Red Asphalt: Examining Road Horror

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the role of vehicles became highly important. Serving as a symbol of freedom, one can simply get behind the wheel and control your destiny by roaming the open highways, Joining the ranks of celebrated wanderers like Jack Kerouac. However, these liminal byways and ley lines that connect us to the rest of the world are also capable of leading danger directly to us. One wrong turn can guide a driver directly to their own doom. It comes as no surprise that so many filmmakers hit the pavement for inspiration when it comes to their horror movies. Personally, I have developed a healthy fear of vehicles being raised by a long line of mechanics. So buckle up, as we assess a variety of horror tropes associated with car culture.

The Twilight Zone ep.134 “You Drive” 1964

Picking Up Strangers

Hitchhiking, whether by circumstance or lifestyle, is a classic trope in horror. Life on the road is dangerous. The vulnerability of needing a lift to civilization and the gamble of peril we place ourselves in when someone stops. Or a good Samaritan pulls over to help a stranded commuter with the best of intentions that may or may not pave the road to hell. When was the last time you invited death into your car?

1953’s The Hitch-Hiker is American film noir shot through the eyes of a woman, director Ida Lupino. Serving as an early entry in road horror, it follows 2 fishing buddies on a trip to Mexico. Picking up a hitchhiker that happens to be a spree killer, the men are terrorized and humiliated by their captor on the lam. The movie was inspired by events surrounding the real-life mass murderer, Billy Cook. What followed is a string of hitchhiking thriller movies, though 1986’s The Hitcher sticks out (its thumb) the most. A young man driving from Chicago to San Diego picks up a roadside traveler, hoping it would help keep him awake. Instead, he’s stalked and tormented by a serial killer, thriving on the fringes of society and evading capture. The very reason your mother tells you not to pick anyone up. Of course, not all who wander the highways are murderers looking for a ride, some sit behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer. The granddaddy of the road horror chase is Steven Spielberg’s 1971 Duel. The script was adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story. The inspiration of which came from a personal experience of being tailgated by a trucker the same day Kennedy was assassinated. An influential cult thriller of emasculation and gas lighting, Duel follows a salesman antagonized by a tanker truck on a business trip. The film established Spielberg as a director and lead a convoy of entries in a subgenre of anonymous truckers terrorizing commuters. The best representation is 2001’s Joy Ride. A cheesy but thrilling road horror of friends driving cross country. Making crank calls on a CB radio, they decide to have a little fun with a trucker who happens to be a psychopath.

“Thanks for the ride, lady!”

Hitchhikers and truckers have their supernatural counterparts. Four lane folklore shared at truck stops and roadside diners across the globe. Ghostly hitchhikers are picked up by motorists, only to vanish without explanation from the car seat. Variations have been traced as far back as the 1870s, Resurrection Mary being more modernly recognizable. On the flip side of the coin are travelers picked up by truckers, only to discover that they hitched a ride with the dead. “Phantom 309” is a spoken folk song about a trucker that gives a lift to a stranded wanderer, who later discovers his ride was a spirit. Based on a true event, different variations of the story circulated in modern culture including Large Marge.

Haunt My Ride

Though television had its first evil car in an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1964, the first movie was 1977’s The Car. A seemingly possessed vehicle stalks and runs down the residents of a sleepy desert town. The car itself is a customized Lincoln Continental with blacked out windows, no plates, no handles, and no driver. Though never referenced, it bears a similar appearance to the Soviet Union’s GAZ Volga. Only manufactured in black, this model was the center of urban legends across Europe. The Black Volga, an evil vehicle kidnapping adults and children alike. Some versions claim the Volga is possessed while others insist it’s driven by the secret police, priests, or Satan himself. The most widely recognized subject of paranormal road horror is Stephen King’s 1983 novel, Christine. Followed with a film adaptation directed by John Carpenter, in less than a year. Awkward teen buys a Plymouth Fury as a fixer-upper, transitioning to manhood and automotive spirit possession. Themes of Arnie’s unnatural love for his car was further explored in the film and may have been provoked by J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash. Though neither can compare to Isaac Asimov’s 1953 short story, “Sally”.

