Just like the rows of bagged candy at your grocery store, or the fountains of pumpkin spice latte at your coffee shop, you can’t escape Halloween once October hits. Not even here at The Radavist. Travis Engel has jumped on the spooky-season bandwagon with a list of scary movies (and one scary short film) that will strike a nerve for anyone who likes riding to the middle of nowhere…
I’m not what you’d call a horror “fan.” I do like good horror movies, but I like anything good. Hereditary, Paranormal Activity, and The Blair Witch Project were some of the most emotionally charged experiences I’ve ever had in a theater. Blair Witch hit especially hard because I knew what it was like to be lost in the woods in the dark. Most people probably don’t, which I’ve heard is why they like horror movies. A good jump-scare will get their blood pumping, even though they’re safe at home.
But when you regularly put yourself several hours from civilization, you expose yourself to at least some potential for real harm. Maybe it’s getting lost. Maybe it’s getting injured. Maybe it’s running out of water or food. Maybe it’s even encountering someone … or some-thing … that means you harm. I don’t think I’m the only cyclist who kinda likes that feeling. It adds something to a ride when, in a small way, you’re traveling through what is essentially hostile territory. You can’t just call an Uber if things go wrong. Even though it’s not quite like being chased by Jason Vorhees, it does get your blood pumping.
That’s why I think you’ll like these ten movies. Some of them aren’t “horror” in the traditional sense, but they all run on a type of dread that we all are familiar with. My criteria was pretty simple. The film had to be set primarily in nature, but it couldn’t stay in one spot. Traversal had to be a driving force for at least part of the movie. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any bicycle-related horror movies that met this criteria. But I think this type of fear is universal, no matter if you’re on foot, on hands and knees, or in a 1970 Plymouth Valiant.
This was Stephen Spielberg’s first full-length movie, and it’s not a stretch to say he was exercising some of the techniques he would perfect four years later in Jaws. At its heart, Duel is a monster movie. Traveling salesman, David Mann, is driving a small red sedan on a remote two-lane Mojave road, when a minor road-rage incident leads to a rusty soot-breathing semi truck chasing him across the desert’s many empty roads and its few dusty rest stops. Some of the scares build and land a lot like they would in a masked slasher movie, which is quite a feat when the masked slasher is an 18-wheeler.
But that’s exactly why this movie is so compelling from a cyclist’s perspective. Cars and trucks often do feel like faceless, unhinged killers. And the dynamic between the semi and that little red sedan feels uniquely familiar. The Plymouth Valiant was a modern, no-frills compact car. It was something that a meek salaryman like our protagonist would own, and something our villain wouldn’t respect if it dared cross his road. You’ve probably encountered drivers who feel that way about us. And although cell phones, alcohol, and reckless driving are far more common factors when a motorist kills a cyclist, the scenario in Duel may hit close to home.
It’s definitely a 70’s movie, and has its fair share of campy, low-budget vibes, but it’s a fascinating piece of culture with a cinematic final showdown. Especially if you’re a fan of Jaws, or Spielberg in general, I’d recommend it.
Duel is streaming on Criterion Channel, and you can find the full movie on Youtube
This was made by Alex Garland, director of Ex Machina and screenwriter of 28 Days Later. Makes sense that he can successfully mix sci-fi and horror. Cellular biologist, Lena, joins a team of other scientists to explore an anomalous patch of Florida wilderness that is steadily expanding outward from a mysterious meteor strike on the coast. Within the borders of “The Shimmer,” it’s still the same wilderness, but there’s something uncanny about its vegetation, its sounds, and its lighting. Almost immediately, constants like time, space, and memory are thrown into chaos. It elevates the peril beyond what you’d see in other trekking horror films. It keeps you incredibly uneasy, but also incredibly curious, up to and beyond its final scene.
Annihilation’s other-worldly setting really spoke to me as a bikepacker. I’m usually in environments nothing like those of my very familiar local mountains. It’s not like going for a lunch loop when visiting a friend in Sedona. Wherever I am, I’m there until I’m done. And riding all day for multiple days in a row kinda messes with your sense of time and distance. Sometimes you’ll go over 100 miles, sometimes it’ll be less than 50. There’s something surreal about it that’s fun, but a little unsettling sometimes.
If you haven’t seen Annihilation, or haven’t seen it since you started bikepacking, I can’t recommend it enough. And I recommend seeing it with a friend. It’s the kind of movie that, for better or worse, leaves you asking questions. And every scene seems to have some sort of meaning that each viewer will interpret differently. But beyond that, It’s the most visually spellbinding film on this list, and by far has the most captivating score.
