A mountain range, a street sign, and a license plate: that’s all it took for Hereditary (2018) to scare me in a way that went beyond what frightened most viewers. Maybe it’s happened to you, a moment on film when you are transported away from the screen and back home.
I grew up in Utah, where Hereditary was filmed. I knew those mountains and that street sign immediately; the vehicle license plates are less subtle, but we don’t see them on screen for more than a few seconds. These are the only clues to the film’s setting, but it is perfect. And this isn’t the first time this has happened to me. I grew up in the quintessential small town of the 1980s. If you’ve seen Footloose (1984), you’ve seen my hometown. It might feel like your hometown, but it’s really mine.
That “Anytown, U.S.A.” vibe turned Salt Lake City, Utah, into Boulder, Colorado, for Mick Garris’s The Stand (1994), and into Haddonfield, Illinois, for the fourth, fifth, and sixth Halloween movies. But I grew up about 60 miles to the south, in Payson, where Kevin Bacon went to high school with Chris Penn, and they fought to hold a dance (despite the overwhelming Mormon population, we could have dances). Around the same time Bacon was cutting a rug, a viral outbreak at a biochem lab turned people into violent, raging zombies.
In 1985, a field of dirt — sometimes it was corn — separated my grandparents’ house from a huge grey warehouse. After Footloose wrapped, Hollywood came back to Payson. Steven Spielberg protégé Hal Barwood turned the warehouse into the site of an outbreak for the sci-fi thriller Warning Sign (1985). The movie predates Resident Evil (2002) and 28 Days Later (2002) but can be seen as a precursor to both. Years before the pop culture zombie uprising of the 2000s, Jeffrey DeMunn, one of the stars of the first season of The Walking Dead (2010), got his first taste of fighting zombie-like people along with co-stars Sam Waterston, Kathleen Quinlan, and Yaphet Kotto.
The hills around the warehouse are home for me. I know when I watch Warning Sign that my grandparents’ house sits just beyond the military trucks and the gathered mob. There’s a good chance that I was at the house or the single-screen theater in town that my grandpa managed when scenes were being filmed at the warehouse. The house has been sold and the theater closed, but both are still there. Long before the sale, the dirt field was filled with cookie-cutter homes in much the same way that the back of my mother’s head — she, one of my aunts, and other townsfolk served as extras — fills the screen for about thirty seconds. Like me, she’s a redhead, and the moment is difficult to miss.
Warning Sign and those Halloween sequels aren’t great movies, but they are fun. If anything, Warning Sign is a forgotten film. Barwood, who also wrote Spielberg’s 1974 The Sugarland Express and the 1981 fantasy film Dragonslayer, never directed another feature film. Instead, he became the driving force behind the Indiana Jones computer games. I spent $45 on the now out-of-print Anchor Bay DVD, but I always see home when I watch it. I see familiar streets in those Halloween sequels, and I delight in knowing The Shape and I have traipsed the same sidewalks. There are blocks I recognize from The Crow: Salvation (2000) and when I’m home, I watch for the black birds, wondering if just one might have a bigger part to play in the world.
If I want to see black and white spooks rise from the Great Salt Lake, all I must do is play Herk Hervey’s Carnival of Souls (1962). I watch and remember all my childhood Sundays sitting in church and singing along with the organ (fun fact: Mormons run church based on volunteers from the congregation, so they’d never hire an outsider to play the organ). When I can bring myself to watch one of the worst movies ever, Troll 2 (1990), I see not only those sagebrush-dusted hills along the freeway but also familiar faces. Once upon a time, I wanted to be an actor. I spent the summer of 1995 — too late to be in Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) — taking acting lessons from Troll 2’s Mr. Presents himself, Lance Williams.
Payson still has its share of movies being filmed on Main Street, but they are mostly those Hallmark saccharine Christmas movies. In my own books and stories, I brought the horror back and hope, someday, to film an adaptation along the small-town streets that still exist, even though they are now surrounded by new urban sprawl. Thankfully, I don’t have to see the Walmart when I watch anything from before the year 2000.
Horror movies — the great ones like Hereditary, the god-awful ones like Troll 2, and the forgotten ones like Warning Sign — can, in the midst of scaring us or making us laugh, offer comfort; they are like coming home. Even when they say you can never go home again, the movies prove that wrong. All it takes is a mountain range, a warehouse, a license plate, or the back of my mom’s head, and I’m right back there.
T.J. Tranchell is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.
Visit MANOR’s official website MANORHQ.com.