The Twilight Zone (Episode #16): “The Hitch-Hiker” (airdate 1/22/60)
The Plot: A young woman keeps seeing the same, silent man thumbing for a ride. No matter how fast she drives, no matter what town she heads for, he always seems to be waiting for her.
The Goods: This episode is a prime example of a simple concept that’s done so well that it almost seems revelatory. There are a lot of shows in this series that prove to be little more than good ideas stretched thin to 22 minutes, but The Hitch-Hiker never seems strained at all.
That can be attributed to the natural allure of a road trip and the acting turn provided here by Inger Stevens as Nan Adams. Her descent into madness (a common refrain in the Zone) is one carefully crafted by something achingly simple. The same face, impossibly in front of her dashboard, popping up as soon as she believes she’s left him behind. Also, unlike those thin episodes, Nan always has new things to do on the open road and new characters to interact with while she’s avoiding the one who seems to really need to get our of her nightmares and into her car.
What might be a malicious man aiming straight for her or a sweet hitchhiker simply needing to get across the country (starting his Grateful Dead following a few years before the band forms) is nevertheless a mystery; it’s the threat of him posing a threat that’s enough to unnerve Nan and the audience.
Plus, he also defies physics by traveling faster on foot than a motor vehicle. That does seem a bit suspect. Double plus, actor Leonard Strong‘s plain face is enough to be innocently creepy. He’s a clean slate, and there are few things scarier than a clean slate. The strung out junkie with the switchblade? We know to avoid him. The sharp-looking businessman with an ease about him? He could be a serial killer pretty easily, but we feel fine letting our guard down. The guy who looks like the exact average of every human on the planet? We don’t know what to do with him. He’s a wild card. He’s a walking question mark. He’s Leonard Strong in this role.
Of course, the story turns out to be more than we could have guessed, and The Hitch-Hiker himself turns out to be something more than we could have guessed. That’s a bit figurative, because it’s not all that difficult to guess who he is or what’s going on, but just like his character, the possibility exists in a handful of others that are equally as plausible, so even if we know what he is, we don’t know for sure if that’s what Rod Serling has up his sleeve. Our first true hint is when Nan picks up a sailor as protection (and for a hint of irony), but our brave military man can’t see the mystery gentleman who keeps hitching. Clearly, Nan is experiencing a different existence than the other citizens of the world.
The presentation of the true reality comes in a gasping moment on a phone call where Nan realizes that her mother is in the hospital after learning of her daughter’s death in an automobile accident. Nan knows the truth, accepts her fate, and agrees to give The Hitch-Hiker that ride she (and everyone) owes him.
However, no word is ever said about the sailor who was driven in a car by a ghost or all the other people in the story who met with a dead woman unable to pass over. Creepy.
The Trivia: This episode was based off a radio play by Lucille Fletcher (Serling adapted a lot of female writers’ work, especially considering the time period). The original radio play featured a male lead character who was, in all of its performances, voiced by Orson Welles.
On the Next Episode: What happens in Vegas, stays in The Twilight Zone.
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitchwill be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.