Posted on February 10, 2017

Death on the Roads: Defining The Highway Horror Film

Guest Post

The Interstate Highways Act of 1956 may not automatically sound like the most fascinating topic in the world, but the unprecedented act of road building that followed its passage actually had a much bigger impact upon the American horror film than one might think. What I’ve called the “Highway Horror” tradition encompasses a range of films that critique the ostensibly positive benefits of the culture of mass automobility that the Interstate Highway System helped inaugurate. In the Highway Horror film, journeys made via the highway inevitably lead to uncanny, murderous, and horribly transformative experiences. The American landscape, though supposedly “tamed” by the highway, is by dint of its very accessibility, rendered hostile, and encounters with other travellers (and with individuals whose roadside businesses depend upon highway traffic) almost always have sinister outcomes.

Before the interstate highway system was constructed, on the orders of President Eisenhower, the quality of American roads was often extremely poor, and travel in rural areas was at best arduous and, at worst, actively dangerous. Poorly constructed and maintained thoroughfares often became entirely impassable during winter (Reid 2006). The new network of well-maintained and well-constructed roads built in the years between 1956 and 1990  provided Americans with an ability to freely move around the entire nation. During this same period the car also assumed the vitally important practical and symbolic function it continues to hold to this day: as Mikita Brottman argues, in a telling conjunction, “…it has become as iconic to U.S. culture as the gun.” An increased sense of mobility began to characterise American life, and the car culture facilitated by the highways seemed to epitomise ‘[…] an abiding faith in progress; and the belief that individualism is superior to collectivism and conformity’ (Lutz and Lutz Fernandez).

The highway system and what it represented attracted both praise and condemnation. Many of the cultural commentators who had critiqued the new suburban housing developments springing up all over the nation also condemned the upheaval caused by the highways. For instance Lewis Mumford, who famously  described the suburbs in downright dystopian terms in The City in History (1961) suggested in 1964 that in some places, “the building of a highway has about the same result upon vegetation and human structures as the passage of a tornado or the blast of an atom bomb.” The anxieties articulated in the Highway Horror film are therefore in some respects very similar to those found in the Suburban Gothic: they also reflect profound unease about the transformation of the American landscape in the post-World War II era. Here, the supposedly “empty space” of the highway has a multitude of anxieties projected upon it, and the seemingly endless possibilities of the open road narrow until only a terrifying struggle for survival remains.

The “Highway Horror” tradition can divided into four distinct sub-categories, each of which articulates a specific set of anxieties related to the role of the highways in modern American life.

The Motel Horror Film. The focus in these narratives is on events taking place in and around the roadside stopping places surrounding the highways, and in particular, motels. The most famous example is of course  Psycho (1960), the obvious template for almost all future motel-set horror films. Movies such as Identity (2006),  The Devil’s Rejects (2005) Bug (2006), Vacancy (2007),  The Helpers (2012) and bleak “childhood of a serial killer” flick The Boy (2015 – not to be confused with the 2016 film of the same name) all depict the American motel as a site in which innocent travellers fall victim to random acts of terrible violence, usually inflicted upon them by characters who inhabit these “stopping places” on a permanent basis and are subject to catastrophic  identity slippage as a result.

The Highways Nemesis Film. Stephen Spielberg’s 1971 classic Duel provides the originating template here. In the film, which is based on Richard Matheson’s allegorical story of the same name, “David Mann”  (Dennis Weaver), a mild-mannered white collar suburbanite just trying to get from A to B on a work trip, is pursued by a sinister, anonymous  trucker who for unknown reasons seems intent on his destruction. Like Duel, subsequent films in this tradition – including Joy Ride (2001), The Hitcher (1986), and Monster Man (2003) – essentially revolve around crises of middle-class masculinity played out on the highways, which are presented as a lawless new frontier dominated by resentful blue-collar males.

The Highway Serial Killer Narrative. Here, the anonymity and freedom of movement facilitated by the highways makes them the perfect hunting ground for remorseless killers characterised by their rootlessness and compulsive mobility. One of the best films in this category is John McNaughton’s Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), a film in which the protagonist’s absolute lack of emotional connection to any one place or person means that the repetitive murder of strangers and friends alike is rendered meaningless and apparently unstoppable. Other notable examples include Kalifornia (1993), Matthew Bright’s acerbic re-imagining of the Little Red Riding Hood story, Freeway (1996), Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), and Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance (2008).

The Fatal Car Crash: the final category of Highway Horror film focuses on one of the most obvious and yet most overlooked ramifications arising from the culture of mass automobility inaugurated by the construction of the interstate highway system: they all feature protagonists who have already lost their lives on the road. The foundational film in this tradition is Herk Harvey’s cult classic Carnival of Souls (1962), a key example of what Aviva Briefel (2009) has usefully characterised as the “spectral incognizance” (or, “I didn’t know I was already dead!”) tradition. Later examples include Soul Survivors (2001) and Reeker (2005), as well as the marvellously witty Dead End (2003) and Wind Chill, which features a sympathetic turn from a pre-fame Emily Blunt (2007). The 2015 anthology film Southbound, in which a group of seemingly disparate characters traverse an uncanny highway upon which all manner of unlikely and grotesque encounters take place, represents a particularly intriguing recent take of this trope. Though these films represent the most overtly fantastical variety of Highway Horror, they also capture the reality of the fact that simply driving from point A to point B places our lives in danger. The inability of the victims to grasp the fate that has befallen them also arguably reflects the willing societal blindness towards the tremendous human cost of our dependence upon cars.

Highway Horror narratives have, from the very beginning, been stories about ordinary people who play by the rules but suffer regardless. The sophisticated new road network built for them by the representatives of federal authority leads not to happiness, prosperity, freedom and contentment, but to torture, humiliation, and death. The supposedly American traits of restlessness, faith in progress, and the inherent positivity of forward momentum are poisonously inverted. If the Suburban Gothic narrative warns us to look beyond the seemingly placid exterior of middle-class prosperity, and the Rural Gothic reminds us that the American “wilderness” is both an interior and exterior space, then the Highway Horror sub-genre suggests that the mammoth engineering feat which in so many ways epitomised post-war progress and ambition was a road that lead to death and chaos, rather than happiness and fulfilment.


Works Cited:

Briefel, “What Some Ghosts Don’t Know: Spectral Incognizance in the Horror Film,” Narrative Vol. 17, No. 1 (January, 95-108.

Brottman (2001) ed. Car Crash Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

Lutz and A. Fernandez Lutz (2010) Car Jacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effects Upon Our Lives (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).

Mumford (1964), The Highway and the City (Surrey: Bookprint Limited).

Reid (2006), “Paving America From Coast to Coast” Civil Engineering (June), 38.


Bernice M. Murphy is lecturer in Popular Literature in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, and director of the M.Phil in Popular Literature. Her research focuses on representations of place and space in American horror and gothic narratives. This piece is extracted from The Highway Horror Film (Palgrave Pivot, 2014). She has also published books on The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness  (2013) and The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture (2009). Twitter: @MurphGothic

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