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
Fictional stories have been set in every location imaginable, from made-up worlds to actual settings to places where human beings have yet to explore. A story’s setting can have as much significance as the plot and characters, and film has the advantage of being able to bring any world to life with its visual storytelling techniques. This is especially true of movies set in small towns.
American towns in particular give filmmakers a lot to play with in a limited space. They envelop the story with its isolated location and intimate, “everybody knows everybody” dynamic among its citizens. It can make a horror movie eerier, a comedy funnier, and a drama deeper.
Many films have created their own small towns in order to best serve their story with its own fictional history, landscape, and population. Below are 10 of my favorite fictional small U.S. towns in movies.
Winter River, CT – Beetlejuice (1988)
Despite being set in Connecticut, the town of East Corinth, Vermont actually filled in for Winter River in the movie, Beetlejuice. Its standout features are its hilly roads and bright red covered bridge, setting a sleepy but cheery with its New England charm, perfect for the Maitlands who would prefer to spend their designated two weeks away from their hardware store cooped up in their house rather than tanning on a beach in Jamaica. However, it’s a little too laid back for the newly transplanted Dietzes who are used to the modern, fast-paced New York socialite lifestyle.
This selection on the list is unique in that very little of the actual town is seen in the movie. Most of the film takes place inside the Maitland house which features a detailed model of the town to get a sense of its layout along with Adam and Barbara’s adoration of their surroundings, their own home sitting majestically on a hill overlooking the landscape. But there is a “be careful what you wish for” lesson to be learned here. Upon their untimely deaths, Adam and Barbara’s desire to stay home during their vacation results in their being trapped there for the next 125 years.
I love this town because of its Edward Hopper-like imagery where the mundane is made interesting through lighting and color. It’s sleepy yet bright. The few citizens we do see are quirky but friendly. It lacks controversy but not tragedy, providing a picturesque landscape which mirrors the Dietz’s desire to modernize their new surroundings and the Maitland’s yearning for freedom from their ghostly imprisonment.
Hill Valley, CA – Back to the Future (1985)
With its paradoxical name and ever-changing appearance throughout the franchise, Hill Valley is an important character in the Back to the Future trilogy. Any movie about time travel uses its setting to portray the characters in a specific time frame, but the landscape, economy, and safety of Hill Valley is significantly altered with each decision that Doc and Marty make during their travels.
At the beginning of the first movie, the town, like the McFly family, has a lived-in look that has seen better days but is still a decent place to live. There are a few sketchy areas, and even a little bit of a homeless problem, but ultimately, it’s a typical suburban California neighborhood, which was authentically shot in and around the Los Angeles area.
When Marty takes out a pine tree in 1955, the Twin Pines mall becomes the Lone Pine Mall when he returns to 1985. When Biff gets hold of the sports almanac that makes him rich, it creates an alternate timeline where Hill Valley is overrun with crime and corruption thanks to Biff’s money and power. When Doc saves Clara from her runaway horse, the name of the canyon that she was destined to fall into changes when they return to the present.
The town is the most vulnerable character in the movie for this reason, and it shows how one little action can have giant consequences. I wouldn’t want to live in every version of Hill Valley, but overall, it’s a place with a rich history and, like Marty, full of both flaws and potential.
Shelby, IN – Now and Then (1995)
The movie Now and Then has a very Stand by Me feel, but you won’t find Castle Rock on this list due to its tendency to unleash unspeakable evil and tragedy in its many incarnations. With Savannah, Georgia filling in as Shelby, Indiana (which is a real town but looks nothing like the movie version), you get that good southern weather with a friendly midwestern vibe.
The town’s cookie-cutter idyllic image, with its identical homes equipped with gaslight lanterns in every yard, provides a summer oasis for four teen girls coming into their own while investigating an old tragedy and dealing with their own past and present struggles. There is just enough to do in this town that you won’t get bored. It has a drive-in theater, a ball field, a soda shop, a psychic medium, a cemetery for late-night séances, and plenty of suburban and country roads to ride your bike through.
While they all come from the same racial and economic background, the girls in the film are four different people with varying interests, knowledge, and family lives. Their main summer goal is to earn enough money to buy a treehouse, but when the girls suspect that the ghost of a dead boy is asking them to solve a mystery surrounding his death, their focus shifts to investigating their town’s history, and they start to see it in a whole new way.
While most small-town movies like to focus on underlying corruption or how simple grudges and gossip can escalate into chaos and even violence, this movie doesn’t vilify its setting for keeping a past history in the dark from its younger citizens. Instead, it mirrors the awakening of the girls from childhood to adulthood and the good and bad that comes from gaining a better understanding of how the world really is.
Woodsboro, CA – Scream (1996)
Serving as the location for a slasher movie might make you wonder why anyone would want to live in Woodsboro, especially if you are a teen who fits the bill of a classic horror movie victim. But remove the psycho killers from the picture, and you have a spacious, upper-middle-class town that features the isolation of a rural landscape but with all of the modern conveniences and mindsets of the mid-90s.
The film’s California shooting locations paint a pretty picture of giant homes set on hilltops overlooking red sunsets and mountainous terrain. Incidentally, this makes it the perfect location for a killer to stalk and corner their victims. Your neighbors are too far away to hear your cries for help, and your home is full of large, winding rooms, perfect for a knife chase.
The teen characters are wealthy enough to own cell phones at a time when only business executives carried them around, and they are smart enough to know the ways of the world and what it takes to survive a modern-day horror movie. Still, the killers are just as savvy, using the town to their advantage to get over on the meager police department and to cover their tracks with modern tools such as cloned cell phones and a library of horror movies to study and learn from. Woodsboro contains the best of both worlds, but even the greatest towns can house a psycho or two.
