One of the great thrills of being a teenager is getting your license and discovering the freedom of the open road, even if that open road only leads you to the grocery store to get milk for your mom. Driving to school, nights out with friends, or just cruising around, there’s a real freedom in being behind the wheel that the guys and girls of ‘90s teen horror enjoy, no matter where that road takes them. Time in the car is frequently about more than just driving: it’s a chance to escape, to rock out to a favorite song, to have serious talks with friends, to hear others’ stories and even tell some of their own.
In both Christopher Pike’s Road to Nowhere (1990) and R.L. Stine’s The Hitchhiker (1993), these road trips serve as a liminal space, an experience outside the scope of these teens’ everyday realities, where anything could happen and unforeseen dangers lurk around every corner. These cars also serve as a significant space of narrative construction and meaning-making, as the individuals within them give voice to their deepest truths through the stories they tell.
In Pike’s Road to Nowhere, Teresa Chafey jumps in her car one night intent on running away from home after a breakup with her boyfriend Bill, who is sleeping with her best friend Rene. She’s not headed anywhere in particular, just away from her troubles. It’s a rainy night and as Teresa prepares to get on the highway and head north, she sees two hitchhikers on the shoulder and stops to pick them up. The awesomely named Freedom Jack and Poppy Corn become Teresa’s companions for this night drive, listening to her talk about her life, telling stories of their own, and suggesting different detours and stops along the way.
Teresa is at a crossroads: after a chance meeting with Bill at the mall, the two became inseparable. Bill seems to know Teresa better than anyone ever has. For example, when they’re at his house after a date and she mentions that she plays music, he intuitively guesses that she writes her own songs as well, and asks her to play one for him. He loves her music and even though Teresa tells him that she doesn’t really play in front of other people, he gets her an audition at a popular club near the beach by playing the club owner a tape of Teresa’s music that he made without her permission. Teresa is initially resistant and angry with Bill for going behind her back, though the audition lands her a two-night-a-week gig and once she has stepped—or been forced—outside her comfort zone, she realizes that she actually really enjoys playing for an audience, beginning to gain confidence and come out of her shell. As Teresa thinks to herself prior to her first night at the club, she “had finally broken free of her tower. She was waiting no longer” (53). She’s done waiting for her life to start and plans to go after what she wants, which includes this new music career and a more intimate relationship with Bill. Bill and Rene come to Teresa’s first performance, which goes great. Teresa can’t wait to get back out on stage a couple of nights later and her parents even come to hear her play, a measure of validation for which Teresa has been longing. But Bill and Rene also spend the whole show together again and by the end of the second night, seem to be getting quite friendly. Teresa tries everything to force a wedge between Bill and Rene, including setting Rene up with someone else and arranging a romantic weekend away for Bill and herself so they can take their relationship to the next level. But in the end, Bill shows up at Teresa’s apartment to break up with her and tell her that he and Rene have fallen in love with one another. While Bill tells Teresa that “nothing’s happened yet” (123), he immediately leaves Teresa’s house after breaking up with her to go have sex with Rene. And the way Teresa tells it, that’s when she decided to hit the road.
Freedom Jack claims he and Poppy Corn are traveling magicians, heading to do a show at a club in San Francisco. Rather than telling Teresa their own story, though, Freedom Jack and Poppy Corn instead tell her about John and Candy, two kids who fell in love in high school and came to a bad end: after they get caught cheating on a test senior year, John assaulted their teacher and ended up in a juvenile detention center, while Candy went on to college, where she flunked out without John there to help her, but not before she got pregnant as a result of an affair with one of her professors, becoming a single mother. After getting out of juvie, John took a series of low-paying jobs, trying to make the best of things until he ended up getting his hand mangled in a hot dog bun machine, got hooked on painkillers, and then turned to heroin when his doctor cut off the pills. In the meantime, Candy has pulled her life together, become a nurse, and found a guy who treats her well, and things are looking up until she runs out to the wrong mini mart on the wrong night for a pack of cigarettes, walks in on John robbing the store, and they’re both killed in the ensuing police showdown. This is a dramatic and complicated story, and Freedom Jack and Poppy Corn pass it back and forth, with Freedom Jack telling John’s part of the story and Poppy Corn sharing Candy’s experiences and perspective. Freedom Jack and Poppy Corn often disagree about the best way to tell the story or what “really” happened. For example, when they get to the part of the story with the mini mart holdup, Freedom Jack interrupts Poppy Corn and tells her “I want to tell this part … You’ll screw it up, Poppy. You’ll change things around and give Teresa the wrong idea” (148).
