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You Hit the Road, the Road Hits Back: 6 (or 7) Terrifying Road Trip Stories That Will Haunt Your Dreams

Written by Matthew Lyons

Everybody loves a vacation, don’t we? Shit, after the last two years of our collective lives, I think it’d be fair to say we’ve all earned one. A chance to get away from it all, hop in the car and drive until we’re somewhere we’ve never been before. Don’t you want to escape, just for a little while?

Like baseball and apple pie, the road trip is an iconic American tradition, passed down over years and generations as a way for good hardworking folks to get away from it all and reconnect—with the world around them, with each other, with themselves.

But when road trips go wrong, they go really wrong.

That’s what makes road trips almost a perfect setting for horror stories, I think: isolated and alone in a strange place, without the safety of home to fall back on, characters are forced into pressure cooker situations, compelled to make decisions that show their humanity… or lack thereof. Some of the very best chills out there take place on desolate, lonely back highways, after all.

So let’s hit the road and see what kind of nightmares we can scare up.

small-cover Southbound, directed by Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, and Radio Silence

From the moment I heard Larry Fessenden’s gravel-velvet tones as the DJ in Southbound's opening narration, I knew I was going to love it.

It would be easy to write Southbound off as little more than yet another entry in the mid-2010s horror anthology movie boom (cf. V/H/S, V/H/S/2, XX, Trick r’ Treat, Holidays, V/H/S Viral, The ABCs of Death, etc), but like so many of those movies, Southbound is kind of an underrated gem of a flick. Grisly, unflinching, scary as hell, and utterly fucking nihilistic, watching the four (or five, depending on how you count them) segments in its 89-minute runtime feels like taking a drive through Hell in a broken-down old pickup truck with busted A/C and the worst AM radio you’ve ever heard in your life.

Presented as a series of interlocking road trip stories, Southbound doesn’t waste any time cranking up the isolation, desperation and madness—it’s one of those rare movies that starts at about a ten and just keeps getting crazier. Every person in this movie is doomed; they just don’t know it yet. My personal favorite segment? Roxanne Benjamin’s “Siren,” because I’m never not going to be a sucker for what-the-fuck uncanny-valley takes on the so-called “traditional American family.” Weird desert cults, fractured friend dynamics, and deeply grotesque home cooking? Yes, please. Truth is though, if you’ve got the stomach for it, there’s not a moment in SOUTHBOUND that’ll steer you wrong.

small-cover Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

The first thing you notice (or at least, the first thing I noticed) about Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot is just how goddamned beautiful the prose is. It dances back and forth across the page, winding and twisting and changing with the winds as the characters take their respective journeys through a world far stranger, scarier and more beautiful than the one they left.

But be warned, Mr Splitfoot isn’t exactly your traditional horror novel—less a mind-erasing scare-a-thon and more of a gothic creeper (with some legitimately hilarious moments to boot), the frights contained within are far more subtle and unnerving than you might expect at first glance. They sneak in around the corners when you’re not looking, they soak through the paper and bleed into the pads of your fingers. It’s a deeply unsettling experience, following the braided stories of Nat and Ruth and Cora through the pages to their natural conclusion.

Like some of the best magic tricks in the world, Mr Splitfoot tells you just enough to make you think that you know what’s going on, then pulls the rug out from under your feet to show you just how little you really know for sure. After all, as Cora says, all stories are ghost stories, and this book has ghosts aplenty.

small-cover Alice Isn't Dead [2016-2018 podcast]

When I first heard the concept for Alice Isn’t Dead, I’ll admit, I was a little bit skeptical. Horror podcasts can be a tough sell, after all; the medium ensures that artists and storytellers have to play by slightly different rules, and even the most noble and earnestly-meant efforts aren’t always 100% successful. But the thing is, once I really got into it, I burned through the whole thing in no time.

Detailing the story of a long-haul trucker on a seemingly-endless search across the back roads and highways of America for her missing wife (the titular Alice), Alice Isn’t Dead is by turns heartfelt, uncanny, odd, funny, scary as hell and quietly meditative. Like the best of the medium’s horror offerings (The Magnus Archives, Old Gods of Appalachia, The Black Tapes), Alice Isn’t Dead’s true talent lies in the way it sustains its own underlying tension from episode to episode. It’s a neat trick, especially considering its highly episodic nature. But the folks at Night Vale Presents know what they’re doing, and they really know how to unnerve and scare when the story calls for it (oh god, the Thistle Man). If you’re looking for something new to keep you company on the road and get under your skin, Alice Isn’t Dead might just be the trip you’ve been waiting for.

small-cover Wolf Creek [2005 film, 2016-2017 TV show]

Oh, Mick Taylor, where do we even start with you, you weird, sick fuck? Maybe let’s just start with the facts:

Mick lives alone in the far reaches of the Australian outback. Mick owns a tow truck. Mick really likes killing people.

Loosely based on the real-life Aussie serial killer Ivan Milat, Wolf Creek is the story of three innocent backpackers who buy a shitty third-hand car and set off into the outback sunset for a trip into the wild that goes horribly, horribly wrong. First, they end up mysteriously stranded… and then they encounter Mick. Which is when everything gets so, so much worse.

