The Ultimate Halloween Movie Marathon: 15 Scary Movies Set in the West
From The Shining to The Ring to Us, you’ll be sleeping with the lights on
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.