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From The Shining to The Ring to Us, you’ll be sleeping with the lights on

Jessica Mordo  – October 8, 2019

Once October hits, I’m a bona fide embodiment of all the fall clichés—and proud of it. I take the family apple picking and bake a pie, head to the pumpkin patch and carve up a mean jack-o’, bake my fall-favorite dessert of chocolate chip pumpkin spice bread, intricately plan my DIY Halloween costume of the year, and embark on a month-long scary movie marathon in the lead-up to the Best Day of the Year, a.k.a. October 31. It’s fitting that this Halloween baby has always been a fan of psychological thrillers and horror flicks, and over the years I’ve become a connoisseur of the canon. What often makes or breaks a scary movie is its setting, and the genre boasts some of the West’s most striking locales. Here are 15 scary movies that make the most of Pacific Northwest mood, amp up the terror of isolation in the Rockies and the Southwestern desert, claw apart the surface of deceptively perfect California towns, and generally make the West a character unto itself. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

The Shining, Colorado Rockies

Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1980 chiller about the winter caretaker of a secluded Colorado resort slowly going mad appears on every horror-movie best list—and any cinephile worth their salt can quickly rattle off a number of the film’s iconic images. Blood pouring out of the elevator! The spooky Diane Arbus-style twins! The little boy riding his Big Wheel around the cavernous hotel halls! Redrum! The list goes on, but let’s not forget the eerie opening sequence (actually shot in Glacier National Park, with that masterful satanic-vibes score), plus the exterior shots of the fictional Overlook Hotel (inspired by Colorado’s Stanley Hotel and actually filmed at Oregon’s Timberline Lodge), which drips with foreboding.

The Birds, San Francisco and Bodega Bay, CA

Hitchcock’s 1963 avian apocalypse tale starts off with a blithe meet-cute in San Francisco. Tippi Hedren decides to pay a flirtatious follow-up visit to Rod Taylor in Bodega Bay (a sleepy fishing village on the Sonoma Coast), and all hell breaks loose when birds mount a days-long attack on the community. The movie’s most famous scene is when Hedren takes shelter in a phone booth (remember those?) while birds hurl themselves into it, shattering the glass. But it’s her initial entrance into town—crossing the bay by motor boat, when a gull suddenly smashes into her head, drawing blood—that gives the film a memorable bit of foreshadowing.

The Ring, Seattle and Misc. Washington Locales

Horror purists insist that the original Japanese film Ringu was better, but the 2002 American remake heaps on the fear factor in big part thanks to the misty Pacific Northwest setting. Noami Watts plays a Seattle journalist investigating a mysterious videotape that supernaturally kills whoever’s watched it seven days later. Director Gore Verbinski relies on a mounting sense of dread and creepy imagery, but often it’s his use of location that amps up the tension: A remote country inn on Lake Whatcom near Bellingham becomes the worst vacation spot ever; Whidbey Island, including its ferry and iconic Deception Pass Bridge, is the site of frenetic searching and an eerie animal death; and the Yaquina Head Lighthouse (IRL near Newport, OR) doubles for the film’s fictional Moseko Island, where secrets from beyond the grave get disinterred.

Us, Santa Cruz, CA

Jordan Peele’s 2019 stunner of a follow-up to his hit Get Out milks the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk for all its creepy glory—viewers will never look at it the same again. In the movie’s opening scene, the childhood version of Lupita Nyong’o wanders away from her parents to explore the boardwalk; here, through the eyes of a kid, the director masterfully highlights the mysteries that lurk among the shadows of the carnival games and rides. Much later, when the film embarks on a nightmarish journey through the boardwalk’s underbelly and abandoned surface, the shots Peele has crafted are bound to be some of 21st-century cinema’s most striking.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Central Texas

No list of horror movies is ever complete without Tobe Hooper’s 1974 gruesome gorefest. Launching some of the genre’s most common motifs—a hulking, almost faceless killer (Leatherface…shudder); the use of power tools as weapons (ewww); the demise of a series of victims; the rise of a “final girl”—TCM most notably features a remote, backcountry setting spelling doom for unwitting travelers. In this case, it’s a Central-Texas homestead that the characters sought out to their own peril.

Scream, Woodsboro, CA

If Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a kind of ur-text for genre motifs, then Scream is the Wes Craven-helmed Cliff’s Notes version, cramming in everything from a whodunit plot to a slasher preying on teenage victims to a killer in a creepy mask. (The 1996 film’s mask became so iconic in and of itself that the Ghostface costume still pops up in Spirit Halloween stores every year.) Scream’s fictional setting of Woodsboro, the Northern California Everytown, was actually a composite of real-life locations in Calistoga (Neve Campbell’s house), Santa Rosa (Drew Barrymore’s abode), Tomales Bay (site of the film’s deadly house party), and Healdsburg (the Woodsboro town square; see the clip above). It’s Wine Country without the grapevines, but with a whole lotta thrills.

Psycho, Phoenix and Arizona Desert

Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece starts off as pseudo-noir but then pivots into something so much more terrifying: a deep-dive into the disturbing world of a killer that made this the first psychological thriller to grace the silver screen. Featuring one of cinema’s most famous scenes ever, the shower stabbing shocked audiences not only because of its violence, but also for killing off the main character so early on in the film. Twist! Initially set (and shot, for the most part) in Phoenix, the majority of the film takes place in a motel and adjacent home off a dark desert highway on the outskirts of town (purportedly Arizona, but shot on a Hollywood studio lot). Nevertheless, the remote desert setting only adds to the suspense.