Annihilation is Streaming on Netflix and Paramount +
The most arthouse-leaning film in the mix, Gerry was directed by Gus Van Sant, who’s probably best known for Good Will Hunting, but also To Die For, Elephant, and Last Days. Inspired by a true story (that will spoil the movie if you research it), Gerry features Matt Damon, Casey Afleck, and endless miles of unnamed desert. The two characters, both named Gerry, park at a remote trailhead and set off on an apparently brief hike, given that they bring literally nothing but the clothes on their back. After a shortcut up a dry watershed proves fruitless, they turn back and soon realize that they are lost. Their sparse conversations paint a picture of an old, comfortable friendship between two likable but imperfect people. The word “Gerry” is even apparently a long-shard shorthand for bonehead moves like the one that got them in this situation. As time goes on, the surroundings and the score become more alien, and rescue seems to be more unlikely. The movie’s desolation and slow pace put you squarely in the hopelessness that eventually consumes them both.
What stood out to me in Gerry was the danger of being unprepared. We’ve all ended up with less water or fewer layers than we might have wanted. Hopefully it happens rarely as we gain more experience, but it’s always a possibility. Personally knowing that fear made the early scenes of both Gerrys in t-shirts and jeans feel as stressful as any horror character’s ill-advised decision to investigate that noise in the basement.
You have to be a very patient moviegoer to make it through Gerry. Many shots are just several minutes of walking, Even some of the dialogue is tedious, but none of it feels accidental or wasted. Saying “You just let it wash over you” usually feels like an excuse for bad filmmaking, but it applies in this case. It’s worth a watch, as long as you know what you’re getting into.
Gerry is streaming on Amazon’s Freevie and Youtube Premium
Significant Other (2022)
Significant Other opens with a shot of a glowing object landing behind a dark wooded mountain. This is where our main characters, the troubled Ruth and doting Harry, are headed for some backpacking. There’s some very believable tension between the two, rooted in Ruth’s past traumas and Harry’s failure to understand them. After an emotional confrontation, Ruth steps away and happens upon evidence of whatever phenomenon the movie opened with. We see her react to something terrifying over her shoulder, and it cuts to black. When she returns to Harry, she’s changed somehow. Their strained interactions take on a new meaning, and as we learn what happened to Ruth, the tense escape that follows is derailed by several twists.
Not gonna lie, this one is a bit of a stretch to try and tie it in with adventure cycling. But what compelled me to leave it in over some of the more traversal-focused horror titles I left out, was the role that mental health plays on long, challenging rides. For some of us, being out there is a way to quiet the voices that usually plague us. But for others, it can trigger them. This plays a role in Significant Other like I’ve never seen before. But also, it’s kinda just a good movie.
There aren’t a lot of good cosmic horror films out there. Even Alien and Event Horizon, to me, feel more like scary sci-fi. But Significant Other really blends the two categories. Not as creatively as Annihilation, but that’s not the point. It’s a well-made, well-acted mash-up of genres, with a little Twilight Zone mixed in.
Significant Other is streaming on Paramount +
3 Days (2019)
Short films may be the best avenue for horror. All they need is one good, clever scare, and that scare never overstays its welcome. They present you with a scenario, and you’re left to fill in the rest of the narrative. That’s partly why 3 Days (not to be confused with Three Days) stuck with me longer than any other title on this list. Taking place almost entirely in a tent, this is a conversation between three very different friends as they react to frightening noises outside. The main character is having a particularly hard time with it. As her anxiety peaks, the film’s few remaining minutes center on her emotions leading up to and during the trip, and then her realization that she should never have come.
The conversation in the tent eventually morphs into one we often have with ourselves when we think (or know) things have gone very wrong. This resonated deeply with me, because I’m relatively new at bikepacking. I’ve really only been doing multi-day rides for a few years. And it’s not even my main thing. I’m not entirely comfortable doing it. That’s often what I like about it, but I sometimes find myself on a trip, wishing it were over. 3 Days elevates that emotion to great effect, capturing the feeling of being in a true worst-case scenario with no easy way out.
This is barely ten minutes long, so if you’re a particularly reluctant horror fan, there’s no excuse not to give this one a try. And YouTube will probably follow it with other short horror films, which you might as well try out. I would have included a few more that I liked, but the low barrier to entry means most are pretty cringe, even though the ideas are creative. 3 Days doesn’t try to do too much, which is why it does a lot.
