s descent from modern utopia to nightmare is charted in High-Rise (UK, Ben Wheatley, 2015). In this film, class separations are depicted literally with the upper classes residing in the top floors of the tower, the middle classes in the middle floors and the poorer classes filling the lower floors. Law and order gradually subside, and the tower block’s residents become isolated from the outside world, leaving their jobs, remaining inside the tower and descending into savage chaos.
From the terrors of high-rise living, another geographical feature also common in urban horror is the underground. Space in capital city London has always been at a premium. When the streets filled up in Victorian times, engineers dug down for the answers. Beneath the streets, lies a subterranean city of tunnels, rivers, footpaths, sewers, cellars and bomb shelters. The London Underground has become a rich source of urban folklore with stories of abandoned tube stations and lines, secret passages, ghosts, an escaped Mummy and nocturnal tunnel dwellers.
Death Line (1972) and Creep (2004) are two films that draw on the terrors of the London underground. In Death Line, an accident had left some railway workers trapped and assumed dead. Instead, the group survived through cannibalism and there is one last surviving man from the family. He has lost all his humanity and can only utter the words he has heard so often ‘mind the doors’. The film draws in British class divides as it is only when a wealthy minister with an OBE goes missing that the police seriously start to investigate.
Class issues also feature in Creep where a young professional woman is locked into a tube station overnight. By the end of her ordeal in the morning, she is mistaken as a homeless person begging in the tube. Creep creates an uncanny atmosphere by showing a familiar place that is normally packed with people completely empty. Long corridors in the tube station stretch out before us, and iron bars shut off the exit. The main character is literally metres away from hundreds of people above her but underground she is alone, and the normal benefits of her place in society mean nothing here.
The uncanny effect of showing us crowded places empty is used to striking effect in 28 Days Later (UK, Danny Boyle, 2002). Cillian Murphy’s character wakes up in an empty and disordered hospital and stumbles out into London streets. We see familiar landmarks such as Westminster Bridge devoid of any people and silent. The unsettling effect of the uncanny urban is a subtle one – it slowly fills our senses with unease. It takes what we know to be familiar and ordinary and changes it in a way that makes us feel that our grip on reality is tilting.
In House Calls (Vyatka Horvat, 2020), a chapbook from the addictively collectable Nightjar Press, an entire narrative is created from the flyers and letters that people drop through our letterboxes. These everyday notes about window washers, plumbers, and concerned neighbours build up until we feel an agoraphobic dread about what is lurking outside our front door. Another descent into the urban uncanny is London Gothic (Nicholas Royle, 2021) where you are made to stop and look twice at things you’d normally ignore. Who are those strange neighbours who seem to be copying what you do? Who lived in your flat before you and what did they do there?
Away from the city, the underground and the concrete towers, there is another urban landscape that is familiar to us – the suburban housing estate. Seen through the eyes of two asylum seekers in His House (UK, Remi Weekes, 2020), an ordinary run-down house becomes an alien place where trauma, guilt and horror can rise to the surface. Their neighbours are unfriendly and racist, it is hard to find your way without getting lost, metal forks ruin the taste of food, and peeling walls hide the lair of a demonic witch.
A set for the former soap opera Brookside, the very depiction of ordinary, is used in Salvage (UK, Lawrence Gough, 2009). The film opens with a family drama too, with divorced parents and an estranged teenager walking in on her mother’s one-night stand. As strange events start to happen, the banality of a street of semi-detached houses adds to the tension, rather than detracts from it. We see how our homes, seemingly so solid and safe are vulnerable. Our communication with the outside world can be cut off. Our doors can be broken down, our windows smashed, and someone from a neighbouring house can crawl through the loft space and break into our home.
What all these urban horror works do is bring horror closer to our lives. It takes away the fantasy that horrific imaginings and the supernatural are safely tucked away in a gothic castle or a remote lake house. It delivers horror to our street and lets it in our front door. It reminds us that the locks on our windows and doors are not that safe, and behind the pleasant smiles of our civilised neighbours lies a savage nature.
Read Melissa’s previous essay Creeping Through The Countryside
1.Statista. Urban and rural population of the United Kingdom.
2. Centre for Cities. Holding our breath- How poor air quality blights our cities.
3. Science Daily. Stress in the city: Brain activity and biology behind mood disorders of urbanites.
4. Office for National Statistics. Police recorded crime rates per 1,000 population, by offence type and Community Safety Partnership area, in England, 2019/20
5. Psychology Today. Humans are genetically predisposed to kill each other.
6. Nature. The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence.
7. BBC News. The ups and downs of high-rise living.
8. Bustle. 7 creepy AF London Underground stories that will change your mind about the tube.