Department of Theatre and Film
The Highway Shock Film: History, Phenomenology, Ideology
This is not a Hollywood production as can readily be seen. The quality is below their standards. However, most of these scenes were taken under adverse conditions, nothing has been staged. These are actual scenes taken immediately after the accidents occurred. Also unlike Hollywood our actors are paid nothing. Most of the actors in these movies are bad actors and received top billing only on a tombstone. They paid a terrific price to be in these movies, they paid with their lives.
--Opening title crawl for Signal 30 (Highway Safety Foundation, 1959)
In 1954, Richard Wayman, a businessman and amateur photographer, encountered a fatal accident involving a motorcyclist and a train while traveling through Mansfield, Ohio. He snapped a few color photos of the scene for the local police department, and over the next five years photographed numerous highway accident sites for a traveling slide show to be presented at schools and county fairs. In 1959, Wayman and his associates, now organized into a venture known as the Highway Safety Foundation (HSF), began shooting 16mm color film of the accidents. The result was Signal 30 (1959) – the first of a twenty-year cycle of educational films released by the Highway Safety Foundation and other companies that foregrounded, in graphic detail, the mangled, bloodied, twisted, and charred bodies of traffic accident victims. The films, intended for distribution to schools and police departments for driver training and instruction, were all accompanied, either implicitly or explicitly, by a common discourse, both moralizing and fetishistic in tone. This discourse stressed a certain need for the vision of bodies – specifically, the dead, dying, and always horrifically injured bodies that populated the films. A simple viewing of the literally embodied aftermath of traffic accidents, the logic went, could “shock” the viewer into adopting safer and more responsible driving practices.
The discourse that lay at the core of these films’ mode of presentation rested on a vague theory of spectatorship: if viewers were to see a particular stimulus – in this case the gruesome aftermath of traffic accidents – certain desired responses would be elicited in them. Most importantly, these responses included increased consciousness of driving safety and strict obedience of traffic laws. The specific manifestation of these responses, a “shock,” was thought to be the only way to impress these films’ spectators, most of whom were likely to be either teenagers or DUI offenders, with the requisite message. The ubiquity of these films in driver education courses and DUI programs across the nation, a trend that continued at least into the late 1970s, suggests a widespread acceptance of this discourse during the period when these films were being produced. Furthermore, as the quote above explicitly states, highway shock films tended to be produced outside of Hollywood’s industrial mode of production. The shock films of the 1960s were composed primarily of compilations of accident and other documentary footage, and if any staged footage was used, it featured nonprofessional actors (usually actual police officers, ambulance drivers, or schoolchildren). Later shock films like The Last Prom (Gene McPherson Productions, 1980), despite their more narratively integrated approach to the presentation of accidents and their aftermaths, also featured lay actors and barebones production values. Given the explicit nature of their common rhetoric and their location on the margins of film discourse, these films call for analysis through a variety of critical frameworks.
In this essay, I seek to answer three primary questions: First, what historical and industrial contexts frame the production of highway shock films from the late 1950s to the early 1980s? To answer this question, I offer an historical account of the cycle and its roots in public discourses surrounding automotive safety. Second, what are the theoretical foundations of this “shock” discourse, and how can we use these foundations to understand the phenomenon of the highway shock film, both as an historical object and as a lasting cultural text? Here, Vivian Sobchack’s work in existential phenomenology and her notion of the film text as “viewing subject” help us to define the phenomenological underpinnings of the shock discourse of these films. Third, what are the ideological goals of this discourse, and how did they work to justify the continued production and distribution of the highway shock cycle during this period? I argue that Michel Foucault’s theories on power and discourse, particularly as manifested in Discipline and Punish (1975), help to explain the role of the highway shock film as a manifestation of state power.
While each of these questions calls for a different historical or theoretical approach, they are prompted by a common set of themes and observations, all of which make the highway shock cycle a fascinating object of inquiry. These include the films’ obsession with bodies (and their analogues), the role of the police and the auto industry as regulators of vision, the troubled ethical position of the highway shock cycle, and our ambivalent spectatorial relationship with the films the cycle encompasses. Ultimately, my approach is simultaneously historical and theoretical. I offer a phenomenological theoretical framework as an explanation for the spectator-scale workings of these films, and approach broader questions of discourse and ideology historically.
