Is Santa Cruz the scariest place in California?  

The coastal county of 275,000 tortured souls is not our most dangerous place, but it embodies the greatest fears of Californians, which are all about our powerlessness  

Our coastal beauty is under attack by climate change, our immigrant neighbors are being persecuted by our country’s own government, and our state’s wealth no longer guarantees anything, not even a roof over our heads. 

Perhaps that’s what made Santa Cruz such an effective setting for Jordan Peele’s “Us”, the year’s most popular horror film. “Being here feels like there’s this black cloud over me,” says the film’s protagonist, played by Lupita Nyong’o

She is not the first to feel that way. Santa Cruz’s shoreline geography, with mountains tumbling violently down to a sea, can feel unsettling, and its history is full of blood-curdling episodes still repeated today, from the murder and castration of a Father Andres Quintana at Santa Cruz’s mission to the Holy City cult  to two different serial killers in the 1970s. Even the road into Santa Cruz is fraught: California State Route 17 has so many dangerous sharp turns, blind spots and narrow shoulders that it’s been called “Blood Alley.”

In a drier California, Santa Cruz, highly susceptible to drought, faces unusually high risks of water shortages. Rising seas and erosion are eating away at its signature shoreline. In 2017, a woman was killed when a cliff collapsed beneath her. (The ocean isn’t much safer—the great white shark population has made a huge comeback). 

But, as any horror filmmaker will tell you, the scariest threats come from the routines of daily living. This may be where Santa Cruz is scariest. Traffic is terrible. Parking is a horror show.  And there’s a good chance the other people driving are so high they’re effectively zombies, as legal cannabis has swept over Santa Cruz with the force of a Pacific tsunami. .

If Santa Cruz is going to build a better future, it must do better its children. By  some measures, its rate of child poverty is the second highest—at more than 27 percent—among California’s 58 counties. Santa Cruz is in a particularly perilous position. It has the high cost of living of Bay Area counties but with relatively lower incomes reflecting its low-wage agriculture and hospitality jobs. Those incomes are often too high for families to be eligible for food stamps and welfare programs. It’s a scary squeeze.

The worst piece of the poverty puzzle involves high housing costs. There is a shortage of affordable housing both for middle-class workers and for college students; last year, UC Santa Cruz   begged faculty members to house students. By one ranking, Santa Cruz was the least affordable housing market in the country for teachers.

If all that wasn’t enough to curdle your blood, Santa Cruz now faces scary new threats from the Trump Administration, which seeks to open up coastal oil drilling and cut Medicaid, for its relatively high percentage of poor people.  And workers in Santa Cruz’s agricultural and tourism industries have been forced underground by federal immigration enforcement. News broke recently of a secret food bank for undocumented residents and others who fear going to grocery stores or public food banks.

Such realities suggest that film director Jordan Peele was wise to make Santa Cruz the setting for his horror allegory of a United States that buries its unwanted people. The film  “Us” uses the Main Beach, the UC Santa Cruz Campus, Big Basin Redwoods State Park and especially the Beach Boardwalk—and the constant screams from its roller coaster riders—to create fear that at any moment your demons might emerge from the ground beneath you. And there’s nothing much you can do about it. 

California taxpayers may also find the film scary. It received $5.2 million in tax breaks from the California Film & Television Tax Credit program, which provides subsidies for films made in California. Studies suggest that such subsidies can’t be financially justified. And “Us,” which made $254 million worldwide, didn’t need it. Such tax giveaways, which steal from the poor and  give to the rich, illustrate why California’s budget feels like an out-of-control carnival ride. 

Peele is not the first filmmaker to identify the scariness in the soul of Santa Cruz. The 1987 vampire movie, “The Lost Boys,” also featured Santa Cruz. 

On my own recent visit, I didn’t encounter any vampires—or any red-clad doppelgangers who emerge from tunnels beneath the Boardwalk in Peele’s movie. But I was scared nonetheless. Santa Cruz is California’s hall of mirrors. If you stare at it, beware: you’ll soon find our state’s scariest problems looking right back at you.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.