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The Strangers: Chapter 1’s Rural Trad Trauma

The Strangers: Chapter 1’s Rural Trad Trauma

The much-maligned reboot is the ultimate treatise on the vapidity of coastal elites and family-values fetishists.

Maya (Madelaine Petsch) is a vegetarian. It’s a statement that her boyfriend, Ryan (Jeff Morell) utters to the townspeople of Venus, Oregon, often in The Strangers: Chapter 1 after the couple’s malfunctioning BMW X leaves them stranded there overnight. Maybe writers Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedman succumbed to such low-hanging fruit to foreshadow the blood that was about to flow in the latest installment of the horror franchise. Or it was a lazy way to show the difference between these rural and city folk. Perhaps an inside joke about Petsch’s long, eye-roll-inducing history as a vegan activist.

Regardless, it’s a point reviews have endlessly mocked on the way to positioning the film as the first Razzie contender of the summer movie season. It’s also a deceptively simplistic moment that makes critics feel superior while assembling a subversive case against their complicity in cultural fragmentation. 

In her review for Deadline, Valerie Complex condensed the critical consensus on the film into a statement that also lays bare the faltering M.O. of Hollywood movies: the third helping of The Strangers fails to capture the essence of its predecessors. As she writes, “My philosophy is, if a film is to be rebooted, remade, or re-purposed, it must find a way to distinguish itself and justify its existence.” 

The bar Complex sets for Hollywood’s IP onslaught seems like an apt litmus test, a more eloquent version of the rad dad critique that Hollywood has run out of ideas. But it also evades a fundamental trait of the horror film–a visceral genre that, more than any other, balances a primal emotion like fear with contemporary anxieties. The Blob of 1958 was a red menace that consumes Anytown, USA, for a reason. Freddy Krueger didn’t just cut through suburban teenage dreams of American prosperity weeks after Reagan’s 1984 landside victory because it was creepy. 

What made The Strangers connect with 2008 audiences was that its premise of three masked intruders massacring a couple, “because you were home,” could happen to anyone–just like the effects of the Great Recession audiences that summer could already feel in the pits of their stomachs. For many critics, the problem with the series’s latest is that it extinguishes this universal threat in favor of a more insular horror world. However, The Strangers: Chapter 1 is about the horror of insular worlds, a central premise its detractors seem to willfully elide.

Breaking from its predecessors, Chapter 1 engages the tropes of what Carol J. Clover called the urbanoia horror film, a subgenre about sophisticated residents of the metropolis getting their comeuppance in the hinterlands. It’s a premise most evident in horror classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (and their remakes) that is still with us as Ti West proved with the surprise hit X in 2022. Like the fallen not-quite heroes of horror’s past, Maya and Ryan of The Strangers have no idea what they are getting into, seeking to stop at a quaint little town diner to briefly engage in their cottagecore fantasies on the way to Seattle. Maya is about to assume her dream job as an architect. She's a prime candidate for fashioning walkable cities and combating the narrow-mindedness of the Green New Deal balkers who live in the boonies. 

It’s true that The Strangers can no longer happen to anyone. Yet, the source of its critical and audience blowback lies in the fact that it could now only happen to a certain class of people–those that rattle the economic cages of the deplorables for funsies and bring up books like White Rural Rage while ordering another round of $20 cocktails at the newest urban hotspot. Maya and Ryan are not bad people, but they are fair weather adherents to the dogma of coastal elites.

This rumination on white liberal privilege does more than, in Complex’s terms, justify the film’s existence. It makes this Strangers the seminal horror film of America circa 2024 because it also shows an unparalleled adeptness at exposing the intellectual bankruptcy of conservative trad culture. As the late Robin Wood noted, horror since the 1980s is all about punishing transgression–the masked killer dicing up the teen girls who bear their breasts to their pot-smoking boyfriends. 

In contrast, The Strangers has long been a franchise that takes a more extreme stance on morality. The couple at the center of the original would never have been in this mess if Liv Tyler had just accepted Scott Speedman’s marriage proposal. The family in the 2018 sequel staying overnight in a sparse trailer park on the way to drop off their daughter at reform school could have avoided the whole thing if mom and dad had just worked on their marriage. Like their predecessors, Maya and Ryan never do anything wrong per se. They just don’t register that bragging about celebrating their five-year dating anniversary and masking their problems to a group of good country people in a diner isn’t the best choice. 

And thus, the film’s central trio coded as a husband, wife, and daughter in midcentury Halloween masks do what they have to do. On the surface, they don’t seem so different from the killer families in Texas Chainsaw or The Hills Have Eyes who are getting back at oblivious intruders for the ravages of Vietnam and nuclear testing that upended their lives. 

But the source of their violence is much more amorphous. They claim to value the pillars of American freedom and their desire to be left alone, but their town is far from a model of pastoral America–merely a rural enclave that never seemed to offer much because it didn’t aspire to more. No signs of boom to bust or urban exploitation exist amid its shabby veneers. Its residents seem to revere the Strangers' elaborate trap to kill outsiders with whom they disagree for sport more than the boundless potential of the landscape. Their rage stems from the limits of an existence founded on starting a nuclear family without giving any thought to the lifelong cultivation, participation, and sacrifice that comes with living out America’s ideals. They are cyphers, a living iteration of own-the-libs memes that serves as a cautionary tale about succumbing to uninterrogated ideology. Being trad is Kenough. Indeed, The Strangers: Chapter One more than justifies its existence. Most of us would just rather pretend it didn’t exist.

The Strangers: Chapter One is now playing in theaters.