3 Days is available on Youtube
Horror in the High Desert (2021)
This is one of those low-budget movies you scroll past on Netflix and wonder “who watches this stuff?” But if you can meet it halfway, this movie actually takes some compelling turns. It’s a half found-footage, half fake documentary film about a hiker named Gary Hinge who investigates an ominous cabin in the Nevada desert after being goaded on by social-media commenters. It’s inspired by the real-world 2014 disappearance of Kenny Veach, but this dramatization makes some masterful choices in how it depicts its stand-in, Hinge. You get the sense, even just in how he speaks, that he’s a loner. And not necessarily by choice. He’s the sort of person who could have a hard time with the highs and lows of the modest but sudden YouTube celebrity status he acquires. And as the tension (slowly) elevates, the pity you feel for the character heightens your anxiety about what may have happened to him.
I decided to put this on the list, partly inspired by the four weeks I spent in the area of Nevada where it was filmed. Ely (EE-lee) happens to have a growing mountain-biking and trail-building scene, but a disappearing mining industry. That’s a common story, but Ely hasn’t reached salvation like Downieville, California. That puts an odd spin on the nature of outdoor recreation in the area. It’s not Yosemite or Copper Harbor or Stowe. Ely is great, but it’s not the most picturesque. It reminds me of the bikepacking version of “flyover country.” It’s not somewhere you’d necessarily build a week’s vacation around, but it’s a fascinating place to pass through. And if you’re a local, you’ll find a way to make the most of it.
As for whether this is a “good” movie, I’d probably give it a 2 out of 4 stars, but hear me out. What makes documentary-style horror so effective isn’t the cinematography. It’s how believable the footage and interviews are. And the footage successfully captures what a slightly awkward young Youtuber would create. And the interviews, with one unfortunate exception later in the movie, are eerily realistic. They all seem like the types of people who would be in a struggling working-class town like this. So, if you like polished ambient horror, you won’t like this. But if you like seeing what someone can pull off on a shoestring budget, you’ll probably be impressed.
Horror in the High Desert is streaming on Prime Video and Tubi
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
I almost considered skipping this one. You’ve probably already seen it, so why read another review? But then I realized this movie is almost 25 years old. Some of you may not have been passionate cyclists when you first saw it. And if you were, maybe you haven’t seen it since it came out. I know I hadn’t. So, I watched it again to see if it still holds up, and it absolutely does. This ur-found-footage film is told with clips shot by three young filmmakers as they document their investigation of a local urban legend. They go into the woods, get lost, get terrorized, yada yada yada. Even if you haven’t seen it, you probably know the story. But even if you have, you may have forgotten some of its beats. The tension builds with surprising care and subtlety until you find yourself as panicked as the characters on screen.
Of course, this speaks to the fear of getting lost. That’s less of a thing in the era of GPS, but in a way, we’re now conditioned to put our faith in a device that can run out of batteries. If that lifeline is cut, we’re probably in worse shape than we would have been back in 1999. It’s always a lingering possibility, illustrated exceptionally well in this movie. If you’ve got as bad a sense of direction as me, this will hit home … whichever way home is.
Again, this movie holds up great. There’s an honesty to the performances that keeps it from being cliché. Even the most heavily meme-ified moments seem totally reasonable once you let the movie take you there. I credit some of this to the way the film’s creators immersed the performers in the situations being dramatized, though I’ve heard stories that the immersion crossed the line at points. The whole thing is a marvel in creative filmmaking. If you haven’t watched in a while, watch it.
The Blair Witch Project is streaming on Paramount + and Amazon’s Freevee
The Descent (2005)
Probably the most traditional horror film on this list, The Descent follows six experienced, well-equipped cavers on an Appalachian expedition. Problems arise almost immediately when, after a collapse shuts off their entrance, the expedition leader reveals they’re in a totally unexplored cave, with no guarantee they’d find their way out. An early nail-biter scene has one of the characters setting anchors in a ceiling crack so the group can cross a seemingly bottomless pit. And that’s after they army-crawled their way through a barely shoulder-width tunnel. It sets a high bar for the stress the movie will put you in. But not long after that, they uncover evidence of a previous group of explorers, and then learn their fate. It was monsters. They were eaten by monsters.
