October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror movies with mass transit scenes is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Living in New York City, I often have to contend with out-of-towners wondering aloud, “Isn’t the subway system, like, really dangerous right now?” Despite what the New York Post may try and tell you, no, it isn’t, especially when compared to the high-crime times of the Big Apple in the 1970s and 1980s.
But that doesn’t mean the anxiety of taking public transportation is unwarranted. There are plenty of horror possibilities that our mind can conjure as we are stuck in a tightly confined space, whether that’s in a subway car 500 feet below the ground, or in an airplane cabin 35,000 feet in the air.
But the true horrors of mass transit ain’t got shit on the following films as voted on by Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Meg Shields, Rob Hunter, and yours truly. Because, frankly, give me a beastly monster on the wing of a plane any day over being forced to sit next to a fussy child on a cross-country flight. At least with the monster, I may have the chance to escape those screeching wails sooner than later.
10. Demons (1985)
Cheryl is enjoying a ride on a Berlin subway when she senses someone may be following her. She sees the reflection of a silver-faced dude (Meg’s sweet boy Michele Soavi) in the window and is rightfully unsettled. She exits the train at an empty station and as she quickly walks through that fear of being followed grows, aided heavily by the pulsating sounds of Claudio Simonetti‘s score. Cheryl quickly speeds up, but before she knows it our silver-faced friend catches her… and gives her a ticket to a movie. Turns out, he is a sweet boy after all. Relieved, Cheryl asks for a second ticket for a friend. The opening scene from Lamberto Bava‘s Demons hits us with the old horror fake-out, but fear not, the carnage is not far behind. (Chris Coffel)
9. TAG (2015)
The scariest things about riding public transportation in the real world are your fellow passengers and the fact that someone else, a stranger, is driving (or flying, captaining, steering, etc) the vehicle. In movies, though, the horror can exist well beyond those truths. For example, say you drop your pen in the aisle of a bus, crouch down to retrieve it, and stand up to discover that all of your friends, teachers, and custodians — hell, even the bus itself — have just been decapitated. It’s a stunner of a scene that opens Sion Sono‘s brilliant and bloody Tag, the first of many violent situations that the film’s female protagonist finds herself in, and it sets the stage for the relentless nature of the threat she’s facing. There are more than a few fun bus-set scenes in horror, from 2007’s Trick r Treat to 2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but in Tag, it hits with an unexpected whoosh of razor-sharp wind, and it is unforgettable. (Rob Hunter)
8. Rabid (1977)
The pandemic may have impacted the amount of people on the New York City subway system at any given moment, but it still feels like yesterday that I was squeezing myself into a packed car with a bunch of exasperated strangers who’d also prefer to be anywhere but stuck on a crowded train during the morning rush hour. That sensation of being trapped somewhere you quickly want to leave is at the core of why this moment of public transportation horror from David Cronenberg’s Rabid works so well.
We’ve all been in the shoes of Mindy before, eyeballing that one person at the end of the car who just sneezed without covering their mouth. It makes us say to ourselves, “That bastard better not get me sick.” Or in Mindy’s case, “That bastard better not bite my ear off.” The scene takes a relatable, mundane part of our lives and injects it with pandemonium – exactly what you want when horror takes the train. (Jacob Trussell)
7. Ghost (1990)
Jerry Zucker’s Ghost is, at its core, a wild mashup of genres, from romance to comedy to, yes, even horror. The horror is less overt, but still present, and not just because the film is literally called Ghost. While the most obvious horror scene takes place late in the film as a group of phantoms drag a pair of ne’er-do-wells to hell, the extended subway sequence as Sam (Patrick Swayze) leaps through different trains is also rife with subtle spookiness, especially if you put yourself into the shoes of the unlucky straphangers stuck on a car inhabited by the agony of a ghost thoughtfully portrayed by character actor Vincent Schiavelli.