Hale, MD – Runaway Bride (1999)
Several romantic comedies feature small towns. The personal lives and gossip that entwine in a small town are perfect fuel for inside jokes, hilarious miscommunications, and situational hijinks.
My favorite romcom town, though, has to be Hale, MD featured in Runaway Bride. Berlin, Maryland served as the shooting location for the town. It has an old-fashioned yet well-preserved look.
The characters are quirky without being annoying or caricatures of “ignorant hicks.” It’s a town that gets together and laughs a lot, but it largely ignores deeper issues, such as personal vices, jealousy, and bullying until one outsider exposes their flaws and forces each person in town to confront their hidden feelings and frustrations with one other. As a result, people are able to clear the air and stop ignoring the underlying issues that irk them, including Maggie, the Runaway Bride who has put her town on the map for fleeing from several weddings before she reaches the altar.
Haddonfileld, IL – Halloween (1978)
It can take just one bad egg to ruin a town’s reputation. In Haddonfield, IL, that bad egg is Michael Myers. After killing his teenage sister, six-year-old Michael is sent away to spend his life at a mental institution after all attempts to rehabilitate him fail. But his connection to the town is strong enough to make him break out one night 15 years later and go on another killing spree to feed his evil impulses.
Haddonfield becomes the setting for nearly every Halloween movie in the franchise. Each film depicts it in a different way, but ultimately, it’s a quiet midwestern town with a dark past that keeps resurfacing. Despite the authentic Halloween feel of the original film, it was actually shot in the spring in Hollywood, CA, using movie magic to create the illusion of Halloween in Illinois. Their ability to suspend my disbelief has always made it a place where I desire to spend my Halloween, as long as I avoid the Myers house.
Mandrake Falls, NH – Mr. Deeds (2002)
Comedies love to exaggerate people and places in order to provide fuel for their jokes. The 2002 remake of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town features a very sincere depiction of an idyllic New England town (actually New Milford, NH) that would shape Deeds’ genuine Boy Scout persona balanced with quirky characters whose looks and mannerisms are played strictly for laughs. As a result, when the story leans too far into silliness or melodrama, it snaps right back.
The town tries to have everything that a big city would have, only scaled down to fit their size and needs. Their airport is merely a grassy field with a sign marking its location. They have a volunteer fire department with daring rescue training techniques that impress even New York City firemen. And of course, they have a pizza place where the entire town congregates each week to listen to Deeds’ latest greeting card poem. It’s the type of place where people never leave because they just don’t have to. Everything they need is right there.
Fairwater, CA – The Frighteners (1996)
Shot in New Zealand, this movie’s fictional small town is the one that is the farthest removed from its actual filming location. However, the look and feel of the town works for the tone of the movie and provides interesting visuals and eye-catching landscapes. I had a hard time researching where in the U.S. it’s actually supposed to be. Though it’s meant to resemble the midwest, its swampy and dreary atmosphere mixed with its ancient homes and cemetery make it seem set in the east coast, yet it’s actually supposed to be California.
The location is incidental, though. It’s the atmosphere that makes Fairwater look like a fun place to live. The film maneuvers through it like it’s one giant haunted house from which our heroes can’t escape. It’s large enough to house a museum, hospital, and its own newspaper, but it’s small enough that its history of a mass shooting and subsequent sudden death epidemic rocks it to its core. The spooky atmosphere is one that any horror lover would appreciate, and once the grim reaper is destroyed, its green hills and white picket fences make it an idyllic place to live as well.
Spectre, AL – Big Fish (2003)
The only truly southern town on my list comes in a fantasy film which defies logic. Set in the middle of the woods, Spectre is referred to as the “best kept secret in Alabama.” You can actually still visit this abandoned set in Millbrook, AL. Like the second act of the movie, it's a bit rundown, but seeing it in all of its glory begs me to question how it ever functioned in the first place. Where does their food come from? How do they generate electricity? Why does everything taste better there?
But Big Fish is not the type of movie to overthink the details. You have to just go with it, and when you suspend your disbelief, you think, “Yes, I’d like to eat pie every day without gaining weight and dance in the town square each night under a tent of lights.” My only complaint would be not being able to wear shoes, especially if they were dangling just out of reach on the rope above, bannering the way out.
Seahaven Island – The Truman Show (1998)
I’m guessing on the state where Seahaven Island is supposed to be located in The Truman Show. The film was actually shot in Seaside, Florida, but in the movie, the town is actually an indoor studio set in California. But where does Truman think he is living? The film isn’t clear about this, playing into the idea that they don’t want Truman to leave. So, they may have told him he’s living in a totally different state.
If Seahaven Island were a real place, though, it would be a great place to live. It’s right near the beach, it’s clean with pretty white homes and perfect roads, the weather is always controlled, and the people are always friendly. However, knowing that every aspect of the town is fabricated, choreographed, and filmed ruins all of that. So, you find yourself agreeing with Truman that any genuine imperfect place is better than a made-up perfect one.
What are your favorite fictional movie towns? Have you ever visited a small town that was featured in a movie? Leave your answers in the comments below!
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on July 14, 2019:
Answer yes. Hobbiton just outside Matamata in NZ.
The film set was never dismantled after the Lord of the Rings movies and became a tourist attraction by people just turning up!
After 'The Hobbit' Peter Jackson went into partnership with the farmer who's land its on and they built the present set. You can also have a beer in the 'Green Dragon'
Hailey Miranda on June 17, 2019:
This post is so fun! It's so entertaining to read. I really like how you included shows from the 90's. I love the 90's. Thanks for sharing!