What exactly is Western Horror?
Well, simply put, Western Horror is the combination of Westerns and Horror. Movies or books set in the 1800’s with more than their fair share of gore, creepiness, or monsters. They are also referred to as Horror Westerns, and Weird West. There are also Gothic Westerns, and Noir-Westerns. A time before mobile phones, before journeying from one town to the next was easy, and when most things had to be settled there and then. If you were going to survive it was entirely up to you. You had to be capable of getting on with things, and being practical, no matter what came at you. Because help was, most likely, too far away.
When asked, Professor Google said this about Westerns:
a film, television drama, or novel about cowboys in western North America, set especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
And this about Horror:
a literary or film genre concerned with arousing feelings of horror.
So we can define a Western Horror as:
a film, television drama, or novel about cowboys, set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that arouse feelings of horror.
I’ve emitted the ‘in western North America’ part as I have seen movies that would fit this catagory filmed and produced in other locations. I’m sure not everyone would agree with me but it’s what I’m going with. And whilst the industry is disinclined to name a horror a horror if it can get away with placing it in another genre, you’ll find that some of the best Western Horrors are hidden in plain sight.
Earliest Western Horror Movies
Yup, they’ve been doing them for a while. The movie industry began way back in the 1890’s when studios began to be established. But before that, the first true motion picture was created in 1872 when Edward Muybridge wanted to study the motion of a galloping horse. He placed twelve cameras on a race track to take pictures as the horse passed them. But the first films were little more than a minute long. That is until the 1900’s. One of the most easily recognised and remembered movies was filmed -The Great Train Robbery- in 1903.
According to industry myth, the first movie made in Hollywood was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man in 1914 when its director decided last-minute to shoot in Los Angeles, but In Old California, an earlier film by DW Griffith, had been filmed entirely in the village of Hollywood in 1910. – Benjamin Hale, from The History of Hollywood
During the Golden Age of Hollywood one of the first Western Horror’s emerged:
1956 Western Horror Movie – The Beast of Hollow Mountain
This is a movie about the legend of a Dinosaur living in a hollow mountain in Mexico. An American Cowboy discovers his cattle are being eaten by a humongous dinosaur. A stop-motion animated dinosaur. I always loved the stop-motion movies. Using a number of new techniques the studio also released a version in Spanish at the same time. It was later remade in 1969 and called The Beast of Gwangi.
1957 Western Horror Movie – El Jinete sin Cabeza
This film was first released in 1957, a Mexican film that featured a phantom hero, skull-masked killers, a disembodied hand, and a corpse that wouldn’t stay in the grave. This movie was followed by a further two to make up a trilogy – La Marca de Satanás, and La Cabeza de Pancho Villa.
Part of the Universal Horror series but one I’m told they try to pretend didn’t happen. Which is a shame considering they’re redoing the Universal Monsters. This is the first Vampire Western. Set in a town where women are dying from an unknown malady. A mysterious gunfighter has just arrived in town, one who the towns people don’t know is a vampire, and only the Preacher can save them.
Western Horror Books – From Pulp Fiction to Stephen King
For those who prefer their horror bound in paper, there are plenty of western horror books out there. When pulp fiction magazines came to the market in the 1920’s Western fiction became very popular. This of course, included a great number of Weird West stories – those delightful tales which coupled a Western with something weird. Not always horror and not always good, Pulp Fiction was a new way of writing with quite specific rules. But like all good ideas Western Horror stories were not confined to Pulp Fiction. Several writers have taken the genre much further.
(1982) Western Horror Novel – The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
Originally published in 1982 this book has seen a resurgence of late with the upcoming movie and TV series (early stages). There are so many books in this series. And so much detail, that there are even books on the world itself. Reading companions if you like.
A loners journey into good and evil, the last gunslinger pursues the man in black across a desolate landscape.
(1986) Western Horror Novel – Dead in the West
Whenever I ask for a recommendation for a western horror this is one of the names that’s screamed at me. So I’m happily passing on that recommendation to you guys 🙂 (He’s responsible for Hap and Leonard – have you seen the TV series yet?)
Mud creek has a little issue with the dead rising. Other than that it’s a thriving community with a lovely cafe, saloon, livery stables, and church. Maybe what they did to that medicine man was a bad idea though.
(1999) Western Horror Novel – The Haunted Mesa
With his knowledge of Indian Lore and Mysticism he brings this tale of adventure in the Southwest. An investigator learns of the extraordinary legacy of the Anasazi, who disappeared centuries ago.
There are many more books in the Western Horror genre to explore, and there’s even a western horror sub-genre on kindle but you’ll have to do a little digging to find it. Kindle > Literature and Fiction > Horror > Westerns
Recent Western Horror Films
From Ethan Hawke to Quentin Tarantino you’ve probably seen more western horrors than you realise. And there has been a resurgence of western horror movies and TV shows recently. With more on the way – like The Dark Tower, and Westworld Season 2. Wet your appetite with these:
Starring Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson this movie is more Western than Horror, until they find the cannibal tribe holding the settlers prisoner.
I really enjoyed this movie – you can read my review here.
(1990) Western Horror Movie – Tremors
Always one of my favourites back when I was a young ‘un. I never thought of it as a western as it was set in a more present day time period. They had phones, even if they couldn’t use them (those kind that attached to the wall with a really long cord). But it was isolated, Kevin Bacon wore a cowboy hat and boots, there were horses, and these really, really big, hungry, worms.
The few people in the town have to come together to survive the attacking hungry monsters. Help is just not going to get there in time. With the upcoming TV series this might be worth a rewatch – thats my excuse anyway 😉
And if you’re willing to forgo the time stamp for something that is essentially a western in the modern day world, with a pretty decent amount of gore, try The Hollow Point – starring Patrick Wilson and Ian McShane. It’s not technically a horror but it’s dark and gritty and worth a look see.
Like my Cowboy Boots, Western Horror will never go out of style
At least as far as I’m concerned. Western horror has the grittiness of a good western, no mobiles (in the accurate time period setting), no cars (again, if it’s set in the 1800’s), and a strong sense of the main character or characters having to save themselves. There’s no easy way out. The American West was a dangerous and wild time to be alive, if you couldn’t survive you wouldn’t survive.
Then add a monster or two, a spook filled house where that’s the only shelter from the elements, or a bad guy hell bent on ignoring all civilised behaviours in favour of their own personal preferences for killing. And you’ve got yourself a gruesome, chilling, western horror.
I love that the film industry have been making more western horrors. And that they’re being remade as TV shows as well. I wonder who and what will be the first VR Western Horror? Perhaps we’re seeing a resurgence in Western Horror and Westerns because it’s time to remember that we can survive without someone coming to the rescue. We don’t need a superhero if we can save ourselves. Or maybe it’s because they’re it’s coolest damn genre around.