40+ Horror Movies That Take Place in California
Since Hollywood is the center of the global film industry, it’s no coincidence that many films—of all genres—are set in California.
But amid its natural beauty—mountains and deserts and oceans and forests—there was always something about California that seemed a little too sunny for its own good. A lot of scary things have happened in this gigantic state that has had far more than its share of natural disasters, serial killers, and cults.
The theme that ties all the movies in this list together is the Golden State. They either were filmed in California and took place there, or they were filmed somewhere else but take place in California.
For example, The Blob is set in Los Angeles but was filmed in Louisiana. Winchester was set in San Jose, CA but was shot in Melbourne, Australia. The Prowler was filmed in NJ but set in California. Mirror, Mirror was partially set in Iowa but filmed entirely in LA. Popcorn is set in California but was filmed entirely in Jamaica. The Eye was set in LA but mostly shot in Albuquerque.
What’s also interesting is how many of the California “towns” that these movies “take place in” are entirely fictional—Santa Mira, Fairvale, Antonio Bay, Rockbridge, Santa Carla, Arborville, Cedar Creek, Woodsboro, Summer Glen, and Grandsboro are all featured in the films below, but none of them exist in real life.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Dr. Miles Bennell is a physician in the small fictional town of Santa Mira, CA, when he realizes that several townsfolk are reporting symptoms that mimic “Capgras delusion”—the idea that everyone around them has been replaced by identical-looking imposters. Later, at an emergency room in a nearby hospital, a psychiatrist known as Dr. Hill is tasked with listening to a hysterical man who is screaming so loudly that he must be restrained—and it turns out to be Dr. Miles Bennell, who is now also suffering from Capgras delusion himself.
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
An alcoholic and mentally disturbed society woman named Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) is driving late one night deep in the California desert when she spots a giant fireball glowing over the horizon. When she stops the car to investigate, she is attacked by a giant creature. Due to her exposure to the alien, Nancy grows to 50 feet tall—the perfect size to antagonize a cheating husband who hopes to have her confined to an asylum so he can inherit her $50-million estate.
In what is considered by many critics to be the finest film ever made, Alfred Hitchcock made extensive use of the rolling hills and natural beauty of San Francisco—although if one pays attention, the cars in the film are almost always heading down the steep hills rather than up them. James Stewart stars as a man with a fear of heights who finds himself drawn to a gorgeous woman (Kim Novak) who is running from a troubled past. Many of the crucial scenes that evoke the title—a dizziness that comes from a fear of heights—were filmed at a Spanish mission’s bell tower in San Juan Bautista, CA.
In the film that launched the era of modern horror, Janet Leigh stars as a Phoenix secretary who embezzles $40,000 from her boss, then heads to California to share the loot with her lover, Sam Loomis, in the fictional town of Fairvale, CA. She trades her car for another one at a used lot in Bakersfield, then gets trapped in a thunderstorm somewhere out in the remote and vast California desert. She stays at a rickety old lodging establishment called the Bates Motel, where she takes the last shower of her life in what has been called the most-watched scene in film history.
The Birds (1963)
In what appears to be a metaphor for the eternal struggle between modernity and nature, The Birds opens in a San Francisco pet shop, but all of its horror takes place in the sleepy little coastal town of Bodega Bay, CA, which is suddenly seized with violent attacks upon citizens by the local bird population. The film was actually based on a real-life story in August 1961 in the town of Capitola, CA, where a flock of birds who’d eaten toxic algae took to ramming themselves into local buildings in fits of inexplicable rage.
The Fog (1980)
Exactly a century after a clipper ship called the Elizabeth Dane was deliberately sunk by the six founders of the fictional Northern California town of Antonio Bay because its leprous owner refused to establish a nearby leper colony, a thick, creepy, luminous fog rolls over the town. Contained in that fog are the ghosts of the sailors who were killed in that tragedy. The Fog was directed by John Carpenter and stars reliable scream queens Jamie Lee Curtis and Adrienne Barbeau.
Night of the Demon (1980)
Northern California and Southern Oregon are tall timber country; it is no coincidence that deep in these forests lurk ancient rumors of a giant smelly primate known alternately as the sasquatch or Bigfoot. In Night of the Demon, a young woman who suspects her father was murdered by Bigfoot approaches an anthropologist who leads a search team to prove the creature’s existence, unaware that the creature is systematically aiming to wipe them out one at a time.
The Howling (1981)
In this Joe Dante horror film, a female TV news anchor from LA finds herself being stalked by a serial killer. She cuts a deal with the police where she agrees to meet her stalker at a seedy porn theater in LA, but that plot falls through. She is then sent, along with her husband, to a remote mountain lodge in California that appears to be populated entirely by werewolves.
