On 'Fear Thy Neighbor,' moving to the suburbs is an actual death sentence
New York City real estate is the kind of legendary gauntlet that only the very dedicated—or maybe the very foolish—put up with their entire lives. As such, many of us get burnt out and come to see the suburbs as greener pastures. But in spite of the massive increase in space and the easier path to homeownership, there’s a potential downside most people haven't considered: The suburbs are a blood-soaked hell of petty disputes that can quickly result in either you or your neighbor winding up dead.
That's at least according to Fear Thy Neighbor, the true crime show made up entirely of deadly neighbor disputes in the suburbs. Each episode, which comes with a name like “Kill-De-Sac,” “Lake of Madness” or “Welcome to Murder Street,” starts the same way: Newcomers to a quiet suburb think they’ve found the perfect place to settle down for a life of quiet, just like the suburbs always promised. At first, every suburb on the show looks idyllic, with neat lawns, wide open skies, and charming main streets. You might think, “Goodness, there’s something really appealing about getting a quarter-acre of land along with a 2-bedroom house for less than $300,000. Look at the alternative. So okay Leedsburg, let’s give it a shot.” Then, the show does a hell of a lot to dissuade you from that idea, and it does it quickly.
A narrator with an eerily calm voice guides you through each episode, and adds an extra layer of weird by addressing the viewing audience in the first person plural. (“We were all thrilled to bits to hear about our new neighbor;" "In our quaint little neighborhood, a lot of us had good jobs with the federal government” or “For our community, Paul’s deadly rampage is still a mystery.”) A collection of talking heads made up of neighbors, reporters, lawyers, cops and anyone else involved explain their version of how things went down.
And of course, there are the dramatic re-enactments, where Hollywood versions of the feuding neighbors act out the mundane (moving in, kids playing in the yard, meeting your new neighbors), the not-so-mundane (screaming matches, glaring, committing capital murder), and the truly bizarre (the actors playing the feuding neighbors standing back-to-back while glowering into the camera) parts of the story.
The stories always seem to follow the same arc, too: Neighbors meet and get along at first, then small conflicts grow into larger ones; the occasional restraining order is filed, and eventually, one of the parties involved commits a terrible crime. Obviously, neighborly disputes are nothing foreign to New Yorkers, and plenty of us live every day with the small but potent irritations that roommates provide. But the sources of conflict on Fear Thy Neighbor are in a league of their own, and highly specific to life in the burbs. Aside from a couple of instances of living next door to an actual unbalanced psychopath, these run-ins are mostly about shared driveways, garden patches, or lakeside property dock placement.
And the spite on display in this show can be staggering. (Who lives in the city and has extra time for this kind of elaborate scheming?) One episode ends with a family burning down their house (for insurance money) and their neighbor’s house (because the neighbors’ kids were loud). Another involves a 'spite boulder' placed up the very thin edge of one person’s property line so as to prevent his neighbor from driving over their shared road and into his driveway. Then the person who put the rock down shot both his neighbors, for good measure. Say what you will about your noisy or unclean neighbors, but none of them will put a giant rock on the second floor of your apartment building’s stairs just to keep you from walking up to your door on the third.
On Fear Thy Neighbor, it doesn’t seem to matter that people have homes and yards in which to spread out and relax—there’s never a bad opportunity to carry on a grudge. Why enjoy life when you can fight like lawyered-up dogs and sic surveyors on each other? You could read in your spacious living room, or you could study old city planning documents like they’re the Talmud so that you can take six inches of land from someone. And this is to say nothing of the over-reliance on guns to solve arguments, a running theme throughout the show.
There are lessons to be learned here, to be sure. For starters, no matter what kind of grand ideas you might have about escaping the city for better schools or claiming your own patch of land to plant flowers on, you’d better not be the person squabbling over 12 inches of property because there’s a good chance you’ll wind up dead. (Or more likely, you'll look like a jerk.) Given the way so many of these disputes become about inches of land being on one person’s property line or another, my working theory is that actually owning large swaths of property mutates your amygdala in such a way that anger becomes the first and only response to any situation. Suddenly, a studio apartment starts to look just fine.