“I don’t know why but I’m frightened, a fear just about as vague as its object. Maybe it really isn’t a fear just a sense of… disquiet. A feeling that things are a little wrong. It’s vague because that’s what that hitchhiker is… vague.” -Nan in The Hitchhiker
The Hitchhiker, a screen adaptation of the Lucile Fletcher story, was aired as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1960. Characteristic of writer and producer Rod Serling, we find the story of a woman who is desperately trying to escape the unknown fate that pursues her. Whereas ambiguous loss of control is a common Serling theme in The Twilight Zone anthology, the narrative of the human fear of unknown despair, and struggle against an anonymous adversary who turns out to be redeemer, is a timeless existential lesson.
But this is not only a bromidic story of the knowing psychopomp who escorts the naive mortal into the afterlife. This is a story of the living; of a woman who is a corpse until she welcomes death and begins living towards it.
When the scene opens we find Nan Adams, a young, New York, socialite whose cross-country trip to California is interrupted by a punctured tire. We learn from the repairman that Nan should be dead, judging from the skid marks and loose gravel road. However, Nan appears to be fine as she admires the handsome attendant that repairs the damaged tire.
As Nan is about to drive away she catches the gaze of a tall, thin, man in a dark suit; A hitchhiker with an enigmatic and uncanny stare. This is the first of a series of encounters that Nan will have with the hitchhiker, a figure that only Nan seems to see. In fact, the station attendant is the first of a number of men who are confused by Nan’s reports of seeing the hitchhiker. But Nan is not alone in seeing the hitchhiker’s gaze.
Director Alvin Ganzer breaks the fourth wall in the conclusion of the first scene when the hitchhiker engages the audience, directly, with a portent grimace. From this moment forward we know that Nan is not alone, that the hitchhiker is, in fact, beckoning us a well.
As Nan continues on her cross-country trip she repeatedly encounters the hitchhiker. The event of the hitchhiker is in itself paradoxical. This is a man who is not a man, a passenger who is the driver, a questioner who knows the answer. His intention is to be accepted, and shows signs of frustration when he is ignored.
There is a sense that underlying his assuredness, of whence he comes from, is a certain obstruction in his efforts. Nan not only refuses his advances, but also, is fearful of acknowledging him.
This brings us to the question of what, precisely, Nan is fearful of. The man is not particularly aggressive, not physically imposing, and does not seem to be asking for more than a ride. To further the absurdity, Nan begs a rather cavalier sailor to join her on her journey, offering her body to him in exchange for his protection.
Having run out of gas in the middle of the night, a service station owner refuses to assist Nan, leaving us with an emotional residue not unlike the familiar dream of being impotent in the escape or fight against a foe. A Navy man appears as symbolic father, protector, potent hero, and savior. The Navy man himself, like most of the men Nan encounters, is increasingly dubious. A blend of rescuer and persecutor, the sailor gazes at Nan with sexual desire and hints at romantic passes. Nan is caught between feeling protected by the sailor and being pursued by him. This is the symbolic Oedipal betrayal of the father who is at once protector and exploiter.
Later, when Nan offers herself up to her only protector in return for sexual pleasure, we are left baffled by the act of self-sacrifice -Nan is clearly inviting a stranger to violate her in exchange for the protection against violation. What does this mean? How can we understand a woman who is willing to giver her body to the sailor -an exchange that brings about the very thing she fears from the hitchhiker?
The fear that Nan feels from the hitchhiker is not physical harm and not sexual attack. It is a fear that is much stronger, one which she is willing to sacrifice even life to avoid. The hitchhiker is the knowledge of something, something that Nan refuses to know. This something is beyond physical threat and even beyond physical death. Although Nan comes to believe that she fears for her life, she is truly fearing something greater -something that once she embraces brings her to living.
