As the world slowly reopens, restrictions loosen, and gas tanks miraculously empty or tires unexpectedly blow out, ask yourself, “Should I heed the disheveled filling-station clerk’s warning? Or should I get drunk and have sex in the spooky, foreboding woods off the main road?”
Before planning your apple-picking or leaf-peeping excursion, make sure you brush up on the rules of the road. Remember: At the end of the day, travel horror depicts what happens when you flaunt the conventions of safe and respectful travel. And this season — the start of flu season during a global pandemic — requires the safest and most respectful travel of all. It might be for the best to kick back with someone else’s horrors instead of risking your own.
Although you should most certainly give Cabin in the Woods a watch to see a glorious parody of travel-horror tropes, it’s not included here since a government agency controls the action to please elder gods, making it an interesting sci-fi/cosmic-horror mashup. And even though commercial space travel could be in our near future, we stopped short of going to space for this list.
Whether you’re deciding between a rustic cabin in the country or a European vacation by rail, chances are there’s a horror-movie trope you’re in danger of enacting. Avoid becoming a cliché by checking out these movies full of every reason you probably should stay home instead of booking that off-the-grid Airbnb. Can’t say you weren’t warned.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The original road trip gone wrong, Tobe Hooper’s indie slasher follows a sister and her paraplegic brother who take their friends on an excursion to visit their grandfather’s grave and old family homestead. Things take a turn when they decide to pick up a hitchhiker who turns violent, slashing the brother after describing his family tradition of working at the old slaughterhouse. As if this weren’t foreboding enough, the group realizes they’re running low on gas after expelling the hitchhiker and the nearest gas station has no fuel. Of course, two members of the group stumble upon a house and viewers learn the varied uses of human carcasses.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Wes Craven’s sophomore foray into exploitation, The Hills Have Eyes tells a tale as old as time: family heads west on vacation, family is warned by a desert fuel station’s attendant to stay on the main road, family crashes off the main road, family is brutalized, graphically, by incestuous cannibals. If you’ve ever listened to an Eagles song opining about the beauty of the Southwest and thought to yourself, “I want to sleep in the desert night with a billion stars all around!,” this movie is here to say, “Are you sure?”
Tourist Trap (1979)
Ah, to be young and meandering around the desert, locating hidden oases to skinny dip in, and trespassing in the buildings of a misanthrope’s roadside attraction full of waxwork figures who seem to move of their own accord. Wait …
Like the other entries on this list, everything goes haywire after car troubles lead to a member of our cast seeking help at a gas station. This fuel station’s accompanying tourist trap of too-real mannequins is enough to make anyone wary of road tripping through backroads — or at least it should be.
Motel Hell (1980)
“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent Fritters.”
Farmer Vincent is a renaissance man: He’s a farmer, butcher, motel manager, and connoisseur of meat. Ever the entrepreneur, he and his sister, Ida, ensure their motel always has guests by setting traps on the nearby road. Once those guests are adequately stranded at the sibling’s motel, they’re treated to a firsthand, up-close look at Farmer Vincent’s secret garden — and await the harvest.
One part horror, one part hilarious, a stay at Motel Hell(o) will have you cured, one way or another.
Mother’s Day (1980)
The best traditions involve kidnapping your close friends and taking them on a trip to rural New Jersey. In Mother’s Day, three college coeds surprise each other with “mystery weekends” in which one blindfolds the other two and takes them to a remote camping spot. This doesn’t sound like a dangerous situation at all, right? Of course, everything goes awry when an overbearing mother and her two deranged sons happen upon the trio of women camping adjacent to their property.
Warning: Mother’s Day is not for the faint of heart. If it’s any indicator, torture-porn auteur Eli Roth cites this as a formative film.
The Evil Dead (1981)
The flick that made the “cabin in the woods” trope a mainstay, The Evil Dead is what happens when five college students decide to vacation at a rural cabin in Tennessee only to end up as minced meat. After discovering the Sumerian Book of the Dead in the cabin’s basement, the Sumerian-ignorant college kids also serendipitously locate a handy tape recorder to read incantations on their behalf. Naturally, this awakens evil spirits to spice up what otherwise could have been a dull retreat in the country.
Like many others on this list, The Evil Dead has no qualms delving into all sorts of violence. Proceed with caution.
Cabin Fever (2002)
Leaving behind The Evil Dead’s supernatural cabin horrors, director Eli Roth asks, “What if the danger was … grounded in science?” After all, reality is often scarier than fiction. Enter the invisible flesh-eating virus of Cabin Fever. And oh boy, does it make an entrance.
At the beginning of this vacation in the woods, Cabin Fever leads you to believe we’re going the route of accidental-murder-plus-revenge à la I Know What You Did Last Summer. But when attempted coitus reveals a nasty nether-region infection, all hell breaks loose. There’s a reason Eli Roth is the father of “torture porn.”
After the past year-plus, you may not be in the mood to see an isolation-turned-quarantine story, but it may be a good reminder we’re not out of the woods yet.
First an Eli Roth aspirational film and then two Eli Roth entries — is Eli Roth the master of travel horror? If Cabin Fever was the prototype for torture porn, Hostel is the gold standard. Hostel follows three buddies traveling to Slovakia after hearing about its “beautiful and desperate women” from a stranger. The classic story of Ugly Americans™ getting their comeuppance, this flick embodies a backpacker’s greatest fears, regardless of locale and behavior.
After this one, you’ll definitely be more particular about whom you take travel advice from and more cautious about your itinerary. No unplanned diversions.