Red Asphalt: Examining Road Horror

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the role of vehicles became highly important. Serving as a symbol of freedom, one can simply get behind the wheel and control your destiny by roaming the open highways, Joining the ranks of celebrated wanderers like Jack Kerouac. However, these liminal byways and ley lines that connect us to the rest of the world are also capable of leading danger directly to us. One wrong turn can guide a driver directly to their own doom. It comes as no surprise that so many filmmakers hit the pavement for inspiration when it comes to their horror movies. Personally, I have developed a healthy fear of vehicles being raised by a long line of mechanics. So buckle up, as we assess a variety of horror tropes associated with car culture.

The Twilight Zone ep.134 “You Drive” 1964

Picking Up Strangers

Hitchhiking, whether by circumstance or lifestyle, is a classic trope in horror. Life on the road is dangerous. The vulnerability of needing a lift to civilization and the gamble of peril we place ourselves in when someone stops. Or a good Samaritan pulls over to help a stranded commuter with the best of intentions that may or may not pave the road to hell. When was the last time you invited death into your car?

1953’s The Hitch-Hiker is American film noir shot through the eyes of a woman, director Ida Lupino. Serving as an early entry in road horror, it follows 2 fishing buddies on a trip to Mexico. Picking up a hitchhiker that happens to be a spree killer, the men are terrorized and humiliated by their captor on the lam. The movie was inspired by events surrounding the real-life mass murderer, Billy Cook. What followed is a string of hitchhiking thriller movies, though 1986’s The Hitcher sticks out (its thumb) the most. A young man driving from Chicago to San Diego picks up a roadside traveler, hoping it would help keep him awake. Instead, he’s stalked and tormented by a serial killer, thriving on the fringes of society and evading capture. The very reason your mother tells you not to pick anyone up. Of course, not all who wander the highways are murderers looking for a ride, some sit behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer. The granddaddy of the road horror chase is Steven Spielberg’s 1971 Duel. The script was adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story. The inspiration of which came from a personal experience of being tailgated by a trucker the same day Kennedy was assassinated. An influential cult thriller of emasculation and gas lighting, Duel follows a salesman antagonized by a tanker truck on a business trip. The film established Spielberg as a director and lead a convoy of entries in a subgenre of anonymous truckers terrorizing commuters. The best representation is 2001’s Joy Ride. A cheesy but thrilling road horror of friends driving cross country. Making crank calls on a CB radio, they decide to have a little fun with a trucker who happens to be a psychopath.

“Thanks for the ride, lady!”

Hitchhikers and truckers have their supernatural counterparts. Four lane folklore shared at truck stops and roadside diners across the globe. Ghostly hitchhikers are picked up by motorists, only to vanish without explanation from the car seat. Variations have been traced as far back as the 1870s, Resurrection Mary being more modernly recognizable. On the flip side of the coin are travelers picked up by truckers, only to discover that they hitched a ride with the dead. “Phantom 309” is a spoken folk song about a trucker that gives a lift to a stranded wanderer, who later discovers his ride was a spirit. Based on a true event, different variations of the story circulated in modern culture including Large Marge.

Haunt My Ride

Though television had its first evil car in an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1964, the first movie was 1977’s The Car. A seemingly possessed vehicle stalks and runs down the residents of a sleepy desert town. The car itself is a customized Lincoln Continental with blacked out windows, no plates, no handles, and no driver. Though never referenced, it bears a similar appearance to the Soviet Union’s GAZ Volga. Only manufactured in black, this model was the center of urban legends across Europe. The Black Volga, an evil vehicle kidnapping adults and children alike. Some versions claim the Volga is possessed while others insist it’s driven by the secret police, priests, or Satan himself. The most widely recognized subject of paranormal road horror is Stephen King’s 1983 novel, Christine. Followed with a film adaptation directed by John Carpenter, in less than a year. Awkward teen buys a Plymouth Fury as a fixer-upper, transitioning to manhood and automotive spirit possession. Themes of Arnie’s unnatural love for his car was further explored in the film and may have been provoked by J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash. Though neither can compare to Isaac Asimov’s 1953 short story, “Sally”.