Teresa, Freedom Jack, and Poppy Corn’s storytelling is punctuated with a few mini mart stops of their own along the road, as well as a couple of detours to see a fortune teller that Freedom Jack refers to as his mother and a priest in a big, old church who Poppy Corn calls her father. Teresa feels worse as the night goes on, with a deep ache in her wrist, a growing headache, and increasing nausea. Further complicating matters, the farther they go, the fewer places there are to turn off the road. The stories they have told begin to overlap with and bleed into their life on the road, as Freedom Jack robs a mini mart and forces Teresa into the role of his accomplice, the knife in her hand finally forcing her to remember and acknowledge what really happened before she left home earlier in the night: she went to Bill’s house with the knife, saw Bill and Rene asleep together, couldn’t bring herself to hurt them, then went home and cut her left wrist in the bathtub, where she has been bleeding out all night. Freedom Jack and Poppy Corn are spiritual guides of a sort, though they are also John and Candy, telling their own stories from a purgatorial afterlife. As Poppy Corn explains to Teresa, Freedom Jack “was here to tempt you … At least that’s what he thinks. I was here to help you, if you wanted my help … You didn’t want it, Teresa” (198).
Teresa, Freedom Jack, and Poppy Corn’s final conversation in Teresa’s apartment is a turning point for each of them: Teresa has to decide whether she wants to live or die, while Freedom Jack has to make the conscious decision to forgive both himself and Poppy Corn/Candy, with Jack/John and Poppy/Candy finally determining whether they will spend eternity together. Teresa’s life is saved when Bill suddenly wakes up and feels an overwhelming need to check on her, and Teresa has a new, brighter outlook in which she has something to live for beyond her boyfriend’s betrayal. And just to make sure she doesn’t dismiss the whole thing as a dream or hallucination, the medical student who cares for Teresa when she wakes up in the hospital is Candy’s son Johnny.
Road to Nowhere is one of the Pike novels that featured in Mike Flanagan’s recent The Midnight Club Netflix series (Episode 8, “Road to Nowhere”), as a story—or more accurately, two versions of a story—told by Natsuki (Aya Furukawa). In the version of the story Natsuki tells the club, Teresa’s long, disorienting drive with Freedom Jack (Henry Thomas) and Poppy Corn (Alex Essoe) happens while she’s sitting in the garage with the door closed and the engine running, slowly asphyxiating as visual elements from the garage make their way into her dream, like the old poster on the wall and the bunch of dangling Christmas lights. In this version, Freedom Jack and Poppy Corn are two parts of Teresa herself, personifying her competing drives for self-destruction and survival, respectively. Even once Teresa has made up her mind to live, she will never be free of these contradictory impulses, as they tell her “You’ll carry us both with you always … And we’re gonna argue in your mind always.” At the end of this story, Teresa crawls from the car, opens the garage door, and saves herself, choosing life. However, after the Midnight Club disbands for the night, Natsuki tells Amesh (Sauriyan Sapkota) another version of the story, revealing how Teresa’s story mirrors Natsuki’s own suicide attempt, where she got out of the car but didn’t get the garage door open, dying before her mother found and revived her, only for them to discover Natsuki’s terminal diagnosis. As Natsuki mourns, “I survived, and I realized how much I wanted to live … And I found out I was dying anyway.” Though these stories go in different directions and end up in different places, Teresa/Natsuki’s near-death experience is a liminal, transformative experience in both, with the metaphorical journey taking each girl more deeply into herself, who she is, what she wants, and what she’s willing to fight for.
Stine’s The Hitchhiker offers a different kind of road trip liminality, narrative rather than existential. Christina and Terri are high school girls who have run away from their home in Cleveland to go party in Florida for spring break and after hedonistic amounts of sun, booze, and boys, they’re now headed back home. (Stine tells readers nothing about their lives at home, their parents, whether they may have been reported missing, how much trouble they’ll be in, or where they got the cash to bankroll this party trip. I have a lot of questions). Teenage boy James is hitchhiking his way north from Key West, haunted by a mystery girl begging “Please don’t, James. Please—don’t hurt me” (1, emphasis original). Obviously, the three of them end up together: Terri tells Christina she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to pick up a roadside stranger, Christina tells Terri it’s okay because James is hot, and James is more than happy to come along for the ride, beat up a waiter who pisses him off, and make out with Christina in the backseat while Terri drives.