Contextualizing Shock: A Brief History
Little scholarship has been written on the highway shock film – a surprising fact given the wide awareness and cultural capital of the phenomenon. This dearth of scholarship may be partially explained by the unique exhibition circumstances of these films, as they were rarely, if ever, screened in any kind of dedicated theatrical space. The highway shock film was located at an interstitial generic location between documentary, the exploitation film, the educational safety film, and the high school filmstrip; ultimately, these films comprise a nontheatrical cycle that evades easy categorization. Eric Schaefer, in his work on exploitation cinema, has dated the end of the “classical” exploitation film to 1959, the same year as the release of Signal 30. Nevertheless, many of the issues he discusses with relation to the classical exploitation film also apply to the highway shock cycle. The “educational” discourse of sex hygiene films, the moralizing yet fetishistic tone of drug panic films, and the bloody spectacle of the atrocity film can all be seen to some extent in Signal 30 or Highways of Agony (HSF, 1969) (Schaefer). The crucial difference, however, is that such discourses are explicitly foregrounded in the highway safety film not as ends in and of themselves, but as means to an end. Unlike most exploitation films, highway shock films never sought theatrical success or wide distribution through their excesses. Their rhetorical goal, at least on the surface, was to reduce traffic fatalities by means of the cold, hard discourse of shock.
In her book Crash: Cinema and the Politics of Speed and Stasis, Karen Beckman very briefly discusses the highway shock cycle as a kind of gory aesthetic outlier from more mainstream highway safety films produced during the period (113). However, she also illuminates a useful historical starting point for automotive shock discourse, J.C. Furnas’ 1935 Reader’s Digest article, “And Sudden Death.” The article, which would go on to become the most reprinted piece in the magazine’s history, explicitly attempted to evoke a physical sickening of its readers through luridly detailed descriptions of the injuries of car crash victims. The magazine even printed an editorial statement before the article’s main text:
Like the gruesome spectacle of a bad automobile accident itself, the realistic details of this article will nauseate some readers. Those who find themselves thus affected at the outset are cautioned against reading the article in its entirety, since there is no letdown in the author’s outspoken treatment of sickening facts. (Furnas 21)
This statement indexes the text to follow as something truly horrific and shocking, and such a rhetorical frame would accompany many a screening of a highway shock film. More importantly, however, Furnas’ article initiates and exemplifies the strategy used by the later highway shock films to justify their own depictions of automotive horror. First, shock discourse justifies the gruesomeness of its representation through an appeal to a kind of documentary realism; Beckman points to historian William Stott’s placement of Furnas’ essay squarely within the Depression-era documentary tradition of the 1930s (113). Second, Furnas argues in his article that such representations of accident aftermaths are the only effective way to convince readers to change their driving behavior: “I can’t help it if the facts are revolting. If you have the nerve to drive fast and take chances, you ought to have the nerve to take the appropriate cure” (22). These two rhetorical approaches – the appeal to realism and the framing of automotive injury as a pure result of personal irresponsibility – would characterize automotive shock discourse as a whole when the Highway Safety Foundation began making films some twenty years later.
Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films, a 2002 documentary by Atlanta-based filmmaker Bret Wood, has served as a valuable secondary resource in constructing a historical context – however preliminary – of the highway shock film. Wood’s film argues that as a film practice and mode of spectatorship, the highway shock film did not arise in a vacuum, but rather instantiated a longstanding tradition of safety-themed educational films stretching back to the 1920s. The film archivist Rick Prelinger, who is widely quoted in Wood’s documentary, traces the origins of this tradition to that decade and industrial safety films produced by insurance companies. These films, which often depicted workers handling equipment improperly, failing to wear safety gear, or practicing general recklessness, ostensibly aimed to reduce workplace accidents. However, as Prelinger points out, the films served another purpose: to shift responsibility for accidents away from unsafe working conditions, long hours, and the general purview of management, and toward the actions of individual workers. Workplace accidents in these films are solely the result of worker incompetence or recklessness, and the filmic manifestations of these accidents are quite literally embodied. The Joker (Mode-Art Pictures, 1960), a later industrial safety film produced for U.S. Steel, features various workers being crushed by improperly balanced plates and I-beams, complete with lifeless arms and feet protruding from underneath tons of steel. While their images were nowhere near as graphic or lurid as those of the highway shock cycle, industrial safety films offered a rhetorical template for the productions of the Highway Safety Foundation.
