Watching movies about planes plummeting into thick jungles on remote islands, backpackers being tortured by sadistic madmen, and the trip of a lifetime taking a cannibalistic turn. These things don’t sound very appealing to the average travel junkie. In fact, travel horror films are at odds with a view of the world as a beautiful, adventurous place to explore. And yet they transfix me.
I possess a strange love for the travel horror genre, so this post is going to let you in on what it’s all about. I’ll also share with you some of my favourite travel horror films. So keep reading, if you can stomach it!
What is the travel horror genre?
When you travel, you’re putting yourself outside your comfort zone and putting yourself in a foreign location you’re unfamiliar with. Travel horror films explore the very worst that could happen in these situations.
Travel horror themes and plotlines
The travel horror genre focuses on many of the same themes as the travel genre in general: adventure, coming of age, young adulthood, exploration, finding oneself, uncharted territory and so on. But the new experiences and exciting times the protagonist/s encounter come at a high price and often with a gruesome twist.
Travel horror films start off just like any other travel flick – with stunning scenes of beautiful mountain ranges, or young backpackers ready for a solo adventure into the unknown. And they all end in a horribly familiar way; after being too trusting of strangers, making poor decisions, or failing to tell people where they’re going, the main character/s end up in places so remote that no one is able to find them, falling victim to the most terrible things.
Travel horror protagonists
Young people are targeted more frequently by travel horror villains, perhaps a comment on the tendency we have to do stupid things when we’re on the road. Young travellers are perhaps more willing to try new things, go outside their comfort zone, and take risks. And in the travel horror genre, these characteristics lead them into danger. But it also make them the best protagonists for the stories being told.
Then again, some travel horror flicks aim to show that anyone, no matter how well-travelled or sensible they are, can fall victim to tragedy (see film #4 below).
Travel horror settings
Destinations known for their remoteness or element of danger are the setting for most Western travel horror flicks. Take my home country, for example. With its reputation for a host of deadly animals, Australia makes an ideal setting, as do Eastern European countries, or remote and isolated places such as the Scottish highlands, or abandoned ruins in thick jungles.
Why I’m a sucker for travel horror flicks
I think the essence of what attracts me to travel horror stories is that if you remove the far-fetched premises, the blood and gore, and the outdated stereotypes, a travel horror movie makes you consider what you would do in extreme situations. If you had to fight for survival with a group of other people, questions about what you prioritise in life, what your values are and whether you would sacrifice your ethics in order to escape death would all come to the fore. You’d realise what sort of person you are, and what kind of person those around you are.
And when you travel, things do go wrong. Sometimes, shit happens. You find yourself in some pretty sticky situations. Those moments, when you’re alone and confused in a foreign country, are the times when you imagine the worst that could happen. You may not be locked up in an underground bunker having your toes removed by a sadistic serial killer, but the fear is real.
Who hasn’t experienced that rush of adrenalin and rising feeling of panic when a passport can’t be found, or when you think you’re going to miss your flight? The worst-case scenario runs through your mind: What if I’m stranded here and can’t get home? This feeling is obviously not anywhere as extreme as the situations that travel horror protagonists find themselves in, but it’s a feeling that these films play on and exaggerate to get you quaking in your (hiking) boots.
Of course, there are horrible people out there who do horrible things, but it’s unlikely that your backpacking trip to Slovakia or Australia will end in death. The filmmakers of movies like Hostel and Wolf Creek do expertly prey, however, on the innate fear we have about the dangers of straying into unknown places. There’s also an element of truth to them. Wolf Creek‘s storyline, for example, is based on real-life serial killer Ivan Milat, who kidnapped and tortured backpackers in Australia in the early 1990s.
Travel horror films simply take our fears and magnify them for the sake of entertainment.
We’re all afraid of being on our own, of experiencing new things. Some of us suck it up and do it anyway, but there’s an element of fear to travelling anywhere. When we read stories about people going missing and turning up washed up on a beach in South America, a group of friends tragically getting lost hiking in southeast Asia, mountain climbers perishing while attempting to summit Everest, or someone we went to high school with getting caught up in a terror attack while on holiday in Europe, these fears suddenly become realised. Travel horror films simply take these fears and magnify them for the sake of entertainment.
My favourite travel horror films
Here are some travel horror films I’ve loved (or loved to hate – these certainly aren’t Oscar-winning films!), but there are plenty more that could be included on this list. Let me know your favourites in the comments below!
