The everlasting charm of the train in thriller & horror cinema

Exploring the train in the movies as decor, a narrative device and symbol

Jelle Havermans
9 min readNov 3, 2021

One of the scenes that made me fall in love with cinema was that iconic moment in North By Northwest (1959) in which Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie-Saint) in the dining car of a train heading for Chicago. There is something timeless about this undeniably erotic scene, in which Roger — on the run after accidentally being caught up in an international conspiracy — meets up with Eve, a seductress CIA agent who is sent after him. Their ambiguous dialogue and meaningful glances beautifully display the chemistry between the two Hollywood legends, while the atmospheric decor adds to the ambiance; the American plains are rolling past in the background as the leads only have eyes for each other. When they later sleep together in Roger’s car, the train enters a dark tunnel; a visual pun which Hitchcock considered ‘one of his finest, naughtiest achievements’.

Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill and Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall In North By North West (1959)

Hitchcock clearly had an affinity with trains, since he made two other thrillers in which the modern mode of transport plays a vital part. The Thirty Nine Steps (1935) was based on the book of the same name and is often considered a precursor for Hitchcock’s American work. In this black-and-white film, the Canadian general Richard Hannay uses a train to escape from his enemies. Hitchcocks 1938 picture The Lady Vanishes (based on the book The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White) takes place entirely on an old-fashioned luxury train. That many people find a mystery taking place on a moving decor thrilling, is proven by the endless list of mystery and detective books in which a train functions as a primary location. The obvious reason for that is practical for narrative reasons: unless the train stops, no one can go in, and no one can leave. The Lady Vanishes effectively uses the space of the train as a decor — providing a feeling of confinement and suspense. The suspects are all stuck in the small but decadent cars as they get closer to their destination, both literally and figuratively.

By the time Hitchcock released Strangers On A Train in 1951, he was a well-established director, having long ago exchanged his British homeland for the sunny hills of Hollywood. Still, like he allegedly refused to stop wearing his three-piece suit while directing in the Californian heat, the British filmmaker never seemed fully able to let go of the classical, theatrical movie sets, which look and feel as British as a cup of earl grey with a splash of milk. The plot of Strangers On A Train revolves around tennis player Guy Haines, who is eager to divorce his promiscuous wife Miriam so he can marry the daughter of a US Senator. On a train, psychopath Bruno Antony recognizes Haines and casually reveals his idea for a murder scheme: two perfect strangers meet and “swap murders” — Bruno suggests to kill Miriam and Guy kill Bruno’s hated father. Guy is amused by the idea but doesn’t take it seriously. Later, he finds out that Bruno, however, was deadly serious and went ahead with the plan.

Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) chat in the dining car in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train (1951)

When watching these train scenes in movies from a bygone era, it is not hard to feel a little nostalgic about them, especially in a time when trains have become an inferior mode of transport for long distance in large parts of the world. Although the train still holds merit as a popular mode of commuter transport in Asia (Japan holds the global top score for railroad infrastructure efficiency) and Europe, the United States have clearly chosen Greyhounds and (domestic) flights over the more environmentally friendly alternative of the railroad. The trains as depicted in many classical Hollywood movies, however, beam with an atmosphere of luxury and decadence, long lost since then. Just as in Strangers On A Train, a conversation with a stranger sets everything in motion in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995). Jesse (Ethan Hawke) tries to convince Celine (Julie Delpy) to get off a train and spend the evening wandering around a foreign city with him. ‘If I turn out to be some kind of psycho, you just get on the next train,’ he jokes.

That there might actually be violent psychos lurking on trains, is an idea that The Midnight Meat Train (2008) uses as its premise, which was based on a Clive Barker short story. The underrated film stars Bradley Cooper, relatively unknown at the time, who plays an aspiring photographer investigating a string of murders in the New York underground. The antagonist is a broad-shouldered but sharply dressed serial killer (Vinnie Jones), who wields a giant meat hammer to butcher late night travelers with. The successful South Korean zombie horror flick Train To Busan (2016) uses a high speed train as the stage for a familiar but entertaining story about a diverse group of people that have to survive while a deadly zombie virus spreads across the coaches.

Train Terror
The train has proven itself a popular element in cinema, not in the least because its assocations with bygone eras and mystery. Perhaps its prevalence could be further explained by the fact that movies embody constant movement (as trains do, too). It’s not hard to see a correlation between the movie — best experienced on a rectangular frame, and the passing landscape that one sees from a train window. The shape of classical analog film roll also slightly resembles the looks of a train — with the rows of images interpretable as endless train compartments. And one cannot write about trains and movies without mentioning the infamous myth of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895): one of the first publicly shown motion pictures. The story goes that when the film was first shown, the audience was so shocked by the moving image of a life-sized train coming directly at them, that people screamed in terror and ran to the back of the room. Although the truths behind this myth are often debated, it is noteworthy that the first appearance of a train in cinema caused shock and horror amongst its audience, turning the short accidentally into an unexpected horror short.