By the 1950s, driver safety had become a more visibly important issue for many Americans, and the safety film expanded from the sphere of industrial production to encompass everyday life. The postwar industrial boom that spanned most of that decade resulted in a new phenomenon: for the first time in American history, a substantial proportion of the population handled complicated, industrially-manufactured machines – automobiles – on an everyday basis, and at speeds that could kill in an instant. The construction of the Eisenhower interstate highway system (which began in 1956), postwar suburbanization, the decline of public transportation, and an explosion in the number of privately-owned automobiles and the number of miles driven daily all contributed to an inevitable rise in the number and frequency of traffic fatalities. While automobile death rates had been extraordinarily high in the 1920s and 1930s (a fact that should be noted as context for Furnas’ article), mass ownership of automobiles was largely a postwar phenomenon. Public consciousness of the everyday dangers of getting behind the wheel expanded during the 1950s and 1960s, when the previous long-term trend of high but constantly reducing traffic death rates year after year began to flatten out (National Safety Council). As a result, corporations, government entities, and independent production companies began producing and sponsoring automotive safety films, and the issue of deflecting accident responsibility onto individuals, both in a moral and a legal sense, was once again a central one.
The safety films of this period, which were typically funded by auto industry giants like Ford or General Motors and produced by independent companies (most notably the Jam Handy Organization), rarely showed the explicit, embodied results of traffic accidents. Rather, bodily injury was usually deflected through implication and analogy. Typical of these films is the James Stewart-narrated Tomorrow’s Drivers (Jam Handy for General Motors, 1954), in which children driving miniature cars stand in for reckless adults in their failure to obey the rules of the road, resulting in rather mild accidents.
Tomorrow’s Drivers exemplifies the auto industry’s wider rhetorical stance regarding driving safety during a period in which it went largely unregulated: safety on the road was purely a matter of individual responsibility, and accidents, injury, or death could only be the result of a childish mentality on the part of the driver. One 1960 GM ad, printed in several popular youth magazines and aimed at graduating high school seniors, read: “The cars are safer . . . the roads are safer . . . the rest is up to you!” (Reprinted in Tenney 160, emphasis in original). The safety features touted by the ad include “a clear view of the road,” “better braking,” and “easier steering”; it does not mention seat belts, which were still considered optional equipment at the time. Henry Ford II, testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee in 1966, stated, “the driver is the most important factor [in safety] because if you drive safely, accidents won’t happen” (Moynihan 10). So widespread was this rhetoric that it served as a point of departure for industry critics and consumer advocates. Ralph Nader, in a discussion of the safety hazards of the Chevrolet Corvair in his landmark book Unsafe At Any Speed (1965), wrote
What would legislators think – men long nourished on the diet that “it’s all because of the nut behind the wheel” – when court-sanctioned investigations of evidence brought out into the open the facts about an American car that abruptly decides to do the driving for the driver in a wholly untoward manner? (Nader 9)
For the most part, the highway shock film aligned with this discourse attributing accidents to “the nut behind the wheel,” and not without reason; driver error remains the leading cause of auto fatalities. However, as a result, the shock films often framed the accidents they depicted as the result of a single, easily-understood factor – typically alcohol, excessive speed, or ignoring traffic signs – at the expense of extenuating circumstances such as seat belt availability, inclement road conditions, or driver age. In 1969‘s Highways of Agony, for example, the film’s narrator emphasizes that a particular drunk driving crash would have been survivable had the driver been wearing a seat belt, before offhandedly adding that none had been installed in the car.
In 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which initiated more substantial regulation of the auto industry, imposing uniform standards on the design and construction of automobiles and mandating the installation of seat belts in cars beginning in 1968. The Act’s passage was a result not only of Nader’s activism, but also of new “scientific” approaches to automotive safety testing which systematically revealed the physical effects of car collisions. Safety-Belt for Susie (Charles Cahill & Associates, 1962) exemplified this new approach. The film occupies a surreal rhetorical middle ground between the lighthearted strategy of Tomorrow’s Drivers and the grim, sadistic approach of the highway shock film. As in Tomorrow’s Drivers, Safety-Belt for Susie eschews the depiction of actual bodily injury or death; however, the film does depict the effects of automobile accidents in explicit and physically naturalistic detail. The film’s surreal, uncanny character derives from the specific embodiment of this detail in physical simulacra for actual human bodies. Produced “with the cooperation and assistance of the U.S. Public Health Service,” Safety-Belt for Susie opens innocuously enough in an amusement park, complete with a camera ride on a roller coaster. We are introduced to a white, middle-class American family, consisting of one Mr. Norwood, his wife Alice, their daughter Nancy, and her beloved life- size doll: the titular Susie. The film quickly and none too implicitly establishes Susie as a kind of simulacrum for Nancy; the child and her doll wear the same clothes (on Nancy’s insistence) and ride in the same car on the roller coaster, and Nancy’s father even buys them both their own ice cream cones. When Norwood and his wife become involved in a car accident on the way to pick up Nancy from her grandmother’s house, they are spared serious injury by their seat belts. Susie, however, who has been riding unrestrained in the back seat, does not. Norwood makes explicit the rhetorical connection between Susie and Nancy in voiceover narration: “We discovered something that gave us both a genuine shock . . .” – the doll, thrown forward by the collision, now lies grotesquely twisted and broken – “What if this had been Nancy?”
