Let’s 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 “Liminal Spaces”, such as cars, highways, rest stops, and hotels and motels. Not necessarily the road trip movie, which is often about affirming relationships and nostalgia, but traveling from point A to point B, through the more remote areas of America, and how not only is the traveler a liminal being, because of their status as not being in any particular space or time, it invokes a certain kind of horror. The road, the vehicles, the people, and the places along the way, are both somewhere and nowhere, and a lonely road at dusk is the ultimate liminal space, in which the truly uncanny can occur.
First, let’s define Liminal Space. You can find numerous websites and Reddit pages discussing what these places/nonplaces are, and their emotional affects on people. Essentially, a Liminal Space is a threshold, bridge, or portal. It is any place that is between, from, or on the way to, somewhere else. Liminal spaces are not places where someone actually lives, because they are transitional spaces, places that, when they are empty of people, evoke feelings of unease, isolation, sadness, or loneliness, like empty school buildings during a Spring Break, hotel lobbies at night, hotel hallways, a house you’ve just moved out of, empty malls, deserted gas stations, or highway rest stops. They are not final destinations in themselves, so highways, and even the vehicles that navigate them, are also good examples.
Much of the horror genre is predicated on people being terrorized in fixed locations, or abodes, like a small town, a building, a home, a residential school. These are places that are often full of people, or where they actually live. Liminal films are often defined as being places where people are not. The horror happens in impermanent, nonresident, deserted locations, and semi public spaces.
The horror of liminal spaces have existed in rural areas for centuries, most especially in folktales and literature, (fairy rings and bridges), and the road trip movie helped popularize this idea even further. Liminal spaces are places where the veil between worlds is thin, where things and people can pass through to our world, human beings can inadvertently pass out of this one, and paranormal events can occur. In liminal spaces, the uncanny happens with frequency, cars can come to life, humans can become monsters, ghosts can interact with the living, and people can unknowingly summon things into this world. Take, for example, hitchhiking. There was a time in American history when hitchhiking was a commonplace activity. Not everyone had access to cars, and the American system of highwaydom was non-existent before the 1940s, especially in rural areas. All kinds of people (kids, teenagers, and 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 (and people) 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 because 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 surprisingly 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. The movie was inspired by the spree murders of Billy Cook, who killed six people on a 22 day rampage across Missouri, in 1951. As a result, 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. 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 America’s highways, instead. This idea was made popular 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. 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, or murderous passengers, in movies like Road Rage in 1999, 1986’s Maximum Overdrive, which was adapted from a short story by Stephen King, the 2020 movie Unhinged, 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 America’s highways. Liminal spaces can be very emotional. The anxious, frustrating feeling that one might become lost, is lost, or simply not able to return home, is in keeping with the idea of liminal spaces as places where the veil between worlds is thin. A person can end up slipping out of this world, and all manner of beings can slip into this one, from “somewhere else”, and some of the beings encountered on the roads may not be what they appear.
There’s the classic urban legend of The Vanishing Hitchhiker, a tale which goes back centuries, is a global phenomenon, and existed long before the invention of film, where a driver finds a lonely young woman on the road, who just wants to go home, but vanishes from the vehicle before reaching her destination. The driver investigates, only to find that their passenger died many years ago, but as a resident of the “other side” is, of course, unable to return home. One way the narrative gets overturned is by having the driver, usually a man, be a phantom, who picks up a real world hitchhiker, usually as a way to impart some lesson to the individual. These types of stories often contain an element of pathos.
There are other, more horrifying, beings traveling America’s roads, like the vampire family lead by Lance Henriksen, in the movie, Near Dark. A young cowboy picks up, a pretty girl at a bar, and finds that she, and her family, are not only not human, but expect him to become a murderous predator like themselves, and in The Forsaken, another family of vampires prey on any travelers they come across in the Arizona desert.
In the “in-between” spaces, cars break down, people get lost, or run out of gas, the weather is bad, or the traveler must contend with paranormal events. In the 2007 movie, Wind Chill, two travelers have to deal with multiple issues, their imminent romantic breakup, a raging snowstorm, the possibility of freezing to death, accidents, ghosts, phantom gas stations, and even a phantom cop. In the 2008 movie Splinter, two couples are menaced by an alien parasite, at a deserted gas station. What starts as a typical menacing hitchhiker film, turns into a carjacking, which then becomes a fight for survival, against a strange bodysnatching alien. Sometimes there are bodysnatching demons, like the movie Jeepers Creepers, where two teenagers, on their way home for Spring Break, are menaced by a bat winged, serial killer.