Don’t watch this film if you’re about to embark on your first ever backpacking adventure to Europe. Save it for after your safe return, where you can sit back and enjoy (?) the unfolding events without imagining them happening to you.
Eli Roth’s series of Hostel films are classic travel horror films. The first film follows a couple of college students as they backpack through Europe, finding themselves lured by exotic characters into a horrific nightmare in Slovakia. There are a lot of stereotypes of Eastern Europe in these films, which – if you’ve been to Slovakia, you will recognise as being terribly over-exaggerated.
2. Wolf Creek
Backpackers tend to suffer an awful lot in travel horror flicks, and Wolf Creek is one movie that didn’t do them any favours. It follows three young people – one Aussie guy and two British girls – as they set off on a classic Aussie road trip to Wolf Creek Crater. They bump into Mick Taylor, played by the wonderful John Jarratt, who appears at first to be a joviable Aussie bloke, but becomes more and more sinister. “You never know where I might … pop up!” he laughs over a campfire, an ominous premonition of what’s to come.
While the film is fictional, there are definitely elements that reference the murders of foreign tourists committed by Ivan Milat in Belanglo State Forest in NSW in the 1990s. It’s the element of truth in this story makes it all the more scary.
3. Green Inferno
Protagonist Justine wants to do something about logging in Peru, so she sets off to the Amazon rainforest with a group of activists. But having the best of intentions won’t save them from encountering a cannibalistic tribe.
Another Eli Roth flick, this is survival horror at its most gruesome. It’s bloody, it’s gory and it’s not for the faint-hearted, so I’d advise you not to watch it while eating.
4. A Lonely Place to Die
This movie stars Australian actress Melissa George as a climber, who, together with a group of friends is exploring the Scottish highlands. Initially, you’ll think the film is going to be about the dangers of climbing, but when the group encounters a little girl who’s been trapped underground, the film takes an unexpected turn.
This one’s not as gruesome as some of the others on this list, but it’ll get your heart racing as the cat-and-mouse chase leaves the climbers fighting for their lives. In absolutely stunning terrain, I might add.
“Anything can happen” is the premise of this movie. And by “anything”, that’s embarking on the trip of a lifetime to Brazil only to be left stranded in the middle of nowhere trying to escape an organ harvesting ring.
Turistas stars Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde as siblings who just want to get home after their trip turns from frustrating inconvenience to a nightmare come to life. If your mum’s ever told you to hold on to those valuables and not to let your drink get spiked when you go travelling and you’ve rolled your eyes, this movie will show you what could happen if you ignore her advice … But like, in a typical B grade horror movie way, of course.
I would describe Rogue as Australia’s version of Jaws. Everyone knows the land Down Under has an overwhelming number of dangerous animals, and this film plays to those stereotypes. The story focuses on a group of tourists and their guide who are on a boat trip through the tropical Northern Territory. The protagonist, a travel writer from Chicago, ends up fighting to save his own life and those of the other tourists on the boat when they find themselves stranded and at the mercy of a giant reptilian beast.
7. Dying Breed
Oh Australia, you unfortunately just lend yourself so well to the horror genre. Featuring some classic bogan Aussie accents, panicked running through forests and some creepy local characters, this movie will make you think twice about setting foot in the Tasmanian wilderness.
8. Devil’s Pass
The most terrifying thing about horror films is the element of truth they contain; that fear that maybe something they depict could really happen. This is the premise that makes this film so scary. It centres on on the infamous Dyatlov Pass Incident that happened in Russia in 1959, in which nine experienced ski hikers went missing in the Ural Mountains. While autopsies revealed some of them died of hypothermia, one hiker had had her tongue removed and others had been hit on the head or had evidence of brain damage without any evidence of trauma to the skull. The mystery remains unsolved but this film provides one theory…
9. The Ruins
“Ancient Mayan temple off the beaten path.” Sounds appealing, but we all know where it’s going to lead. Don’t be surprised when the beautiful ruins that the main characters of this film stumble across turn out to be the creepiest place they’ve ever encountered.
Then, of course, there are occasional real-life horror stories of travellers going missing or running into trouble abroad. These things are often hyped up by the media – and films like these play on the fear generated by such stories.
However, the likelihood of something like this happening to you are slim to none, and as long as you’re sensible the worst that will happen to you on your adventures is a lost mobile phone or a hangover.