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Although it’s a statistical fact that people are much safer from violent crime in rural areas than in the cities, the majority of horror films take place in small towns and rural forests. This may be a reflection of filmmakers’ prejudices, since most of them hail from urban environments and view America’s vast rural areas as foreign, hostile, and potentially scary territory. Or at the very least are unfamiliar with what life is really like there. “Urban horror” is thus a severely underrepresented part of the horror genre.
Especially the 1960s and 1970s, the New York City area was a dystopian mess—it was the hell-on-Earth city depicted in films such as Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, and The Warriors—none of which were technically “horror” movies, although they convincingly portrayed the horrors of life in New York City. The horror movies made in New York during those years perfectly convey the decay, blight, and dissolution of urban living, with perhaps a few more references to Catholicism and Italians than average. In many cases, New York City itself is essentially a “character” in these films.
Here are some outstanding examples of horror films set in New York City.
Best Horror Movies set in New York
The first of the big Satanic horror films, Rosemary’s Baby is based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Ira Levin. Directed by Roman Polanski, it stars Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse, who moves along with her actor husband into the Bramford, a Renaissance Revival apartment building in Manhattan. Ignoring warnings that the building had been associated with murder and witchcraft, they befriend neighbors in the building who, unbeknownst to Rosemary, are actually members of a Satanic cult who seek to impregnate an unconscious Mary and force her to bear the Devil’s child. Heavy on the Catholic and Satanic imagery, the film is set in Manhattan and several establishing shots were filmed in NYC, including one scene where Rosemary wanders dazed into Manhattan traffic as Polanski, holding a handheld camera and being the only one in the crew brave enough to walk into NYC traffic along with Farrow, filming from behind. But most of the movie was actually filmed on sound stages in Los Angeles that had been built to resemble the Bramford’s interior.
This gruesomely dark comedy slasher film by Abel Ferrara perfectly captures the dilapidation of NYC by the late 1970s and features a gritty, washed-out, punk-rock aesthetic. Ferrara stars as Reno Miller, an artist who eventually goes insane and starts randomly killing homeless people with a power drill. Driller Killer also features elements that would become trademarks of Ferrara’s later works such as lesbian sex scenes, Catholic symbolism, and blighted urban landscapes at night.
Met with fevered protests at its release not only due to its insane levels of gore but because if its rank misogyny, Maniac stars Joe Spinell as Frank Zito, a loner who lives in a seedy Brooklyn apartment surrounded by mannequins. Zito had been raised by a single mother who was a prostitute and abused him, but even though she died a few years ago, he still misses her. At night he cruises through Brooklyn and Queens in his Buick, looking for victims to savagely murder. There is one unbearably gory scene where he scalps a woman and another fantasy scene, involving his mannequins coming to life and slowly torturing him to death, that are among the grisliest sequences ever filmed. Because of the film’s extremely low budget, the crew often worked in Manhattan without a permit. In the scene where Frank blows off a man’s head by blasting his shotgun through a car windshield, the crew filmed it and immediately fled the area to avoid arrest.
The miles and miles of NYC’s labyrinthine sewer system form a main “character” in this dystopian tale of homeless people who have become exposed to nuclear radiation and have transformed into humanoid monsters. In one iteration, “C.H.U.D.” is an acronym for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.” But as a former NYC cop and the manager of a homeless shelter begin to research what’s at the root of the phenomenon, they discover boxes in the sewer that are marked “Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal,” implying that the humanoid monsters were created by unethical waste-disposal practices that created the disaster and which the government is desperately trying to cover up.
This black comedy body horror film belongs to a subgenre of horror known as “melt movies,” in which the human body is depicted melting down into goo. In this case, the people who are melting are homeless Brooklyn derelicts who drink a cheap acidic liquor known as “Tenafly Viper” that causes them to melt away in the most gruesome manner imaginable. In one notorious scene, a group of homeless people play “catch” with one of their group’s severed genitals. The Celluloid Highway writes, “Few horror films have such a brazen attitude to such subject matter as rape, castration, and out of control vagrancy. The vagrant community the film depicts is a vile cesspool. We feel not an ounce of sympathy for the street trash of the title. They are either homicidal, rapists, or thieves.”
In this eighth installment of the Friday the 13th franchise, a short-circuit at the bottom of Crystal Lake resurrects Jason Voorhees from the dead once more. He finds the boat whose anchor caused the short-circuit and boards it, murdering its inhabitants one by one. Screenwriter Rob Hedden had originally written scenes to be filmed at the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Madison Square Garden, but producers said that filming so many scenes in NYC would place the film way over budget. Hedden said he agreed with fans who complained that, despite the title, not much of the film was shot in Manhattan.
This is a film that takes the psychological horrors of the Vietnam War and transports them to New York City in the form of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a veteran who served in the Mekong Delta in 1971 and whose entire platoon suffered devastating headaches which compelled them to perform acts of incredible violence. Singer lives in a beaten-down little apartment along with his girlfriend, who grows increasingly estranged from him due to his erratic behavior. Singer later learns that he and his comrades were used as guinea pigs by the US Army’s chemical warfare division, who had dosed them with an experimental drug they called “The Ladder” that removed their natural inhibitions against violence. Some versions of the film feature a caption that states, “It was reported that the hallucinogenic drug BZ was used in experiments on soldiers during the Vietnam war. The Pentagon denied the story.” Location filming was done in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.
Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a ruthless young Florida lawyer who has never lost a case. Although his mother warns him that New York City is a modern-day Babylon, Lomax accepts a job from John Milton (Al Pacino) to relocate to his NYC law firm, which is the most powerful in the world. It takes Kevin a long time—perhaps so long that it’s too late—to realize that “John Milton” is actually the Devil himself and that Kevin has sold his own soul. The movie was filmed all over Manhattan, including at Trump Tower. As “Babylon,” NYC is one of the film’s major characters.
Based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name, American Psycho is set in Manhattan during the rapacious Wall Street greed of the late-1980s yuppie era. Christian Bale stars as Patrick Bateman, a vain, driven, shallow investment banking executive by day and vicious serial killer by night. Although the movie is set in Manhattan, it features only a smattering of establishing shots that were filmed there. Instead, almost all of it was shot in Toronto instead.
Dr. Nathan R. Conrad (Michael Douglas) is a child psychiatrist who lives in an apartment at Broadway and West 73rd Street in Manhattan. Ten years earlier, a group of thieves had stolen a precious gem worth $10 million dollars. When two rogue members of the group abscond with the gem, the remaining members kidnap Conrad’s eight-year-old daughter and give him a mere eight hours to fork over a six-digit security code from a “disturbed” young woman in a local sanitarium. If he can’t provide the actual code at the end of eight hours, his daughter will be murdered.
In this oddly affecting and yet simultaneously disturbing rumination on loyalty and reincarnation, a woman named Anna (Nicole Kidman) had lost her husband Sean ten years prior when he collapsed and died while jogging in Central Park. Ready to get on with her life, Anna accepts a marriage proposal from Joseph, her boyfriend. But on the night of their engagement party, a 10-year-old boy named Sean—just like her former lover—appears and tells her that he is Sean’s reincarnation. The New York Times writes, “The opening sequence of ‘Birth,’ a suave and brooding gothic tale directed by Jonathan Glazer, is a small tour de force. It takes a perfectly ordinary urban moment — a jog through Central Park in wintertime — and turns it into a visual and aural overture for the film’s layered and shifting moods.”
Roosevelt Island is located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. Its only connection to civilization is a Tramway that heads into Manhattan. In the midst of a divorce, Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly) and her daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) move into a crappy little apartment on Roosevelt Island that features a dark, dirty water spot in the bedroom ceiling that keeps leaking and getting worse. When Dahlia starts experiencing migraines and nightmares, she decides to investigate the source of the dark water spot—with tragic consequences.
A going-away party for a young man named Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who has taken a corporate job in Tokyo is disrupted when a massive monster invades Manhattan and brings the city to its knees. The monster also sheds parasitic creatures from its back that capture and devour people. The situation escalates over the night until the US military decides that the only way to stop the monster may be to drop a nuclear bomb on Manhattan. This is a found-footage movie that military authorities find in the rubble. Once they view it, they see at the very end that Rob and his girlfriend had filmed themselves out at Brooklyn’s Coney Island earlier in the day. Behind them, some sort of meteorite falls into the ocean, explaining the monster’s origin.
This found-footage movie by Branden Kramer tracks a woman named Emily (Ashley Benson), a grad student who’d moved to New York after a traumatic breakup with her boyfriend. After she’s settled in a Brooklyn apartment, she comes to realize that someone has hacked all of her electronic devices and is not only spying on her most intimate moments—he’s sharing them with the world. Even more disturbingly, the hacker may be her new boyfriend. The film was shot entirely from the perspective of Ashley’s webcam, her smartphone, and the motion-detecting camera in her video game console.
Noelle (Madeline Quinn) and Addie (Betsey Brown) are a pair of young women who move to a Manhattan apartment entirely unaware of the apartment’s dark history. Then one day a character known only as “The Girl” (Dasha Nekrasova) knocks on the door to tell them that they’re living in an apartment where serial sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein once trafficked and abused girls. They start researching Epstein’s crimes and realize they’ve fallen into a bottomless pit from which there is no escape.
More Horror Movies Based in NYC
- Cat People (1942) at the Central Park Zoo, a Serbian fashion designer (Simone Simon) realizes she has a deep ancestral link to black panthers.
- Sisters (1972) Margot Kidder stars as a beautiful Siamese twin separated from her sister in Brian De Palma’s horror thriller set in New York.
- Inferno (1980) Covens of witches in Rome and NYC are the focus of this horror thriller by Dario Argento.
- Basket Case (1982) a man who was separated from his conjoined brother carries him around in a basket in New York.
- Eyes Wide Shut (1999) while technically an erotic thriller, Stanley Kubrick’s last film has many creepy and horror-like elements, all of which take place in New York City or the surrounding suburbs.
- Murder Party (2007) a Halloween party in New York turns very, very dark.
- Black Swan (2010) two NYC ballerinas (Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis) compete for the lead in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
- Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021) a half-dozen people stuck in a series of labyrinthine rooms struggle to escape.
- Scream VI (2024) the survivors of the Ghostface Killings relocate to New York City.