The Prowler (1981)
Although The Prowler was filmed entirely in the quiet beach town of Cape May, NJ, its story begins in the fictional California town of Avalon in 1945, when a woman named Rosemary and her new boyfriend Roy are impaled by a prowler in an Army uniform as they seek some privacy on Lover’s Lane. Then it flashes forward 35 years to Cape May, NJ, where a mysterious man in Army fatigues is stalking a new group of teens.
The Forest (1982)
Shot in California’s Sequoia National Park—whose massively wide and tall trees are literally the largest living things on the planet—The Forest revolves around a woods-dwelling cannibal who preys upon visiting couples. First he kills an elderly couple who were hiking in a remote area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, then he sets his sights on two couples from LA who are on a hiking trip. One of the couples decides to make camp near a waterfall in the midst of a thunderstorm, unaware that children’s ghosts are watching them from inside a cave near the waterfall.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Unlike most of the Halloween films, where are set in the fictional town of Haddonfield, IL, Season of the Witch centers around a toy and costume company in the fictional town of Santa Mira, CA. The company, Silver Shamrock Novelties, produces extremely popular Halloween masks. A doctor named Daniel Challis believes that the toy company is behind a recent incident where a local shop owner was attacked by a strange group of suit-wearing men in masks.
In the late 1950s, a Plymouth Fury automobile at a Chrysler assembly plant in Detroit was involved in an auto worker’s mysterious death right as his corpse fell out of a car fresh off the assembly line. Fast-forward to 1978, and the car is being refurbished by a nerdy teen in Rockbridge, CA who learns to his dismay that the car, which for some reason is named Christine, has been involved in more than one death. Christine was mostly shot in Los Angeles, with some scenes shot in Santa Clarita and Irwindale.
Night of the Comet (1984)
In this teen-oriented sci-fi horror film, two Valley Girls—a very popular stereotype of vapid, gum-chewing girls in the 1980s from California’s San Fernando Valley—must save humanity and themselves from a group of scientists who have used cannibal zombies to wipe out nearly all human life on the planet. While the world is falling apart around her, one of the two girls—Regina “Reggie” Belmont—seems more upset about that fact that she has all top ten of the highest scores on her boyfriend’s movie theater’s video game except for the sixth spot—since she’s from the Valley, yes, she’s that superficial.
The Lost Boys (1987)
The title refers to the Lost Boys characters in J. M. Barrie’s short stories about Peter Pan and Neverland—just like vampires, they never grow up. Two young brothers travel with their mother, who was recently divorced, to the small coastal town of Santa Carla, CA to live with their weird old grandfather. They slowly realize that there are quite a few vampires living in Santa Carla. The film was actually shot in Santa Cruz, CA, whose famous boardwalk has made it the site of many films.
Prince of Darkness (1987)
Directed, written, and scored by John Carpenter, Prince of Darkness was shot in Los Angeles over the course of 30 days. The plot involves a priest who invites a quantum physicist and his students to attend a meeting of the “Brotherhood of Sleep” in the basement of an old LA monastery. The organization was said to be able to communicate through dreams. But when the group finds an old canister in the church and opens it, they let loose a force of evil that threatens to doom humanity.
The Blob (1988)
A remake of the 1958 film of the same name, which was set and filmed in rural Pennsylvania, The Blob now shifts its focus to the fictional town of Arborville, CA, where a military satellite has crashed. A slime-like substance pervades the crash area that consumes everything it touches like a form of flesh-eating acid. As government scientists attempt to keep The Blob contained, a mass panic ensues. Interesting side note: Even though the movie is set in California, it was filmed entirely in Louisiana.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
A group of malicious space aliens who look like circus clowns land in a tiny California town and proceed to kidnap, kill, and eat their prey. As with The Lost Boys, part of Killer Klowns was filmed at the world-famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk; most of it was filmed in Watsonville, CA.
They Live (1988)
This sci-fi action horror written and directed by John Carpenter focuses on a drifter who is only referred to as “Nada” who shows up in Los Angeles one day wearing special sunglasses that allow him to see that the world’s elites are actually space aliens who control the planet by spreading misinformation via mass media. The drifter teams up with a group of rebels on the city’s outskirts and plots the overthrow of “them.” Havoc breaks loose after a hacker takes over television broadcasts and warns the world that they’ve been brainwashed into submission.
