Channel surfers, beware: as you flip through this year’s Halloween fright fests, remember that the genre’s most enduring villain isn’t the homicidal maniac—Michael Myers and his rubber mask or Freddy Krueger and his iconic striped sweater. It’s the ghastly wilderness, the dark recesses of forests, canyons, and swamps that shelter all manner of big-screen evil, from the slimy Gill-man in Creature from the Black Lagoon to the hideous albino cave dwellers of The Descent.
Which raises the question: Just what’s so nightmarish about the natural world? For starters, you’re on your own, bub. As the tagline of low-budget Deliverance rip-off Hunter’s Blood notes: “Out there, no one hears you scream.” (Itself a rip-off of Alien, incidentally.) You’re unlikely to be stalked and terrorized by deranged beasts or ax-wielding lunatics in a well-lit, heavily populated area, where such sights tend not to escape notice. There’s a reason Jason Takes Manhattan is the second-lowest grossing of the twelve Friday the 13th movies. Because why the hell would Jason go to Manhattan?
In the best of the genre, though, the wilderness is the very source of the terror. If you’re not unnerved by the lingering shots of the Rockies in The Shining or the impassive Wasatch slopes in 2010’s underrated, trapped-on-a-chairlift thriller Frozen, then you’re probably the kind of person who gets killed first. Movies like The Blair Witch Project and Open Water don’t even have villains per se, just eerie landscapes in which doomed protagonists are consigned to suffer. Wes Craven could have named his 1977 classic about a family stranded in the Nevada high country after the mutant cannibals who stalk them. Instead, he took one look at the grim scenery and called it The Hills Have Eyes. Spend too much time out there and you’ll become one of them—the violent rednecks, the godless creatures feasting on tourists.
That’s not to say that every film succeeds in making the outdoors frightening. There’s 1972’s Night of the Lepus, in which killer bunnies wreak havoc on cheesily rendered scale-model towns in the Sonoran Desert. And in 1979’s Prophecy—a must-see, B-minus flick about a mutant grizzly bear in Maine—an ill-fated camper is hurled against a boulder, his mummy bag exploding in a ludicrous display of feathers. Of course, the schlock is half the fun. After all, out there, no one can hear you snort, either.
Man vs. Wild
This is what happens when you go up against nature. —Reid Singer
Jurassic Park (1993)
After Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) deactivates the park’s security system in an attempt to steal dinosaur embryos, he’s attacked by one of the park’s attractions as he tries to make his getaway in a highly visible red striped jeep.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
When a rich executive (Samuel L. Jackson) gives a pep talk about how the group’s survival depends on working together to outwit a cognitively enhanced mako shark, he’s interrupted midsentence—by the shark.
The Grey (2011)
Brogue-tongued badass John Ottway (Liam Neeson) hatches a plan to protect an Arctic drilling team from an alpha wolf. “We’re going to get a large branch and sharpen the end of it, and we’re going to shove it up this thing’s ass,” he proposes. They all die.