Though the vehicle as a vessel for disturbed souls or infernal imps remains constant in the ever-evolving road horror trope. The film The Toybox gives the audience a RV camper containing the spirit of a serial killer. Loosely inspired by the real-life events surrounding David Parker Ray, better known as the “Toybox Killer”. A man who had converted a tractor trailer into a soundproof torture chamber. China’s 2008 film Ju-On Car (Killer Car) puts the disembodied soul of a crash victim under the hood. Making the car sentient and angry. Even the time traveling Delta 88 from the Evil Dead franchise is prone to demonic possession in season 2 of Ash VS The Evil Dead. South Korea must have a problem with undead Ubers prowling city streets at night. In the road horror comedy, Gongpo Taxi (Terror Taxi), a young cabbie is killed in a hit & run accident. Only to return as a phantom taxi driver doomed to haunt the roads. Along the way he meets others like him that actually enjoy their work of terrorizing humans in ghost rides. 1986’s The Wraith follows a teenager murdered by car racing street-toughs. Returning to this world for vengeance with an invulnerable Turbo Interceptor. Super Hybrid is an Australian sci-fi road horror film about man-eating, shape shifters. Having studied humanity’s obsession with car culture, they choose a vehicular form to stay at the top of the food chain. Killdozer! the sci-fi/horror novella by Theodore Sturgeon. Originally published in Astounding magazine in 1944. An ancient alien energy is unearthed at a construction site in which it possesses a Caterpillar D7 bulldozer, affectionately referred to as Daisy Etta. The 1974 film of the same name features an unearthed meteorite that possessed the bulldozer and joys rides on a murder spree. Thus, bringing us to more science fiction elements of road horror.

The evil GRX engine. Speed Racer “The Fastest Car on Earth Part I” 1967 

Dystopian Driving

Too many times popular culture has been warned about The End coming in a cloud of dust and exhaust. The Mad Max film franchise and Tank Girl comics reinforce this apocalyptic vision of the future. However, Maximum Overdrive is an excellent unconventional apocalypse film for those nostalgic for Y2K. Adapting his own short story “Trucks”, Stephen King directed this movie of the Earth crossing the tail of a comet, resulting in all machinery becoming sentient and destroying human life. A small band of blue-collar humans are trapped in a truck stop, hunted down by big rigs one by one. The premise was reimagined in 1997 with the USA original tv-movie, Trucks which runs closer to King’s short story.

The punksploitation comedy, Repo Man feels like an alternate timeline. Sci-fi Western meets road flick set in the Radioactive Reagan-era, a rookie repo man gets mixed up with car thieves and a UFO cult. All the while hunting down a mad scientist’s Chevy Malibu hauling nuclear cargo. The synchronicities in the background remind the audience that society is about as insignificant as a plate of shrimp. In another antiquated future, bloody motorsports are a high form of entertainment in Roger Corman’s Deathrace 2000. Based on the IB Melchior short story “The Racer”, this brutal film has a totalitarian regime running the country. Holding a transcontinental race where points are rewarded for running down pedestrians, politics collide with reality tv and population control. Australia offers a wide variety of retro futuristic road horror cinema.

1974’s The Cars That Ate Paris was never intended to be a not-too-distant-future film but surely wouldn’t surprise anyone in current times. Set in the rural town of Paris, an isolated community with an economy completely based on car crashes. Greaser punk youths & their customized doom-mobiles set fatal traps for tourists passing through. Wreckage is scavenged for barter, from luggage to auto parts in a manner reminiscent of The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Survivors are subjected to lobotomy experiments in the town asylum or adopted by townsfolk to replenish numbers. The concept was lightly revisited in 1986’s Dead End Drive-In, where cars are a commodity in a collapsed economy. Roving gangs of car-punks and tow companies scavenge parts and drive-in theaters are converted to concentration camps. Killing Cars is 80s cyberpunk from West Germany. Neon-noir thriller of corporate espionage trying to stop an environmentally friendly car from reaching the masses. Complete with violent squatter punks, it takes the idea of road horror from monster cars to monstrous corporations. 12 years later would come the real-life inventor, Stanley Meyer. He claimed to have created a water powered motor by equipping a dune-buggy with a fuel cell that split water atoms to burn hydrogen and release oxygen. Mysteriously, he died in a parking lot in 1998 with the last dying words “they poisoned me”. His water-powered car was stolen one week after his death.