He is the embodiment of the rage we envision a spirit holds when they can’t move on to “the other side”. He’s grown frustrated watching life pass him by, which breeds resentment and ire that erupts in a storm of paranormal activity—activity that Sam wants to learn how to do. As Schiavelli storms through the car screaming, he rips newspapers and canes from the hands of his fellow passengers, knocking off bags of groceries from their laps, before attempting to push Sam out of the train. Because we see the full-bodied actor wreaking havoc, we don’t fully feel the impact of what’s happening within the world of the movie. But if you imagine yourself as one of the straphangers experiencing all this paranormal activity first-hand? That shit would be terrifying, which is exactly why this chilly moment made the cut. (Jacob Trussell)
6. Death Line (1972)
Presaging both The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes by a few years, Death Line delivers a similar cut of meaty American frights, just set in the catacombs of the London Underground. Like other subway horror films that make this list, the metro station is both blandly pedestrian, yet also cavernous and creepy with a makeshift charnel house where our tragic killer cannibal stashes his victims after dispensing them in the tubes. The film would effectively be remade by Christopher Smith for his 2004 film Creep, which also features a cannibalistic baddie knocking off straphangers in the London metro — albeit noticeably lacking a hilariously ornery performance from legendary character actor Donald Pleasence. (Jacob Trussell)
5. Midnight Meat Train (2008)
The Midnight Meat Train is a real wild one, friends. It’s based on a Clive Barker story, so of course, it won’t play by the rules of the usual serial killer adventures. Shamed as lazy and dull, Bradley Cooper‘s photographer ventures into the subway system hoping to capture something dangerous on film. He discovers Vinnie Jones‘ butcher slaughtering passengers and hanging them for storage. David Fincher would take the story in one direction, but director Ryuhei Kitamura leans excruciatingly into Barker, and the photographer soon finds himself in a carnivorous conspiracy. The butcher would be enough for most horror movies to rest their laurels on, but The Midnight Meat Train goes where good taste doesn’t. Cooper’s photographer wanted to test his limits and capture fear on film, but he could never have imagined the slithery things he would ultimately put before his eyes. (Brad Gullickson)
4. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
In horror movies, subway systems are often portrayed as something akin to an urban cave, subterranean mazes where our heroes become lost and entangled, breathlessly trying to stay one step ahead of the Minotaur, which in most cases is some monstrous cannibal, like in Creep or Death Line. But there’s something altogether more horrific lurking in the depths of the London Underground in this scene in An American Werewolf in London. What makes the moment work so well is that we only catch a brief glimpse of the titular werewolf.
The majority of the tension derives from the horror we envision our unlucky straphanger has seen and is running from. As he faces a dead end and leaps over a barrier to reach an escalator, he trips and becomes paralyzed with horror as the camera takes us into the perspective of the big bad beast as it goes in for the kill. This is one of the purest cinematic examples of the horrors that can be derived from getting lost and anxious in the underbelly of a labyrinthian mass transit system. (Jacob Trussell)
3. Cat People (1942)
All aboard! It’s time to sing the praises of one of the most iconic scenes in 1940s horror. Jacques Tourneur’s RKO classic follows Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian woman who believes herself to be descended from a satanic sect cursed to transform into man-eating panthers if they get too excited. Red flags be damned, the dashing Oliver Reed (no, not that one) marries her. However, when Irena refuses to consummate the marriage for fear of getting hot and bothered, Oliver runs into the arms of his secretary, Alice. In a worst-case scenario, Irena spies the pair sharing a seemingly romantic dinner at a restaurant and trails Alice home. What follows is one of the most suspense-rich scenes to grace the genre: Alice briskly walks home unaware that she is being stalked by an irate Irena, who trails methodically like a beast on a blood trail. Dipping in and out of inky film noir shadows, Alice begins to suspect something’s up, and quickens her pace. Then, without warning, a roaring snarl breaks the silence… and a streetcar pulls up along the curb. Wildly considered one of the earliest jump scares in horror, our hearts go out to that original 1940s audience, who presumably pissed their britches out of fear. (Meg Shields)
2. Train to Busan (2016)
Some of us had hella teary eyes after watching Train to Busan, and some of us are straight-up liars. While the titular train and its locomotive action as our heroes move from car to car trying to survive a horde of undead straphangers is key to the narrative arc, Busan has become a modern-day classic because of the emotional storytelling that’s at the beating heart of the film. Yes, we rattle the rafters with applause when one character dons DIY armor to quite literally sucker-punch zombies to death. But it’s the moments between watching a father and daughter bond through trauma that has kept the film in our hearts and minds for the better part of a decade. (Jacob Trussell)
1. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
As someone who loves Rod Serling’s original show to the extent that I wrote an entire book about it, I can’t speak about the film without addressing the elephant in the room. After the on-set negligence that led to the death of three people, production on this film should have been shuttered. The Reagan-era ideals of capitalism present in Hollywood meant the movie soldiered on, despite this stain on the film. But not the entire film. It produced two marvelous segments, including George Miller’s “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”. This plane horror story allowed Miller to leverage his flair for adrenaline-pumping tension to full effect.
Here, Miller updates one of the most famous episodes of the original series, swapping William Shatner for John Lithgow, and a slightly silly gremlin for an eye-popping monstrosity. A triangulation of energy between Miller, Lithgow, and the audience as we’re pulled into the anxious claustrophobic feelings of a nervous flier in the middle of the storm who finally has something legitimate to be worried about—a big ass gremlin on the wing of the plane. It’s short, it’s fierce, and it’ll make you wish cross-country train travel was better funded in the United States. (Jacob Trussell)
Have any trips planned where public transportation is required? Maybe bookmark a few more 31 Days of Horror Lists to read along the way.