When it comes to scary settings, my home state of California probably isn’t anyone’s first (or second, third or fourth) choice. California has yet to penetrate the public imagination the way “Lovecraft Country”–referring to the real and imagined New England Settings of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction–has. There’s also Maine, which has become a familiar scary story setting thanks to Stephen King, Rick Hautala and Joe Hill, while Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker have done the same for Liverpool, and writers ranging from Robert E. Howard to Joe Lansdale, and a certain film with “Chainsaw Massacre” in the title, have effectively haunted Texas. But California?
It seems that to much of the world California will forever be known as the land of palm trees, beach parties and the Kardashians. I’d argue, however, that California is an ideal horror story locale in many respects. True, there are few old dark castles to be found in the Golden State, but it does contain its share of old cemeteries and forbidding mansions. You can even find snow if you go high enough.
California also has its very own horror-writer-in-residence, who utilizes his homeland in the same way Stephen King does his: Dennis Etchison, whose stories and novels impart a real atmosphere of (to borrow one of his titles) California Gothic. Unfortunately Etchison’s writing hasn’t attained a shade of the popularity of Lovecraft, King or Barker (the expression “Etchison country” has yet to enter the lexicon).
Other California horrorists? There’s John Carpenter, who created his own highly idiosyncratic brand of California horror in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE, although his most famous movies–HALLOWEEN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING–all take place elsewhere. The late Richard Laymon, who lived much of his life in So Cal, set his famed Beast Trilogy (THE CELLAR, THE BEAST HOUSE, THE MIDNIGHT TOUR) in the mountain regions of Northern California, while his WOODS ARE DARK took place in California forestland, and FUNLAND in the coastal environs. Another late California-based horror-meister was Michael Blodgett, whose sex-and-violence laced portrayals of So Cal in the novels CAPTAIN BLOOD, HERO AND THE TERROR and THE WHITE RAVEN remain unique, although only the first of them is really worth reading.
There’s also Curtis Harrington’s 1961 classic NIGHT TIDE, which without its atmospheric Venice Beach settings would be a far different (and far less interesting) movie. Venice Beach provided an equally evocative locale for the 1955 psycho-beat oddity DAUGHTER OF HORROR/DEMENTIA, while K.W. Jeter’s 1989 horror novel IN THE LAND OF THE DEAD is just as atmospheric in its depiction of 1930s-era orange groves, a quintessentially horrific, and quintessentially Californian, setting.
By contrast, Richard Matheson’s novels I AM LEGEND (1954) and A STIR OF ECHOES (1958) were both set in Southern California, but the city is hardly integral to either. Note how the hit 2007 film adaptation of the former was relocated to New York City and the 1999 filming of the latter to Chicago, with no major changes in the overall tone or narrative of either book. 1982’s POLTERGEIST was a Cali-set horror fest that could have been situated in most any state, just as David Lynch’s L.A. set LOST HIGHWAY might as well take place on the moon. PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE, the apparent “worst movie ever made,” took place in the San Fernando Valley, but it was a setting utilized, it seems, largely for convenience.
That’s not counting the many, many horror films shot in the L.A. area but set elsewhere. This includes most of the Universal horror classics of the 1930s and 40s, which tended to be set in exotic European locales yet were shot on the Universal lot. There’s also L.A.’s Bronson Canyon, possibly the most widely utilized horror/science fiction movie setting ever: it was the locale for WHITE ZOMBIE, ROBOT MONSTER, the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, EQUINOX, CABIN FEVER, etc. More recently we’ve seen a new trend of L.A.-set genre movies shot elsewhere, such as the Louisiana(!) lensed BATTLE: LOS ANGELES.
Speaking of Los Angeles, I’ve found it’s not the ideal scare setting it might appear. Certainly the earthquakes, gang violence and traffic would seem to make for a great scary movie environ, but for the most part the attempts, in the likes of EARTHQUAKE, VAMP, JUDGMENT NIGHT, WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, TALES FROM THE HOOD, HELLBENT and the 2013 MANIAC (which unconvincingly relocates the original film’s grungy NYC settings to L.A.), have been pretty sorry.
The problem, it seems, is that the place is just too big, with most movies contenting themselves with the Santa Monica Pier and Miracle Mile section of Wilshire Boulevard as representations of “Los Angeles” (along with the inevitable aerial shots of the Hollywood sign and downtown skyscrapers). Think back to 1997’s VOLCANO, whose tagline promised “The Coast is Toast,” even though the only portions of the coast that got toasted in the flick were the Beverly Center mall in Beverly Hills and the aforementioned Miracle Mile.