Through the hitchhiker’s persistence, Nan begins to approach the fear; the acknowledgement of the first step towards life. Just as Nan’s car stalls at the tracks of an oncoming train, she sees the hitchhiker beckoning her. She narrowly escapes the physical death of the train collision only to find that the hitchhiker is no longer there.
“Now the fear is no longer vague, the terror isn’t formless, it has a form. He was beckoning me, that thin grey man in the cheap, shabby suit, he was beckoning me. He wanted me to start across, he wanted me to die, I know that now I am … unspeakingly, nightmarishly alone… I don’t know what to do now!”“Route 80 isn’t a road anymore, it’s an escape route! I’ve got to get where I’m going and I can’t let that hitchhiker close in on me.”
But what Nan convinces herself of is that the hitchhiker’s threat is something to be avoided. Her road, Route 80, now becomes an escape and her destination a purpose. The hitchhiker has become something of a purpose to fight against. But in so doing, Nan becomes increasingly removed from living. Paralyzed by fear she avoids life and becomes a sort of living corpse that can only seek frantic escape.
In a final act of desperation Nan resorts to the one sense of protection she can still hope for -maternal love. Pulling off at a diner somewhere in the Tucson night, Nan Calls her mother in an attempt to bring “back reality” through “love”. It is only when Nan learns that her mother has suffered a nervous breakdown at the news of her daughter’s death that Nan realizes that she is not living. Nan finally comes to terms with the position she is in. The news of her death has freed her. She is now free from the limitations of her own identity -and the identity against which her mother has defined her. Nan concludes:
“Very odd. The fear has left me now. I’m numb. I have no feeling. It’s as if someone had pulled out some kind of a plug in me and everything—emotion, feeling, fear—has drained out. And now I’m a cold shell. I’m conscious of things around me now. The vast night of Arizona. The stars that look down from the darkness. Ahead of me stretch a thousand miles of empty mesa, mountains, prairies, desert. Somewhere among them he’s waiting for me. Somewhere I’ll find out who he is. I’ll find out. I’ll find out what he wants. But just now, for the first time, looking out at the night, I think I know.”
A superficial understanding of this tale is that of a soul that has not accepted its own death and is being led to the afterlife by a guide. We reject this interpretation not only because it is an uninteresting explanation, but also, because the emotional impact of the story is far greater than that of a persistent psychopomp and a resistant soul. The story we have here is not of a dead woman who comes to realize that she has died, but rather, of a dead woman who comes to accept her life. It is not until Nan integrates her own mortality into her being, and allows herself to live towards death, that she becomes alive. The peaceful calm that Nan experiences, for the first time, is a sign of life -not death. Nan has been freed not only from her own thrownness but from the defining fallenness from which she is released with the acknowledgement of her own mortality. What we find in The Hitchhiker is a tale that describes Heidegger’s conviction of Being-toward-Death (Sein-zum-Tode).
If we consider the hitchhiker not as psychopomp between life and death but, rather, as the psychopomp between unconscious and conscious, then we find Nan’s event as a lichtungen through which she becomes a more authentic Being.
In the Jungian sense the psychopomp guides Nan between her conscious and unconscious which results in an integration, or what Heidegger would call authentic Being. The hitchhiker has always followed Nan, yet it is not until the event of the road trip, and the brokenness of her tire (and life) that brings her world into Vorhandenheit. We do not know from what Nan escapes, and to what she flees, all that we know is that she is in transition -going from here to there- without a clear sense of why. It is only in this event that Nan is forced to confront her life as Vorhandenheit, a life outside of its symbolic structure. It is only when Nan comes integrate the symbolic world of the unconscious as reality that Nan finds gelassenheit or what Heidegger describes as ”the spirit of availability before What-Is which permits us simply to let things be in whatever may be their uncertainty and their mystery.” Nan finds authentic Being through the integration of death that has always been beckoning, but never heard. It is only at this realization that Nan can be free to Be-towards-Death in what Heidegger calls Sein-sum-Tode.