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Sinister Southwest

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"From the dusty mesa, her looming shadow grows
Hidden in the branches of the poisoned creosote.
She twines her spines up slowly towards the boiling sun
And when I touched her skin my fingers ran with blood."
The Handsome Family, "Far From Any Road"

Sometimes the darkest tales come from the brightest desert.

Sinister Southwest is a genre of crime/horror/thriller stories set in the American Southwest, a vast zone that includes New Mexico, Arizona, and certain parts of Colorado, California, Nevada, Texas, and Utah. A largely desert landscape that contains the hottest temperatures in the United States, along with some of its most violent and bizarre history, the region naturally lends itself as a backdrop to more intense works.

Probably the most famous Real Life weird incident in the Southwest's history happened on July 8, 1947. Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release stating that they had recovered a "flying disc" from a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. The Army quickly retracted the statement and instead said that the crashed object was merely a conventional weather balloon; inevitably the public came to believe that extraterrestrials had crashed on Earth and that they and their vehicle had been taken to Nevada and stored in a little place called Area 51. As if that wasn't enough about aliens, the infamous Skinwalker Ranch of Utah has been a hotbed of UFO activity for decades, with dozens of reports of strange creatures and cattle mutilations in the area. Speaking of the term "Skinwalker," that creature (along with other elements of Native American Mythology) is another likely culprit for weirdness in the area.

Local urban myths include that of La Llorona ("the Weeping Woman"), a spectral figure who drowned her children and now haunts the ditches and streams looking for more victims; and the Chupacabra ("goat sucker"; originally reported in Puerto Rico but it appears to have migrated to the mainland), a blood-drinking creature that has been held responsible for some of those aforementioned mutilations.

Finally, nuclear testing in the southwest is another popular culprit for weirdness in fiction, with many a Nuclear Mutant emerging from the desert to terrorize B-Movie audiences throughout the '50s and '60s.

Closer to home, the Southwest edge of California was home to Charles Manson and his Family; the New Mexico State Penitentiary outside Santa Fe was the site of the bloodiest prison riot in US history in 1980, and cartel violence and political upheaval have become a mainstay along the Texas/Mexico border in the 21st century.

Sinister Southwest works usually involve a mix of several elements: stories of crime or Horror, a focus on the barren desert landscape, and a more rural setting (although the action can shift to some of the bigger cities, like Albuquerque, Phoenix, or El Paso). Additionally, many works may be influenced by the largely Latin American culture of the region.

