stephen king

The Long, Dark History of Castle Rock, Maine

A scene from Hulu’s Castle Rock. Photo: Hulu

Stephen King has never made Castle Rock, Maine, sound like a nice place to visit. The fictional small town appears or is referenced frequently in King’s writing, starting with King’s 1979 novel The Dead Zone and going beyond the 1993 novel Needful Things (despite it being billed on the cover as “The Last Castle Rock Story”). In King’s fiction, it’s been the site of, among other menaces, a serial killer, a rabid St. Bernard, an antiques shop possibly owned by the devil, and a spooky Polaroid camera. (That’s to say nothing of the nearby Shawshank Prison, which has troubles of its own.) The new J.J. Abrams–produced Hulu series Castle Rock puts the town at the heart of the action again and, frankly, the place is looking a little rough.

The times have been hard on Castle Rock and its residents. Mostly filmed in the Massachusetts towns of Orange, Lancaster, and Devens, the Hulu series’ setting resembles one of Richard Russo’s failing Rust Belt New England towns, once-thriving, now emptied-out places where there’s little for those left behind to do but drink and get in each others’ business. But there’s more at work here. “People think we’re just one of those dead towns they hear about,” Terry O’Quinn’s Shawshank warden Dale Lacy says in an early episode. “A run of bad luck, worse judgment, broken promises. We know different, don’t we? It’s not luck. It’s a plan. And not God’s either.” The hard-luck look masks a deeper problem.

But Castle Rock hasn’t always looked like that, at least not exactly. Each Castle Rock appearance Stephen King adaptations has been reshaped for the productions’ own purposes. Ahead of the Castle Rock premiere, here’s a look at the onscreen history of Stephen King’s most famous setting, a place you’d probably keep driving past if you ever find yourself stumbling on it.

1947–1966: The Shawshank Redemption

Frank Darabont’s beloved 1994 adaptation of King’s Different Seasons novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption isn’t, technically speaking, a Castle Rock story. But Shawshank Prison looms large in the mythos of King’s Maine, and it plays a major role in the Castle Rock series, whose narrative is set in motion by the discovery of a mysterious secret deep within its walls.

Darabont shot much of the film at Ohio’s Mansfield Prison, a facility that had only stopped serving as a penitentiary a few years earlier. It’s an imposing place, and the film effectively captures the dispiriting efficiency of an operation that keeps prisoners in place with walls and bars and also via the systematic dehumanization of those trapped within. The film also depicts it as a place where secrets thrive. Unlike in Castle Rock, there’s no supernatural element to this version of Shawshank, but the prison serves as the home to violent cliques, a secret economy, and a money-laundering operation. By the time we see it in Castle Rock, it’s become run-down and dank, a decline underlined by our having previously seen it in better days (if “better” is the right word).

1960: Stand by Me

Adapting The Body, another selection from Different Seasons, for his 1986 film Stand by Me, director Rob Reiner moves the action to Castle Rock, Oregon. But the Northwest’s Castle Rock seems very much a sister city to the Maine version found in King’s fiction. Set in 1960, the film casts the past in a sentimental light, but only up to a point. The four boys who set off to find a dead body in the woods outrun trains, tell wild stories, and riff on rock and roll and cartoons. But they also, like so many kids in King stories, have to deal with parental abuse, neglect, and the looming specter of adulthood. Still thriving as part of America’s post-WWII boom, their hometown looks like a fine place to grow up. Look beneath the surface, though, and you’ll find economic disparity, crushed dreams, bullies, and other alarming threats and problems set to grow worse in the years to come.

1983: Cujo

The divide between the haves and the have-nots is even more pronounced in Cujo, a 1983 take on King’s novel about a rabid dog and the mother and child who find themselves trapped in a broken-down Ford Pinto while it tries to kill them. (Ford had stopped making that troubled model by the time of the film, but its use here is pretty much the opposite of product placement.) Director Lewis Teague doesn’t put too fine a point on the economic divide in this no-nonsense film, one of the best of the early King adaptations. But it’s there in the way the central family lives in a stately country home, thanks to its patriarch’s fancy advertising job, while the rural community around them has a hard time keeping up. The ’80s have come to Castle Rock, and as with poor Cujo, what was once familiar and welcoming has started to mutate into new, more dangerous forms.

Early ’80s: The Dead Zone

Time’s a little fuzzy by design in the haunting 1983 film The Dead Zone. Its protagonist spends years unconscious, awakening in a world that’s changed. But the film ends in the midst of an election season that, the surrounding technology suggests, places it sometime in the early ’80s. Other elements suggest it, too: The economic disparity seen in Cujo has led to a deepening political division, paving the way for Martin Sheen’s Greg Stillson, a sinister politician with a populist agenda that hides craven and possibly insane motivations who freely attacks the press (ahem), to take advantage of the situation.

Director David Cronenberg portrays Castle Rock as a snowy, overcast place, an idyllic small town turned dreary when it’s not outright nightmarish. Christopher Walken stars as Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher who awakens from a coma with the power to see the future. This leads Castle Rock sheriff George Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) to enlist him to search for the Castle Rock Strangler, a serial killer plaguing the town. (Played by Sandy Ward, Bannerman also makes an appearance in Cujo where he’s mauled to death by the dog. RIP Sheriff Bannerman.) That the Strangler can even claim victims in Castle Rock’s scenic, central gazebo suggests just how far the town has fallen. Even more disturbingly, the film treats the Strangler as a herald for Stillson, whose seductive message draws in seemingly right-minded people like Johnny’s old flame Sarah (Brooke Adams), intensifying his dislocation and despair. Changing times can make the places we love and the people who live there unrecognizable, even repugnant.

1991: The Dark Half

Castle Rock is largely seen as a place for the rich to get away from it all in George Romero’s adaption of King’s novel about a writer forced to battle the evil embodiment of the pseudonym he thinks he’s put to rest. Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) teaches at a university miles away, but he relaxes at a Castle Rock lake house when his schedule allows. And, some come to suspect, he also commits murders there when his fingerprints start to show up at crime scenes. Thad finds an ally, however, in Sheriff Bannerman’s successor, Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker), a dogged detective who senses the case against Thad doesn’t quite add up.

1993: Needful Things

We mostly see Castle Rock’s outskirts in The Dark Half, which depicts it as the sort of rural town where the post office and the local bait shop share space. But it’s center stage in Needful Things, in which Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow), a sinister (but easily amused) owner of an antiques shop arrives from “Akron.” Stocking his business with items of particular interest to Castle Rock’s residents, he uses their desires as leverage, turning them against each other by asking them to perform a series of favors that sow discord in the town.

Director Fraser Heston (son of Charlton) treats Castle Rock as a picturesque small town where turkey farmers come to town to buy feed, autumn leaves fall like rain, and the diner doubles as a place to get terrific pie and catch up with local gossip. But there are signs modernity has started to creep in, like a strip mall and Shell station on the outskirts of town. Then there’s the matter of how easily Gaunt can prey on Castle Rock’s citizens, as if he only needed to bring long-simmering tensions to a boil. Only Sheriff Pangborn (played here by Ed Harris) keeps his head, but even his steady guidance can’t fully avert a disaster. Maybe it’s no wonder that in Castle Rock, as played by Scott Glenn, Pangborn seems so world-weary, and possibly less virtuous than before. The town has exacted a heavy price from him, as it does on anyone without the means or good sense to get out.

Postcards From the Long, Dark History of Castle Rock, Maine