Why Are So Many Horror Movies Set in Ohio?


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At the start of the 20th century, German expressionist cinema and the golden-era of black-and-white Universal Monster films ushered in a new genre of film for audiences to enjoy. The early years of horror movies frequently featured old, victorian houses in faraway lands and otherwordly creatures beyond our imagination.

As the genre evolved and adapted over time, big cities like Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles become home to horror, while continuing to provide a majority of audiences the comfortability of suspension of disbelief, knowing that the events of these films would never impact their lives.

Forty years ago today, an up-and-coming filmmaker named John Carpenter set his slasher film Halloween in a sleepy Midwestern suburb and completely changed the trajectory of horror, and altered the way creatives approached instilling fear in audiences.

By placing Halloween in a town "just like yours," horror was brought directly to an audience's doorstep. No longer could we escape to the safety of "this could never happen to me," because horror was now interrupting the false sense of security enjoyed by those living their daily lives in the comfort of suburban Americana. The intrusion of darkness in a presumed bubble of Midwestern safety quickly became a formula "Hollywood Horror" would try to emulate, and continues to do so even today.

When looking at the country as a whole, Ohio is the most idyllic representation of Midwestern life. A seemingly perfect balance of urban and rural sensibilities in one state, we're so "averagely American," we don't even register as having a location specific accent. Politically, we're a swing state, seen as a perfect example of middle-America, so much so that we've become a testing site for new products and menu items. To the rest of the world, there's nothing particularly interesting about Ohio, and that creates the perfect breeding ground for horror.

In real life, Cleveland is known the world over for our "serial killer" problem. While mostly exaggerated, our reputation for birthing murderers is not unknown, and adds a layer of urban legend mystique around the Sixth City.

Cleveland's own Wes Craven had his directorial debut with the ultra-graphic Last House on the Left, a film that was banned in some locations for many years due to its accused exploitative nature, and its painfully realistic portrayals of violence. Craven would go on to write and direct "otherworldly" films like The Hills Have Eyes and Swamp Thing but his response to John Carpenter's Halloween, a little film called A Nightmare on Elm Street, would cement Ohio as the prime location for horror.

The iconic Freddy Krueger says it himself, "Every town has an Elm Street."

This famous quote can be interpreted to mean that every town, city or neighborhood has an evil side and that no matter where we live, or where we are, bad things can and will happen. This point is only further supported by the common belief that Ohio can easily be used as a substitution for Anytown, USA.

Freddy Krueger's roots are even based in reality, inspired by an experience Craven had while living in Cleveland as a child. A man in an overcoat and fedora hat was shuffling and mumbling on the sidewalk outside of his second-floor apartment, so loudly that it prevented him from sleeping. He looked outside to investigate the scene and the man turned around to look directly into Craven's eyes.

Craven ran back into his room, hoping the man would leave but when he looked out his window again, the man was unmoved, still staring directly at him. The man later tried to enter Craven's apartment building but when his older brother ran downstairs with a baseball bat, the stranger was nowhere to be found.

A horrifying experience to be sure, but one that would launch nightmares for generations of film fans, all because someone had disrupted the sanctity of Midwestern safety.

Post-Nightmare on Elm Street other films took note and began treating Ohio as the perfect location for trouble in American paradise. The darkly comedic Heathers and sci-fi monster flick The Faculty use Ohio as a means to dissect the horrors of the American high school experience, and the presumed safety of a fictional university in Ohio during Scream 2 fails to offer any sense of relief for the characters retreating from California.

While most of these films set in Ohio aren't actually shot here, scripts make a note to establish Ohio as a location as an important signifier. By forcing audiences to transport themselves into Ohio and not California (where most of these films are actually shot), they're ensuring audiences cannot disassociate with the setting. It's difficult for most of the country to identify or empathize with someone living in California, a land that seems on another planet to a lot of people, but someone in a state like Iowa or Oklahoma can easily see themselves in a character living in Ohio.

While Nightmare on Elm Street may have planted the flag for Ohio in horror, the anthology film Trick 'r Treat arguably perfected it. In the film, multiple stories around the mythos and urban legends about Halloween are all intertwined by people who break the "rules." Unlike Thanksgiving or any of the winter holidays, Halloween is one of the last, true communal holidays. Trick 'r Treat isn't trying to examine the dismantling of the nuclear family or shine a light on the horrors of coming-of-age, but rather focusing on communal interactions and how our actions impact the community around us.

To the outside world, Indiana appears too rural, Michigan's reputation is plagued with grittiness from places like Detroit and Flint, and given that most people associate Illinois with Chicago (despite the state being predominately rural), it makes perfect sense that Ohio would take the crown for fictional horror settings.

Simply put, Ohio is the heart of American horror.

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