May overlap with Weird West (but differs, in that Sinister Southwest works may be set in the modern-day and feature no supernatural elements). Compare Lovecraft Country and Southern Gothic, for other American settings with supernatural and/or horror elements. Can often involve Hillbilly Horrors. See also Viva Las Vegas!, where some more cynical stories might use Sin City's illicit reputation as a setting for horror stories.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • El Cazador de la Bruja follows a bounty hunter named Nadie who, instead of killing her assigned target, decides to become the bodyguard of a young witch named Ellie as they both seek their own freedoms. As the two slowly move further south through Mexico, they find themselves being chased by other bounty hunters and getting involved in a sinister conspiracy from an ancient witch coven. The setting never strays too far from desert and cactus environments and small towns.
  • Soul Eater features the Death Weapon Meister Academy in Death City, Nevada. Students are split into "Weapons" (humans who can transform into weapons) and the "Meisters" who fight with them. While the characters do travel around the world to hunt down witches and other monsters feasting on souls, Death City itself is a Weirdness Magnet by its very nature.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Beast of Yucca Flats is a legendarily-awful B-Movie about a Russian scientist who tries to defect to the US but gets caught in a nuclear test in Nevada, turning him into a murderous monster who roams the desert, killing people.
  • Bone Tomahawk: A Western-horror in which a posse led by the local sheriff takes on a Cannibal Tribe of contemporary cavemen.
  • Breakdown: A married couple relocating to California run afoul of kidnappers in the Southwest outback, leading to a sinister cat-and-mouse game between them and the husband, played out over isolated desert highways, truck stops, and small towns.
  • Carnival of Souls is perhaps the best horror movie ever made in Utah.
  • Duel: A suspense movie set on the remote highways of inland California, where a mild-mannered Los Angeles City Mouse becomes the target of a psychotic truck driver.
  • From Dusk Till Dawn: Two murderous bank robbers on the lam in the Texas badlands take a family hostage while making a run for the Mexican border. They succeed in crossing and make a clean getaway... only to end up in a strip club full of Aztec vampires.
  • The Giant Gila Monster is set in the "the enormity of the west". The emphasis is less on sun-bleached deserts and more on empty roads and barren forests, but it still emphasizes the vast emptiness of the area, and the idea that a gila monster could grow that big without anyone noticing.
  • The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and its 2006 remake feature a family traveling through the New Mexico desert attacked by a Cannibal Clan mutated by atomic testing.
  • Hoboken Hollow: Based on the Real Life Texas Slave Ranch, the film is about a man kidnapped by ranchers in Texas and Made a Slave.
  • The Rob Zombie-directed films House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects take place in the fictional town of Ruggsville, Texas, the home of the murderous Firefly family.
  • Identity: The motel where most of the action takes place is apparently on a lonely American desert highway. Subverted when we learn its true address: inside a serial killer's mind.
  • It Came from Outer Space has an alien spacecraft crashing in the Arizona desert, and paranoia taking over in the nearby town.
  • Last Man Standing: A mysterious gunslinger enters a dying Prohibition-era Texas town, and plays two violent gangs against each other.
  • Manos: The Hands of Fate has a family on vacation through the El Paso area run afoul of a sinister cult of ambiguously-undead beings.
  • The Monster That Challenged the World is a '50s scifi movie set on a U.S. Navy base on the Salton Sea, a landlocked body of saltwater in southern California. The surrounding land is shown mostly as trackless, sparsely-populated desert, emphasizing the base's isolation when strange monsters come up out of the sea.
  • Near Dark: a young farmhand in an Arizona town falls for a mysterious girl... who turns out to belong to a rag-tag family of vampires terrorizing the desert.
  • Nocturnal Animals: In Edward's novel, Tony and the family are driving through a rural road in the Texas desert when they get attacked by the gang. It ends with Tony's wife and daughter being sexually assaulted and then brutally murdered.
  • Nope: An isolated gulch town in the California desert is terrorized by mysterious flying object.
  • Raising Arizona: a parody of Arizona stereotypes, centered around a hapless criminal and his wife stealing a baby to raise as their own, only to end up battling a Satanic biker.
  • Southbound: An anthology of horror stories set in an unnamed town in the Mojave Desert, with unwitting people threatened by skeletal monsters. It's heavily implied, however, that this isn't the Mojave at all, but Purgatory.
  • Tarantula! has rural Arizona terrorized by a Giant Spider, the product of a scientist's attempt to breed larger livestock animals.
  • Them! is probably the movie that codified this as the default setting for '50s scifi movies, with a swarm of gigantic ants terrorizing the New Mexico desert and eventually building a nest in the storm drains beneath Los Angeles.
  • Touch of Evil is a Film Noir about organized crime, Jurisdiction Friction, and police corruption along the United States' border with Mexico.
  • Track of the Moon Beast is about a were-Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping around the desert outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. The movie also prominently features a Magical Native American character as The Professor, and there's a scene where all the main characters go see a southwestern folk music concert. It's not a very good movie, but it does get some nice moody shots of the desert.
  • Tremors has a pack of Sand Worms terrorizing the residents of a small Nevada town. The monsters' origin is never really explained (until the sequels, anyway), but the characters speculate that they could be products of nuclear testing, or maybe aliens - both very appropriate origins for monsters in southwestern science fiction.
  • U Turn: A drifter breaks down in Superior, Arizona and finds himself trapped in a plot to kill a rich man in town and escape with his wife. Too bad all the bizarre characters in Superior intend to keep him there.
  • Werewolf (1996) is a bad werewolf movie set in and around Flagstaff, Arizona, that invokes - but does not really follow - Native American skinwalker myths.

