Ostensibly, this is about two persons, Nan Adams, on a road trip to L.A. from the East Coast, and a hitch hiker, a tramp, looking for a ride. The problem for Nan is that the hitch hiker keeps reappearing throughout her journey. He’s always ahead of her, but also always in need of a ride. Her drive becomes torturous. At every bend in the road, at every glance out the window or in the mirror, she anticipates the appearance of the small, “drab, a little mousy” man thumbing for a lift.
What is Nan afraid of? Is she afraid of the man, the hitch hiker? Is hitch hiking something she condemns? Is it wrong to give a lift to a stranger? Is it dangerous? We don’t know. Nan is gripped by the oddness of the recurrent hitch hiker. She describes her fear, “[a] fear just about as vague as its object. Maybe it isn’t a fear – just a sense of disquiet. A feeling that things are just a little wrong. It’s vague because that’s what that hitch hiker is. He’s vague.”
Things are more than a little wrong. Things are very wrong, but Nan doesn’t know that and neither do we. As the episode opens, Nan is getting her tire changed, following a high speed blowout. She died in the accident. The oddness of her experience, her road trip, are clues to her real condition. The vagueness of her fear diminishes, and crystallizes into an acute fear of the very condition she unknowingly occupies.
Were we to experience our own death, it might be like this confrontation with a hitch hiker. Hitch hiking is a lonely, uncertain exercise in vulnerability. Who wants to pick someone up who needs a ride? Embracing the hitch hiker into one’s vehicle is acknowledging a shared goal, taking on a form of solidarity and trust. Nan is repulsed until she understands the inevitability of her union with the hitch hiker.
Arriving in Tuscon, it just takes a phone call home to learn that she had died six days earlier in Pennsylvania, when her tire blew out. Her fear is released, and she finds the hitch hiker in the car with her, because she’s clearly going his way.
Death comes in many forms, and at different times. In “Nothing in the Dark” death convinces an elderly shut-in that it’s time to go, and that death is not to be feared. Here death is silent, and interacts with someone already dead. This road trip doesn’t take place in our United States, but somewhere else – the Twilight Zone – the imagination. Here’s the slight of hand. What we’re imagining is indistinguishable from Pennsylvania, Tuscon, etc. And we don’t make the switch until Nan does. We reinterpret time and place to have a very different metaphysical status. Along with Nan we accept the new interpretation of where Nan is and what’s happened to her, because it makes sense of the oddness and vagueness of her recent experience.
A key feature of the odd nature of Nan’s experience is the (eternal?) recurrence (Nietzsche) of the hitch hiker. Some events recur: The sun rises each day. But others don’t: We pass a hitch hiker once, maybe twice, but not again and again during the same trip. Perhaps we’ll know we’re dead, when our expectations about time, space, and causation are no longer met.
Nehamas, Alexander, 1980, “The Eternal Recurrence”, The Philosophical Review, 89(3): 331–56.
_____________, 1985, Nietzsche: Life as Literature, Harvard University Press, Chapter 5, “This Life – Your Eternal Life.”
Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), New York: Vintage, 1974 (1st ed. 1882, 2nd ed. 1887).