When supernatural menaces of horror fiction are injected into a Western setting, it creates the horror Western. Writer G. W. Thomas has described how the two combine: “Unlike many other cross-genre tales, the weird Western uses both elements but with very little loss of distinction. The Western setting is decidedly ‘Western’ and the horror elements are obviously ‘horror.'”
Jeff Mariotte’s comic book series Desperadoes has been running, off and on, for a decade now and he still remains bullish about the genre:
As far as Mariotte is concerned, the potential for Weird West stories is limitless. “The West was a weird place. There are ghost towns and haunted mines and when you bring Native American beliefs into it, then the possibilities are even greater.”
In the 1960s, the television series The Wild Wild West brought elements of pulp espionage and science fiction stories to the Old West. The cartoon adventures of the Lone Ranger followed suit by pitting the famous Western hero against mad scientists and other villains not often found in the Western genre, while Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, a supernatural anthology series, featured a handful of Western episodes including “Showdown with Rance McGrew” and “Mr. Denton on Doomsday”. Kung Fu, which followed the adventures of a fugitive Shaolin monk armed only with the show title’s eponymous martial art skill, is another famous example of an unorthodox Western. Perhaps one of the earliest minor examples on the small screen was the anachronistic appearance of the 1946 Willys Jeep “Nellybelle” in the supposedly 19th-century adventures of Roy Rogers during his eponymous 1950s television series.
In comic books a number of heroes had adventures involving monsters, aliens, and costumed supervillains. Marvel Comics characters such as Kid Colt, Rawhide Kid, and Two-Gun Kid all had such adventures. Where Marvel went in for supervillains, DC Comics added more of a horror element to their stories such as Jonah Hex, pushed further in three mini-series from Vertigo written by Joe R. Lansdale. The DC character Tomahawk could also be termed a hero of the Weird West, though his adventures were set in the colonies during the time of the American Revolution.
The term is of recent coinage, but the idea of crossing genres goes back to at least the heyday of pulp magazines. There was at least one series character who could be classified as a Weird West character. Lee Winters was a deputy whose adventures often involved ghosts, sorcery and creatures from Greek mythology. The Winters stories were written by Lon Williams and published in the 1950s. Around that same time, one of the oddest of all Western characters, Six-Gun Gorilla, appeared. This was an actual gorilla who strapped on a pair of Colts to avenge the death of the kindly prospector who had raised him. His adventures appeared in the British story paper The Wizard.
There have also been various Weird West novels including Joe R. Lansdale’s Dead in the West. In this book an unjustly lynched Indian shaman curses the town of Mud Creek, Texas. After dark the dead rise and not even the Reverend Jebediah Mercer can save the inhabitants.
While the origin of the Saint of Killers in the Old West is the only true western element in the comic book Preacher, the series has been described as a “Splatterpunk Western” or a mix of the Western with the Gothic.
In movies, notable Weird West stories include The Valley of Gwangi (1969) which used special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s talents to pit cowboys against dinosaurs. Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966) saw the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid fighting against the notorious vampire. The same year, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter paired another famous outlaw with another famous horror character. The Ghoul Goes West was an unproduced Ed Wood film to star Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the Old West.
An example of the pen-and-paper variety is the horror-hybrid, Deadlands. Set in an alternate 1870s America, the game draws heavily on gothic horror conventions and old Native American lore to derive its sense of the supernatural. Characters can get involved in situations ranging from banks heists to shoot-outs involving vampires and zombies over the course of their adventures.
Video games also use this same motif, one of the earliest horror-Western games being SilverLoad for the PlayStation. The game has a variety of classic horror tropes in it, ranging from werewolves and vampires, to Satanic cults, that the player must contend with nothing more than a trusty six-gun at his hip. In this same vein is the modern PS2/Xbox first-person shooter, Darkwatch, in which the protagonist is himself a vampire, fighting through the west for either his own redemption, or furthering his own damnation.
The PC adventure/puzzle game Alone in the Dark 3 takes place in a western setting, albeit in the 1920s, and features a number of “weird west” staples, with magic, monsters, the undead, and some anachronistic sci-fi elements such as references to nuclear weaponry.
The PC first-person shooter title, Blood, is an occult-horror-comedy hybrid, and sets the player avatar “Caleb” in approximately 1920 (retroactively dated as 1928 in the game’s sequel) as an un-dead gunslinger anti-hero from the late 19th century, who rises from his grave to battle a widespread cult by which he was betrayed and killed when he was a member. Gun play, the undead, horror, the occult, and the underworld are strong elements of the game. The game spawned a sequel, Blood II: The Chosen, although it was much less influenced by the main character’s western back-story. One level of its expansion pack, however, is set in a western frontier town.
Another weird western is the Wild ARMs series – video games that mix together high-fantasy magic and science-fiction technology with Old-West-style gunslinging. Each game changes leads and alters settings (though the world’s name, Filgaia, remains throughout), but always at the core are the ideas of “drifting” and of one’s personalized sense of justice among outlaws.
Red Dead Redemption, a Western-themed video game, enters into the genre of Weird West with its Undead Nightmare add-on. The story revolves around an undead outbreak that has spread across the frontier. Other fantasy elements are new weapons such as holy water, and new mythical mounts, which include a unicorn and the Four Horses of the Apocalypse.
Fallout: New Vegas, a post-apocalyptic game set in the Mojave Desert has an additional perk at the beginning of the game named “Wild Wasteland” that adds various strange occurrences to the game. The game itself could also be considered a Weird West game due to its mixing of Western, Horror, Survival, and Science Fiction styles.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II includes a map for its Zombies mode called Buried. The map takes place in a subterranean ghost town complete with saloon and general store that is located in Angola due to tectonic plate shifting. Naturally the zombies are the reanimated town folk, dressed in period attire.
Ghoultown are a Texan psychobilly band with Spaghetti Western influences. They have released albums like 2001’s Tales from the Dead West with songs like “Death of Jonah Hex”. In turn they produced their own eponymous “vampire-cowboy” comic book, through Bad Moon Studios, which saw an eight-page preview in Texasylum and the first two issues of a planned four-issue miniseries, before the publisher left the comic field.
“Knights of Cydonia” is a song by English rock band Muse. The video clip is filmed and edited in the style of a spaghetti Western film with post-apocalyptic themes.
The 2015 music video for the Brandon Flowers song “Can’t Deny My Love” transposes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 story Young Goodman Brown to a Western frontier setting. Flowers plays an unnamed protagonist who leaves his young wife (played by Evan Rachel Wood) for some unknown errand in the desert, despite her pleas that he stay with her “tonight of all nights.” On his journey he meets a man with a black staff (played by Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs), and later he discovers a group of townspeople carrying out witchcraft-like ceremonies — his wife among them. The protagonist tries to flee when the townspeople notice him, but as they approach the scene instantly vanishes and the man awakes uncertain whether the previous night’s events were real or a dream.