  • Blood Meridian is the brutal and violent tale of the Glanton gang, a group of Indian hunters who operated throughout the American Southwest and the Mexican province of Chihuahua from 1849 to 1850. The novel also has a few ambiguous supernatural elements with Judge Holden himself a Satanic Archetype and possibly a Humanoid Abomination given his beyond human feats.
  • The Books Of Blood by Clive Barker: "Skins Of The Fathers" concerns a young man who encounters a parade of strange monsters on an Arizona highway, and gets stuck in a fierce battle between them and a rowdy army of townsfolk.
  • Desperation: Welcome to Desperation, Nevada, a tiny mining town now ruled by an oversized, maniacal cop named Officer Collie Entragian. Several travelers encounter him, and very few make it out alive.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Though Vegas itself comes across pretty negatively, Hunter S. Thompson seems to have a deep and primal fear of the desert outside of town as well, and the book opens with him in a drug-induced panic about "huge bats" swooping down on him from the desert sky, then becoming irrationally suspicious that a hitchhiker might have links to Charles Manson. Later, when he tries to flee the city, he becomes paranoid about desert-dwelling lizards and has a run-in with a sinister, but ultimately extremely lenient, highway cop.
  • Holes: The corrupt Camp Green Lake is in the middle of the Texan desert, and is full of secrets, curses, ancient corruption and of course, deadly yellow-spotted lizards. And that's not even starting on the hundred-and-fifty year drought, and the heat.
  • Nightmares & Dreamscapes: "Dolan's Cadillac" concerns an everyday man plotting revenge against the Las Vegas gangster who murdered his wife to keep her from testifying against him. Said revenge involves trapping the gangster's Cadillac in a pit in the Nevada desert and burying him alive in it.
  • Nightwing: A tribal policeman in New Mexico investigates a rash of mysterious cattle mutilations, leading to a battle against a recently-deceased shaman's apocalyptic spell.
  • No Country for Old Men: A poacher in 1980s Texas finds the aftermath of a drug deal gone bloody in the desert and takes a briefcase full of money, leading to a peculiar hitman violently pursuing him across the state.
  • The Jill Kismet series is an Urban Fantasy series set in the fictional Southwest city of Santa Luz. Being the resident "hunter" in Santa Luz essentially makes Jill The Sheriff as far as the supernatural is concerned, and the series deals heavily with issues of the New Old West amidst Jill's tangles with weres—which lean more on skinwalker legends than European-style werebeasts, but are normally allies of humans—hellbreed, and Apocalypse Cultists. Jill's eventual apprentice is an ex-gangbanger from the town's barrio, which is mentioned to usually not be a safe place for Caucasians like herself (although the Latin gangs avoid her because of her reputation as a bruja).
  • The Lee Nez novels are a Vampire Detective Series set in New Mexico. Lee, a New Mexico state trooper, is a "nightwalker" of Navajo heritage who was turned in an encounter with Ghostapo during World War II and spends much of his spare time hunting skinwalkers to protect the Navajo Nation, which leads him to a collision with FBI Agent Diane Lopez when her partner is killed by one of his targets.
  • The Sheriff Joanna Brady series by J.A. Jance. Joanna is the sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona, which just so happens to include Tombstone. Jance prefers to call her books 'novels of suspense' rather than 'mysteries', and many of the crimes investigated by Joanna are fairly horrific.

