I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Small American Towns
Small towns pepper the entire landscape of the United States. Some are located miles away from civilization while others sit just outside large cities.
Their layouts range from rural farmlands in the plains to suburban communities by the sea. Some are stereotypically backwards while others are more progressive. They can be poor and rundown while others are updated and thriving. The population varies from a few hundred to several thousand.
Whatever the case, small towns are a great place to set movies of any genre with their intimate communities, isolated landscapes, and various lifestyles. Many small towns have become famous for their portrayal in classic films. It adds a sense of authenticity when fans know that these spots are real locations that they could actually visit or even live in. Below are 10 of my favorite movie small American towns that actually exist.
The Dennison House from Hocus Pocus
Salem, MA – Hocus Pocus (1993)
Salem, Massachusetts dug its roots deep into American history way before Disney decided to make their live action comedy about three witches who are raised from the dead on Halloween night and wreak havoc on this old New England town. However, this film twists that history in order to create a fun fantasy film in which the town serves as a kind of maze in this cat and mouse game as three kids attempt to keep a spell book away from the movie’s villains and foil their evil plot.
It’s a pretty dark premise, but the movie is so colorful and full of humor that is helped by the playful surroundings where actual Salem locations are dressed up for Halloween. Also, the small town charm is played up, making it large enough for our heroes to run but too small to hide. Everything from the falling leaves to the ancient cemetery and historical buildings by the water add a sense of authentic atmosphere to the film and makes it a must-see tourist attraction each autumn.
The Real Punxatawney.
Punxsutawney, PA – Groundhog Day (1993)
Punxsutawney gets its 15 minutes of fame every February 2nd as the town gathers together to commemorate its annual Groundhog Day celebration. But it’s the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day about a Pittsburgh weatherman named Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) who gets caught in a time loop and is forced to relive the same day over and over again in this small town that has become just as famous as the holiday itself.
Part of the appeal of the film is the small town which serves as Phil’s lengthy purgatory. The movie was actually shot in Woodstock, IL, though its reenactments of the Groundhog Day ceremonies seen in the film were overseen by the actual Punxatawney crew and stamped with their seal of approval.
During the unspecified length of his predicament, both Connors and the audience get to know the town inside and out. His distaste for the town at the beginning of the movie grows into downright loathing of the mundane, never ending winter but then grows into a fondness that makes him want to put down roots by the time his curse is broken. From the cute movie theater to the old fashioned Bed and Breakfast, the charming architecture of the town mixed with the friendliness of its citizens makes it the kind of place that grows on even the self-centered Phil.
Sleepy Hollow, NY
Sleepy Hollow, NY – Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Ever since Washington Irving crafted his Halloween tale about the Headless Horseman, the small New York town of Sleepy Hollow has been known for its haunted folklore. In 1999, though, Hollywood turned the tale on its head to create a mystery horror film based on the events of the original story in the film, Sleepy Hollow.
In the film, Ichabod Crane is a constable hired to investigate several headless murders in the area which turns out to be committed by none other than the famous Headless Horseman himself. This film depicts Sleepy Hollow in its turn of the century landscape complete with covered bridge, tattered windmill cloudy days, and eerily foggy nights. Shot in England, the town contributes to the overall horrific tone of this adaptation while maintaining the traditional setting of the original story.
The real Deerfield Beach.
Deerfield/Delray Beach, FL – In Her Shoes (2005)
The state of Florida is known for two things: tourism and retirement communities. These retirement communities serve as their own little small towns, flat roads with ground floor apartments and little stores and businesses where you can run all of your errands nearby. The film In Her Shoes paints the retirement community where sisters Rose and Maggie find their long lost grandmother living as a widow who spends her days helping her less able-bodied neighbors.
The bright, carefree town is the polar opposite of the cold, dreary streets of Philadelphia which burdens the two protagonists with past and present traumas. It’s the place that Maggie runs to when she finds she’s out of options after burning all of her bridges.
What starts off as the beginning of an escape plan becomes the fresh start that she needs to build a new, legitimate life for herself. It’s interesting that a town where people go to spend the rest of their lives happens to be the place that jump starts hers.
The real Madison, PA.
Madison, PA – My Girl (1991)
Many classic summer movies take place in picturesque suburban towns. My Girl is one of those classic summer movies about a young girl growing up just outside of Philadelphia in the 1970’s (though the movie was filmed in Bartow, FL). When you’re the daughter of the town’s undertaker, you get to know everybody because eventually, they all end up being embalmed in your basement.
