Dead List: Gas Station Horror!

Fangoria! Woo!
This is the last place you want to get gas. The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
What’s the scariest setting in a horror movie? A graveyard? A dungeon? A basement? Nah. Try gas station. The gas station is a favorite point of conflict in a horror movie. If it shows up in your favorite horror film, you know something really bad is going to happen. Check out our dead list of how awful gas stations really are in horror movies.

What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you in real life? For me, one of the things that haunt me is having been left by accident by my parents at a gas station at a remote California gas station, not realizing that I had not gotten back into the camper van. I was abandoned. (My parents still haven’t lived that down, to be honest.) Fortunately for me, the gas station attendant was a wonderful man, who not only helped contact the sheriff, but also gave me candy bars, baseball cards, and soda to keep me from going to pieces in the gas station. And, I was fortunate that he wasn’t an in-bred hillbilly mutant psychopath.

The trope was established in the early 1970s, which successfully identified that there is something disturbing about ramshackle and dilapidated gas stations and diners. Earlier in the 20th century, these were places that were much less cynical. Gas stations were cheery places, where dapper uniformed young men would race out and give your car full service. By the time the ’60s arrived, that charming side of the gas station largely became a thing of the past, and those same buildings from the ’30s and ’40s now became eerie locales.

This is one of the foundational horror tropes in cinema. The gap-toothed degenerate gas station attendant, who will be the harbinger of doom for the unfortunate travelers who come by for fuel, food, and oftentimes bad directions. It has been such a prevailing trope that it even has generated twists that subvert the trope, to help defy your expectations.

Gas stations are often false refuges. Locations where desperate fleeing victims will try and take shelter. What could be a better hiding spot than a brightly fluorescent-lit small space with windows all around? You might be able to buy some time hiding behind the chips and beer, but the killer is going to find you before too long.

And, it’s no picnic for the working stiff attendants who are left all alone in remote locations, with nobody around for miles, deep into the night. What could possibly go wrong, other than EVERYTHING?

There’s just something provocatively unsettling about the gas station. It’s a place that even in non-horror movies things go badly. They are places to get held up at gunpoint. Places of conflict. Places that explode. Let’s face it, gas stations are death traps, plain and simple. If that’s not incentive enough to get an electric car, I don’t know what is.

The Scariest Things will examine a series of gas station horror trope filled films from the most incidental of service station horror scenes, usually at the beginning of the movie as the staging ground for awful moments to come, up to the full-on gas station as the last refuge of a siege movie. The listing is NOT an attempt to rank horror movies by quality but has been provided as a way of uncovering the multitude of ways that this trope has been built up over the years.

The Birds (1963)
Uh oh! Capitol Oil on fire in The Birds (1963)

Trope: The Gas Station Bomb

The O.G. of gas station horror, the Birds uses a favorite trope of the action film genre, the fiery inferno that lies within every gas station. The Capitol Oil gas station is set off during the panic that descends upon Bodega Bay erupting ablaze while the horrified people trapped in the diner watch their town descend into absolute chaos. This sequence emphasized the destructive power of nature over human industry and the folly of mankind’s eminent domain.

Deliverance (1972)
John Voigt and Nead Beatty (with Burt Reynolds sleeveless in the background) of Deliverance (1972)

Trope: Creepy Gas Station Attendant

Here we go. Hillbilly horror at its peak performance. One of the most prominent, if not the earliest use of the unsettling degenerate gas station attendant in movies. The gas station represents the crossroads of the civilized and uncivilized world, and the four adventurers (Voigt, Reynolds, Beatty, and Cox) just put both feet over that boundary into a world of backwoods degenerates. The stain that it has left on popular culture’s view of Appalachia has yet to be removed. The mesmerizing dueling banjo segment at the station is a variation on Yankee Doodle, and probably should have served as a caution to our would-be weekend warriors.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper and crew set up for the gas station scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Trope: The Creepy Gas Station Attendant

For straight-up horror, the touchstone moment for gas station horror starts with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In a move that will be repeated ad infinitum in road trip horror movies to come, our band of unlucky youths stops by a gas station on their way to the abandoned Hardesty home. The strange attendant warns them of wandering around the area, but as callow twenty-somethings, they pay him no mind. They really should have, as snooping around has fatal consequences. When Sally panics and runs back to the gas station, fate turns a cruel hand and it turns out the attendant is part of the degenerate family. Whoops!

