As far as I can count, for a town of only 40,000 or so (I think; no census data for the place exists), it has seen more than 150 murders since 1978, nearly all during October.
As the setting for the “Halloween” horror films, the town has an accumulated history:
What makes Haddonfield important, though, is what made Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Hawkins, Indiana, of “Stranger Things,” and many other fictional Midwest small towns, so indelible. These are places that retain the allure of an America we’re promised, full of kindness and nurturing, alongside the hypocrisy we’ve always known. Like Spoon River, Bedford Falls, Grover’s Corners, Brigadoon, Lake Wobegon and Springfield in “The Simpsons” — some Midwestern, all too good to be true — Haddonfield will be defined not as One of the Best Places in America to Live but One of the Best Places to Remind Yourself That Small Town America was Never a Vacuum…
If you take all the “Halloween” films as reference: There are also low-slung elementary schools surrounded by chain-link fencing. Boulevards lined with Victorian and Cape Cod-style homes with welcoming porches and big lawns. There are farms just outside town, and two newspapers and two hospitals inside. The University of Illinois is mentioned but there’s also a community college there and a strip club, tavern and small police force. It’s middle to upper-middle class, but with pockets of inbred poverty. No one mows the cemetery, and despite the violent history, there are more shadows than streetlights…
The real Haddonfield, of course, is South Pasadena, in California. That explains the lack of foliage (and mountains in the background). According to the Los Angeles Times, the 130-year-old home used for the Meyers house has since been made a historic landmark.
But if Haddonfield existed in Illinois, it would most likely be around the Bloomington-Normal area, said Jim Hansen, a professor of English and critical theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who also teaches classes on horror. It seems to sit off I-55. That said, Bloomington-Normal is south of Livingston County, the (real) county referenced in the series. On the other hand, isn’t it scarier if we don’t know?
I have multiple thoughts in response to this:
Are horror films more effective in supposedly idyllic small towns or suburbs? The contrast between normal everyday life and the activity of horror films is high. If the Midwest is a home to American virtue, is it also home to its repudiation?
Put 13 films together and a devoted fan base and this fictional place becomes a known one. Certain sites are familiar, the logic of daily life is known. Relatively few places depicted on television or in movies can become so familiar.
The filming location is very interesting. If you know the filming took place in South Pasadena, does this ruin the image – visual and conceptual – of small town Midwestern life?
To answer the first question, I think the answer is no. As noted in the earlier posts, much of the action in television dramas and sitcoms takes place among a limited number of characters in a limited number of locations. In some shows, the characters hardly ever leave their residence or work. In other shows, character are out and about more but they are often in generic locations that may signal something about a particular city – skyscrapers! lots of traffic! – but do not necessarily depend on a particular location. Think Friends: they are clearly in New York City yet the unique daily life of the city rarely is part of the plot (perhaps outside of the ongoing question of how people with those kinds of jobs can afford apartments like that). Could the show easily be set in Seattle or London or Houston without substantially altering the key relationships between characters and the narrative arcs? Many shows just need enough information to slot into a typical narrative that fits a location: the big city story, the suburban life, small town doings, etc.
To the second question, I think both the writers and viewers could be served well with some idea of where the show is taking place even as this geographic identity may mean little for the show. Our everyday lives are highly impacted by the spaces in which we operate, even if critics would argue suburbanization has rendered all the American suburbs the same or globalization has homogenized experiences within and across cultures. It might be hard to truly invest in a story or narrative arc if it literally could take place anywhere. Having a recognizable place or name at least gives people something to work with in their imaginations, even if the shows do not fully explore their geographic context. The small nods to geography can also serve to help differentiate shows from each other: the New York version is slightly different compared to the Los Angeles or the Chicago version. (Again, we usually do not get a broad palette of American locations but rather easily identifiable locations.) If anything, the restricted number of possible locations helps studios who can make backlots look like many places. (And you can see this on studio tours: we took a tour a few years ago of Warner Bros. where the set for Gilmore Girls, small town Connecticut, Desperate Housewives, suburban everywhere, and the big city were all a short distance from each other. And once you have viewed these sets up close, you see them all over in commercials, shows, and films.)
Coming back to Roseanne: I do not think it really matters that it is modeled on Elgin, Illinois or uses an exterior shot of a home from Evansville, Indiana. It could easily be set outside of Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo, and dozens of other locations where working-class Americans live. Having a rough approximation of a location outside of Chicago may have helped writers and viewers place the show but it is not terribly consequential for the themes of the show or the characters.
“Roseanne” is filmed on a studio lot in Los Angeles, but is set in the fictional Illinois town of Lanford. Where in Illinois is Lanford supposed to be? Some conflicting clues about the town’s location are sprinkled throughout the series, which originally aired from 1988-97.
