The Suburban Nightmares Haunting the Lifetime Movie

The Suburban Nightmares Haunting the Lifetime Movie

Image: Elena Scotti
The SuburbsThe SuburbsUntangling the 'American dream'

In one of the opening scenes of Lifetime’s relentlessly self-aware 2016 reboot of its 1993 camp classic, Mother May I Sleep With Danger?, the film’s main character, a relentlessly culturally-aware college student, opines: “The first Twilight book was good because it made teen sex dangerous again.” The reboot attempts to both mock that idea and find a concept that might still be dangerous-yet-sexy in 2016, changing the made-for-TV movie’s original focus, an abusive relationship, to misandrist lesbian vampires. Each of the film’s iterations is an absurdist, fever-dream manipulation of larger suburban anxieties diluted into television format. The original, along with a spate of 1990s TV movies that eventually made their way to infamy on the Lifetime Network, became a cultural artifact because it tapped into those anxieties with a tawdry earnestness that serves as a perfect time capsule, cataloging white, suburban women’s fears about their communities, their husbands, but perhaps above all else, their teenage daughters.

The “women in peril” narrative is nothing new. Gothic novels like Castle of Otranto and Mysteries of Udolpho regularly trapped teenage heroines in haunted castles then plagued them with sexual threats from older, duplicitous men. But as Victorian cities grew more crowded and polluted, those who could afford to leave fled to the suburbs, safe from the grit of the city but close enough to benefit from its wealth. Ghost stories followed, moving out of far-flung castles and hitting closer to home.

“Ideally, the Victorian suburb engendered domesticity, provided privacy and protection from the gaping masses, promoted respectability, and simulated the country-house lifestyle on a scale that was less grand, less wasteful, and altogether more in line with middle-class values of prudence, propriety, and comfort,” writes Lara Baker Whelan. But expanding suburbs meant an influx of people that the solidly middle-class Victorians believed threatened those very values. This shift had an effect on the era’s ghost stories, which began to focus on once respectable, but now decrepit, haunted suburban homes and mysterious figures with the outward trappings of wealth but sordid, low-income pasts. Unlike early Gothic novels, where the threat came from abroad, in these mid-to-late Victorian horror stories, the haunting was coming from within.

For example, in many of the ghost stories of Charlotte Ridell, a wildly popular though forgotten 19th-century writer, the horror is usually focused on a working-class family moving into a once upper-middle-class home that has fallen into disrepair, now haunted by the ghosts of rich people who lost their money and wail for that loss in the gloomy shells of their ruined fortunes. These ghost stories are a departure from earlier Gothic tales, as the horror seemed to revolve around the specter of city grit taking over spaces meant to provide respite from that disorderliness. The rich ghosts are the victims in these stories, as opposed to the predatory aristocracy in earlier Gothic works.

This idea of the well-to-do as a particular target of crime was prevalent in the heyday of the Lifetime movie as well. In the book Neighborhood of Fear: The Suburban Crisis in American Culture, 1975-2001, author Kyle Riismandel examines what he calls the “productive victimization” of the era during which Ronald Reagan mobilized a white voter base of concerned suburbanites hoping to keep drugs, “welfare queens,” and city-centric chaos out of the orderly suburbs. Highly publicized news stories like the kidnapping of Adam Walsh fanned the flames of that fear, creating a culture of NIMBYs (not in my backyard), hyper-vigilant suburbanites hoping to protect their own children from what they perceived as big-city dangers.

These tensions are on full display in the advent of the Lifetime movie. While the pantheon of 1990s women in peril movies often featured a teenage girl in danger, the intended audience was both young women and their mothers, and the narratives often focused on the dangers the outside world posed to suburban insularity. Films with titles like The Babysitter’s Seduction, No One Would Tell, Death of a Cheerleader, and, of course, the iconic My Stepson, My Lover and Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? usually featured either a mother fighting for the life or safety of her teenage daughter. Just as often, they reverted to the Gothic theme of danger lurking inside the home—a woman realizing the danger lurking in her own home, from the nanny, her husband’s affair partner, her affair partner, or a husband leading a double life.

“We kind of had a push-pull internally, from tabloid to classy. And many times we erred on the tabloid side, or things that were a little more salacious; a little more women-in-jeopardy, because that was really doing it for us in the ratings,” Arturo Interian, Lifetime’s vice president of original movies, told The Washington Post in 2016. “Ratings-wise, we were addicted to the ‘Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?’ sort of thrillers.”

