In this post, I want to talk about a secondary component of horror movies that are set in desert and rural landscapes, and that is the type of horror set in Limnal Spaces, such as highways, and rest stops. Not necessarily the road trip movie, which is often about nostalgia, but just people who are in the middle of traveling from point A to point B, through the more remote areas of America, and how a traveler’s status as not being in any particular place or time, invokes a certain kind of horror. The road is both somewhere and nowhere, and a lonely road at night is the ultimate limnal space, in which strange things can occur.
First, let’s define the Limnal Space. You can find numerous websites and Reddit pages discussing what these places/nonplaces are, and their emotional affects on people. Essentially, a Limnal Space is a threshold, it is any place that is between, from, or on the way to, a destination. Limnal spaces are not places where someone actually lives, because they are transitional spaces, places that, when they are empty, evoke feelings of unease, isolation, sadness, or loneliness, like empty schools during a break, hotel hallways at night, a house you’ve just moved out of, empty malls, empty gas stations at night, or highway rest stops. Limnal spaces can also be doorways to somewhere else. They are not a final destination in themselves, so highways, and even the vehicles that navigate them, are good examples.
In fact, the horror of limnal spaces came to popular attention in tandem with the invention of the car, although the idea of such places have existed for centuries, in folktales and literature, (fairy rings, bridges), and the road trip movie helped popularize this idea for mainstream audiences. Limnal spaces are places where the veil between worlds is thin, and strange, and paranormal, things can happen. Cars can come to life, human monsters, and ghosts, can reach out, and people can unknowingly crossover into other worlds. One example of this is the Hitchhiker movie.
There was a time in American history when hitchhiking was fairly common place. Not everyone owned cars yet, especially in rural areas, and all kinds of people (teenagers, members of the military) would often hitch rides with strangers, and this was considered no big issue. But like most things during the sixties, it began to be viewed with suspicion, and once again, we can blame the popular awareness of serial killers, and other psychopathic murderers, for that. Not that the person picking up a hitcher might be one, that came later, but the person being picked up, might not be as innocent as they seemed.
The murderous hitchhiker is a very popular theme in horror. In 1953, Ida Lupino directed The Hitchhiker, a movie about two men who pick up a serial murderer, who is running from the police, while on their way to a fishing trip in Mexico. This was not inspired by the Charles Starkweather killings, but by the spree murders of one Billy Cook, who killed six people on a 22 day rampage across Missouri, in 1951.
Murderous hitchhikers are a staple of the road trip horror movie, from The Hitcher in 1986, to its remake in 2007, in which a young man picks up a hitchhiker, who is a violent psychotic, Road Games in 1981, and Switchback in 1997, which starred Dennis Quaid and Danny Glover, as detectives hunting a child killer across Texas. However the films, Kalifornia, and Natural Born Killers, were both based on the Carol Fugate and Charles Starkweather killing spree, of 1958.
Sometimes this trope gets turned on its head by psychopathic drivers chasing their victims across the highways, instead. The idea wasn’t made popular by the antics of Bonnie and Clyde, but by the 1971 film, Duel, directed by, an as yet unknown, Stephen Spielberg, and starring Dennis Weaver, as David Mann, an anxious businessman who gets chased by a mysterious truck driver, after Mann overtakes him on the highway. The trope of the killer truck driver also gets overturned in the Lance Henriksen film, The Nature of the Beast, (1995), where a businessman picks up a hitchhiker, during news reports of a killing spree, but who is the killer, and who is the victim?
Hollywood would go back to this well, a few more times, featuring morally ambiguous, middle class citizens being terrorized on America’s roads by outraged drivers, in movies like Road Rage from 1999, 1986’s Maximum Overdrive, which was adapted from a short story by Stephen King, about sentient trucks, and the Joy Ride franchise, which began in 2001, in which a group of teenagers get chased by a mysterious and angry truck driver, after they play a prank on him.