Mirror, Mirror (1990)
Set in both Iowa and Los Angeles but filmed entirely in Los Angeles, Mirror, Mirror—originally titled The Black Glass—traces its story arc back to the 1950s, when a girl named Mary Weatherford stabbed her own sister to death in front of a large mirror. A few decades later, a shy goth girl named Megan moves from LA into the Iowa house with her widowed mom. When she sees the mirror dripping blood, she realizes it is controlled by demonic forces.
In a sleepy little California college town, a group of students decide to host an all-night horror marathon at a seedy local theater. Then they realize they’re trapped inside a real-life horror movie when they find themselves locked in the theater and being picked off one by one by a deranged maniac. The film’s “Dreamland Theatre” is actually called the Ward Theatre and is located in Kingston, Jamaica. In fact, the entire film was filmed in Jamaica, which helps explain the predominance of reggae music on the soundtrack.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Unlike most of the other Nightmare on Elm Street movies—which were filmed in Los Angeles but set in the town of Springwood, Ohio—Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is set in Los Angeles. Instead of terrorizing people in Springwood, Freddy Krueger taunts, harasses, and assaults people in the Hollywood movie industry who are responsible for making the Freddy Krueger films—which is about as meta as a film plot can get.
A fictional virus resembling Ebola that originated in Africa comes to the fictional California town of Cedar Creek via a white-headed capuchin monkey that is smuggled into the country. A worker at an animal-testing lab becomes infected with the virus after attempting to sell the monkey on the black market; instead he releases the monkey into the woods. Meanwhile, a hospital worker in Cedar Creek becomes infected after accidentally breaking open the glass vial containing the lab worker’s tainted blood.
Scream 1-4 (1996-2011)
All of the first four Scream movies were directed by Wes Craven and set in the small fictional town of Woodsboro, CA. All four films follow Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) as she bravely struggles against a series of murderers who adopt the “Ghostface” persona to stalk and kill their prey. The first four Scream films also star Courteney Cox and David Arquette and have grossed over $600 million worldwide.
Lost Highway (1997)
In this neo-noir outing by surrealist director David Lynch, a series of anonymously submitted videotapes predict that a popular musician will be convicted of murder. Nearly all of the film was shot in Los Angeles—including at Lynch’s home, which served as the backdrop for Fred and Renee’s mansion—although the scenes of the Lost Highway Hotel were filmed way out at the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel in super-spooky Death Valley in California, a godforsaken place that is the dead end to every lost highway.
Apt Pupil (1998)
Based on a 1982 Stephen King novella of the same name, Apt Pupil is set in Southern California in the 1980s. A high school student named Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) befriends Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), who is a fugitive Nazi war criminal living under an assumed name. Since Todd is obsessed with World War II and the Holocaust, he attempts to extract as much information as possible from Kurt. In what director Bryan Singer describes as “a study in cruelty,” Todd strings Kurt along by threatening to turn him in to the authorities.
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
Jamie Lee Curtis returns to reprise her role as Laurie Strode from the 1978 classic Halloween. In the interim between the first film and this one, she has become the dean of an elite Northern California private school as she lives under an assumed name after faking her death to avoid Michael Myers. But despite the passage of time, geography, and her new identity, Laurie finds herself still haunted by the memory of her near-death experiences.
Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999)
In the fictional town of Grandsboro, CA, Leigh Ann Watson is a lonely and maladjusted high-school girl whose deepest desire is to become her class Valedictorian—and nothing will stop her in her quest, even if she has to murder a teacher—Ms. Eve Tingle—to get what she wants. Filming locations include the California towns of Los Angeles, El Segundo, Culver City, and Pasadena.
Murder by Numbers (2002)
Two rich kids at a California high school—one a super-popular jock, the other a brainy nerd—conspire to commit the “perfect” murder, only to find themselves matching wits with a brilliant murder detective. California filming locations for Murder by Numbers include San Luis Obispo, Calabasas, Los Osos, Morro Bay, Montrose, Altadena, Rancho Palos Verdes, and Los Angeles.
Paranormal Activity 1-3, 5-6 (2007-2015)
This immensely profitable franchise centers around a couple who are tormented by demonic forces at their home. All but the fourth installment—which was filmed in Henderson, Nevada—were shot in different California locations. Paranormal Activity (2007) was set in San Diego; Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) was set in Carlsbad, CA; Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) is set in a Latino neighborhood in Oxnard, CA; and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015) shows the dogged couple relocating to Santa Rosa, CA in a desperate attempt to flee their evil tormentors.
A married couple sneaks away to spend some time at a remote mountain hotel, only to realize the place is wired with surveillance cameras and that unless they escape, they will be the victims of a snuff film. The motel is called the Pinewood Motel, and although it’s never explicitly stated in the film where it’s located, it’s mentioned at some point that the couple lives in California.