From a cyclist’s perspective, darkness is this movie’s primary currency. There are some scenes that, by necessity, are better-lit than there actually would be in real life. But there are more scenes that leave most of the screen black, while one character faces impossible terror with only the light their headlamp can provide. It makes the already claustrophobic environment feel frighteningly constrained. It reminds me of the feeling when, on a moonless, tree-covered night ride, I’ll turn my light off just to feel how pitch-black my surroundings are. It almost makes night riding feel like caving. You’re somewhere you probably shouldn’t be, but thanks to a little technology, you’re safe. As long as the battery lasts.
I’d consider this a must-watch for anyone horror-curious. There are a couple occasions where the otherwise skilled spelunkers do something dumb for plot’s sake, but it’s rare. It feels almost like an adventure movie. But at the same time, it’s a remarkably effective horror movie. The creature design is incredible. And the gore is heavy, but I’d say it doesn’t veer into being gleeful. There’s also a compelling through-line of a trauma experienced by the main character, that resurfaces in a shockingly unexpected way near the film’s climax, which itself is spectacular. Must watch.
The Descent is streaming on Max
Though this one starts off with the boring, well-trodden trope of the overconfident boyfriend taking his lady on an ill-fated adventure, it eventually steps into the exciting well-trodden trope of being stalked by a wild animal. Somewhere in the middle, there’s a creepy passing hiker that never (really) plays a role again, but the tense interaction sets the mood that this trip may not go well. Soon after, the couple has a run-in with a black bear that, indeed, does not go well. What follows is a desperate chase that you truly believe could end in tragedy at any moment.
This, of course, capitalizes on our fear of wildlife attacks. Just a few months after I moved to California, there was a fatal mountain lion attack not far from where I’d often ride. Despite how rare that is, it was all we could talk about for a while. But then I heard Wes Larson, biologist and host of the Tooth and Claw podcast, talk about how horrific it would be to be killed by a grizzly bear. Listen to his guest appearance on the Too Scary, Didn’t Watch podcast episode about Cocaine Bear. By the way, TSDW has done great episodes on four of these movies, so look them up. Anyway, in Backcountry, it’s a black bear, and it was actually loosely based on a true story that took place in 2005. We don’t have Grizzlies in the Angeles National Forest, but we do have black bears…
Again, this movie starts out with some eye-rolling clichés. It’s acted well enough, but they’re not given much interesting dialogue to work with. You kinda just have to sit it out until it picks up at the first night, and the momentum should carry you along from there. From a technical standpoint, the film looks great, and there are no distracting bear CG moments. It’s not going to turn a non-horror-fan around, but if you’re intrigued by this sort of scenario, it’s a great entry in the genre.
Backcountry is streaming on Prime Video
The Ritual (2017)
This may be the only example of what we now call “elevated horror,” where the themes often comment on some sort of universal human issue. In this case, it is guilt and regret. The opening scenes lead to two members (Luke and Rob) of a close-knit group of friends splitting off to pick some alcohol at a convenience store. While Luke is in another aisle, a pair of thieves hold up the clerk and shake down Rob for valuables. Luke stays hidden, and watches them fatally shoot Rob when he resists. Six months later, the remaining friends gather for a hiking trip in Sweden, a trip Rob had proposed the night he died. The events of that night hang over the entire journey, and begin to play a role as the group decides to take a shortcut to get an injured member back to civilization. They happen upon a mysterious cabin, which sets in motion a series of strange events that aren’t outwardly supernatural, but seem to prey on each members’ past traumas. It goes places you wouldn’t expect a lost-in-the-woods movie to go, both visually and emotionally.
Beyond the fear of getting lost, this film plays on the psychological stress of what we carry with us when we get out of our comfort zones. At a few times in my life, I’d occasionally turn around on a ride because something on my mind literally wouldn’t let me move on. I was most susceptible to it happening on solo rides, but I’ve also seen a group show signs of emotional strain when there’s miles of solitude to share. This new wave of more thoughtful horror captures these common struggles extremely well by putting them through the prism of something truly terrifying.
Although I intentionally didn’t number these entries, The Ritual is my favorite. The performances are top-notch, the cinematography is understated but impactful, and the commentary on how our guilt stalks us still sticks with me. It’s the movie that inspired me to make this list. It’s also the movie that reminded me to check out a horror movie once in a while. If I hadn’t seen this, I might not have seen The Witch or It Follows or Let the Right One in. So if you want to watch just one of these movies, I’d say at least watch The Ritual. 10/10.
The Ritual is streaming on Netflix
Did we skip over your favorite? Let us know in the comments!