The “body trauma” suffered by Susie works as part of Safety-Belt for Susie’s rhetorical strategy in its displaced depiction of bodily injury and death, but the film goes even further in this regard. As Norwood and Alice recover from their injuries in the office of their family physician, Dr. McAllister, the doctor takes over the film’s voiceover narration from Norwood. Noticing Susie’s mangled body, Dr. McAllister reveals that he is a “medical consultant” for the Institute of Transportation and Traffic Engineering, an organization funded by the state of California and based at the University of California, Los Angeles, and that he has been involved with a scientific study of the effects of car crashes on crash-test dummies. The crash-test dummy was itself something of a curious new technological simulacrum in 1962; automotive testing through the 1950s had relied primarily on cadavers. The slow-motion crash test footage that fills the second half of Safety-Belt for Susie, taken at UCLA’s automotive testing facilities, differs from the film’s depiction of Susie’s injury in its fetishistic dissection of the mechanics of the car crash. Whereas Norwood and Alice’s accident is edited in a frenetic style similar to classical Hollywood’s typical depiction of car crashes, the crash test footage is presented in full slow-motion detail. This footage differs from the highway shock film’s lingering on dead and dying bodies only in its emphasis on the particular synchronic moment of disaster – the crash itself – rather than its aftermath. Safety-Belt for Susie’s use of crash-test dummies stands in for any depiction of injury to actual human beings, but in so doing the film relies on a particularly visceral sort of horror (possibly inherited from the earliest highway shock films) in order to carry out its rhetoric.
Indeed, that Wayman’s HSF films centered around the depiction of actual accident victims, both dead and dying, made them unique in the years before other companies began to imitate them. The HSF was an independent producer and distributor, not technically affiliated with any corporate or government entity. However, the Foundation did work in close cooperation with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which allowed them to film accident sites and police training sessions (the credits sequences of these films are devoted almost exclusively to Ohio state patrol officers and officials). From 1959 to 1971, the HSF produced 16mm educational safety films about a variety of subjects, including shoplifting, check forging, and child molestation, but most concerned driver instruction and brandished titles like Mechanized Death (1961), Wheels of Tragedy (1963), Carrier or Killer (1966), and Highways of Agony. Other independent producers copied the HSF model, resulting in films like Death on the Highway (1971), which infamously retouched accident still photos with a profusion of fake blood, as well as the more professionally-produced and narrative-driven The Last Prom.
The highway shock cycle thus emerged as the confluence of a number of discursive contexts. An emphasis on the personal responsibility of the driver, legitimized and institutionalized by industrially-funded education films, formed a key part of this discourse, and the notion of “shocking” consumers into better behavior through lurid realism – made popular by Furnas’ article in the 1930s – continued to hold sway into the 1960s, although not primarily in visual form. The visual analogue to Furnas’ literary shock discourse did not come to fruition until the release of Signal 30 in 1959; the industry-sponsored auto safety films of the 1930s-50s did not directly depict the violent aftermath of traffic accidents. The new brutality that characterized the highway shock film was at least partially a result of changing censorship standards in Hollywood. Although the Production Code was still in effect in 1959, it had weakened significantly since its heyday under Joseph Breen, and indirect representations of violent death had been an integral part of visual mass culture even during those stricter years. As David Cook has pointed out, the 1960s was a pivotal decade in the aestheticization of violence and death in visual media; it seems no coincidence that the Highway Safety Foundation produced the majority of its films during those years. Nevertheless, the sight of significant quantities of blood in visual media – not to mention actual mangled corpses – was uncommon in American film until the late 1960s, and this relative lack of explicit violence may have given the highway shock film a substantial amount of its “shock value.”