Zodiac is based on what is perhaps the most famous unsolved serial-killing case in American history—that of the elusive Zodiac Killer, who taunted police and newspapers in the late 1960s and early 1970s around the San Francisco Bay area. It pays special attention to Robert Graysmith, a San Francisco-based cartoonist who was amazingly able to piece together more of the Zodiac puzzle than either police detectives or newspaper reporters.
Babysitter Wanted (2008)
In a tiny rural town way, way in Northern California near the Oregon border, a young girl (Sarah Thompson) is tormented over the course of one night by a mysterious entity as she babysits an unfamiliar child at a farmhouse. Babysitter Wanted was filmed in such breathtaking locations as Lake Shastina, Montague, Yreka, and Weed, CA.
The Eye (2008)
A female concert violinist in Los Angeles named Sydney Wells was blinded by her sister Helen at the tender age of five. A cornea transplantation proves to be successful—too successful, because not only can she see the world around her, she can now also see the spirits of dead people. Most of the primary filming was done in Albuquerque, NM, although shooting was also performed in Vancouver, BC, and downtown Los Angeles.
The Good Doctor (2011)
Martin E. Blake is a young and superficially charming British medical student who moves to Southern California to start his residency at a hospital. But what was originally perceived as charm is actually intense narcissism, and Blake begins to alienate all of his coworkers. He takes a special interest in a young female kidney patient which seems well intentioned until others realize he’s messing with her medication and winds up killing her.
A group of eight friends are gathered at a California dinner party one night when a comet passes overhead. After the power goes out, they use blue glow sticks to navigate their way around the darkened neighborhood. To their horror, they realize that another house in the neighborhood is an alternate-reality version of their house, with alternate-reality versions of themselves huddled inside of it.
This is the End (2013)
In this rapture-themed horror comedy, a half-dozen LA celebs, all of them appearing as themselves, get stuck at James Franco’s house after the apocalypse strikes Los Angeles. They endure earthquakes, fight demons, and watch several people get sucked up to heaven, where the Backstreet Boys are the house party band. Sometimes when I’m having a bad day I just watch this scene.
The Purge (2013) and The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
In both the original and the sequel, a very wealthy California family gets held hostage for the crime of harboring a fugitive during the 12-hour “Purge,” a period of time where all crime is legal. The original film was shot in only 20 days on a paltry $3 million budget; both films were shot in a gated community in Chatsworth CA.
Willow Creek (2013)
Whether or not you believe that Bigfoot is real, Willow Creek, CA is a real town in Humboldt County, CA, which hosts an annual Bigfoot festival and also hosts numerous tours where visitors can plunge deep into the Six Rivers National Forest looking for a glimpse of the fabled giant forest-dwelling primate. Part of the film is shot in documentary “found footage” style and mocks all the kitschy Bigfoot memorabilia of this tourist town—but then the film gets serious after a local woman goes missing.
A group of friends who cluster together in separate houses in Fresno, CA find themselves drawn into the repulsive depths of the “Dark Web” when a mysterious entity takes over the account of their recently deceased friend. Although each room was set in a different location, all scenes were filmed in the same house in Santa Clarita, CA.
The Love Witch (2016)
A spellbindingly beautiful modern witch named Elaine, distraught over the death of her husband Jerry, drives to Arcata, CA, to embark on a new life. Then again, she just may be faking her distress, as she gives some indication that she killed him. Once in Arcata, she rents an apartment in a Victorian house and continues to entertain male suitors—that is, until she kills them.
The Remains (2016)
A family moves into an old Victorian home, which is always a mistake in horror movies. Up in the attic, they chance upon an antique chest that is possessed by a demonic spirit. One by one, the family falls prey to sinister forces. The Remains was filmed entirely on location at a house on Melrose Avenue in Monrovia, CA.
Bird Box (2018)
Five years after an invisible evil entity has driven most inhabitants of the planet to kill themselves, a mother and her two kids struggle to reach a safe space where they don’t have to worry about being murdered. Much of the wilderness scenery was shot in the Smith River in far Northern California. Other scenes were shot in Monrovia, Santa Cruz, and Claremont, CA.
Dame Helen Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester, heiress to the firearms company fortune. In the year 1906 and living in a San Jose, CA mansion, she is slowly driven mad by what she suspects are the tortured souls of people killed by Winchester guns. Although the “Winchester Mystery House” in the film is located in San Jose, CA, all of the filming for Winchester was done in Melbourne, Australia.