Posted by Richard Harland Smith on June 26, 2007
There are few sights more innately creepy to me than the view of a rural highway or country road at night as framed by a car’s windshield. I grew up in the country, in the pine-ringed hills above a small New England mill town that had, even thirty years ago, seen better days. They call that stretch of Windham County “The Quiet Corner.” Quiet it was, and is, and dark at night; in all my born natural, I’ve never again known such blackness as I faced through my long, lonely nights there. Cutting through the woods between “downtown” and our hilltop house was a span of rural highway. I-52 was an offshoot of Interstate 95, less-traveled, narrower, darker, and surrounded on both sides by forest that seemed to want, especially late at night, to rush out at the road and swallow it whole.
I have vivid memories of a childhood as seen from the backseat of my parents’ car (always a Ford) and of nights coming home from a function or a family evening out (invariably at a favorite steakhouse over the state line called Dante’s Inferno) and of my rising fear as our 8-cylinder Whatever negotiated the connectors, turnpikes and back roads from Out There to home. Wedged in between older sisters Cheri (perpetually asleep, my shoulder her pillow) and Lisa (whose mental library of eerie urban myths and horrific highway mishaps was inexhaustible), I would stare out through the windshield visible to me between my parents’ shoulders, wide-eyed with mounting terror.
There’s something hypnotic about the road at night. The darkness limits the range of our perception, focuses our attention on the immediate, on what we can see by dint of the pool of our headlights. Although fearful travelers have been making night journeys since Homo Sapien could walk upright, there’s something cinematic about the night road… the black asphalt like a never-ending strip of celluloid. The flicker of car headlights through the trees takes me back to the days of the Magic Lantern, makes me think of the slits in a turning Zoetrope that give animation to static images. (For what it’s worth, the word “zoetrope” comes from the Greek and could be taken to mean “wheel of life,” which fits my automotive theme very nicely.) Although movies are little more than a century old and a signifier of modernity, they can put us in immediate touch with the primal like no other media can.
As spooked as I was by the view of the dark road and those seemingly endless woods, I couldn’t not look. It was mesmerizing, it was magical. At any moment, anyone… or anything… might jump out from behind those trees or pop up at the end of the road: the shuffling ghouls of Night of the Living Dead, the titanic hellspawn of Curse of the Demon, the masked, alabaster beauty of Eyes without a Face or the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And while my worst childhood fears went unrealized, a part of me was always a little disappointed that nothing ever happened. Maybe that’s why I’ve made a life and a livelihood out of the experience of watching movies. Movies put me in the backseat again, wedged in between the familiar but focused on the Great Unknown down the road. Cinema puts me back in the dark where, bathed in that infernal blue flicker, with my eyes wide and my senses sharp, I await the inevitable.
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