Between the coronavirus, the economy, and the impending election, there is much to be terrified of this Halloween. To send seasonal shivers down one’s spine, all one has to do is log on to Twitter or turn on cable news. But real-world fears are not nearly as fun as the ghosts, ghouls, monsters, and maniacs that we typically rely on for our October scaries. And that’s a shame. Personally, I find horror movies—and the demons, ghost brides, and undead in them—to be a delightful distraction from my 2020 anxieties.
Fortunately, there is a lot of horror out there with which I can distract myself these days during quarantine, from TV episodes to novels. And many of them have strong Texas connections. This list is far from comprehensive—I am not mentioning that chainsaw movie that everyone has seen, for one thing—but it is scary, and it is Texan. Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooo (said in ghost voice with spooky jazz hands).
Though I usually find Matthew McConaughey’s extremely symmetrical face and perfect drawl soothing, the man is more than capable of freaking me out, too. His performance in the film Killer Joe, for example, is haunting because of the malevolent stoicism he brought to the titular character. But aside from a mid-sized part in the 1994 straight-to-video sequel Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which also starred a not-yet-famous Renée Zellweger), Matthew’s only role in an honest-to-goodness horror film is 2001’s Frailty.
This is not a jump scare movie: it’s more of a psychological thriller about a young man (played by McConaughey) who shows up at the office of an FBI agent claiming to know the identity of a menacing serial murderer, the God’s Hand Killer. Fellow Texans Powers Boothe and Bill Paxton also star as the FBI agent and McConaughey’s mentally unstable father, respectively. Though I don’t know if I can say that the movie is actually good, it is extremely watchable–especially if you, like me, would pay up to fifteen dollars to watch Matthew McConaughey read the phone book.
Okay, in a sense, this movie is awful: The Strangers is so terrifying that it can ruin your ability to ever spend a night in the beautiful Texas Hill Country again. In the 2008 film, written and directed by Crowley native Bryan Bertino, Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler are vacationing in a cabin in the woods somewhere in central Texas when they are terrorized by a group of mysterious and violent strangers. The slasher thriller was filmed in South Carolina, but it has particularly Texan details that hit very close to home: when I first saw a scene in which Speedman and Tyler eat Blue Bell ice cream while listening to Merle Haggard, I screamed “this is too real!” before covering my eyes with a throw pillow. I have seen this movie only once, and I refuse to watch it a second time because it is so scary. But, uh, yeah, you should totally check it out.
It Comes at Night
I first saw It Comes at Night in the middle of the woods, when a group of us had piled into a bus outside of an Alamo Drafthouse and then drove to an undisclosed location on the far east side of Austin, where we watched the film via a projector on an inflatable movie screen. It was a delightfully creepy atmosphere to first experience Trey Edward Shults’s psychological horror flick, which is about a physically isolated family trying to survive in the woods when a mysterious virus sweeps the world, leaving not only death but also mistrust and terror in its wake.
I was sufficiently spooked that night. But when I rewatched it this week from the comfort of my own living room—where, thanks to a mysterious virus that has swept the world, I spend 90 percent of my time by myself—I was so much more horrified. It Comes at Night is perhaps not the right movie for those who want to fully escape the terror of our new normal, but it’s a beautiful film with compelling performances by Joel Edgerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Riley Keough, and it’s absolutely worth seeing.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown
There are two versions of this film, which is inspired by the late-1940s Texarkana “moonlight murders”: one released in 1976, and a reboot that came out in 2014. Both are plenty spooky, but the former is more cartoonish in a uniquely 1970s way—think lots of artfully placed fake blood and allusion to gore without actually showing it—and the latter is very much a product of the Blumhouse-dominated 2010s. The second iteration of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who hails from Laredo, is significantly more graphic and more intentionally campy (also with an Explosions in the Sky–reminiscent score clearly influenced by Friday Night Lights). You can really pick your poison here. Or, like me, you can watch both!
Road Kill Anthologies
In the preface to this anthology of horror short stories by Texas writers, editor E.R. Bills says, “There are some really talented horror writers around these parts.” He isn’t wrong. The first volume of the Road Kill collection (there are five in total) is full of spooks from writers like Joe Lansdale (an Edgar Award–winning author of many horror books), David Bowles, and many, many more. All five of the series are pretty cheap—the e-books range from $4 to $8—making for easily accessible and cost-effective frights.
A Cosmology of Monsters
Last year, Arlington native and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Shaun Hamill earned much acclaim for this Lovecraftian tale about a family, the Turners, who can see literal monsters: Stephen King even said he “loved it” and that “horror only works when we care for the people involved, and because we care for the Turners, their nightmare becomes ours.” The tale is nightmarish for sure, in a slow, simmering, and suspenseful way that tingles the spine. It’s also set in a fictional Texas town, Vandergriff, that Hamill says is based heavily on Arlington.
This book isn’t technically a horror tale, but it is absolutely horrifying nonetheless. Cormac McCarthy is no stranger to writing about monstrous villains (see Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men), but no McCarthy character has been more horrific than Blood Meridian’s “judge.” Possessing an almost supernatural love of violence, the judge is one of contemporary literature’s most haunting villains. The book itself is profoundly gruesome, so it’s a perfect thing to read on Halloween.
Monsterland, “Plainfield, Illinois”
Monsterland is the second anthology horror series Hulu has released as part of its annual “Huluween” programming. Ostensibly about spooky monsters, the series tells stories about serial killers, aliens, demons, and other creatures. But at its heart, the show is about how human beings can themselves be monstrous. Many of the episodes are great (make sure to check out former Dallasite Kaitlyn Dever in the premiere episode, “Port Fourchon, Louisiana”), but the show’s fifth teleplay, “Plainfield, Illinois,” is perhaps its most compelling, thanks to a heartbreaking performance by Texan Roberta Colindrez. Colindrez plays a successful Chicago-area lawyer who has been in a long-term relationship with a woman who suffers from bipolar disorder and no longer wants to live. I can’t reveal much more of the plot without spoiling it, but I will say the episode is equal parts tragic, funny, and spooky.
Unsolved Mysteries, “Washington Inside Murder”
I blew through the second season of this year’s Netflix Unsolved Mysteries reboot within 24 hours of its October 19 release. It certainly delivered, and my only complaint is that there were only six episodes to satiate me. One of them, “Washington Inside Murder,” covers the mysterious and highly creepy death of John P. Wheeler III, a Laredo native and Vietnam War vet who worked in George H.W. Bush’s presidential administration. Wheeler was found in a Delaware landfill with a fatal head wound on December 31, 2010, and his death was ruled a homicide but has never been solved. It’s a sad and true story, so I hesitate to recommend the episode as “enjoyable.” But if you’re looking for spooks, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more chilling.