Hitchhikers and Horror Movies
Updated: Dec 4, 2021
I was living in New York when one Sunday afternoon in late August, a boyfriend suggested we go and see the newly remastered Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a movie theatre on 42nd Street. It had recently been heralded as one of the most influential horror movies of all time, and as he was in the process of writing his own horror screenplay, it seemed only fitting to see what all the fuss was about.
It was a sweltering day as we slipped into the darkened theatre. It smelled like wet pavement, stale popcorn and forgotten dreams. The floor was sticky from neglect. The whole interior reeked of resignation as though any minute the wrecking ball would tear through the ceiling and replace a bygone era with a GAP or a Mcdonalds'. There were probably no more than 20 of us oddballs sitting in the damp, musky building. I wondered what kind of person spends a Sunday afternoon watching slasher films? My boyfriend was a nice Jewish USC graduate currently studying playwrighting at Juilliard. He was the kind of guy who laughed easily and rarely lost his temper. I felt safe and at ease with him. A quick glance at the other patrons painted a somewhat different picture. It was apparent that I was the only female in an audience of men sitting alone waiting ominously for a horror film to begin. I shifted uneasily in my seat.
"Did I mention I don't really like these kinds of movies?" I whispered to Bernie. "I scare easily."
"No worries," he said, "Just close your eyes over the gory bits."
For anyone who has not seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, suffice to say that the entire film is gory. It's pretty implicit by the title words "chainsaw massacre."
It's been noted that the experience of watching a horror movie with someone from the opposite sex can become a catalyst for romantic bonding. Was that what Bernie had in mind that afternoon?
The lights dimmed, the movie began, and within minutes I was on the floor with my head in the seat of the chair, mindless of whatever gross concoction I was kneeling upon. All I can tell you about the plot is that some kids pick up a hitchhiker who proceeds to cut his hand with a switchblade. That was all I saw.
"I have to leave," I said to Bernie. And being the great guy that he was, he escorted me out of the theatre and back into the real world. I breathed a sigh of relief and spent the better part of the following week doing everything I could to forget what I had seen.
Horror movies and slasher films have always appealed to a broad audience. Consumers expect to be scared, disturbed, creeped out, disgusted, terrified. This is just the undesirable price one has to pay in anticipation of some other reward, such as the ultimate triumph over evil or the smug satisfaction of feeling safe while being afraid. Slasher films make strong commentaries on societal expectations. In other words, young women, in particular, are usually targeted by male antagonists with puritanical opinions on sexuality. That is when any kind of motivation can even be found. The set-up goes something like this:
1. Some past event sets (the killer) upon a homicidal trajectory.
2. The killer targets a group of hedonistic youth.
3. Youths interact recreationally in an insular quotidian location.
4. The killer tracks the youths.
5. The antagonist kills some of the youths.
6. The remaining character(s) challenge(s) the killer.
7. The immediate threat posed by the killer is eliminated.
Bernie's movie, as I recall, was titled Summer Stalk, or Hammer Slammer (something like that), and he had a passing relationship with the director Abel Ferrara who I remember meeting briefly and being unimpressed by at a party in New York. Bernie was a good writer, and it seemed entirely possible that he might actually sell this screenplay, so when school was finished, we moved to Los Angeles. Hollywood was a place so foreign to me and so at odds with my sensibilities that you may as well have dropped me onto the moon without a spacesuit and ordered me to survive. Even today, my memories of L.A. are a compilation of avocado sandwiches, shark steaks, workout rooms, convertibles and endless conversations around film. I went from being a productive, enterprising intellectual young woman to what can only be described as a "bimbo." Glasses were replaced with contact lenses, hair was coiffed, clothes were fitted, and shoes had a two-inch heel. Gone was the architecture, the history, the parks, the subway, convenient neighbourhoods with great second-hand book stores. Instead, it had all been replaced by freeways, concrete, Stepford wives, alfalfa sprouts and sales pitches. I thought of going home, but I loved my boyfriend and wanted to be supportive. So, I sat on the sidelines in tightfitting Lycra and cheered him on.
On weekends, Bernie and I would drive to his father's house in La Costa, Ca. where I could swim, bike, catch a movie, or just go for a walk. The house was a welcome refuge from the hustle and bustle of tinsel town. It was large (large by my standards) with excellent, comfortable furnishings and a spectacular view of the valley. Bernie's family was wealthy. My family was not. This disparity in our lifestyles was, to my knowledge, the only thing we ever fought about. Things were easier for him than they were for me, and while I was undoubtedly benefiting from orbiting in his world, I could never entirely forget where I had come from and how difficult it was for me to obtain even the smallest of opportunities. As a brief example: at school in New York, before I met Bernie, I would resort to heating up tomato juice for dinner. Bernie's family were the sort of people who owned the tomato juice company.
So, it was on one dark and stormy night en route to La Costa that a particular argument erupted over privilege.
"You have no idea what the real world lives like," I shouted, nearly in tears. "I'm always one step from poverty, and the only thing that separates me from the homeless man on the street is you."
"So," he shouted back, "Get a job!"
He knew this was impossible as I was an illegal alien.