Beginning with its first original film, 1990's Memories of Murder, a story about an amnesiac mother who can’t remember why a stranger attempted to kill her family, Lifetime became the corner of cable television where moralistic after-school specials of the 1970s met the Mary Higgins Clark sexy crime thriller. But the format wasn’t relegated to Lifetime. Mother, May I Sleep With Danger was actually an NBC original movie, made in 1993 before the network was home to ratings giants like Friends or ER and was struggling to compete with Monday Night Football. The network found an audience with women by expanding on the crisis stories of after-school specials by making them sexier, more dangerous, but still identifiably and relatably suburban.

“Traditionally, the TV movie had been about a mom, like, “My daughter’s been raped, what do I do?” or “My daughter was killed in a drunk-driving accident.” We had to focus on the younger demographic, so we started doing movies from the daughters’ perspectives,” Lind Dekoven, former NBC executive vice president of movies and miniseries told Thrillist in a 2016 oral history of the film.

Mother, May I Sleep With Danger didn’t become a bonafide cult classic, however, until it came into heavy rotation on the Lifetime Network, which billed itself as “Television for Women,” alongside other low-budget thrillers of a similar bent. As these films found an audience with middle American, suburban white women, the demographics of the suburbs were changing, much as they had during the rise of the suburban Victorian ghost story.

In the 1960s, the Kerner Report documented the fact that “white flight” from urban areas, along with the exclusionary environments of suburbs actively denying opportunities to non-white outsiders, were creating two separate, disparate Americas— “safe” suburbs for white, middle-class Americans and crowded cities with limited resources for everyone else. A 1967 Newsweek report titled “The Negro in America: What Must Be Done?” interviewed a city planner who proposed a “solution” to the problem of racist suburbs and impoverished cities by suggesting that “only a certain number of blacks would be re-located in each suburb so that whites would never feel threatened by their black neighbors,” according to the Smithsonian.

But during the 1990s, minorities accounted for 65 percent of suburban growth in 102 of America’s largest metropolitan areas, according to the Washington Post, a shift from earlier generations, where suburbs had been both whiter and less densely populated. And with an influx of new demographics, suburbs also became less like genteel refuges from crowded cities and more like the cities they had once been portrayed as a respite from, the Post reported:

“Along with their greater racial diversity, American suburbs also vary more physically than in the past. Though some consist of residential cul-de-sacs as far as the eye can see, a growing number include downtownlike agglomerations of office buildings.”

Just as the Victorians were frightened by invasion by the poor, the 1993 version of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? opens with some solid paranoia around class (if not ethnic) disparities. The film opens with a pretty blond high-schooler exiting a shiny Jeep full of other, equally middle-class white teenagers. Inside her pristine suburban home, the safety is broken by a teenage boy who drives a rusted jalopy, demanding sex before bashing the teenage girl’s head in with the family’s marble cutting board. Flash forward five years, and another suburban college girl, played by Tori Spelling, is infatuated with the working-class murderer, now passing himself off as a pre-med at her college. Only her mother—a discerning, widowed businesswoman—can see through the boyfriend’s guise of being an orphaned child of doctors. Instead, she not only discovers that he is a murderer, but also “grew up in foster care,” the only backstory the villain is given before Spelling whacks him with a boat oar in a crucial moment and mother and daughter escape to safety. In the film’s epilogue, the foster-care-raised, old-car driving, young woman murderer lives to move onto a new college campus and hoodwink a different perky, blonde girl.

Though Lifetime of late has become split between bids at respectable prestige television, with documentaries such as Surviving R. Kelly, and tongue-in-cheek nods to its origins as a “guilty pleasure” network with horny homages to V.C. Andrews novels and Lizzie Borden and even a partnership with Kentucky Fried Chicken for some sexy chicken melodrama starring Mario Lopez, Lifetime still gives an occasional wink to its tabloid-thriller past. Though the 1993 Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? has been all but scrubbed from streaming platforms (I had to watch a grainy YouTube version uploaded from someone’s TV recording) its James Franco-produced 2016 dark reboot featuring lesbian vampires who hunt college rapists for food and sport is widely available across multiple platforms.