Though the vehicle as a vessel for disturbed souls or infernal imps remains constant in the ever-evolving road horror trope. The film The Toybox gives the audience a RV camper containing the spirit of a serial killer. Loosely inspired by the real-life events surrounding David Parker Ray, better known as the “Toybox Killer”. A man who had converted a tractor trailer into a soundproof torture chamber. China’s 2008 film Ju-On Car (Killer Car) puts the disembodied soul of a crash victim under the hood. Making the car sentient and angry. Even the time traveling Delta 88 from the Evil Dead franchise is prone to demonic possession in season 2 of Ash VS The Evil Dead. South Korea must have a problem with undead Ubers prowling city streets at night. In the road horror comedy, Gongpo Taxi (Terror Taxi), a young cabbie is killed in a hit & run accident. Only to return as a phantom taxi driver doomed to haunt the roads. Along the way he meets others like him that actually enjoy their work of terrorizing humans in ghost rides. 1986’s The Wraith follows a teenager murdered by car racing street-toughs. Returning to this world for vengeance with an invulnerable Turbo Interceptor. Super Hybrid is an Australian sci-fi road horror film about man-eating, shape shifters. Having studied humanity’s obsession with car culture, they choose a vehicular form to stay at the top of the food chain. Killdozer! the sci-fi/horror novella by Theodore Sturgeon. Originally published in Astounding magazine in 1944. An ancient alien energy is unearthed at a construction site in which it possesses a Caterpillar D7 bulldozer, affectionately referred to as Daisy Etta. The 1974 film of the same name features an unearthed meteorite that possessed the bulldozer and joys rides on a murder spree. Thus, bringing us to more science fiction elements of road horror.

The evil GRX engine. Speed Racer “The Fastest Car on Earth Part I” 1967 

Dystopian Driving

Too many times popular culture has been warned about The End coming in a cloud of dust and exhaust. The Mad Max film franchise and Tank Girl comics reinforce this apocalyptic vision of the future. However, Maximum Overdrive is an excellent unconventional apocalypse film for those nostalgic for Y2K. Adapting his own short story “Trucks”, Stephen King directed this movie of the Earth crossing the tail of a comet, resulting in all machinery becoming sentient and destroying human life. A small band of blue-collar humans are trapped in a truck stop, hunted down by big rigs one by one. The premise was reimagined in 1997 with the USA original tv-movie, Trucks which runs closer to King’s short story.

The punksploitation comedy, Repo Man feels like an alternate timeline. Sci-fi Western meets road flick set in the Radioactive Reagan-era, a rookie repo man gets mixed up with car thieves and a UFO cult. All the while hunting down a mad scientist’s Chevy Malibu hauling nuclear cargo. The synchronicities in the background remind the audience that society is about as insignificant as a plate of shrimp. In another antiquated future, bloody motorsports are a high form of entertainment in Roger Corman’s Deathrace 2000. Based on the IB Melchior short story “The Racer”, this brutal film has a totalitarian regime running the country. Holding a transcontinental race where points are rewarded for running down pedestrians, politics collide with reality tv and population control. Australia offers a wide variety of retro futuristic road horror cinema.

1974’s The Cars That Ate Paris was never intended to be a not-too-distant-future film but surely wouldn’t surprise anyone in current times. Set in the rural town of Paris, an isolated community with an economy completely based on car crashes. Greaser punk youths & their customized doom-mobiles set fatal traps for tourists passing through. Wreckage is scavenged for barter, from luggage to auto parts in a manner reminiscent of The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Survivors are subjected to lobotomy experiments in the town asylum or adopted by townsfolk to replenish numbers. The concept was lightly revisited in 1986’s Dead End Drive-In, where cars are a commodity in a collapsed economy. Roving gangs of car-punks and tow companies scavenge parts and drive-in theaters are converted to concentration camps. Killing Cars is 80s cyberpunk from West Germany. Neon-noir thriller of corporate espionage trying to stop an environmentally friendly car from reaching the masses. Complete with violent squatter punks, it takes the idea of road horror from monster cars to monstrous corporations. 12 years later would come the real-life inventor, Stanley Meyer. He claimed to have created a water powered motor by equipping a dune-buggy with a fuel cell that split water atoms to burn hydrogen and release oxygen. Mysteriously, he died in a parking lot in 1998 with the last dying words “they poisoned me”. His water-powered car was stolen one week after his death.