L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895) supposedly terrorised viewers on its premiere.

Another milestone in cinematic history that only arrived a few years later was The Great Train Robbery (1903), which was only twelve minutes long but turned out to be a major commercial success for The Edison Company. Historians have cited The Great Train Robbery as a popular early film that collects numerous important Western tropes, such as “elements of fisticuffs, horseback pursuit and gunplay.” Although the train occurs in countless Westerns, its presence wasn’t limited to any specific movie genre. Many beloved mainstream movies have used the train in one way or another. Harry Potter and his friends travel to Hogwartz using the Hogwartz Express, for which the romantic Jacobite steam train in Scotland was used. Another example of a famous franchise which used the train effectively as a set peice is Indiana Jones. In a thrilling scene from Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, Harrison Ford chases his enemies on a moving train.

Despite the fact that the train frequently occurs in all film genres, it seems to be featured most in the thriller and horror genre. Aside from associations with mystery and nostalgia (as mentioned earlier) an element that explains the railroad’s prominence in so many thrillers and horror films is plot-related: the train allows a relatively anonymous way of travelling long distance and therefore provides an interesting means for writers. At airports, one needs passports and easily traceable tickets. On a train, one can travel in (relative) anonymity and hide in a private car till the destination is reached. In A Perfect Murder (1998), a loose remake of Dial M For Murder, a businessman (Michael Douglas) kills the man that’s blackmailing him in the anonymity of his private car; and slips out unseen after. The scene itself could be interpreted as a nod to Strangers On A Train, where the two main characters discuss ‘a perfect murder’.

In the brilliant but largely forgotten TV movie Citizen X (1995) — which was based on the hunt for Soviet Russia’s most prolific serial killer Andrej Tsjikatilo — the murderer lurks around railroad stations where he preys upon the young and unsuspecting. After a fruitless investigation of multiple years, head investigator Burakov devises a plan to blanket almost all railroad stations in the area where the killer is active with conspicuous uniformed men to discourage him. Three small stations, however, are deliberately left unattended, except for undercover agents. A plainclothes officer finally discovers Chikatilo at the back of the station, as he returns from the woods, having just killed his final victim.

In HBO’s tv-movie Citizen X (1995), head investigators finally catch the killer by planting undercover agents at small stations where he selects his victims.

In the aesthetically pleasing but ultimately disappointing remake of The Oriental Express (2017), based on Agathe Christie’s classic novel, a murder is committed on the train, prompting detective Hercule Poirot to investigate the many suspicious characters that reside in its many cars. Unfortunately, the movie proved that traditional niceties are not always enough to make a who-dunnit compelling; things are not helped by the apparent need of the director to (literally) stop the train as often as possible, breaking the flow of the film and disrupting its sense of confinement. In The Girl On The Train (2016), Emily Blunt beautifully plays an alcoholic that aimlessly rides the commute after she loses her job and is left by her husband. From the window, she romanticizes the suburban live of a beautiful couple she passes by on a daily basis. One day, she spots a strange man kissing the wife of the home she is so particulary fixated on. A few days later, the papers report that the beautiful blonde she has seen kissing a stranger, has gone missing. Just as the viewer, Blunts character is a voyeur. In contrast to Hitchcocks train movies and Agathe christies Murder On The Orient Express, this film is not so much concerned with what happens on the train, but with what happens outside of it… and the flashes of a hidden world that can be perceived through its windows. The train itself is presented quite realistically in the film; it is always busy with tired commuters, who judge Emily — looking more disheveled every day — as she sips vodka from a plastic bottle. The idea that one could see something crucial by simply staring out of a window appeals to the imagination, especially considering the fact that 99% of all commuters nowadays are glued to their phones.

Emily Blunt plays an alcoholic that becomes entangled in a shocking mystery in The Girl On The Train (2016)

In Brian DePalma’s Carlito’s Way (1993), the train is nor decor nor a plot tool. Instead, it is a metaphor. In the final act of the movie, Carlito (Al Pacino) almost seems able to escape his treacherous gangster’s life, but he is eventually betrayed and killed by an assassin, just before he can get on the train to Miami with his pregnant sweetheart Gail. The train symbolizes an unattainable goal; a fantasy of retirement in the sun… of simply running away from one’s problems. Carlito’s Way is a Greek tragedy disguised as a gangster’s tale; as is made clear in the first scene, the film’s flawed hero will never escape the demons of his past. When Carlito is wheeled away on a gurney, dying, his crying lover gets on the train with a bag full of cash, riding off to a new life. As he leaves his final breath, Carlito peacefully stares at a billboard with a sunset on it… which reads ‘Escape to Paradise.’



Jelle Havermans

Jelle Havermans (1994) is a visual artist and writer. He writes about horror, true crime and the history of photography and film.