The bubble of security within a vehicle can quickly dissolve into a mere facade within unconventional road horror films. A mother and son are forced to take shelter in a Ford Pinto in 1983’s film adaptation of Cujo. A suffocating prison of temporary safety, the same scene was set in 2016’s The Monster. A mother and daughter cower in their car from a beast in the woods about to devour them like a can of sardines. Let’s not dismiss the suspenseful sibling spree in Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Certain to suck the air from your lungs for the film’s most iconic 15 minutes.

Park It

While the car is a tool of liberation it also can place its driver in a position of vulnerability. Whether a couple on lover’s lane is approached by a maniac with a hook or an innocent drive through the countryside quickly turns into a chainsaw massacre nightmare. The open freedom that comes with traveling brings a terrifying unknown around every curve. So as gas prices continue to soar during the peak of road trip season, perhaps we should rethink our relationships with automobiles. Buckle up and drive safe.

Further Reading

Trucker Ghost Stories: And Other True Tales of Haunted Highways, Weird Encounters, and Legends of the Road by Annie Wilder

Splatterhouse: History and Inspiration Behind The Classic Arcade Game

Before there was a video game content rating system, the creators of Dig Dug and Galaga were blazing trails with a different kind of game, dripping with graphic content. In the late 80’s, Namco unleashed the gore-fest known as Splatterhouse into arcades and home ports. Setting the cornerstone for the future of horror gaming and on-screen violence.

“May be inappropriate for young children…and cowards.”

While horror games had been churned out for years on home computers and consoles, scarier aspects were left to the player’s imagination. The depictions of violence and gore in gaming had a very limited scope. That is until the Japanese game developer, Namco, decided to push arcade boundaries as well as break their own mold. Namco was best known, at the time, for the creation of cute and cartoony games like Pac-Man and Mappy. In November of 1988, under the direction of Shigeru Yokoyama, the Splatterhouse arcade game was released. Influenced by popular Western slasher cinema and parental outrage, Namco was counting on shock factor to bring players to the joystick. Unlike other side-scrolling brawler games, Splatterhouse was hyper-focused on detailed gore and graphic violence. Purposely drawing attention to the gruesome content resulted in the arcade cabinet’s immediate success in Japan and Europe. A slower cult following developed in the United states as Splatterhouse wasn’t widely distributed to Western arcades. Lore surrounding the game claim’s its content stirred controversy resulting in a ban while others believe it was a copyright infringement. Home ports that followed for TurboGrafx-16 and MegaDrive would bring a censored version to wider audiences with toned down splatter and character changes.


The original Splatterhouse arcade game didn’t offer much of a backstory. Only presenting the player with an opening sequence of two figures seeking shelter from a rainstorm in a dark mansion. It would be 1990’s home port that would expand on the game’s plot. In the instruction manual, the figures running through the woods are identified as Rick and Jennifer. College sweethearts and parapsychology students that have traveled to West Mansion for a research project. The West Mansion is locally known as “Splatterhouse”, rumored to contain mutated abominations created in a lab by the homeowner, Dr. Henry West. As they enter the mansion and the door slams behind them, Jennifer screams bloody murder and a game over screen appears. But death is only the beginning. Rick awakens from his own unknown demise in a dungeon, resurrected by the “Terror Mask”. An ancient artifact containing a spirit that grants super-human strength to whomever puts it on. Attaching itself to Rick, he is transformed into a rampaging monster out to save Jennifer and take revenge on West Mansion.

A 2-page advertisement for the Turbo-Grafx 16 port was released as a mini comic of Splatterhouse’s origins. Featuring Rick and Jennifer entering the West Mansion, being attacked, and the Terror Mask fusing with our anti-hero.

A Real Video Game Nasty

For any fan of contemporary slasher figures and horror cinema, the main appeal of the Splatterhouse arcade game is guessing who’s who. A game within a game of spotting all the references in weapons, enemies, and backgrounds. Most are quick to point out the resemblance of Rick’s mask to Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th franchise. Beyond the beloved horror icons of the 80s, the concept of a haunted mask hadn’t yet found its true voice. One of the first horror film entries is the 1965 Japanese supernatural drama, Onibaba. A lost samurai passes on the curse of a jealous demoness with the use of a Hannya mask. Almost 2 decades later we would be reintroduced to mask horror with a disconnected sequel to John Carpenter’s best-known movie. Halloween III: Season of The Witch’s plot was a collision between tech and the occult at the Silver Shamrock mask factory. Italy would step up to the under used trope in 1985 with Lamberto Bava’s Dèmoni. Giving audiences a plague of demonic possession when an ancient mask is tied in with a horror movie promotion.