By now, the storm had become positively Spielberg-like. Low hanging dark clouds, lightning, thunder and us in a small car wending our way to our destination. Windshield wipers on high, we stewed for several minutes, both of us in our own worlds thinking up clever rebuttals for the next wave of attack when I saw a hitchhiker on the side of the road. It's important to note at this point in my story that I had NEVER picked up a hitchhiker in my life, nor did I advocate such a thing. But the weather and the bedraggled look of the man somehow destroyed all my reason. Bernie saw him too.
"Should we give him a ride?" he asked, probably to show that he was still a generous and compassionate person despite his wealth.
"It's pouring out," I said, "I think we should."
Bernie pulled over, and the man ran to the car. Even before he climbed into the back seat, we realized our lack of good sense, but once we were stopped, it just seemed like bad manners to drive away.
"Where you going?" Bernie asked, turning to get a good look at our passenger.
"Where you heading?" he responded with a slight drawl.
"La Costa," Bernie replied
"You can drop me off anywhere near the cutoff." The stranger said as he settled back in his seat.
From the mirror over my visor, I had a perfect look at the man who identified himself as Hank. He was lean and dirty with a long unkempt beard and equally unkempt hair. His features were sharp and angular. Hank carried a large knapsack and frankly smelled a little. Had this been a Disney animation, he would have been drawn to represent an anthropomorphic rat.
"Where are you from?" I asked, trying to be polite.
"Texas," he replied.
It wasn't my imagination. I could see Bernie's knuckles turn white as he gripped the steering wheel. Neither of us needed to say a thing. We were now the protagonists in a horror movie. It was that simple. An unmarried couple headed for a weekend of debauchery in a car with a stranger while a storm raged outside. We ticked off several of the essential criteria in the Horror movie genre, and without saying a thing, we both immediately regretted our act of charity. Every moment in that car was leaden. As we sped our way through the dark, I was counting the minutes and the miles, thinking to myself, "We're still alive. We're still alive. We're still alive." I wondered what would happen if I insisted we make an exit to use a restroom? I imagined running for help while Bernie fought off an attack, or perhaps I'd be able to fight off our assailant with a crowbar in the trunk. Hank was silent. Then, out of the blue, he began to tell us about the corpse recently discovered at LAX. "They found it in pieces," he volunteered, "The head, the arms, the torso in different places around the airport."
Hank didn't look like a guy who read the newspapers or listened to the news. He looked like someone who knew things first hand. "The hands were in a sink at the washroom."
How does one respond to information like this? "Oh, how interesting" seems inappropriate when what you really want to do is slam on the brakes and say, "Get the fuck out of this car."
While writing his screenplay, Bernie had once mentioned to me that monsters like their victims to be afraid. So, I muttered a half-hearted "Really?" hoping my nonplussed attitude would dampen his interest in killing us. At this point, Bernie was fixed, zombie-like getting us as quickly to the drop-off point as possible. I glanced at the speedometer. We were over the speed limit on wet roads. Nothing about this adventure felt like it was going to end well. I could feel Hank staring at the back of my head. I slid down in my seat and wondered if a knife could penetrate the upholstery. The closer we got to the cutoff point, the more nervous I became. I reasoned that an assailant wouldn't attack us while driving and risk being killed in a car accident. No. An assailant would kill us the moment we pulled over to let him out. He'd slash our throats, dump the bodies and take the car.
"What do you do for a living?" Hank asked
"I'm a writer," Bernie said
"Oh yeah? What do you write?
Hank seemed interested, "You don't say?"
To be fair, it's possible Hank wasn't the least bit interested. He may have been as bored as toast and just eager to get out of the car. He may have interpreted our tension as residual anger from a lover's spat or thought we were good Samaritans with dull lives and little to say.All I know is that when we saw the sign for the turn-off, I blurted out, "I have to pee." At least if Hank was going to kill us, it would be under bright neon lights and in clear view of a gas station attendant and several patrons.
Bernie pulled into the Mobil station and exclaimed a little too eagerly, "Here you go. End of the road."
Hank opened his door, grabbed his belongings and piled out of the car. From the overhead lights, I could see for the first time that he looked old. Here was a man for whom things did not come easily, and I suddenly afforded myself a bit of pity.
"Thanks for the lift." He said, shaking Bernie's hand.
"No problem." He replied as we climbed back inside and locked the doors. I realized that I hadn't used the bathroom and was a little ashamed of myself.
As the car sped out of the station and back onto dark roads, we exhaled a collective sigh of relief and laughed. "What were we thinking?" I asked, "Oh my God. What was all that about a body at LAX?"
By the time we reached the house, I had convinced myself that I had over-reacted.
"Isn't that how all horror movies work?" Bernie said, "The protagonists are always being attacked the moment they let down their guard." I admit, he had a point. How often had I commented on how stupid the victims in horror movies behaved? I mean, what kind of idiot would pick up a hitchhiker on a dark and stormy night knowing full well the sort of risk they were taking?
We unlocked the house's front door, and before locking it again, we were sure to search the dark for bogeymen. There was no way Hank could have followed us, but still…
"Let's get on dry clothes and watch a movie," Bernie suggested, turning on as many lights as we could find.
"Sounds like a great idea," I said, "Something funny, please."
As we settled down with hot chocolate, safe and sound to watch Mel Brooks, I briefly thought about Hank out there in the dark making his way towards Mexico. I wondered what was in his knapsack and then let the thought slip from my mind as the storm continued to rage outside.