The Hills Have Eyes, Nevada Desert

Wes Craven’s second-ever film, this 1977 fright fest was lauded for its hybrid style (road movie meets Western meets grindhouse) and for its implicit critique of American bourgeois culture. In it, a family undertakes an all-time bad road trip: They crash their RV, get stranded in the Nevada desert, and are subsequently pursued by a gang of cannibals. The movie was also loosely inspired by Texas Chainsaw Massacre (go figure). Shot in the Mojave desert, the barren hills emphasize the impassiveness of the wilderness in the face of unspeakable human horror.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Twin Peaks, WA

When David Lynch debuted the “Twin Peaks” TV series in 1990, it took the pop culture world by storm. “Who killed Laura Palmer?” became an even more burning question than 1980’s “Who shot J.R.?” Two seasons of mystery solving, dreamworld walking, and amazing small-town character development later, the town of Twin Peaks (located within miles of the Canadian border) proved too intriguing to be contained to the small screen. Lynch shot Fire Walk with Me as a 1992 answer to some of the unresolved plot points from the too-soon canceled series (side note: it was revived much later in 2017, but that’s a whole other story). The fictional town served endless Pacific Northwest mood on the big screen, with nods to the logging industry, cross-border crime rings, and many unsettling fir- and pine-forest set pieces. “The owls are not what they seem” in this neck of the woods, not by a long shot. 

Poltergeist, Cuesta Verde, CA

Sometimes that perfect planned community in an idyllic SoCal suburb turns out to be a supernatural portal that unleashes living hell. That’s the premise of this 1982 classic, written by Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper. From the iconic silhouette of Carol Anne against the TV static to the clown doll that comes to murderous life, the movie is packed with some of the genre’s most indelible images—but it’s the seemingly innocuous Orange County setting, the geeky paranormal researchers from UC Irvine, and the terrifying swimming pool scene at the end that infuse the flick with sunny Cali’s dark side.

The Fog, Antonio Bay, CA

In another bizarro version of California, John Carpenter’s 1980 film focuses on a small coastal town that gets terrorized by supernatural fog on its centennial. For anyone who’s clocked any significant time in San Francisco or thereabouts in Northern California, this is either a) an idea that’s a bit on-the-nose, b) acutely terrifying, or c) too campy to actually be scary. Whether you hew to one or all of the above, give yourself over to a cult classic that comes with a side of history (it’s the ghosts of dead mariners in that fog!) and uses a church as both a setting and a metaphor for battling the forces of evil. (See? Told you it was a bit on-the-nose.) But stay, if you dare, for the haunting image of the lighthouse getting completely enveloped in deadly pea-soup fog.

Twilight, Forks, WA

The international sensation that was the Twilight book series inevitably spawned the international sensation that was the Twilight movie series. Even though the Twilight-verse isn’t horror per se, and whether or not your tastes align with teenage vampire romance, the film’s five installments collectively made an undeniable mark on pop culture from 2008 into this decade. In the first film, we get acquainted with the Olympic Peninsula town of Forks, where 17-year-old Bella Swan moves and finds herself in a courtship with is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-vampire Edward Cullen (he totally is, but only consumes animal blood—how quaint). Things get complicated when a more sinister vampire decides to hunt Bella for sport, and she runs all the way to Phoenix to hide. But it’s the setting of Forks, fueled by the timber industry and dripping with Olympic rainforest mist, that serves up killer mood à la Twin Peaks.

Tremors, Perfection, NV

This 1990 horror-comedy creature feature starring Kevin Bacon takes place in the fictional town of Perfection, Nevada, an ex-mining settlement in the desert east of the Sierra Nevada. When corpses start popping up around town, a serial killer is suspected, but the truth is so much worse (and more epic in scale…literally). A giant, snake-like creature that’s been burrowing underground is in fact emerging to wreak havoc on Perfection, and it is one heck of a ride with plenty of laughs to break up the scares. Tremors culminates in a clash of humans, monsters, bulldozers, bald boulders, a sinkhole, and a homemade bomb, all converging amid desert scrub and rugged mountains in the background. Talk about the perfect scene.

The Lost Boys, Santa Carla, CA

The 1987 hit that starred a whole slew of Tiger Beat heartthrobs of its day (the Coreys, Kiefer Sutherland, and Jason Patric), this teen vampire flick was the much-darker precursor to Twilight and also happened to be shot in Santa Cruz, most notably at the boardwalk (which undoubtedly inspired Jordan Peele’s Us). When a pair of brothers move to the beach town of Santa Carla, they troll the boardwalk, where missing persons flyers and a mysterious group of bikers (plus girl) tip off the viewer that strange things are afoot. In short, vampires! The film’s epic showdown of kids vs. evil owes a debt to The Goonies, a more family-friendly, West-set ‘80s classic that happened to be made by the same director.

Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles

While this 2001 film might not truly read as horror, it’s David Lynch doing what David Lynch does so well: neo-noir mystery with a whole slew of creepy images guaranteed to keep you up at night. The plot follows Naomi Watts as an aspiring actress, newly arrived in Hollywood where her path crosses with an amnesiac car crash survivor…and then things get weird. With a point-of-view shift in the middle and an ending that leaves the entire meaning of the film open to interpretation, Mulholland Drive has continued to keep viewers guessing—and peering at its nightmarishly hallucinatory scenes from between their fingers. Is it all a big, trippy critique of the trappings of the Hollywood game? You decide, while soaking up L.A.’s landscapes through the Lynchian lens.