Messiah of Evil (1974)

Trope: The Gas Station Point of No Return

The Mobil station in Messiah of Evil isn’t your typical horror movie gas station. It’s new and brightly lit. It’s not threatening in the same way as many of the other entries in this list. But it does serve as the last pit stop before entering an area of evil. After our heroine, Arletty stops here on her way to check in on her missing father in nearby Point Dume (DOOM!), she is being followed by a strange albino man… who just happens to have two corpses in the back of his pickup. When the gas station attendant sees the bodies, he manages to shoo Arletty off, but his fate is sealed as the albino man tracks him into the station garage and kills him.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977, 2007)
The set for the Gas Haven is actually in Morrocco, not New Mexico. From The Hills Have Eyes

Trope: The Gas Station Point of No Return and Creepy Gas Station Attendant.

Unlike the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the attendant here does not try and warn our protagonists to stay away. He is on the take from the nearby family of mutants, who supply him with salvage from the people they kill. So, he misdirects travelers into the nearby hills, into the waiting trap of the family of radioactive cannibal mutants. It’s a nice arrangement, except for the people who happen to stop by the “Last Stop for 200 Miles”. This elevates the TCM gas station encounter and brings it next level.

Tourist Trap (1979)
Slausen’s Lost Oasis … the Tourist Trap (1979)

Trope: Roadside Attraction from Hell

OK, Slausen’s Lost Oasis only has one fuel pump (and you have to look for it) but it looks and performs like a gas station, in terms of a plot device. Five young travelers have car problems and wander their way to the nearest haven to get some assistance, which just so happens to be a mannequin-filled roadside museum that has lost a lot of its charm since the new highway diverted the traffic away. The proprietor, Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors) may be a bit quirky, but he welcomes them with a smile, but he also warns them not to wander around after dark. But, as callow youths, they ignore his warnings and they find out the true meaning of what it means to visit a Tourist Trap.

Christine (1983)

Trope: The Gas Station Bomb

What’s scarier than a Plymouth Fury possessed by an evil spirit? How about that same car ON FIRE! Christine meets out some revenge on three goons who dismantled her earlier in the movie by trapping them in a gas station and crushing them, which sets off a fuel leak, and a spark, and then a wild explosion that sets her chassis ablaze as she continues on to serve out four-wheeled vengeance on those who had wronged her. It’s a spectacular and memorable scene, but the gas station is there largely to be able to ignite the demon car like a pitch-covered torch. The gas station bomb as a tool.

Maximum Overdrive (1986)
Emilio Estevez stares down the Happy Toyz truck with the Green Goblin face in Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Trope: Gas Station as Last Refuge

Let’s get this clear: Maximum Overdrive is a guilty pleasure. It is subjectively an awful movie by almost all standards, but this truck-stop under siege story fully embraces the idea of the gas station as the last refuge idea. Sometimes the only building that you can take safety in a sea of asphalt is a gas station, and such is the case of the Dixie Boy Truck Stop. Emilio Estevez and his fellow survivors find shelter in this remote station while all things mechanical have turned on the humans. At some point, the demonic big rigs have to figure out that they are big and strong enough just to barge in, right?

The Hitcher (1986, 2007)
Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hitcher (1986)

Tropes: Gas Station Bomb and Gas Station Point of No Return

It’s multiple gas stations with the original Hitcher. After all, it’s a horror road trip movie, and One is the abandoned gas station that John Ryder (Rutger Hauer) ignites, as a threat and a taunt to Jim (C. Thomas Howell) left behind as the dupe for Ryder’s crimes. There is a subsequent scene where Jim manages to turn the table on a couple of patrolmen at a second gas station, and a third diner/gas station is where he meets his eventual road companion Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh). In this film, the gas stations provide moments for the movie to catch its breath and deliver some exposition, and then a major event. The movie is incredibly intense if a bit preposterous.