But it is the rest stop that is the most menacing liminal space, especially at night. Rest stops are perfect liminal spaces, because they are places where people stop, but no one dwells. In the 2006 movie Rest Stop, a young woman encounters a number of strange people, and events, that occurred years before she stopped there, 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. If the highways are the hallways between the rooms in the hotel, then rest stops are the hotel lobbies of the road. They are even less permanent than the cars in which people travel.
Highways and roads are not just gateways to adventure, but sometimes portals to Hell, and a person can end up in places they never planned to go, as in the appropriately named 1991 movie, Highway to Hell, where a young man’s fiance gets taken to Hell, and echoing the tale of Eurydice and Orpheus, he sets out to retrieve her. When not being taken to Hell, people can encounter beings coming from the other direction, as Lou Diamond Philips does, in the 2001 road movie, Route 666. The classic demonic car story would be the Ghost Rider, where a young man makes a bargain with the devil, which results in him being cursed to ride America’s highways, as a burning spirit of vengeance..
Demons, ghosts, and other otherworldly creatures travel the same roads, and use them as doorways, so a person should probably watch out for them, along with haunted, and/or phantom vehicles, which are themselves liminal spaces, traveling along such a space. Vehicles are places one inhabits for brief periods of time, just long enough to go to another space, and were never meant to be permanent habitats, so they are perfect places for the uncanny and the supernatural. The 1974 Killdozer features a haunted construction vehicle that goes on a killing spree, as does the demonically possessed vehicle in the 1977 movie, The Car, and 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 “born bad”.
It is one thing to encounter terrifying intruders in the safe space of one’s own home, but what about encountering such things in less certain spaces? Hotels and motels are liminal spaces in which travelers encounter the murderous and paranormal. Because travelers are transient beings, who have no fixed state as being her or there, it is easy for them to not just be “disappeared”, in such places, but have run ins with transients from the “other side”.
A perfect illustration of this concept is the movie, The Shining. The movie is about a isolated, haunted hotel, called the Overlook, where the walls between worlds are thin. Residing temporarily in the hotel for the winter, is a little boy with psychic powers, (Danny), his abusive father, (Jack), and his put upon mother, (Wendy). Released in 1980, and directed by Stanley Kubrick, the family has to survive their isolated circumstances, while the hotel attempts to drive all of them insane. The Overlook’s status as a non-residential space, allows a thinness between the walls of this world, and the afterlife. As a result, the hotel has taken on a life of its own, and manifests ghostly sounds, long dead entities, and even past events, at will. Jacks’ and Danny’s psychic abilities only exacerbate the issue.
In Hostel, the monsters are all humans who torture and kill American travelers. Released in 2005, and directed by Eli Roth, it chronicles the misfortunes of a group of Americans who have been targeted by a shadowy club of people who pay for the privilege of killing other people, and it is easier to make travelers disappear than it is to kill people who reside in a fixed residence. After all, travelers are naturally itinerant, being neither here nor there, and have no fixed abode. In that sense, they are liminal people, as is Marion Crane in the 1960 Psycho, where she has the misfortune of encountering a liminal space, inhabited by a serial killer, who is himself stuck between sanity and insanity.
Another set of liminal people are the houseless. Being without a fixed home, means they have no set place to be or go to, which marks their very lives as being in between. Ironically, there are almost no horror films featuring homeless people, as either victims, or protagonists, perhaps because being a “liminal” person is horrifying enough. And this brings us back to the travelers who actually inhabit liminal spaces, the hitchhikers, and phantom entities haunting America’s out of the way spaces. The ones who are trapped everywhere and nowhere, often through no fault of their own, and who can never go home, either because they are meant to be on the other side of the veil, or don’t actually have a home to return to.
Liminal spaces are a repository for the nightmares, and horrors of both the real, and supernatural, worlds. And one must be careful when traveling between the here and the there, lest you risk becoming a permanent inhabitant of the world’s in between spaces.