The Phenomenology of “Shock”
Besides showing you the dead, we tried to shock you into being a better driver by showing you the dying. And we showed you the ones that didn’t die, the lucky ones. This is what pain looks like. Remember, these are the lucky ones. We showed you pain. But we didn’t think seeing was enough. So we let you hear the sound of pain. Seeing and hearing . . . that’s believing. Do their screams impress you? Will they make you more alert in driving and more cautious?
These lines, spoken by the narrator of Options to Live (HSF, 1979), make explicit the phenomenological strategy of the highway shock film: an attempt, through visual and aural stimulus, to “shock” or “scare” young and reckless drivers into safer practices. While any survey of the reception of these films would be limited to anecdotal accounts (Wood relates several in his documentary), it is clear that the highway shock film has come to be associated with certain very visceral physical reactions. Popular narratives about these films often include stern warnings from teachers about their content or viewers fainting or vomiting, and the sheer, ostensibly stomach-churning horror of the films has become part of their mythology, regardless of our actual reactions to them. It is this visceral, embodied reaction that calls for a phenomenological reading of the highway shock film, and an application of Vivian Sobchack’s work on existential phenomenology and film seems appropriate in this context.
In The Address of the Eye, Sobchack argues for the notion of film as a “viewing subject – one that manifests a competence of perceptive and expressive performance equivalent in structure and function to that same competence performed by filmmaker and spectator” (Sobchack, Address 22, emphasis in original). When we view a film, we are not simply a subject (a spectator) viewing an object (the film) and making meaning out of it. Rather, we are embodied spectators perceiving an embodied perception of the world that also expresses it, allowing us to articulate both that world and the film-body’s perception of it through our own bodily sensations. The meaning articulated by this fluid perception/expression dynamic is, for Sobchack, inherently pre-conscious or pre-reflective; she is interested in our reactions as they are manifested before the intervention of process or analysis by our conscious minds.
How can Sobchack’s phenomenology help explain the visceral displeasure we experience when watching a highway shock film? The role of the body is certainly central to this question, but in these films there are really three phenomenological “bodies” at play. The first is our own “lived body” as spectators, sitting in a classroom watching the film. The second is the “embodied eye” of the film, which Sobchack sees as the central mediator of film experience, the site of reversibility between perception and expression of both film and spectator (Sobchack, Address 10-11). Finally, there are the dead and dying bodies that the film’s embodied eye sees, and that we see as well – it is our reaction to these bodies that the highway shock film privileges. These bodies (both dead and dying) are clearly marked as “other,” but the otherness here is not linked to race, sex, class, or any other traditionally differentiating category. In the case of the injured and dying bodies, Sobchack has argued that injury and disease can also serve as categories in marking “otherness”:
we can add to the “female” body and the “colored” body further significant discriminations: the “diseased” body, the “impaired” body, the “fat” body, the “old” body, and even the “deprived” body. These are the lived-bodies significantly marked and “disfigured” in our current culture. The term disfigured here is not used poetically but literally . . . Although to re-mark a bodily aspect or quality is to take it as a figure, it is also to spoil, mar, harm the lived-body as a whole. Marked elements thus de-face the lived-body in a synecdoche that refuses the body-subject: its existence as intentional and its activity of becoming (Sobchack, Address 145, emphasis in original).
Sobchack suggests that the disfigured body calls attention to itself in its failure to be a whole lived body, thus refusing to be identified as a subject. In the highway shock film, the kind of distancing that Sobchack describes plays out to one extent or another whenever footage of dying or injured crash victims appears, and I would argue is largely dependent on sound. The element that most clearly marks these bodies as human rather than other is screaming – in my own personal reaction to the films, the most horrifying moments involve not the silence of charred corpses or the subtle moaning of the nearly unconscious, but the screaming of fully conscious human beings who are aware (as am I) of their bodily injuries.
How, then, do we account for the depiction of dead bodies in these films? In one sense, we might treat the corpses in the highway shock film as the extreme but logical extension of Sobchack’s notion of the disfigured body. As bodies that once were but now are no longer, their otherness is literally beyond human comprehension. Indeed, the “once-were-ness” of these bodies in many ways forms the source of “shock” discourse, if not in the sense of an extreme visceral reaction, then in a certain Freudian sense of the uncanny. For Sobchack, the film viewer’s lived body is “a carnal ‘third term’ that grounds and mediates experience and language, subjective vision and objective image – both differentiating and unifying them in reversible (or chiasmatic) processes of perception and expression” (Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts 60). If this is the case, then the highway shock film offers a subjective vision of an objective image that refuses experience, since we cannot “experience” death or the condition of being dead. We may be able to incarnate the experience of bystanders carrying or witnessing the dead, but never the dead themselves. The chiasma here between “these” live bodies (to use Sobchack’s formulation) and “those” dead ones is not a stable one – we are forced back to the pole of our own bodies, which results in one of two reactions: ironic and reflective detachment or visceral sickening.