The Vanishing (Spoorloos) (1988)
Johanna ter Steege waves goodbye in The Vanishing (1988)

Trope: Abducted at a Gas Station

This is one of Liz William’s favorite films. This Dutch film is a tightly wound thriller in which you ache for the protagonist, Rex (Gene Bervoets) whose girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) is abducted in broad daylight from a gas station rest stop, never to be found. After years of fruitless searching, Rex finally establishes a suspect, Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who promises to reveal what he had done, only if Rex would be willing to undergo the same experience as Saskia had to endure. Rex has nothing other than Raymond’s off-the-record confession, so he is now placed in the impossible position of deciding whether the knowledge will be cathartic or catastrophic. Talk about torture!

Body Bags (1993)
Wes Craven (yep!) and Alex Datcher in Body Bags (1993)

Trope: Trapped in a Gas Station

The first segment of the John Carpenter-directed anthology Body Bags was simply enough called “The Gas Station.” Alex Datcher plays Anne, a woman on her first day of work on the night shift at the Modico gas station attendant in Haddonfield. And, surprise, surprise there’s a killer on the loose. When you’re alone in a gas station, everybody is a creeper, and it’s probably not the best night to be starting a new job. When the bodies start showing up, Alex has to consider her career path more seriously.

Urban Legend (1998)
Brad Dourif in Urban Legend (1998)

Trope: Creepy Gas Station Attendant

Take one of Hollywood’s legendary creepy-looking actors, Brad Dourif, and make him into a gas station attendant for the opening scene of Urban Legend, a trope-inducing movie title if there ever was one. Add in a dark and stormy night, and the combination is fraught with awful potential, for a desperate young woman trying to get gas, and is approached by a raggedy wild-eyed man at the pump. But it’s a ruse! It’s a subversion of the trope. He’s just trying to be helpful, as after she maces him and speeds off he shouts “SOMEONE’S IN THE BACK SEAT!”

Yep. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

High Tension (Haute Tension) (2003)
Cécile de France hiding out in High Tension (2003)

Trope: Trapped in a Gas Station

In one of several nail-biting scenes in this powerful French-extremism film, Marie (Cécile de France) escapes from her maniac captor when the truck that she had been abducted in stops to get gas. She flees into the market within the gas station, but her captor follows her in, and she and the store clerk try to bluff and hide their way to safety. It doesn’t turn out well. Given the big twist in the story, this scene is a bit hard to patch back together, but seeing it in real-time is riveting.

Wrong Turn (2003)
Desmond Harrington in Wrong Turn (2003)

Trope: Gas Station Point of No Return

Wrong Turn is so very much like The Hills Have Eyes, which in turn was very much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Mutant rural hillbillies and an unsuspecting group of pretty young travelers who are lured into a cannibal roadside trap. As the celluloid progeny of the other backroad horror trips, it comes with the requisite run-down gas station and the old attendant who gives deceptive directions leading them to their doom. The premise is familiar, if not outright redundant, but it is executed well, and like its movie predecessors, it delivers scares and gore to please hardcore fans. The moral of the story… know where you are going before you drive out into Appalachia. You don’t want to have to stop and ask for directions.

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen in House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

Tropes: Roadside Attraction from Hell, Trapped in a Gas Station

Come for the “Fried Chicken and Gasoline”, and while you are at it check out the museum of curios in this Ruggsville Texas roadside attraction. You know as a kid this is where you would beg your parents to pull over and take a look. Neon lights alone would do that trick, but the big Captain Spaulding clown beckoning you in? Once inside check out the curiosities and oddities on display and take a ride on the murder ride. On the other hand, maybe it’s best not to do that. After all, this place is also known by another moniker, the House of 1000 Corpses.