In Thrillist’s oral history of the film, Franco says that Lifetime approached him about updating the 1993 version for 2016 sensibilities. But while he gets a “story by” credit for the reboot, it was—as are the majority of Lifetime movies—written and directed by two women, Amber Viera and Melanie Aitkenhead, respectively. This time, the film consciously tackles suburban paranoia around LGBTQ “recruitment.” The titular mother (played by Spelling) is visibly uncomfortable when her previously straight-presenting daughter brings home an orphaned lesbian from college as her girlfriend. But she’s right (if homophobic) to worry, as the new girlfriend is “Nightwalker,” part of an all-woman girl gang of vampires who skulk around college parties waiting for campus rapists to strike before feasting on men’s blood and spend the rest of their time trolling the campus looking for other attractive, sexually curious young women to turn. The film ends in a blood orgy during which the homophobic mother’s worst fears are realized: she is murdered by a pack of amoral lesbians, who live to adopt a male would-be rapist into their ranks, becoming equal-opportunity predators as they move on to a different campus. The irony here—that Franco, an alleged sexual predator, helmed and promoted a movie that centers lesbians as a source of suburban anxiety just before his own accusers began to come forward—seems worthy of its own Lifetime treatment, though the network has yet to acknowledge that irony in its bid to remain culturally relevant. 

And though it’s nothing like the original, really—the titular mother isn’t right, there’s no real moralistic message tacked on, and the suburban fears are front and center, instead of baked in—the reboot captures the spirit of the original in that it shouldn’t be great, but it’s fucking great. As Rolling Stone’s Sam Adams wrote in a 2016 review: “This is not a nonstop eyerolling marathon. This is progressive schlock at its finest... Is it junk? Yes, and what’s more, it’s junk that knows it’s junk, in a way that risks condescending to the network’s established audience.”

The original Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? seemed to know it was a b-movie sensationalizing of the real problem of abusive relationships, but didn’t seem to pick up on the suburban class prejudices inherent in the material. By recognizing those prejudices and writing at, rather than ignorant of, them, Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? the redux finally stops being afraid to be a “bad movie” and becomes a good one, albeit one helmed by an accused sexual predator, a fact that fits right into the “call is coming from inside the house” Lifetime ethos.

The idea of Lifetime movies as “junk” is a prevalent one in many conversations around them. In his hand-wringing 2004 essay over the lamentable state of American novels, “The Shrinking of American Fiction,” writer and critic Anis Shivani mourns the success of early 2000s bestsellers The Lovely Bones and The Dive From Clausen’s Pier (which was subsequently made into a Lifetime movie) for tempering stories involving salacious or emotionally fraught subject matter with suburban sentimentality.

“Have you ever wondered why American literary fiction seems to borrow more and more of its plots from the Lifetime movie channel, even when the originators are acclaimed, prize-winning authors we’re assured are in the front ranks of the profession?” Shivani asks. The books he’s grousing about are largely books by women, marketed to women, and the Lifetime movies largely directed by women, making the network one of the few places in Hollywood that consistently enlists actual women to tell stories about women. And though these books and television movies are not automatically made “good” by virtue of being written and directed by women, their enduring success is proof that these stories resonate with audiences who are finding some continuing connection with them.

The spirit of the Lifetime movie lives on in the American prestige drama, including Big Little Lies and The Undoing. The plot of the first season of Big Little Lies, based on the novel Liane Moriarty, feels like four Lifetime movies wrapped into one with all the paranoid suburban trappings of the 1990s versions—it has domestic violence, a mysterious sexual assault, school bullying, a teenage girl auctioning off her virginity on the internet, a working-class woman who doesn’t fit into her affluent surroundings, and finally, its only non-white lead as a killer, albeit a justified one. As much as the show is touted as prestige television, likely due to the talent and number of Oscars won by its woman leads, the plot itself has all the trappings of the Lifetime “junk” the same critics praising Big Little Lies have mocked for decades.

Similarly, this year’s Golden Globe-nominated The Undoing centers on a murder mystery wherein a successful career woman, wife, and mother’s world idyllic world is rocked by her foreign husband with a terrible secret and his lower-class, bisexual affair partner. The entire premise is a Lifetime movie in A-list actor clothing.

Whether high or low brow, a culture’s art, and especially the ideas it finds sexy and scary, is always a funhouse mirror of the culture itself. Just as Gothic novels and pulpy Victorian ghost stories captured the paranoia of its audiences of the time, suburban trash, like Lifetime movies, is actually an anthropological treasure. Not to quibble with the classic wisdom of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, but the perversely sexy ideas currently winning television awards for excellence aren’t “dangerous again,” they’re dangerous still, just wrapped in more respectable packages.

DISCUSSION

goddessoftransitoryrisesagain
goddessoftransitoryrisesagain

The books he’s grousing about are largely books by women, marketed to women, and the Lifetime movies largely directed by women, making the network one of the few places in Hollywood that consistently enlists actual women to tell stories about women.

There it is.

Like men never write trash or sensationalist fiction.