Of course, fundamental to our phenomenological response to these films is a certain notion of the real – as the opening crawl of Signal 30 foregrounds, the accident footage taken for these films involved no staging, makeup, or special effects, and the grainy film stock, shaky camera work, and hard frontal lighting of the films attests to a kind of documentary-style realism. Indeed, the contemporaneous rise of cinema vérité(and its American counterpart in Direct Cinema), which introduced a new relationship between the motion picture camera and the “real world,” suggests the extent to which the highway shock film may have been perceived as a “cutting edge” form of educational filmmaking. However, we must be careful not to generalize about these films’ stylistic investment in “the real.” Although Mikita Brottman has described Signal 30 as having a “cinema vérité camera style,” there is no evidence to suggest that either Wayman or his contemporaries ever saw the work of the style’s pioneers, such as Jean Rouch or Richard Leacock (238). Furthermore, such an estimation reduces the films to their crash aftermath sequences, ignoring their construction as a whole. Individual highway shock films work within a variety of documentary modes; while the visual style of the films’ shock sequences evoke what Bill Nichols has termed the observational documentary, their omniscient and often moralizing narration, along with their frequent police training sequences (included to secure the blessing and cooperation of the highway patrol) align them strongly with his expository category. Thus, these films are best described not as stylistically unified texts, but as pragmatic hodgepodges. They are organized primarily according to the overall goal of effective “shock” discourse, with an eye toward their continued production.
Along with these films’ complicated relationship to “realism” come certain ethical and moral concerns that are central to our phenomenological experience of them. In her essay “Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary,” Sobchack lays out “a semiotic phenomenology of death as it is represented and made significant for us through the medium and tropes of nonfictional documentary film” (Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts 226). Although her concern in the essay is with the depiction of actual moments of death in film, many of Sobchack’s conclusions help to illuminate the role of the real in these films. With the coming of the 20th century, Sobchack argues, death ceased to be the object of eroticized fascination it had been during the Victorian era. Improvements in medicine, obstetrics, and general public health made death by “natural means” less common, and discouraged the public and private rituals that often accompanied death during the 19th century. As a result, the representation of “natural death” became something of a taboo, “leav[ing] only accidental and violent death in public sites and conversation” (emphasis in original). Sobchack quotes Geoffrey Gorer:
the diffusion of the automobile [in the 20th century], with its constant and unnoticed toll of fatal accidents, may well have been the most influential in bringing the possibility of violent death into the expectations of law-abiding people in time of peace. While natural death became more and more smothered in prudery, violent death has played an ever-growing part in the fantasies offered to mass audiences – detective stories, thrillers, Westerns, war stories, spy stories, science fiction, and eventually horror comics (Gorer, in Sobchack 230).
I would argue that these films’ depiction of not just violent but “real” death entails a kind of quantum leap of representation. As Sobchack puts it, “when death is represented as real, when its signs are structured and inflected so as to function indexically [rather than iconically or symbolically, as in fictive representations], a visual taboo has been violated, and the representation must find various ways to justify the violation” (Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts 242). Indeed, the educational discourse of the highway shock film served largely as yet another kind of justification, an argument for the necessary evil of its own representation.
The Warning Gaze: Foucault and the Ideology of Shock Discourse
Our knowledge as spectators of the “real” nature of the dead and dying bodies we see in highway shock films is inherently extratextual. Sobchack, using the example of a rabbit killed in Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939), echoes this notion: “the textual moment of the rabbit’s death gains its particular force from an extracinematic and intertextual cultural knowledge that contextualizes and exceeds the representation’s sign-function in the narrative” (Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts 246). In other words, we know that the rabbit in question was actually killed, largely because we also know that both rabbit-training and animatronics lie comfortably outside the cinematic paradigm of late 30s French poetic realism. In the case of the highway shock film, however, where we do not see the instant of death directly (with rare exceptions), our only intertextual recourse might be a Holocaust documentary or some other nonfiction account of mass trauma or death. Ultimately, the source of authenticity for both the trauma documentary and the highway shock film is some form of authoritative testimony – in this case, that of parents, driving instructors, and the Ohio State Highway Patrol. It is the presence of this authority that leads us to a broader level of inquiry: those discourses of power surrounding, encouraging, and justifying the highway shock film. In the eyes of their producers, these films are able to recuperate the moral and ethical capital that is lost in the breaking of the “taboo” which Sobchack associates with the depiction of actual death in film.