Consider Season 1, Episode 20. Amid fierce winds, Dan Conner turns on the radio for the weather report: “As of 5 p.m. Central Standard Time, a tornado watch is in effect for Fulton County.” Darlene Conner bursts into the room: “Hey, that’s us!” In real life, Fulton County is west of Peoria.
Now Season 8, Episode 7. While in the car with her sister, Roseanne Conner suggests going to “that big outlet mall up in Elgin.” Jackie Harris sniffs, “Elgin? That’s an hour away.”
A representative for the ABC network, which aired “Roseanne” in the ’90s and will air the new season starting March 27, said Elgin is used as the reference for Lanford, both geographically and demographically…
The exterior of the Conner home is also not an authentic representation of Illinois. The series features shots of a house in Evansville, Ind., about 325 miles away from Elgin.
Geographic inconsistencies are not unknown in Hollywood. Television shows use various devices – verbal suggestions, establishing shots and some exterior images, fandom for local sports teams, architecture, attempts at accents or local eccentricities – to suggest a location but rarely pinpoint a real life location or community. What we see is more of a pastiche of a location. Most of the action takes place inside in interior settings or generic outdoor settings that could be anywhere. The shows want to both hint at a particular place and be generic enough to appeal to a broad audience. Roseanne may claim to be about Elgin, Illinois but it has to roughly match hundreds of working-class locations (or match perceptions of working-class places) across the United States.
More broadly, this suggests television shows may be more or less explicitly attached to particular cities and locations (crime shows often are) and yet they often exist in a placeless world much of the time. If anything, the biggest cities in the United States – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – are the most depicted on television while other cities or smaller communities are anonymized. But, even these big cities are not really the focus of the action; the characters swoop in and around recognizable locations while certain parts of cities or everyday urban life never are on the screen. This is depicted effectively on The Simpsons where the location of Springfield is not clear, the city itself and its surrounding area can change according to the whims of the writers, and the action ranges from the mundane to the absurd.
Show star Roseanne Barr told the Hollywood Reporter in February that the working class sitcom’s fictional setting of Lanford is based on Elgin. The producers even conducted a focus group in Elgin before embarking on what is the 10th season for the show, which last had new episodes in 1997.
Fictional, gritty Lanford may be modeled after Elgin, but local residents said it’s not really an accurate reflection of their hometown…
Southwest side resident Vicky Lundy, 53, said she’s picked up on some geographical errors in placing where Elgin would be, particularly in relationship to Chicago. One episode implied that Chicago was so far away that one of Roseanne’s granddaughter’s couldn’t afford to buy a bus ticket to the big city. Another has a branch of the University of Illinois in St. Charles, which has a U of I extension, not a campus.
Kim Lang, 41, of South Elgin noted that on the “Roseanne” reboot, “there are no Hispanics anywhere, which is a core element (of the Elgin area).”
Three quick thoughts:
Rarely have I seen residents of or local officials in communities depicted on television suggest that the TV portrayal was accurate. It is hard to know whether local residents are unable to see their community from a birds-eye perspective, whether locals only perceive television as promoting negative ideas, or whether television shows cannot easily capture community life (see #2).
Many television sitcoms and dramas involve a limited number of characters and do not actually depict much of the larger community. The focus of the show is Roseanne’s family, not the larger community of Lanford. In many such sitcoms, the family rarely leaves the inside of their house or their yard. On the whole, I do not think television shows are usually set up to portray a whole community (outside of some establishing shots and occasional references or interactions).
Working-class communities are not depicted much on television and are not necessarily depicted favorably. (For example, see the documentary: Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class.) Many sitcoms revolve around middle- to upper-class families that have sizable homes, rarely work, and encounter certain issues but not others.
As a thought exercise, we could think about what a television show would need to be to truly capture life in Elgin, Illinois. A more diverse set of characters? Regular interactions out in the community at known sites? Elgin is a large suburb of over 100,000 people and while it has a more traditional downtown, it is also quite sprawling. Could an accurate depiction fit with typical conventions of how television shows are made?
1. Movies and TV shows like to draw upon Chicago’s colorful police and politics.
2. Many film elsewhere. Interestingly, the creator of Against the Wall says, “you can’t fake Chicago as well as you can fake other cities.”
3. Many focus on known quantities, like the Chicago River or the El. The writer suggests this ignores Chicago’s real side.
And a few questions:
1. Compared to other American cities, is Chicago over or under represented? If so, why?
2. What are the best movies and TV shows for making use of their setting? It is one thing to have a backdrop (think of the credits of Family Matters which clearly shows Chicago) and another to really anchor the action within a particular place.