The second most notable horror reference in the franchise is our villain, Dr. Henry West. Highly regarded in the parapsychology community as a brilliant man, his secretive experiments within his mansion have unleashed Lovecraftian horrors on the world. A direct homage to H.P. ‘s 1922 novelette Herbert West-Reanimator and the 1985 horror comedy film that followed. But it is Lovecraft’s obsession with old dark houses that gives the Splatterhouse arcade game its namesake. Short stories such as From Beyond, The Dreams in the Witch-House, and The Shunned House all offer a residence where either mad science or occult ritual take place. Creating massive rifts of trauma that transform the very structure into a living abomination itself. Splatterhouse’s West Mansion is not only filled with hideous monstrosities but actually births them into reality.

Several other horror films of the 80s are remarked on lending inspiration to the bad guys that come for Rick. Deadly Spawn slugs and Poltergeist mirror reflections are mixed in with xenomorph chest bursting and Cronenbergian fetus mutants. The chainsaw-armed boss called “Biggyman” could have borrowed again from Jason on Friday the 13th II, with a burlap bag over his head. Or it might have been a reference to the Phantom in The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

The majority of the Splatterhouse arcade game’s tributes fall under 1987’s Evil Dead II. The final act of Stage II is an entire room and its contents shuddering at the presence of Rick. Attacked by flying furniture and squaring off with a hung portrait flapping about. Stage V gives you pools of sentient severed hands crawling about and a few giving the finger. But it is the moment when Rick encounters Jennifer laid out on a sofa, that leads me to emphasize Evil Dead II. She awakens to transform into a hideous monstrosity that reminds me of Ted Raimi as a Deadite Granny. Rick has no choice but to kill his own girlfriend, in an anguished moment once shared with Ash as he chainsawed Linda.  

“It begins again…!”

The success of the Splatterhouse arcade game in Japan was followed in 1989 with the first and lesser-known sequel of the franchise. Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti was a Japanese exclusive for the Famicom system. More of a cutesy parody of the original, the graphic violence was removed and it was marketed to a younger audience. Wanpaku Graffiti deviated from the original storyline and featured even more horror pop-culture references that made the game downright silly, at times. Fans continue to debate whether or not it was intended to be a prequel to the original game. In 1992, Namco released Splatterhouse 2 for Sega Genesis. The game’s plot would pick up 3 months after the events of the Splatterhouse arcade game. Rick plagued with nightmares and tempted by the spirit of the Terror Mask to return to West Mansion and revive Jennifer’s soul. 1993 followed with Splatterhouse 3 on Sega, with the disruption of happily ever after. Rick and Jennifer are now married with a child as Dr. West’s horrors once again invade their lives. 2010’s Splatterhouse is a retelling of the original story for X360 and PS3. Updating the 16-bit world to a modern-day bloodbath that is packed with horror reference easter eggs. Following in the arcade cabinet’s footsteps of valuing blood n’ guts over gameplay, the reboot is incredibly entertaining for a gore-hound. In fact, the entire franchise is highly recommended to fans of retro horror gaming, if for nothing else than the nods to hack n’ slash cinema throughout each installment.  

A Putrid Pioneer of Horror Gaming

It may not have been the first horror game, but the Splatterhouse arcade game reshaped the genre. Giving the player the opportunity to be a Jason Voorhees knock-off that punches bats and chops levitating heads with a medieval axe. Namco reached new audiences with gruesomely detailed carnage and solid Eldritch elements; a formula still prevalent in modern horror games. Without Splatterhouse we may have never gotten Friday the 13th: The Game for PS4 and Xbox One.

“If coin-ops could give out smells, this one would reek of an abattoir.”

In a 1989 Splatterhouse review in Computers and Video Games magazine

Further Reading

Splatterhouse fan-site “The West Mansion” 

Splatterhouse arcade emulator (in browser)