A Century of Highway Zombies

Since the 1920s, “highway hypnosis” has lulled drivers to disaster. An Object Lesson.

Joshua Lott / Reuters

Sixty years ago, America was reinventing the road. Eisenhower had just signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which funneled billions of dollars into thousands of smooth and precisely designed highways. A general feeling of national pride pervaded: Goods would flow more efficiently, citizens would travel more comfortably, and the nation would draw together more intimately.

But that comfort and ease belied something ominous—these sleek new highways, the country soon discovered, conjured ghosts.

During long drives, the roads could begin to play tricks on the mind. During the 1950s, public safety organizations and newspapers began to report unusual experiences. Drivers forgot routes they once knew by heart, or weirdly recognized highways they had never driven before; some drivers felt as though they had been transported some 20 miles further ahead in a mere blink of the eye. More disconcerting: People started to have strange visions. A man on an expressway near Joliet, Illinois, noticed a tiger stalking the light beams of his car. Another, driving at a swift clip through rural Georgia, saw a stately colonial mansion materialize in the middle of the highway, which he barely missed by swerving off the road. Yet another reported hitting a man, but when the police arrived there was no sign of a body. The visions weren’t benign, either. One newspaper reported that by 1956, one-car accidents with no apparent cause were responsible for a third of all traffic deaths.

What to make of these specters that stalked post-war freeways? Consensus quickly emerged: It was widely known as “highway hypnotism,” a new epidemic that was literally hypnotizing drivers to death. It became the malady of the brave, new world of American mobility, a crisis that struck at the heart of the middle-class imagination. Today, highway hypnotism has fallen from the public eye, but its rise in the 1950s reveals the anxious convulsions that shook new infrastructure that promised to make citizens freer, safer, and more comfortable.

* * *

The first transcontinental road, the Lincoln Highway, was stitched together during the second decade of the 20th century. It was a daunting journey from New York’s Times Square to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Drivers were told to anticipate spending 30 days on the route, and they were instructed to bring shovels and chains and sundry other tools to battle the drift sand, mud, flooding and debris. It was such a muscular and manly activity that in 1919 the U. S. Army sent a convoy across it to test their equipment and garner publicity. Nine vehicles broke down and 21 soldiers were so injured they never finished. One soldier who did cross unscathed was the young Dwight Eisenhower, who devoted a chapter to it in his memoir entitled, “Through Darkest America with Truck and Tank.”

At this time, city driving was a decidedly more genteel affair. Shortly before the Army set off across Darkest America, New York City experienced its first traffic jam on Broadway—caused by a lecture by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. New York car culture was largely one of moneyed elites and unslouching chauffeurs. This period witnessed the development of a novel road system, the parkway, which would later serve as a prototype for the interstate. The parkway marked the first signs of highway hypnotism. Built to minimize cross traffic, and increasingly paved with smooth asphalt (bought at a reasonable price, thanks to brutal working conditions at Trinidad’s Pitch Lake), drivers could cruise down these new roads with frictionless ease. Without the usual bumps and nervousness about cross traffic, driving became relatively thoughtless.

Highway hypnotism was first noted in 1921, on Riverside Drive. A New York Herald reporter happened to be walking along the parkway when he witnessed the strangest of collisions—one chauffeur rear-ended another chauffeur, and yet neither seemed fazed, as though they shared in some quiet understanding. “It was absurd,” the reporter wrote. Before the collision, the chauffeur “had sat at ease, his hands on the wheel, his gaze straight ahead. There was nothing to divert his attention.” The reporter proffered a theory: The accident was caused by “a self-induced yet uninvited malady,” which takes hold on “a long stretch of road” paradoxically among the most skilled chauffeurs, for whom driving had become “routine or second-nature.” The problem, he claimed, was the increasing tension between automated machines and autonomous people. The result was nothing short of a “modern Frankenstein monster”—mechanically it was “a thing of beauty, efficiency and comfort,” yet spiritually it failed to “synchronize the human soul with steel and iron and rubber.”

The transformations in driving between the 1940s and 1950s only amplified the tension between rubber and soul. By the middle of the century, cars and roads both conspired to make driving as mindless and comfortable as possible. By the 1950s, half of American cars had automatic transmission, air conditioning had become a regular feature, and better suspension and shock absorbers made steering easier and bumps less noticeable. And drivers could enjoy this comfort further afield, traveling vast new networks of evenly paved roads with beautiful, banked curves and ramps.

As seemingly causeless deaths and mysterious visions swelled by the mid-century, commentators pointed their fingers at these new roads as the source. One newspaper declared, “Highway hypnosis is probably the most notable danger that the turnpike has contributed to the driving world,” while another concurred, “No hypnotist could ask for better conditions.” The culprit was the sheer exquisiteness of these “perfectly banked, beautifully engineered” new highways. One journalist, clearly luxuriating in the sensuality of driving, added, “a long straight road, sunlight reflection of the dash, the purr of tires and the engine can all be hypnotizers. It is up to the individual to anticipate these dangers.”

