Original Air Date: January 22, 1960
Writer: Lucille Fletcher/Rod Serling
Director: Alvin Ganzer
“But terror isn’t formless. It has a form. He was beckoning me…”
A disturbing traveler’s tale and a dark modern ghost story, “The Hitch-Hiker” was adapted from a radio play written by Lucille Fletcher. It first premiered on the radio in 1941 featuring the voice of Orson Welles. The story was inspired by a cross-country road trip in 1939 with Ms. Fletcher and her first husband, the famous composer Bernard Herrmann (creator of the initial Twilight Zone theme as well as numerous other classics) believed they had spotted an odd hitch-hiker on the Brooklyn Bridge and then again later on the Pulaski Skyway. Rod Serling had initially heard Fletcher’s original story on the radio as a child and he never forgot it.
“Her name is Nan Adams. She’s twenty-seven years old. Her occupation: buyer at a New York department store, at present on vacation, driving cross-country to Los Angeles, California, from Manhattan…. Minor incident on Highway 11 in Pennsylvania, perhaps to be filed away under ‘accidents you walk away from.’ But from this moment on, Nan Adam’s companion on a trip to California will be terror; her route: fear; her destination: quite unknown.”
Nan Adams (played by Swedish-American actress Inger Stevens) is a 27-year old woman, a buyer at a New York department store, presently on a road trip from New York to California. After her tire blows out on Highway 11 in Pennsylvania she receives roadside assistance from a mechanic who chuckles that she must be “on the side of the angels” and that she probably should have called for a “hearse” instead. When the bill comes to $29.70, Nan is thankful that it’s cheaper than a funeral. Suddenly, she begins seeing a hitch-hiker who seems to stare directly at her. He is a shabby, scarecrow of a man but his presence terrifies Nan. She continues along the road, but no matter how far she goes, or how fast she drives, she keeps seeing this same strange hitch-hiker standing along the side of the road. With his thumb outstretched, his face delivers an unsettling, blank expression as she passes him along highways, diners, and beside gas stations and in open fields. Leonard Strong wonderfully captures this haunting yet simple character who stalks and stares at his victim, knowing she cannot escape his lure. At one point, he slinks up behind her parked car and asks, “heading west?” but Nan simply shrieks and speeds away. At another, her car is suck at a railroad crossing while
Nan takes the backroads to avoid this strange man, but when her car runs out of gas in the middle of the night she pulls up to a rest stop where thankfully a sailor (played Adam Williams) offers her help. We (the audience) feel a sense of safety and security at the sailor’s presence, despite the fact that he seems to feel a bit too cozy with Nan. She and the sailor begin driving across the country together toward San Diego where his ship is docked, but the unnamed sailor soon grows nervous as Nan continues having visions of the hitch-hiker. At one point, she tries to crash her car into the mysterious hitch-hiker, at which point the sailor decides Nan is likely mad. He abandons her alone at night in her vehicle. Despite her pleas, she is once again isolated. She seeks out a public telephone to call her mother, but she is informed by a cold voice named Mrs. Whitney that her mother has suffered a nervous breakdown because “Nan was killed just six days ago…” when her tire was blown out in Pennsylvania. Drained after learning of her own death, Nan returns to her car in a state of numbness and acceptance. In her drop-down mirror, she suddenly sees the Hitch-Hiker sitting alone in her backseat. “I believe you’re going… my way,” he says. As it turns out, the Hitch-Hiker is a haunted form of Death personified, or perhaps the grim reaper, and Nan is merely a ghost, passing from one life to the next.
“Nan Adams, age twenty-seven. She was driving to California; to Los Angeles. She didn’t make it. There was a detour… through the Twilight Zone.”