In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault traces the genealogy of the modern penal system and locates a distinct transformation in state and popular discourses of punishment that took place between the 18th and 19th centuries. Foucault argues that the public and spectacular emphasis on the torture and execution of criminals that marked the early modern period was supplanted in the early 19th century with a rationalized notion of “rehabilitation” characterized by the disciplined structure of the penitentiary. During both periods, the prisoner’s body remained the primary incarnation of society’s disciplinary power, but the modern period is distinguished by its interest in punishing the “soul” through a technological regime of knowledge and power. Exemplified most famously by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, this regime seeks to instill discipline and obedience through an “unequal gaze.” Two notions that Foucault develops at length in Discipline and Punish – the body and panopticism – are especially applicable to my discussion of the highway shock film.
There are obvious affinities between Foucault’s account of the early modern discourse of punishment and the highway shock film’s interest in mangled, bloodied, and otherwise disfigured corpses. Compare this 18th century account of the execution of the attempted regicide Robert-François Damiens, related by Foucault:
The four limbs [of Damiens] were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold [...] the whole thing was reduced to ashes. The last piece to be found in the embers was still burning at half-past ten in the evening. The pieces of flesh and the trunk had taken about four hours to burn. (Foucault 5)
to this narration from Signal 30, matched with images of the aftermath of a fiery crash between two trucks:
While one of the drivers burned to death in his cab, the other was blown through the floor of the cab of his truck by the force of the explosion that followed the initial impact. His body could not be removed until the fires had been extinguished and the wrecked trucks separated. You’ve seen the blackened body of a dead man in a horrible death, far from family and friends and even farther beyond help. And you see the beginning of a final ride as one of the drivers is carried away, a mass of charred flesh.
Both of these discourses display a certain fetishism for the human body and for its othering, its transformation from a living subject into abject elements: “pieces,” “ashes,” or a “mass.” Both are obsessed with the destructive power of fire, and both display a form of awestruck horror at the notion of human beings being consumed and destroyed by burning. However, Foucault would likely argue that the body serves a similar but not identical function in these two accounts. In the former, the tortured and burned body of a criminal serves as a direct signifier of the power of the state – it is a public execution, “its ruthlessness, its spectacle, its physical violence . . . inscribed in the political functioning of the penal system” (Foucault 49). The latter, on the other hand, is not a staged public event; it is an accident, caught on film for semi-public presentation after the fact. The state itself does not stage car crashes or mangle the bodies of crash victims, although a certain argument for Safety-Belt for Susie might be made in this regard. In that sense we cannot fully or simply equate the highway shock film with Foucault’s account of the early modern “torture” period. Rather, the body in these films falls directly within his notion of discipline, the discourse of rationalism that characterizes modern punishment. The power that manifests itself in bodies in these films is not the direct power of the state, as Foucault argues was the case with early modern torture-spectacle. Rather, the highway shock film serves to empower the ideology of the state – in this case, free-market capitalism. Under capitalism’s logic, as well as that of the discourse that framed dominant “nut-behind-the-wheel” notions of automotive safety in the 1950s and 60s, the individual is entirely responsible for his or her own safety and prosperity; these films demonstrate that assuming otherwise results in injury or death. The victims in these films have tortured and killed themselves. Like any ideology, capitalism effaces its own authority and alerts no one to its presence in these films; however, both the aural and visual narration of the highway shock film articulate that ideology through a particular kind of disciplinary gaze – a warning gaze – not dissimilar from the public display of the corpses of criminals or pirates during the 18th century.
If the highway shock film is a genre that dwells on bodies, and the warning gaze that accompanies that dwelling serves to reinforce capitalist ideology, then we can better understand the mechanics of that gaze through Foucault’s account of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Designed by Bentham as a prison in 1785, the Panopticon consisted of a central pillar that served as a guard tower, surrounded by the cells of prisoners. The pillar would emit light into the cells such that the guards in the central tower could see the prisoners, but not vice versa: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault 201). Prisoners would discipline themselves under an “unequal gaze” that posited the constant possibility of observation. The warning gaze of the highway shock film fulfills a similar panoptic function:
All of these [accidents] resulted from violations of simple traffic regulations. It’s up to you and your own driving habits. We don’t like to take these pictures, but whether we show you or your loved ones in the ugly sprawl of death is largely up to you. You can be, if you wish, just another...signal 30. (emphasis mine)
In this concluding narration from Signal 30, the film seems to imply that the viewer is already under a kind of surveillance. Also present is a barely disguised threat: any carelessness on the driver’s part will lead to a fatal accident, after which his or her mangled body will be publicized for the world to see. This possibility of being filmed after death forms another layer of shock discourse. Furthermore, the traditional mode of exhibition for the highway shock film invariably included a figure of authority, a teacher, driving instructor, or police officer, sitting at the back of the room or at the projector. This secondary panopticism ensured a kind of reverence for the presented discourse, the discipline that Foucault locates in the modern prison but also in modern society generally.