Hitchhikers and psychotic drivers are not the only beings traveling the highways. Limnal spaces can also be emotional. The anxious feeling that one might become lost, is lost, or simply never be able to return home is in keeping with the idea of limnal spaces as places where the veil between worlds is thin. All manner of beings can slip through from “somewhere else”, as some hitchhikers may not be what they seem.
There’s the classic urban legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker, a tale which goes back centuries, long before the invention of film, like when a driver finds that the lonely young woman they picked up on the road, has vanished from their vehicle. They investigate, only to find that their passenger died many years ago. The 1985 movie, starring Ellen Degeneres, featured a vanishing hitchhiker, and the CW TV series, Supernatural, featured a more malicious version, combining it with the Hispanic folktale of La Llarona, as a woman in white, who kills the travelers who try to take her back home.
There are other, more horrific beings traveling America’s roads, like the terrifying vampiric family, lead by Lance Henriksen, in the 1987 movie, Near Dark. A young cowboy picks up, a pretty girl at a bar, and finds, to his detriment, that neither she, nor her “family”, are entirely human, and in The Forsaken, from 2001, another family of vampires prey on any travelers they come across, in the Arizona desert.
Sometimes the dangers of the road seem mundane, but really aren’t. Cars break down, people get lost, run out of gas, and if the weather is bad, the traveler must also contend with the paranormal. In the 2007 movie, Windchill, two travelers have to deal with multiple issues, like a raging snowstorm, the possibility of freezing to death, accidents, ghosts, phantom gas stations, and even a phantom cop. Stranger things can happen in the half empty places of the world. In the 2008 movie Splinter, two couples are menaced by an alien parasite, at an out of the way gas station. What starts as a typical hitchhiker film, turns into a more complicated carjacking, which then becomes a fight for survival, against a strange bodysnatching alien.
Bodysnatching aliens aren’t the only things haunting America’s highways. Sometimes there are bodysnatching demons, as in the 2001 Jeepers Creepers, where two teenagers, on their way home for Spring Break, are menaced by an otherworldly, bat winged, serial killer.
One of the ultimate limnal spaces one encounters on the road, is the rest stop, especially at night. Rest stops are not anywhere. They are perfect temporal limnal spaces because they are places where people stop, but no one dwells. In Rest Stop (2006), a young woman encounters a number of strange people, and events, that occurred years before she stopped there, along with her boyfriend, for a bathroom break. In the 2008 sequel, the family of the couple from the first film go in search of them, encounter the same phantoms, and must fight for their survival.
In keeping with the road as a doorway to other dimensions, sometimes a person can end up in places they never planned to go, like Hell, as in the appropriately named 1991 movie, Highway to Hell. When a young man’s fiance gets taken to Hell, he sets out on the titular highway to rescue her, echoing the tale of Eurydice and Orpheus, who goes into Hell to save his wife. When not being taken to Hell, people can also encounter beings coming from the other direction, as Lou Diamond Philips does in the 2001 road movie, Route 666.
Demons, ghosts, and other otherworldly creatures can travel the same roads, and use them as portals, so a person should probably watch out for haunted, and phantom vehicles, in stories that are the opposite of the vanishing hitchhiker. The 1974 Killdozer features a haunted construction vehicle that goes on a killing spree, as does the title vehicle in the 1977 movie, The Car, and in the 1986 Maximum Overdrive, all vehicles become sentient after a meteor passes by the Earth, and, once again, from the mind of Stephen King, there is Christine, (1983), in which a young man is possessed by a haunted, self driving car, that was simply
Driving America’s highways can certainly be a gamble, but not for the reason most people think. Highways and roads are not just gateways to adventure, but sometimes portals to unimaginable horror.
This post would not be complete without a discussion of The Backrooms. If you research the topic of Limnal Spaces, you will encounter this story. which began on a Creepypasta Reddit about an endless series of office rooms, in which people have gotten lost.