My Thoughts on “The Hitch-Hiker”
“The Hitch-Hiker” bears all the hallmarks of a classic Hitchcock yarn –it carries a looming sense of dread throughout the story as a haunting supernatural entity repeatedly torments a lone woman traveling on the highway, stranded in the darkness, gaslit by everyone around her, vulnerable to the predatory instincts of both hitch-hikers and sailors alike. This classic episode offers a rare bit of internal monologue as we witness Nan’s pure sense of isolation and dread from within her own head. It plays out like a journal of Nan slowly discovering the truth of her fate. In addition, the open American highway –a classic motif in American literature from Steinbeck to Kerouac– is a place which typically engenders anonymity and escapism. Yet this feeling of pure freedom is disrupted by the creeping awareness that Nan is being stalked. She is entrapped and unable to escape despite being in total control of her automobile, the ultimate symbol of American independence. In one particularly striking moment, Nan pleads with the sailor to stay with her in the middle of the night. In any other situation, Nan might have felt threatened by such a situation, but overwhelmed by fear of the hitch-hiker, she decides to embrace the devil she knows (the sailor), rather than risk the devil unknown (the Hitch-Hiker). Still, the sailor, once a welcome bit of flirtatious normalcy, decides Nan has lost her mind and he wants none of it.
There were a couple of lingering questions which stalked me in throughout this episode (pun intended). How are we to understand Nan’s predicament? Has she simply been living the life of a ghost this whole time? If so, how is she able to communicate and interact with the world around her? Are people like the sailor or the mechanic able to see ghosts? Or is Nan trapped in some sort of limbo between realms?
At any rate, this is a top tier episode of The Twilight Zone –well cast, well written, and well scored by Bernard Herrmann. The following is a quote from Lucille Fletcher’s original radio play for “The Hitchhiker”: “Outside it is night – the vast, soulless night of New Mexico. A million stars are in the sky. Ahead of me stretch a thousand miles of empty mesa, mountains, prairies – desert. Somewhere among them, he is waiting for me. Somewhere I shall know who he is, and who . . . I . . . am.”
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- Rod Serling changed the original script main character’s name to “Nan” named after his daughter Anne (her nickname was “Nan”). The character was named Ronald Adams in Fletcher’s original radio play.
- Orson Welles originally narrated Lucille Fletcher’s radio play on his radio show in 1941.The television rights were later acquired by The Twilight Zone after a brief bidding war with Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Apparently, Lucille Fletcher was not consulted about the change of gender for the main character in The Twilight Zone episode and she was displeased.
- Alfred Hitchcock attempted to purchase the story from Lucille Fletcher for Alfred Hitchcock Presents but she turned down his $2,000 offer, even though she later sold it for the same price to The Twilight Zone.
- Composer Bernard Herrmann completed the score for the 1941 radio production of the “Hitch-Hiker” and elements of it were re-used in this episode.
- “The Hitch-Hiker” was the only Twilight Zone episode derived directly from a radio play.
- The lead actress Inger Stevens (1934-1970) also appeared in “The Lateness of the Hour,” a classic Season 2 Twilight Zone episode. She also appeared in a collection of feature films and many television shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. She was a depressive person and made several suicide attempts. Under somewhat murky circumstances, she later died of barbiturate poisoning at age 35 in 1970. She had been secretly married to Ike Jones.
- Actor Leonard Strong (1908-1980) who played the Hitch-Hiker, was known for playing Asian roles and he appeared in Season 5 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled “The Cure” written by Robert Bloch.
- The telephone voice of “Mrs. Whitney” was played by Eleanor Audley (uncredited) who was known for her villainous roles in Disney films like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, as well as her regular role in Green Acres.
- Adam Williams (1922-2006) plays the sailor. Astute viewers will recognize him for his role in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959).
- Other actors who appear include Russ Bender (1910-1969), a former detective magazine writer turned actor, Lew Gallo (1928-2000), and George Mitchell (1905-1972).
- The number of Nan’s mother’s residence is “Trafalgar 10498.”
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One of my top 5 episodes.
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It was the first time I saw Inger Stevens. She was a wonderful actress and her death was a tragic loss to the world.
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