Whereas the original film (and its 2013 sequel, which, full transparency here, I wasn’t super-hot on) focuses primarily on Mick and his predilections for murder, mayhem, and generally being the worst human animal imaginable, the 2015 show flips the script a bit and, in my opinion, is made all the better for it. No spoilers here, but despite the fact that Wolf Creek (or the cackling serial killer that lies waiting at its heart) never gave a single shit about consequences, once you look past the bloodshed and mayhem, the show is—in some way—a really interesting discussion of accountability.

That said, if you’re looking for scares that are ultimately supernatural in nature, as the saying goes, this ain’t it. As a franchise, Wolf Creek is all about human atrocities, and Mick is about as unrepentant and gleefully psychopathic a human as they come, and Mick makes the horror void-dark and relenting. What Jaws did for swimming and Psycho did for showers, Wolf Creek is a perfect advertisement for why you should never, ever trust the friendly strangers you meet on the road.

small-cover Lost Highways, edited by D. Alexander Ward

Some people might say it’s cheating a little bit to include an anthology with so many standout stories on a list like this. I say that those people should write their own list, because Lost Highways is a stone killer all the way through.

Sporting some of the best goddamned writers working in horror today (including Damien Angelica Walters, Lisa Kroger, Richard Thomas, Orrin Grey and so many more), Lost Highways is an embarrassment of riches for anyone looking for a good scare taking place on the road. The tales contained within are thoughtful, funny, sad, contemplative, but most importantly, legitimately frightening. Road trips have never been scarier than in the deft hands of these astonishing storytellers.

Like all great anthologies, it’s hard to pick just one standout, but for my money, scary road stories don’t get much better than Richard Thomas’ "Requital". It’s a mean, suffocating piece of work that never lets up, never allows the reader a moment of relief. To share too much about the story itself would spoil some of the magic that it keeps hidden away in its all-too-brief pages, but suffice to say that much like Graysen, its doomed-and-damned main character, once "Requital" has got you in its clutches, it’s got you for good and all.

small-cover The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich

There are few authors in this world that can match Grace Krilanovich’s talent for slithering, hypnotic prose, hallucinatory imagery and sheer what-the-fuck-itude, and it’s a good thing, because twelve years after its publication, The Orange Eats Creeps is still a mind-melting punch to the throat in all the best ways.

While ostensibly the story of a hedonistic, id-driven teenage vampire that haunts the lonely back highways of the Pacific Northwest with likeminded monsters in search of her missing foster sister, The Orange Eats Creeps is about so much more than it seems. Replete with vandalism, chaos, drug abuse and a surprising connection to a member of the Donner party, getting a hold on what’s happening on the page takes real effort, but the end result is something akin to an out-of-body experience.

Fair warning, this book probably isn’t for everybody. It’s too dense, too weird, too phantasmagoric and insane for a light Sunday read. This isn’t a pleasure cruise around town, this is a journey unto itself, a blighted road trip through rocky, beautiful, jagged language and jigsaw plotting toward an unknown (but most likely completely deranged) destination. Working your way through The Orange Eats Creeps is a feat. It takes work. But for those willing to persist and see the journey through to the last page, there are horrors and wonders enough to sate even the most jaded of horror fans. Grace Krilanovich is in a class all by herself.

small-cover Hall of Fame mention: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), directed by Tobe Hooper

There’s no way to talk about fictional trips gone very, very wrong without at least mentioning the psychopathic great-granddaddy of them all.

You know the story by now: In 1974, Sally Hardesty, her brother Franklin and a small group of their friends set off on a road trip across Texas to investigate her grandfather’s grave after hearing reports of a string of local grave robberies. However, the trip’s soon interrupted by a strange, violent hitchhiker, a man in a mask made of human leather, and the rest of their depraved, murderous, cannibalistic family living deep in the heart of Texas. Mayhem and madness ensue.

Like Wolf Creek (itself a direct descendent of Texas Chain Saw’s insanity), the scares that lie in wait at the impromptu end of Sally and company’s journey are purely human—not that you’d exactly be able to guess it right off the bat. The movie is utterly hallucinatory in nature, a sunbaked fever dream (fever nightmare?) that never really lets you catch your breath or figure out which way is up.

To this day, it’s so wild Tobe Hooper actually made a point to hold back on the on-screen bloodshed because he was hoping for a PG rating(!), because looking back at it now, there’s no way this flick would have ever scored anything but a hard R. The end-product is too intense, too overwhelming, too much of a total sensory overload. To this day, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so entirely banana-pants fucking bonkers, I legitimately have a hard time recommending it to anybody who’s just starting to explore what horror has in store. Classic of the genre or not, this flick is still just as powerful as it was back in ‘74, like hundred-and-ninety-proof moonshine buried away in the deepest parts of some root cellar, waiting to be dug up again.

But that’s kind of what makes it magic.

And with the next installment (a direct sequel to the 1974 original, featuring the return of Sally Hardesty!) now out on Netflix, there’s never been a better time for folks who have never seen the original to go back and find out where it all started.

Horror DNA would like to thank Matthew for sharing this with us. Make sure you pick up his latest book by clicking one of the links below!

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