Madison is a great place to ride your bike, go fishing and swimming, and climb your favorite willow tree. You can see the fireworks from your backyard and the Fourth of July, and the carnival comes to town each year, giving you the chance to win a new goldfish. But it’s not immune to tragedy, and while young Vada, the film’s lead, is no stranger to this, it’s not until tragedy hits close to home that she really begins to understand death in a whole new light.
Rockville Centre station.
Rockville Centre, NY – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
When Joel Barish meets Clementine Kruczynski on a train presumably for the first time in the opening sequence of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she asks where he is going. He replies, "Rockville Centre,” a little town southeast of Queens. Clementine too lives there, a quiet town that is just a short drive from Montauk where the two actually had their first meeting two years prior.
Rockville Centre looks like home. It’s large enough that you can come and go as you please but small enough that you still say hi to your neighbors in the hallway of your apartment and get invited to picnics on the beach.
It’s too cold to be bogged down by tourists yet has enough to keep you busy on the weekends, like walking through street fairs and dining out. You can even go to the snowy beach in the dead of winter and experience a side of the ocean that they don’t usually depict in films.
Most notable is that in this film’s reality, it’s the location of Lacuna, the memory erasure company where the two main characters both go to have their memories of each other removed. But the town is too small to keep them apart for long, and the day after Joel undergoes his memory-erasing procedure, the two both happen to be riding the train home from Montauk and reintroduce themselves.
The iconic Bodega Bay schoolhouse.
Bodega Bay, CA - The Birds (1963)
Shooting movies on sets allows filmmakers to build their own worlds and be able to control everything from the look to the weather to the time of day. However, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, The Birds, is set in a real location, Bodega Bay, a small town on the California coast which becomes a prison for the film’s heroine, Melanie Daniels.
Known for preferring sets to real locations, Hitchcock makes use of the set work whenever he can, but that doesn’t stop him from using as many shots of the real Bodega Bay as possible.
It’s a secluded, spread out rural town tucked along the beach with picturesque buildings and a laid back lifestyle contrasting Daniels’ hometown of San Francisco. But it is also ground zero for the unexpected bird attacks that become more frequent and deadly as the movie progresses. The phenomenon is never explained, but the fact that it is set in such an unassuming place makes for some iconic scenes and a classic horror movie setting.
The Goonies house in Astoria, OR.
Astoria, OR – The Goonies (1985)
Many of the great small towns on this list are situated on or near large bodies of water. Astoria, Oregon is a west coast town that has served as the setting of many films over the years. Its most famous, though, has to be the 80’s classic, The Goonies.
This is the movie that made children all over the country go looking for buried treasure in their own backyard. Cause if it can happen in Astoria, it could happen everywhere.
Astoria is a wet, hilly town with old wooden homes and a very colonial feel despite its western location. You can feel the history in its landscape, and its seaside setting makes it plausible as the site where Pirate treasure could be sitting. You just need to have to right clues to lead you to it.
Newtown, PA – Signs (2002)
Alien invasion movies tend to use big cities in order to show the devastation that these advanced beings can inflict on planet Earth. Smaller locations are typically reserved for friendly alien movies.
Signs is different in that it draws from Hitchcock’s The Birds to show how one family handles a hostile alien attack. Most of the movie is set on the family’s isolated farm in Bucks County, but in one sequence, they all decide to go into town to get out of their own heads and away from the eerie news coverage that plays nonstop.
The town that they visit is Newtown, a bustling metropolis compared to the endless cornfield that the Hess family sees outside their windows, but this town’s population is barely over 2,000 residents. It contains a book store, a pizza shop, a pharmacy, and even an army recruitment center. Still, it’s not the type of place that is equipped to handle an extraterrestrial attack, leaving the family to vulnerably to hole up in their house while the invasion plays out.
Where The Heart Is Trailer
Sequoyah, OK – Where the Heart Is (2000)
Many southern and Midwestern film towns didn’t make the cut on this list because of its dingy landscape or racist undertones, but Sequoyah, OK, the accidental setting for the book turned movie, Where The Heart Is, feels like the south the way it should be. The people are friendly, there is no judgment regarding people’s vices and life choices, and the town has a lived-in feel without looking rundown.
It’s the kind of town that’s not bad to end up in if your boyfriend decides to ditch you while you make a pit stop at an Oklahoma Walmart while on your way to California while eight months pregnant. In fact, for the film’s protagonist, Novalee, getting ditched there and spending a month secretly sleeping in the Walmart turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to her. It gives her a family, a job, and a life for her daughter that she had always hoped for herself.
What are your favorite movies featuring actual small towns? Leave your answers in the comments below!