Splinter (2008)
Jill Wagner and Shea Wigham check the scene in Splinter (2008)

Trope: Trapped in a Gas Sation

This creature feature is ALL about the gas station. This is no more gas-stationey movie than Splinter. A couple, Seth (Paulo Costanzo) and Polly (Jill Wagner) are on a would-be camping vacation who pick up a couple of hitchhikers: Dennis (Shea Wigham) and Lacey (Rachel Kerbs). The trick is, Dennis is an escaped convict. That’s bad. Making things worse is that there is a tar-like parasite infecting all living things in the area, turning creatures as benign as raccoons into spikey toxic death dealers. They run over one of those infected raccoons, and it blows out the tire and punctures the oil pan, forcing the group to fix the tire and limp into a rural gas station. The attendant is dead, attacked by the parasite, and is turning into a spikey zombie-like entity. The whole movie then is centered around being stuck inside a gas station while the undead parasite monsters lay siege. Terrific effects and solid acting overcome a fairly pedestrian plot. If you GOOGLE gas station horror movie, this is likely your result.

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010)
Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010)

Trope: Creepy Gas Station Attendant (Subverted)

Tucker and Dale are simple country folk who run a rural gas station. They like overalls, power tools, and farm implements. Does that make them bad? Well, it sure doesn’t look good! This horror-comedy embraces the whole hillbilly horror trope wagon and turns it 180 degrees, making the preppy traveling interlopers into the horrible evildoers. Just because you see them messing with a corpse and wood chipper doesn’t mean that they are killers… right? Wonderfully aware of all of the sub-themes, this movie has an absolute ball playing specifically against type.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
The Harbinger of Doom (Tim DeZarn) in The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Trope: Creepy Gas Station Attendant, Gas Station of No Return

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon know their horror tropes, and they made sure to integrate as many of them as they could into The Cabin in the Woods, whose title itself is a long-standing horror trope. They dip into contemporary horror lore and use the gas station at the juncture to the namesake cabin, and it is quite literally the last point where our protagonists could just decide, “Hell with it, let’s turn around.” Even when warned by the chew spitting creepy gas station attendant that they were all doomed, they forged on and into the elaborate trap set up for them at the cabin. A great knowing nod to all horror fans.

Southbound (2015)
Roy’s Cafe and Gas, a snippet of hell in Southbound (2015)

Trope: Trapped in a Gas Station (Time Loop variant)

Team Radio Silence, the writing and directing group behind Southbound spun an interconnecting anthology of road trip horror and used specific locations as hinge points in the story which connected one story to the next. The opening sequence “The Way Out” (and the closing sequence) involves two desperate men on the run on a desolate desert highway, but find themselves hemmed in by specters that are blocking their path as they try to flee south. They pull off at Roy’s Cafe/Motel/Gas to strategize their next move, and when they try and execute their escape find themselves returning back to the station in a time loop as the specters close in. This place has become their own private hell, but as that trap is set, another group of young women departs, without the time loop hindrance, but also into a terrible fated journey.

Halloween (2018)
Rhian Rees is trapped in a gas station bathroom in Halloween (2018)

Trope: Trapped in a Gas Station

In one of the most ferocious and chilling scenes in a movie full of them, the psychology duo of Dana Haines(Rhian Rees) and Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall) are on their way back from the Smith’s Grove Sanitarium having visited the legendary killer Michael Myers. Unbeknownst to them, Michael has escaped his prison and has tracked them to a gas station. When Dana goes to use the restroom, Michael follows her in, and dumps the teeth of the gas station attendant into her toilet stall. Panic ensues, and Dana doesn’t stand a chance, nor does Aaron who bravely tries to rescue her. The savagery meter is set with this early scene in the movie.

Open 24 Hours (2018)
This looks like trouble. Open 24 Hours (2018)

Trope: Trapped in a Gas Station

It was a dark and stormy night. And parolee Mary (Vanessa Grasse) is starting her job as an attendant in a remote 24-hour gas station. The trouble is, she’s traumatized for having set her serial killer ex-boyfriend on fire, and not surprisingly, her PTSD is affecting her grasp on reality. And as the night unfolds, has her boyfriend escaped prison, or is she suffering from delusions? This movie is all about the gas station setting and is very clever in how they manage to use the sets to evocative effect.