For the record, I feel the best use of Los Angeles in a horror novel is in THEY THIRST, a sprawling epic about vampires taking over the L.A. basin that was written, ironically enough, by an out-of-towner: the Alabama based Robert McCammon. In the film world I’d nominate Todd Haynes’ SAFE as the finest use of the city of (arch)angels in a horror movie, with the sanitized environ of upper crust L.A.–Beverly Hills, West L.A., the Hollywood Hills–providing the perfect setting for a film about a woman “allergic to the 20th Century.”
Even tougher to horror-ize is the Hollywood moviemaking milieu. Frankly, I can’t think of any effective horror stories/movies about moviemaking. Certainly there exists effective horror media about movie watching (TARGETS) and the Hollywood cult of celebrity (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, Ray Garton’s SEX AND VIOLENCE IN HOLLYWOOD), but I’ve found that all the really good Hollywood set moviemaking accounts (such as THE WOMAN CHASER by Charles Willeford) fall outside the genre.
Even the redoubtable Mr. Etchison failed in his attempt at a horror novel about the making of a horror movie in 1996’s DOUBLE EDGE, one of his least satisfying works. It’s been claimed that fictional accounts of making movies are by their very nature redundant (in the manner of a dream about a dream), and I’ll have to agree. Also, the horror of such stories often takes a back seat to the insider knowledge the writer/filmmaker is eager to show off (see Richard Christian Matheson’s thoroughly underwhelming CREATED BY), and anyway, filmmaking is horrific enough as is without the imposition of creepy crawly business (see Robert Bloch’s unimpressive novel PSYCHO II, set in a moviemaking milieu and far different in every respect from the PSYCHO II movie).
San Francisco, with its fogbanks and counterculture stronghold, seems an ideal horror locale, and has provided the setting for several powerful horror novels: Frank Norris’ bleak classic McTEAGUE, Fritz Leiber’s OUR LADY OF DARKNESS, Mark Laidlaw’s THE 37th MANDALA and T.L. Parkinson’s THE MAN UPSTAIRS. All make excellent use of the city’s layout and atmosphere, and do so without resorting to obvious or predictable tactics (the specter of Alcatraz doesn’t figure into any of them).
On the other hand, in the movie-verse San Fran hasn’t fared nearly as well. S.F. filming permits are said to be prohibitively expensive, which explains why so few films are shot there. Unfortunately the horror movies that are set in the city by the bay–IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, THE MANITOU, PACIFIC HEIGHTS, BASIC INSTINCT–generally aren’t very good. The best uses of San Francisco in horror cinema remain THE BIRDS and ZODIAC, even if much of the latter was actually filmed in Los Angeles.
One area I wouldn’t expect to be a fertile horror-scape is the pretentious boutique town Carmel (where Clint Eastwood was once mayor). Yet author Brian Moore set not one but two contemporary horror/fantasy novels, THE GREAT VICTORIAN COLLECTION and COLD HEAVEN, in Carmel, with the latter adapted into a 1992 film by director Nicolas Roeg. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that of those three efforts only the first was worthwhile.
Another unlikely scare-scape is San Diego, the location of Comic Con and the self-proclaimed “finest city in America.” It was this very city, however, that hosted the phenomenally popular PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, as well as the rampaging T-Rex climax of THE LOST WORLD and Eric Higgs’ stunning 1985 horror novel THE HAPPY MAN, to which SD’s sunny façade and nearness to the Mexican border are integral.
More overtly horrific is the Salton Sea, a once-thriving resort community now marked by decay and desolation. The place, in short, would seem a ready-made setting for a scary movie, yet to my knowledge the Salton Sea been was effectively utilized in just one film: the idiosyncratic documentary BOMBAY BEACH.
Near the Salton Sea is the garbage-strewn desert campsite Slab City, fictionalized in Jeff Mariotte’s 2003 horror novel THE SLAB, and the sparsely populated community of Twentynine Palms. According to the French filmmaker Bruno Dumont, Twentynine Palms’ desolate scenery made him feel “afraid,” although the 2004 horror movie Dumont shot in the area, none-too-imaginatively titled TWENTYNINE PALMS, failed to effectively dramatize that feeling.
Beyond that there are California’s rural mountain environs, where THE HOWLING book and film took place, and the various coastal communities, which have a definite sea-bitten creepiness. THE LOST BOYS was set in one such community, the bohemian stronghold Santa Clara (called “Santa Carla” in the flick), whose gritty scenery is responsible for much of that film’s effectiveness. There’s also San Simenon’s Point Pierdas Blancas, the setting for the grade-B classic THE MONSTER OF PIERDAS BLANCAS.
There are of course many more examples of California-set horror media. However, one need only check out some of the locales mentioned above, or the books/movies THEY THIRST, SAFE, THE CELLAR, NIGHT TIDE, THE HAPPY MAN and THE LOST BOYS to get a good idea of just how scary the golden state truly is.