This final point, that it was the responsibility of the driver to combat this danger, became a common refrain: The American Automobile Association (AAA) released a general warning in 1954, and corporations around American distributed anti-hypnosis tips for their employees during the summer season of family road trips. The recommended tactics varied considerably. Some were banal: keep your hand out the window, listen to music—but not dreamy music! Some were bizarre: take off your right shoe to better feel the vibrations, put a wooden board under your butt, have a conversations with yourself. And some were grotesque: One doctor recommended, “Picture an accident caused by someone hypnotized. See yourself mangled in a mangled car. This certainly will help keep off hypnosis.”

These guidelines all shared an impulse to undermine all the luxuries that engineers had worked so hard to create. Make the car vibrate more, make the chair less comfortable, make it noisier, colder, and imagine bloody mayhem. If progress and rationalization was to be found in consumer comfort and ease, then safety and sanity might be achieved through the very opposite. Because these luxuries failed to synchronize with the soul, the driver had no choice but to methodically undermine each new feature.

At the same time road-tripping dads were sitting on wooden planks, highway designers, too, were wondering how they might better stave off this new malady. Engineers agreed that reflective signs offered one easy solution, and at least some thought that a striped centerline down the freeway, rather than a solid one, might better protect the driver from hypnosis. A new breed of engineers in the 1950s began to emphasize the life-saving power of aesthetics: Rather than laying down geometrically efficient highways, they advocated for gracefully flowing ones that would frame the natural beauty and thus combat the “narcotic or hypnotic effect” of the tedious road. One engineer more flamboyantly imagined paving freeways with “rainbow-hewn concrete.”

Another solution came from the beneficent hand of business. Readers of newspapers soon learned that billboards and other highway road signs were not simply intended to drum up customers, but could also save drivers from hypnotic self-destruction. A 1956 article in the Hartford Courant discussed a businessman who had become hypnotized on the Henry Hudson Parkway, but was saved in part by billboards. The article then reassured readers that the Department of Commerce was placing highway information signs around the country, which advertised restaurants and hotels in each town. This would increase business, sure, but it would also offer those driving though something to read, magnanimously breaking up the monotony of a long highway. Consumer goods and ubiquitous advertisements, it turned out, could be a powerful weapon against the dangerous erosion of autonomy.

* * *

Liberty, consumption, and progress were always at the forefront of 1950s American car culture. A suburban housewife in a 1953 Ford commercial extols the joys of a two-car family, “Now I’m free to go anywhere, do anything, see anybody anytime I want to.” A young beatnik seeks adventure, boyishly declaring, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” How very disconcerting that underneath this American Dream of freedom lay a nightmare of mindless drivers, brainwashed by progress.

But highway hypnotism wasn’t simply the dark side of post-war American progress. A subtler story can be found in the intuitions of fiction. The novelist Christopher Isherwood is a particularly incisive guide to these dreams of modern infrastructure. An outsider twice over, both gay and British, he witnessed with wry wit the sprawl of postwar Los Angeles. In his 1964 novel, A Single Man, he unfurls the rich, complicated, and confusing moral map that these highways crisscrossed.

The novel portrays the early 1960s through the eyes of George, a professor grieving the death of his partner, who lives alienated in a suburb that the freeways had made possible. In the mornings, he commutes to his university on the major new highways of Los Angeles. “George feels a kind of patriotism for the freeways,” Isherwood writes. “It is a river, sweeping in full flood towards its outlet with a soothing power. There is nothing to fear, as long as you let yourself go with it…” This is the language that psychologists used to capture the slowly insinuating force of hypnotism, which Isherwood is well aware of: “Now, as he drives, it is as if some kind of autohypnosis exerts itself.”

George’s body and mind separate, and we are back to that earliest description of highway hypnosis on Riverside Drive, to the chauffeur and pampered passenger in repose. The body becomes “an impassive anonymous chauffeur-figure with little will or individuality of its own. … And George, like the master who has entrusted the driving of his car to a servant, is now free to direct his attention elsewhere.”

In contrast to other writings on highway hypnosis, there is no panic in Isherwood’s description. For George, the experience is a luxury, a rare moment of respite. It’s also a tortured kind of freedom; under hypnosis, new visions of righteous violence, sadism, and rebellion bubble up. With his mind free to wander, George thinks of those who, under the banner of progress and morality, have been erecting new barriers of exclusion—journalists inveighing against “sex deviates,” real estate developers blocking public parks—and he imagines launching a “campaign of systematic terror,” watching them endure grotesque spectacles of torture with pincers and red-hot pokers. These fantasies end abruptly as he turns off the freeway, entering the “tacky, sleepy, slowpoke Los Angeles of the thirties.”

George’s reveries suggest an uncomfortable conclusion. Psychologists and engineers had studied highway hypnotism as detached outsiders, portraying it as a battle between freedom and automatism, health and illness. But as George drives into hypnotism, experiencing it from the inside, these distinctions crumble. Rather than extinguishing self-control, automatism offers him an ambivalent liberation—righteous, radical, and id-addled. And rather than numbing his mind, it lays bare the tortured ideology of progress, of which highways and modern infrastructure are mere symptoms.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.