Another panoptic presence in these films is the highway patrolman. Police serve as a constant reminder of the presence of an authority that dictates behavior but also absolves itself of responsibility. Their authority is unquestioned; many of the films feature brief montages that emphasize the expert training and skills of the highway patrolmen as they participate in coordinated exercise or pull over speeders – another consequence of Wayman’s police boosterism, which secured the cooperation of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. The primary role of the police in these films, however, is as keepers of vision and handlers of bodies. Quite literally agents of the state, they are responsible for telling the story and cleaning up the mess, but also embody the not-always-genuine “humanity” that Foucault argues is typical of modern, “reformist” panopticism. Highway shock films often cut to the patrolmen to dwell on their reactions to the carnage; in Highways of Agony, one weeps upon seeing a dead infant.
The highway shock film serves as a site of historical and discursive confluence. Films like Signal 30 or Highways of Agony prefigured the radical changes that the 1960s would bring to visual culture, particularly with regard to representations of violence. At the same time, their innovative interest in a certain kind of documentary realism served a longstanding and dominant discourse surrounding automotive safety: that individual irresponsibility is the sole source of death on the highway. It has become something of a historiographical commonplace that the 1960s was a period of increased perceptions of violence for many Americans, both in popular culture and as a fact of everyday experience, and the visual representations of this violence are often associated with broadly leftist ideological projects. Consider television news depictions of police brutality in the South, the American Direct Cinema movement, or Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Yet the highway shock film’s interest in the brutal naturalism of automotive violence is neither aesthetic nor overtly political; rather, it is staunchly pragmatic and vaguely menacing in its desire for order. These were films made for the “silent majority,” not the Great Society.
The later history of the HSF has been chronicled by a few sources, including Wood’s documentary and a Bright Lights Film Journal article by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. The Foundation’s demise is usually traced to a botched 1973 telethon starring Sammy Davis, Jr., for which the HSF took a substantial financial loss as a result of unfulfilled viewer pledges. Highway shock films continued to be produced into the early 1980s, although they were probably screened less and less frequently as the 1970s wore on and more reformist educational philosophies took hold. It should be emphasized that industry-funded driver safety films remained the norm throughout the 1960s and 70s; a survey of four Wisconsin driver’s education curriculum guides spanning the period from 1963-1979 reveals that industry films were commonly listed as recommended for student viewing, while none of the guides even mentions the films produced by the Highway Safety Foundation (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction). Indeed, the question of the reception of these films remains an open one. Anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, systematic data on the reception of these films is difficult to obtain, and we simply know too little about how widespread the highway shock phenomenon was, especially outside the state of Ohio. However, the status of these films as objects of cult fascination is clear. Well before the production of Hell’s Highway, highway shock films were widely available from independent exploitation video distributors like Something Weird.
At various levels of textual engagement, it is clear that the highway shock film manifests myriad issues of embodiment, vision, and power. In many ways, these issues are also at stake in the modern fictional horror film, but the highway shock films’ gesture toward documentary realism serves to trouble our relationship with them in a different way. Ultimately, the most fascinating aspect of these films is what they tell us about American ideology and visual culture in the 1960s. Any given textual analysis of a fictional horror film from this period might, at best, reveal vague trends of consciousness, ideology, and sensibility; the highway shock film, by contrast, was produced with an explicit discourse in mind, a discourse that these films foreground in textual, filmic, and aural narration. The ostensible abhorrence of explicit violence laid out in Hollywood’s Production Code – an abhorrence that dictated the textual fabric of American cinema for more than thirty years – is not present in these films. The widespread distribution and acceptance of the highway shock film during the latter half of the twentieth century suggests that filmic representations of violence (or its aftermath) were perfectly acceptable under certain circumstances; that is, as long as that violence served a constructive or educational role in furtherance of a societal norm.
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