The Hitchhiker: it’s a staple of The Twilight Zone, a quintessential episode shown during every marathon. It’s eerie and yet relatable and has a whopper of a punchline. Inger Stevens plays Nan Adams, a young woman driving cross country when somewhere in Pennsylvania, her tire has a blow-out resulting in her needing a mechanic. This is where we join Nan, and believe me, this is a prime example of how a favorite episode may not be a best episode. “Favorites” often defy logic!
Maybe the problem is that I’ve seen The Sixth Sense, but when I’d first seen this… and, in fact, probably up until the tenth time I’d seen this episode… I hadn’t seen that movie. The issue is that the movie does an amazing job creating a world for a dead guy to inhabit. Bruce Willis’ Malcolm Crowe interacts with precisely no one (barring Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear). Oh, you don’t realize it until the end but every interaction is cleverly disguised to be a non-interaction. It’s an amazing visual treat that warrants a second viewing, but once it’s known, it can’t be forgotten and it changes the way you view the movie for every subsequent viewing. Now let’s look at Nan.
Nan opens the episode interacting with a mechanic who says she should be calling for a hearse, not a mechanic. Thus, he knows she’s alive by the mere fact of acknowledging the alternative. Interestingly this is where she first sees the specter of death, that vague scarecrow man who stalks her for the rest of her journey. (Her monologue is both poetic and creepy.) She then goes to a diner where the Waiter of Close Talking leans in and gives her theories on why hitchhiking on the turnpike is a bad idea. (Dude, back up!) She then goes to the Gas-Eats garage, run by Crotchety McDouchebag, who actually advises this helpless, lovely lady to only come back if she gets mugged. (Comically, she sees the sign for food and gas but runs in the opposite direction!) Then she meets with Popeye the Shoeless Wonder who actually gets in a car with her and drives across the state. He didn’t drive the car from the passenger seat! Each of these people have very distinct interactions with Nan. Only when she calls her mom and gets a woman she doesn’t know does the truth dawn on her and only because the woman says Nan died 6 days ago. But even that interaction is an interaction and I was annoyed because she never once says to the woman, “what do you mean? I am her daughter!” She merely accepts that the strange man who quotes Frank Sinatra is death and she finally decides to go with him. (“Going my way?”) While it’s a great episode, it’s the tension that makes it great, not the story. The story makes little sense! Was the whole adventure in her head? Was this sort of an inverted Sixth Sense? Maybe the mechanic, the waiter, the grump and the sailor are all in her head? But that means she wandered the earth for 6 days as a ghost? No, this one doesn’t compute. I love it because it’s a good build-up to the punchline; I’m sure that’s why most people love it.
Well, maybe there’s another reason I have to acknowledge. I don’t deny that the tension is amazing, but I can’t help but wonder how much of it was my being taken by Nan herself. Inger Stevens was a lovely woman with seemingly dark eyes contrasting nicely with her blonde locks; adorable freckles covered her nose and at least one dimple appeared when she smiled completing this image of a sweet, vulnerable beauty. Her horror is felt so acutely, that you just want to be there to protect her. So I was horrified to find that she was picked up by death, not by that eerie scarecrow man, but the real deal. Inger died at the all-too-young age of 35 of a mix of drugs and alcohol. It felt like a devastating loss to the silver screen. Upon reading this, I couldn’t help but ponder how much of her life was plagued by some unseen form that pursued her until she died; depression or some other equally formless, vague thing. At least we can say that this oft-repeated episode has immortalized the beautiful Inger Stevens. She’ll never be forgotten as long as this series remains a staple of our television history and will remain beautiful and young, dimpled and vulnerable for all time in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
The Hitch-Hiker only really has one idea, but it plays on several different fears: loneliness, isolation, vulnerability, hopelessness, a feeling of being pursued by somebody, being the victim of a stalker, allowing a potentially dangerous stranger into your life, and finally the one that absolutely everyone can relate to, death.
The representation of these fears is a man thumbing a lift, which sounds innocuous enough until he keeps appearing, miles from the place he was previously standing. That takes the story into the realm of either the supernatural or the victim’s insanity. Late in the game, Nan tries to cobble together some kind of a theory about how he’s getting lifts in faster cars and overtaking her, but she must realise she’s clutching at the thinnest of straws. But to admit what’s really happening is to admit helplessness, and instead of doing that she runs away. I think a lot of viewers will relate to that impulse. When something frightening happens, it’s only natural to look for a way to escape, however illogical that might be in any given circumstance. There is no logic in Nan taking a side road to try to escape the hitch-hiker, but fear doesn’t work like that.
One thing that can help with a fear, though, is to share it, and I think there’s a lesson to be learnt, buried away deep in this episode. Nan won’t allow herself to stop, rest and share her troubles until she’s absolutely desperate and by that time appears to be verging on insanity. The key moment here is when the sailor Nan picks up offers to take over the driving, which is surely a lifeline to her, and yet she fails to accept that offer and he ends up abandoning her out of fear for his own life. It’s perhaps the one part of the episode where the writer’s message becomes a little confused. At this point her helplessness no longer seems inevitable, and yet she rejects the help on offer. It’s almost like Serling didn’t know quite how to say something about trusting strangers, and when you stop and think about it there was an obvious and perhaps insurmountable problem facing him, a barrier to delivering a clear message on the subject. He could have made a point here about living, breathing humans presenting a very real threat in comparison with our imagined fears, and for a while I thought he was going to do that, with the sailor getting uncomfortably close to Nan in the car, focussing all his attention on her in a way that makes the viewer nervous that he could pose a threat, and yet Nan is oblivious to any risk because she is so terrified of her supernatural foe. That expectation is thoroughly subverted, with the sailor unwilling to remain in her company even when she offers herself to him, but Serling also stops short of a fable about the need to trust strangers, and it’s pretty obvious why he wouldn’t want to do that. In the end, this aspect of the episode is a bit muddied, and that was probably inevitable.
The twist in the tale is of course magnificent, and a prime example of the strength of this short-form anthology format. We don’t get everything spelt out for us, because there isn’t time to do that, so we are left to draw our own conclusions about some of the things we have just watched. If Nan was dead since the accident, what have we just been watching? Were those real people interacting with a ghost? It’s possible, and they did seem awfully real, but so can people in our dreams, and I think that’s what we are probably supposed to take from this. The big clue comes when Nan drives through a roadblock and then just keeps driving. Where is the obstruction up ahead of her? This is a moment that represents the illogic of a dream world. From the very start of the episode, we are surely seeing a fantasy, constructed by somebody who is afraid to accept what has happened to her, and move onto the next world. The final moments of the episode are about Nan accepting what has happened, and it’s interesting that she doesn’t feel fear any more. The hitch-hiker is of course the grim reaper, and he’s once again represented by The Twilight Zone as an ordinary human being, showing death to be something perfectly normal and unremarkable, and ultimately, I suppose, something that doesn’t need to be feared. It’s what comes before the grim reaper catches up with his prey that’s the scary bit. And Serling involves us all here, in a fear that nobody is immune to, and he does that by having the hitch-hiker break the fourth wall. Right at the start of the episode he shows up right in front of the camera, looks right at us, and smiles. In the long run, the hitch-hiker isn’t just here for Nan. He’s here for everyone. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Fever