The bubble of security within a vehicle can quickly dissolve into a mere facade within unconventional road horror films. A mother and son are forced to take shelter in a Ford Pinto in 1983’s film adaptation of Cujo. A suffocating prison of temporary safety, the same scene was set in 2016’s The Monster. A mother and daughter cower in their car from a beast in the woods about to devour them like a can of sardines. Let’s not dismiss the suspenseful sibling spree in Ari Aster’s Hereditary. Certain to suck the air from your lungs for the film’s most iconic 15 minutes.

Park It

While the car is a tool of liberation it also can place its driver in a position of vulnerability. Whether a couple on lover’s lane is approached by a maniac with a hook or an innocent drive through the countryside quickly turns into a chainsaw massacre nightmare. The open freedom that comes with traveling brings a terrifying unknown around every curve. So as gas prices continue to soar during the peak of road trip season, perhaps we should rethink our relationships with automobiles. Buckle up and drive safe.

Further Reading

Trucker Ghost Stories: And Other True Tales of Haunted Highways, Weird Encounters, and Legends of the Road by Annie Wilder

Do Androids Dream of Cronenberg? Philip K Dick’s Influence on the Baron of Blood

Canadian director, David Cronenberg, is best known to cinephiles for body horror of a particular kind of yuck. Whether it’s a parasitic relationship or a medical kink, his use of practical effects could make any gore-hound squirm. Others are drawn to Cronenberg’s cerebral adaptations of unfilmable literature. The not-too-distant dystopian unrealities of J.G. Ballard and Burroughs were brought to the big screen with Crash and Naked Lunch. Yet David Cronenberg’s amalgamation of technological unrest and quivering gristle may yet best envision the fictional worlds of Sci-Fi guru, Philip K. Dick.

Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab.

The producers of Alien had been trying to adapt a short story of sci-fi guru Phillip K. Dick since the 70s. “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” became the basis for Total Recall with David Cronenberg as the first director considered. Spending a year working on 12 different drafts, Cronenberg kept the script as close to Dick’s novel as he could. Remaining dark and paranoid, he contributed the concept of mutants and his own on-brand yonic imagery. But studio executives were looking for “Raiders of The Lost Ark goes to Mars”. Something much different than what he was willing to give and eventually left the project. Though the stories of Philip K. Dick would always have an influence over David Cronenberg. His pessimistic futures of isolation and counterfeit realities blended well with the director’s affinity for perversions of science. The foundations of Dick’s novels continue to manifest within the films of Cronenberg. Here we examine the similitude of their three most popular novels and films.


Hollywood continues to try and develop a film version of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik. David Cronenberg was at one point involved in discussions of an adaptation, even directly contacting the writer’s daughters. Though the director’s idea fell through, themes from the novel remained prevalent in another film. Through a combination of Cronenberg’s scripts for The Sensitives and Telepathy 2000 came the movie, Scanners in 1981. It’s a story of a mentally ill vagrant named Vale, captured by a private military company. They cure him of the voices in his head with their drug, Ephemerol, and then inform him of his super mind powers. As a “scanner”, he is recruited to stop an underground ring of rogue scanners through infiltration. Uncovering a plot of mass distributing Ephemerol to pregnant women and mutating the unborn. Transforming a new generation of scanners to overthrow the world. Philip K. Dick’s Ubik gave us the same gritty timeline where psychic powers are used for corporate espionage. Another downtrodden protagonist is employed by a company managing “precogs”. Cyberpathically securing their clients’ private information from telepathic hackers. A rival organization of psychics engage in guerilla style combat to eliminate business competition resulting in a liminal plot of time travel. Between life and half-life, the present or 1939, the characters become trapped Schrodinger cats. Doomed to deteriorate without the widely accessible store-bought product, Ubik. Both Scanners and Ubik would broadcast a faint warning of warring corporate entities and their disregard of consumer casualties.

