The house in The 'Burbs

“Satan Is Our Pal:” Jerry Goldsmith, The ‘Burbs, and Satanic Panic Absurdity

Around this time last year, while attempting to keep my sanity during the lockdown, I was reading Fab Press’s incredible book Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. I was about halfway through the collection of essays (which document and analyse the various facets of the moral frenzy that led many good-intentioned people to see the Devil around every corner) when the realisation hit me: if I had been a teenager during the height of the hysteria, I almost certainly would have been one of the many who were suspected of worshipping Old Scratch. I was a weird kid who watched a stunning amount of horror films, loved role-playing games, and read books about the supernatural and the occult, all of which would have been more than enough to make many think I was capital “E” evil.

Most likely I’d have been the subject of sideways glances and the odd meeting with school administrators and church officials who would have voiced their concern over the questionable material I was ingesting and how it was endangering my mortal soul. That was the best-case scenario. Thinking of the worst version of what could have transpired sent a chill up my spine that day, because a startling amount of people (many of whom probably resembled those of you reading this right now) had their lives ruined thanks to that surreal and terrifying break in society’s collective sanity.

In 1989, as the Satanic Panic raged on, Joe Dante’s clever and criminally underrated film The ‘Burbs made its debut. It told the story of a neighbourhood thrown into chaos when its inhabitants become suspicious of a family of weirdos who has moved into their community. Bored suburbanites Ray (Tom Hanks), Mark (Bruce Dern), and Art (Rick Ducommun) first view the Klopek clan as a curiosity until the latter two of the group become certain that their strangeness is a sign of membership in a Satanic cult. Dante and screenwriter Dana Olsen manage to turn this story of a modern-day witch hunt into one of the best satirical horror-comedies of the ’80s, pumping it full of pitch-black humour that skewers the silliness of society’s anxieties at the time.

But while Dante’s direction and Olsen’s writing are equally essential to the effectiveness of The ‘Burbs, the score created by the late great Jerry Goldsmith is the perfect sonic backdrop for the picture. The legendary composer (who ironically enough was responsible for the music used in the mother of all Devil flicks, The Omen) crafted a collection of musical pieces that work in tandem with the film’s story to reflect the absolute batshit absurdity of the Satanic Panic.

Opening with the film’s creepily fun main theme “Night Work,” we first hear an assortment of jangling percussion that creates a sound, not unlike the tinkling of knives scraping against each other in some sort of sinister wind chime. Strings soon seep in, offering an ominous melody that builds until a gorgeous pipe organ erupts, providing some gothic spookiness that would easily be at home in any Hammer classic. The piece serves as a soundtrack to the paranoia of The ‘Burbs’ bored denizens as they watch their new neighbours from afar, spying on them through pulled-down blinds and the shadows of front porches, building in their minds bizarre delusions of what the reclusive Klopeks might be getting up to behind closed doors.

If “Night Work” represents the suspicion in the hearts of the neighbourhood’s residents, then “Home Delivery” is the plastic smile that’s plastered on their faces to hide what’s underneath. It’s pure Goldsmith Americana, a wholesome and warm orchestral tableau that immediately brings to mind idyllic communities we’ve seen in other films scored by the music legend, like Gremlins, Hoosiers, or Poltergeist. Like most things in The ‘Burbs, there’s humour in this piece as well, with Goldsmith at one point peppering in the sound of a particularly yappy dog’s barking. It coincides with the first appearance of a character’s snotty little miniature poodle, but its inclusion also adds a touch of knowing silliness to the track, as if the composer’s acknowledging how exaggeratedly picturesque the neighbourhood is.

Goldsmith’s tongue continues to be planted firmly in cheek during the track “Let’s Go,” which sounds like it’s been directly torn from a John Wayne western. Playing through the scene where Ray and Art first muster up the courage to speak with their strange new neighbours, horns roar heroically, percussion beats a bombastic rhythm, and (underlining the ridiculousness of it all) what sounds like cartoon gunfire PINGS and POWS throughout the piece. In their heads, they’re the block’s brave leaders making the first contact with a potential threat to their way of life, but from the outside, it’s obvious that their puffed-up chests are full of hot air.

Bravado-filled blowhards like these ones were plentiful during the Satanic Panic, as relatively normal men and women suddenly became warriors in their own minds, fighting against dark forces that were hellbent on destroying the fabric of society. These people were convinced that shadowy figures dressed in druid robes were sacrificing human beings in blood and guts-filled rituals, and this next track (which happens to be my favourite) may have been the soundtrack to those dark fantasies.

“Devil Worship,” which plays during a hilarious sequence in which Ray feverishly dreams of being roasted on a giant barbecue by the evil hooded Klopeks, revels in its campiness as Goldsmith packs into it all the Satanic tropes he can muster: the guttural sound of a drum beats a foreboding tempo while a woman’s disembodied voice sings hauntingly over a deranged, almost pagan, melody. This is the crown jewel of Goldsmith’s work on The ‘Burbs. Already an eclectic mix of themes and tones, “Devil Worship” stands out as the most ludicrous track as well as most haunting.

It embodies the film perfectly in that it represents the frenzy every mind is in danger of falling into if empathy for others is lost and our grip on reality is knocked loose by superstition. What Ray’s experiencing in those moments is a dream, but the fact that his psyche is even entertaining such thoughts is the real nightmare.

We moved into a neighbourhood last year that, while not exactly like the one featured in The ‘Burbs, certainly has that same vibe. Most of our neighbours are nice, but some are (to put it mildly) a tad cold towards us. Maybe it’s the Satanic Temple bumper sticker on our car, or the horror shirts I wear, or the screams they hear coming from our open windows at night (most of which are emitted from our television, I assure you), but they just don’t seem all that interested in getting to know us.

Sometimes when I venture outside to take the trash to the curb or to play in our yard with my son, I’ll notice a curtain rustle in one of their windows and wonder if maybe, just maybe, they think the guy with the C.H.U.D. shirt and unkempt beard might be up to something. And at that moment, I can feel the opening notes of “Night Work” as they bleed into my brain. I doubt there’ll be a day where our neighbours break into our home in search of hidden bodies, but I also don’t think they’re going to be inviting us to dinner anytime soon. Which is fine by me.

If history has taught us anything, sometimes it’s the most buttoned-down folks that are capable of the darkest deeds.

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  1. Thank you for this! I’m pretty sure I argue the merits of this movie on a bi-weekly basis (I’m literally wearing a shirt depicting Ray’s chainsaw slasher nightmare right now- shout out to Discount Cemetery!), and it’s always a fun surprise to find people are STILL writing about it in 2021. This, in particular, is a double-whammy for me; I just finished listening to a podcast from You’re Wrong About detailing the Satanic Panic, and somehow the relationship between the two (The ‘Burbs and the Satanic Panic) never occurred to me. I also find it WILD that Goldsmith did this AND The Omen (this may trump the feeling I had when I learned that Mark Mothersbaugh [Wes Anderson’s go-to composer] was a founding member of Devo or that Danny Elfman [Tim Burtons composer of choice] got his start in Oingo Boingo). Thanks again for the fun read!

    1. Thank you so much for reading my piece! I am totally jealous of your shirt because I too feel like I rant about this movie constantly to people. I remember it used to be on cable all the time when I was a kid, and I always had to drop anything I was doing at the time and watch it. Also, I totally had the same realization about Mothersbaugh! What a career that guy’s had. Anyways, thank you again for reading, I really appreciate it! 🙂

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