The Ringmaster (a.k.a. Finale) (2019)
Agnes (Anne Bergeld) and Belinda (Karin Michelsen) are gas station attendants being stalked in The Ringmaster (2018)

Tropes: Trapped in a Gas Station, Abducted in a Gas Station

This is a movie of two halves, and both are piano-wire tightly strung with tension. The first half takes place in a gas station, where Agnes (Anne Bergfeld) and Belinda (Karin Michelsen) are two gas station attendants working the night shift, who don’t get along well but are forced to work together to ward off a threatening presence. The creep factor gradually builds and then becomes overwhelming. The second half of the movie tracks the action to the lair of the sinister stalkers, and ups the stress level, if that were possible. This Dutch movie is visceral and intense, with fine performances by both of the female leads.

Unhinged (2020)
Look carefully, and you’ll see Russell Crowe in the truck in the background in Unhinged (2020)

Trope: Road Rage

Before you hit the horn to express your anger at another driver, consider the plight of Rachel Flynn (Caren Pistorius) who dared honk at psychopath on a rampage Tom (Russell Crowe). And if you get confronted by said psychopath, it’s best to say you’re sorry and that no harm was meant. Otherwise, you might end up at a gas station, where the maniac will swap phones with you, get all your contacts, and start murdering everyone you know and care about. Be nice. Or, you might end up like Rachel. Russell Crowe has never been scarier.

The Hunt (2020)
Betty Gilpin in The Hunt (2020)

Trope: Gas Station Ambush, Most Dangerous Game

The wry political thriller bloodbath that is The Hunt, featured a gas station that wasn’t what it appeared to be. Sure it has a couple of folksy helpful attendants, Ma and Pop (Amy Madigan and Reed Birney) but it’s all a show. This is a place designed to feel like a refuge, but it’s actually a trap, set up to catch and kill the confused prisoners/prey that were unfortunate enough to get dropped off in this nightmare. Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is a hardened and suspicious alpha who sees right through the ruse and turns the table on her would-be ambushers. Gilpin is terrific as the statuesque and stoic Crystal, who can go from droll and low key to Amazon warrior at a moment’s notice.

Tailgate (Bumperkleef) (2021)
Ed (Willem DeWolf) demands an apology from Hans (Jeroen Spitzenberger) in front of his wife (Anniek Pheifer) and daughters (Roosmarijn van der Hoek and Liz Vergeer)

Trope: Road Rage

Another warning about not being an asshole when driving, because you never know who you might anger in the process. Hans (Jeroen Spitzenberger) is having a tough day. He has to visit his meddling parents and he’s just not in the mood. He is also a very aggressive driver, one of those rude drivers who will ride up on your bumper and try and force you out of your lane. This time, however, Hans has tailgated the wrong man. Ed (Willem deWolf) is an insect exterminator… and a serial killer, who uses his chemicals as the murderous tools of his side gig. Ed follows Hans and his family into a gas station rest stop and demands an apology for the aggressive driving. When Hans tries to man up and refuses to apologize, Ed sinisterly tells a parable about manners, a layered threat of what he intends to do to them… and then he follows them out of the gas station and makes good on his threats. This is definitive road rage horror.

The Darkness of the Road (2021)

Trope: Creepy Gas Station Attendant, Gas Station as the Point of No Return, Abducted at a Gas Station(?)

She was just there! Siri (Najarra Townsend) stops by a gas station to fuel up her tired jalopy before continuing on a long and lonely (and very dark) stretch of road ahead. After being cautioned of the trip to come by the creepy gas station attendant, Siri agrees to take on a passenger, Iris (Leah Lauren), while asleep in the back seat of the car is Siri’s daughter, Eve (Gwyneth Glover)… or at least for a while she is. Not long after they leave the gas station, a figure dashes in front of the car, and when they stop the car, the back seat is empty. And the thing that dashed in front of the car comes ominously wandering back. At a certain point, there are inferences that perhaps this private trip to hell along the dark road is suggesting that something dire has already happened and that this isn’t a natural trip.

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