Videodrome/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner is an acclaimed 1982 film adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Though an excellent piece of cinema, the1968 novel contained more complexities than a single film could possibly capture. David Cronenberg would expand on Philip K. Dick’s story beyond android bounty hunters with 1983’s Videodrome. A retro portrait of post humanism, the movie pokes fun at the idiot box and media identity. A sleazy cable-TV president becomes obsessed with a snuff channel broadcast out of Pittsburg. The addictive signal induces a brain tumor that causes hallucinations. These visuals are recorded and marketed as television programming. All under the guise of a false media prophet, Brian O’Blivion, founder of the Cathode Ray Mission. Existing only within video tape recordings, humans are reprogrammed into an analog hell-LIVE! Dick’s novel, Electric Sheep, gives us another society of stifling technology mimicking the organic. Literally dictating every human emotion with Penfield Mood Organs and a tech-based religion called Mercerism. Utilizing “empathy boxes” to simultaneously link users to a virtual reality of collective suffering. Centered on a Sisyphus martyr-like character who eternally climbs up a hill while being hit with crashing stones.

eXistenZ/The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

The David Cronenberg film most referenced in regard to Philip K. Dick, is 1999’s eXistenZ. A film that takes gaming beyond hobby or addiction and into a complete lifestyle alignment. Popular on the market in eXistenZ are fleshy VR pods that connect on a bio level with consumers. Gamers are surgically fitted with a spinal port that plugs into the console. Dueling game companies compete for control of the market while fending off an underground movement of “Realists”. Domestic terrorists that disapprove of these games distorting reality. A failed assassination on a game-developer’s life has her on the run with the only copy of her latest game creation. To ensure it isn’t corrupted she plays through with her bodyguard, only to enter a deeper level of virtual reality filled with assassins and spies. The addiction to escapism reflects Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. A novel about the miserable existence of manual labor where citizens are drafted to colonize other planets. Draftees self-medicate with the illegal drug, Can-D. A hallucinogen allowing a controlled simulation of a Barbie doll figure, “Perky Pat”. Continuing with the element of opposing business giants, a famed bio-modified merchant has discovered a better alternative called “Chew-Z”. Double agents fall through the looking glass into their own hallucinations as the battle of drug patents ensues. Both Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and Dick’s Three Stigmata have ambiguous endings that leave the audience wanting more.

 Brandon Cronenberg: Like Father Like Son

David Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, follows in his footsteps as a director and screenplay writer. Deriving inspiration from alternate consciousness and the universes created by Philip K. Dick. His debut, Antiviral, takes celebrity worship and his father’s signature “venereal horror” to another plane. Familiar tropes of misuse of medical technology and quarreling corporate giants,the movie reveals a black market of genetic souvenirs from celebrities. Reminiscent of Ubik by way of a manufactured afterlife wrapped around the consumer market. Brandon’s 2020 film, Possessor, references Dick’s frequent use of imposters and multiple identities. An assassin tale where public persona meets shadow, and all sense of identity is lost in a role. Similar themes arise in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and The Simulacra.

Long Live The New Flesh

Philip K. Dick was afraid of how technology would transform humanity, and that fear aroused something within David Cronenberg. He is the grimy lens of our mind’s eye that shows us a broken-society closer than not-too-distant. Where body horror is loss of autonomy when flesh melds with tech. Where humans become fake versions of themselves living in fake storylines. Philip K. Dick warned that this was going to happen, and David Cronenberg rubs our faces in it.

There are about a hundred movies that could be made from Dick’s stuff, but I think people are afraid of it still, which is a testament to the power his work has.

Further Reading

Behold! The Unfilmable: The Literary Adaptations of David Cronenberg  

Every Warning Sci-Fi Writer Philip K. Dick Gave Us About Technology is Coming True

Never-Been-Seen Concept Art for David Cronenberg’s Total Recall