    Live-Action TV 
  • American Horror Story: California is one of the worst places to live in, according to this show.
    • In American Horror Story: Murder House, the titular Murder House, a haunted, evil-attracting house, is located in Los Angeles.
    • Similarly, American Horror Story: Hotel also depicts a haunted building in LA: an hotel built by a serial killer and currently owned by vampires.
    • American Horror Story: Apocalypse, as a follow up of Murder House also takes place in California - it notably focuses on a nuclear war shelter located in central California, and that used to be a school for warlocks (with as its most brilliant pupil the Antichrist himself).
    • American Horror Story: 1984 gives us Camp Redwood, your typical slasher summer camp not so far away from LA (in fact it received a visit from notorious LA serial killer Richard Ramirez).
    • Death Valley, the second part of American Horror Story: Double Feature explores alien abductions in the titular valley, the existence of Area 51, and the crash of Roswell.
  • Breaking Bad: One of the darkest, most intense dramas in television history, a tale of the methamphetamine trade set in and around Albuquerque, NM. The desert landscapes give a heightened sense of tension and are often the setting for extreme violence. The prequel series Better Call Saul also taps into this in the later seasons.
  • Midnight, Texas: A young man named Manfred makes a mistake and ends up in trouble; his grandmother advises him to come to Midnight, TX. Some of the denizens include a vampire, a werebeast, and an angel. Others dabble with magic and witchcraft. Oh, and his grandmother is a ghost. One of the only normal people seems to be a young waitress... but her father is a serial killer. Filmed in New Mexico, the series makes use of deserts and scrub brush.
  • Tales from the Crypt: In "Carrion Death", a multiple murderer named Diggs escapes police custody and tries to flee across the Mexican border in Texas, pursued by a motorcycle cop and a very hungry vulture. He manages to kill the cop, but not before he handcuffs himself to Diggs and swallows the key, forcing Diggs to drag the dead man through the wasteland.
  • Twin Peaks The Return has a substantial amount of Surreal Horror-filled screen time in the American Southwest, away from The Other Rainforest setting of the first two seasons. Throughout the show, portals to other dimensions from which otherworldly entities emerge crop up in the middle of the desert, where they menace innocent rural townsfolk, including in Episode 8 where the story's Big Bad, Judy, a malevolent demon/Eldritch Abomination, is introduced to the word as a result of nuclear testing in a small New Mexico town. There's also a subplot set in Las Vegas involving an insurance executive who's heavily embroiled in organized crime.

  • The Blue Öyster Cult album ''Spectres has the track "Death Valley Nights," which is about the infamous desert, and the rock-operatic track "Golden Age Of Leather", about old Hell's Angels who decide the world no longer has a place for them and choose to die in a blaze of glory in the remote desert.


    Video Games 
  • Deadly Creatures takes place in the Sonoran Desert and has its main characters, a tarantula and scorpion, fighting and killing for survival under the backdrop of very real human greed and cruelty as one of their number falls to Gold Fever.
  • Fallout: New Vegas adds some Western flavor to the series' normal post-apocalyptic wasteland. But the Dead Money DLC steers firmly into this trope: you get roped into a heist of the legendary Sierra Madre casino that's been bottled-up since pre-War times. Along the way you have to deal with a poisonous fog, creepy Ghost People, backstabbing companions, and ghostly (but still quite deadly) holograms that populate the casino and surrounding villa. And then you find out the whole thing was built as a trap for a rival of the owner, who just so happens to be one of those backstabbing companions. As the narrator says, getting to the casino is not the hard part.
  • The Sims 2 and The Sims 4 have Strangetown and Strangerville, respectively, which both are this trope. Strangetown is full of aliens, serial killers, and mad scientists, while Strangerville has creepy "possessed" people.

    Visual Novels 
  • Echo's basic premise is a town in Utah that is an absolute hellhole, the combination of horrid arid conditions, evil hicks and an Eldritch Abomination condensing it into possibly the worst place on that earth. The prequel The Smoke Room adds in the horrible homophobia and genocide of Native Americans and the sequel Arches has the place reduced to a wasteland full of ruins.

    Web Original 
  • A common recurring theme in Bedtime Stories (YouTube Channel) is depicting the American Southwest as just as dangerous as the Appalachian Trails on the East Coast. Among the more notable cases covered here include Skinwalker and Stardust Ranches, the disappearances of dozens of prospectors and hikers in the desert, encounters with different kinds of cryptids, and mysterious hauntings on the US-Mexico border.

"When the last light warms the rocks and the rattlesnakes unfold
Mountain cats will come to drag away your bones
And rise with me forever, across the silent sand
And the stars will be your eyes, and the wind will be my hands."