Oh, you are so far from home.Eli Roth, Hostel
I’m a horror lover, and someone who loves critical media analysis, and I will always love analyzing scary movies. I was hoping to write more about travel before Covid put an end to that, so I figured I could write about how travel is depicted in my favourite genre! There’s basically a whole subgenre of horror based on travellers getting hacked to bits on a European gap year or American road trip. This is only one of many ways that travel is represented in the genre; I want to have a look at all the ways that our travel anxieties are twisted into horror elements.
Don’t Trust the Locals
As I mentioned, there’s a whole subgenre of horror movies where travellers are terrorized and killed by hostile locals. The epitome of this kind of movie is Eli Roth’s 2005 film Hostel, in which backpackers in (a highly fictionalized) Slovakia are kidnapped and sold to an elite group of “thrill seekers”: torture and murder enthusiasts. Local girls seduce and drug travellers in order to get a cut of the money. People working at hostels around Europe are part of it, driving people to Slovakia through their travel recommendations for “desperate and beautiful women”. As an American abroad, you can’t trust anyone.
2009’s The Human Centipede uses this trope as well, with two female backpackers seeking roadside help from a local German man,who is revealed to be a crazed doctor who seeks to medically torture them and a Japanese tourist. There is a lot of thematic intent in the film surrounding WW2 and post-war international tensions and perceptions (explored by Dead Meat on their podcast), and the villain playing straight into American expectations of “Evil German”. Like Hostel, this movie has a local that our protagonists want to or have to trust, who are revealed to be evil and dangerous, preying on the vulnerability of backpackers and travellers in Europe.
However, it’s not just 2000s torture porn that evokes the dangers of trusting the locals. 2019’s Midsommar threatens us with the traditional practices of a Swedish cult. We follow a group of Americans who are invited to visit their foreign friend’s home (the Hårga) for a once-in-a-lifetime cultural event. Initially, they feast, take psychedelic drugs, learn the local culture, and enjoy themselves. By the end of the film, the “cultural event” they were brought to the Hårga to experience is revealed to be a human sacrifice of “outsiders”, along with some of their own cult members. Unlike the previous two movies, the “villains” of Midsommar have no ill-intent for their victims – they are simply partaking in a rare cultural tradition that unfortunately involves the inclusion of foreigners.
Regardless of their intent, locals in travel horror pose a threat to travellers, and cannot be trusted.
Okay, so maybe not every single local is a danger to you. Sometimes, they do want to help you. 2004’s American remake of The Grudge retains its Japanese setting with an American cast and utilizes the English-Japanese language barrier to create a sense of isolation for the protagonist.
This idea is established early in the film, when our main character Karen has to navigate Japan alone. Her difficulty navigating Tokyo and communicating with the locals sets up her “otherness” to isolate her within her new community. As the horror of the Saeki House curse develops, the language barrier becomes more of an obstacle as she struggles to explain the supernatural happenings to local investigators. She does not understand the ghost stories and superstitions that have manifested around her. Though Karen is not in danger because she is a foreigner, her foreignness puts her at greater risk.
The idea of being in danger and not being able to get help is a fear that is grounded in reality, and a very realistic travel anxiety. If something goes wrong, where do you go for help? Who can you rely on when you don’t have a safety net in a foreign country? What do you do when you can’t speak the language?
Imagine that you have a health crisis and need medical treatment, but there is a language barrier between you and the doctor. You may not be able to communicate what’s wrong to them, or they may not be able to explain the treatment you will need in a way you can understand. Though the focus of The Grudge is on supernatural horror, I think that the inclusion of a language barrier was a very clever choice; an additional element of a very real fear which heightens the danger of the situation.
There’s a reason American travellers will sport Canadian flags on their backpacks – they don’t have the best reputation abroad. Often in travel horror, Americans are depicted as culturally disinterested, prefering to use the world as their personal playground. The backpackers in Hostel are in Amsterdam for the legal weed, nightlife, and hot European girls. It’s not subtle – even the characters are aware of their flawed approach to travel:
“Did we come all the way to Europe just to smoke pot? We did that everyday when we were in college. Why don’t we go check out a museum or something?”
Spoiler alert: They don’t go to the museum.
It is the commodification of foreign nations (and the draw of the mythic “hot Eastern European girl who is into freaky shit”) that dooms the American tourists. I’ve read some interesting analysis on the film as a response to 9/11 and America’s fear of foreign nations – particularly the former Soviet Bloc – that they had made enemies with through “World Policing”. Roth has responded to Slovakia’s less than happy response to their depiction by explaining that “my film is not a geographical work but aims to show Americans’ ignorance of the world around them”.
Midsommar also uses these same ideas of Americans seeking hedonistic experiences, as wel as appropriating foreign culture. For some of the visiting group, the draw to the Hårga is the psychedelic drugs and free love atmosphere, treated akin to a music festival and fitting in line with the ideas presented in Hostel. However, several of the American guests are anthropology grad students, and they seek to study and publish information on the previously undocumented culture – a more literal commodification of foreign practices. Both manners of consumption prove fatal. The only visiting American who survives to the end of the film is the one who absorbs and involves herself selflessly in the foreign culture, for better or worse.
Don’t Lose Your Buddy
This trope is a classic in the horror genre, but makes extra sense when incorporated into travel horror. Losing your travel companions in a foreign place is a terrifying concept that is, like the language barrier, grounded in reality. This trope is most evident in Hostel, when the protagonists travel companions disappear one by one, and he has no way of finding them, save for leaving a note at the hostel they’d been staying at. Obviously, this fear is a bit less relevant since most people will have cell phones to stay in contact and find each other in case of separation, but the idea of being separated from your travel partner with no way of contacting them is basically nightmare fuel.
People going missing while traveling is not an unfounded fear. Stories always circulate about backpackers disappearing under mysterious circumstances. This is practically a subgenre of truecrime/unsolved mysteries, and it’s a clever notion to expand upon these realistic fears in a horror context.
I find that the best horror expands upon real life anxieties. Hostile locals who won’t help at best, or are actively malicious at worst – maybe because of our nationality or “tourist” status. Being stuck in a situation where you don’t understand what is happening, or cannot communicate your needs due to a language barrier. Being separated from your travel group, with no way to find them. Going missing yourself. Horror movies prey upon our fears, and travelling can be full of scary hypotheticals and real life situations.
What are your biggest fears about travelling? I think mine are getting lost in a non-English speaking country, or missing a flight/train/bus (even though that’s happened to me before and it was fine!).
My absolute travel horror is/would be,.. never being able to see all the places that I want to see, and that is alot! I’ve been trapped in this country for 20 years, by way of creating my own kind of personal prison (kinda like The Sphere), letting life get in the way, creating excuses, bad time bad time etc. I finally decided to renew my lost & damaged passport, with a fresh, new, blue one, this year… But then Covid appears,.. Sigh! Covid 2 and who knows, Covid III Revenge of the Covid? I hope not. My absolute living Nightmare, would be to never travel again, let alone not visiting any of the places on my bucket list. Well,.. if we can get over the plague that’s ruining everything today, I’m going to start dictating my life, instead of letting life dictate to me, I wanna go places, I have places to be! Interesting blog for an interesting soul. Cheers!
Thanks for the thoughtful reply and kind words!! And I feel your pain It does feel like my own personal horror that covid happened during my years living abroad – this was meant to be a time for travel and instead I’m stuck in my flat. Ugh. Trying to make the best of it and explore the city I live in, but it is undeniably frustrating. Hopefully we both can put our passports to good use soon! 🤞🏻