There are a lot of unsettling coincidences and mysteries along the road. They stop to stay the night with James’s cousin Paul, though this goes south as they’re leaving when Paul notices that his wallet is gone and accuses James of taking it. James knocks Paul out in the front lawn, jumps in the car, and peels out of the driveway (even though he keeps saying the whole time that he didn’t take Paul’s wallet). As they drive, they keep hearing radio reports about an old man who was attacked when he picked up a hitchhiker. James switches the radio station every time a news break comes on, but through bits and pieces, they learn that the old man has fallen into a coma and later, that he has died. They’re followed by a non-descript blue car that runs them off the road, Terri disappears while they’re staying the night in a crappy motel, and their car disappears too, leaving Christina and James hitchhiking again.
They get picked up but the driver turns around and heads back to Florida rather than continuing north. Their driver is a man named Art, whose father was recently assaulted and carjacked by a hitchhiker (uh oh). Art’s looking for vengeance and plans to take matters into his own hands in the swamp. Art turns out to be kind of a weirdo and The Hitchhiker has one of the most outlandish conclusions in ‘90s teen horror (not a low bar!), as he ties up Christina and James, leads them to a cliff overlooking an isolated pond of pet piranhas, and prepares to shove them in. As exciting as the piranhas are, though, the real bait-and-switch is Stine’s revelation that Christina is the one who killed Art’s father and stole his car (though apparently the police weren’t looking for it? Didn’t see them, even though they were driving through large cities and on major highways? Again, I have a lot of questions). Christina is cutthroat: she’s the one who stole Paul’s wallet and she’s fully prepared to tell Art that James is the murderer to save herself. James, for all of his bad-boy image, is basically a hapless patsy about to be murdered by piranha just because he accepted a ride with the wrong pretty girls. There’s an unsettling “boys will be boys” vibe in James’s redemptive arc in the final pages, with his assaults of Paul and the waiter written off to fits of temper and the girl whose voice has been haunting him revealed to be just a girlfriend whose feelings he hurt, making him basically a “good guy.”
Terri was kidnapped and chucked in the piranha pool, but she escaped. Art falls in when Christina ducks as he goes to push her, Christina threatens to shoot James and she pushes Terri over the edge of the cliff, though Terri catches herself and throws Christina into the water instead. Art has a mysterious friend named Jack and the piranhas are actually Jack’s (again, even more questions) and he’s bound to wonder what all these bodies are doing in his piranha pool when he comes back, but there’s probably a whole separate, horrifying thing going on there, so we’ll just let that be. Terri and James survive and are thrilled to bid one another farewell at the hospital, each thanking the other for saving their life but really hoping they never see each other again. Terri’s parents are on their way to save her from this nightmare (and presumably, from herself, to some extent) while James sets out to hitchhike back home, because he’s apparently an idiot who has learned nothing.
In Road to Nowhere, the hitchhikers Teresa picks up serve a distinct purpose, as guides on her journey back to herself and her life or death decision, but in The Hitchhiker, there’s nothing so subtle or eloquent. Basically, Stine’s argument is that hitchhiking is BAD. Hitchhikers could be unsettling and scary (like James) or actually kill you (like Christina). People who pick up hitchhikers aren’t much better, because they could secretly be murderers on the run (like Christina) or unhinged dudes with a piranha pool in the swamp (like Art). Beautiful party girls and nondescript guys can be murderers, but the broody guy who’s prone to violence is probably pretty nice deep down. Not that you should pick any of them up if you see them hitchhiking. Or take a ride with them if you’re hitchhiking. Because, again, hitchhiking is BAD.
Pike’s Road to Nowhere and Stine’s The Hitchhiker both highlight the freedom and liminality of the open road in ‘90s teen horror, but they are very different books, tapping into different types of horror. These two books also throw the difference between Pike and Stine into stark relief. Pike’s horror tends toward the cosmic and the existential, looking beyond the human into realms of the spiritual, supernatural, and even alien, while Stine frequently leans into over-the-top melodrama. Pike does occasionally veer into the territory of the ridiculous and Stine at times make insightful observations about human nature and conflict, but each author definitely has his own distinct niche and approach to teen horror. On the dark roads of ‘90s teen horror, the figure on the shoulder could be your worst self or a nice guy who only seems scary—it all depends on who’s driving the car.
Alissa Burger is an associate professor at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. She writes about horror, queer representation in literature and popular culture, graphic novels, and Stephen King. She loves yoga, cats, and cheese.