The Horror Lexicon #2: The Car Won’t Start (or Runs Out of Gas)

Why won’t it start? From Silent Hill (2006)

 This week in reviewing the horror film lexicon — the common visual/thematic language of the genre –we gaze at another trope that frequently appears in scary cinema.  In “The Car Won’t Start (or Runs out of Gas)” composition the only means of escape — an automobile — proves a possibly fatal disappointment to the protagonist, usually a final girl on the run.  Like that hero, we are stranded in battle, with an enemy nearby.  We are vulnerable.

Amy Steel cranks it, to no avail, in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981).

The Car Won’t Start trope usually consists of a series of tight compositions in the following sequence: a close-up of the desperate protagonist getting into the car and drivers’ seat, and then insert shots of a key twisting in the ignition, and perhaps wheels grinding uselessly in the mud, or dirt

This sequence of shots often repeats itself two or three times in quick succession in order to fully express the futile nature of the enterprise.  Sometimes, the Car Won’t Start trope also ends in success…at the very last moment (The Fog [1980]).  The car suddenly starts, and the protagonist zooms away from danger (only, usually, to find another obstacle somewhere close by, ahead…). 
The Car Won’t Start trope — a tightly-edited, tense montage of short moments — is designed to express the significant idea that technology is undependable in the face of a crisis.  We take for granted the idea that our cars will start up on command, and that we can travel wherever we want.  We’re a mobile people, and we live by this very belief.  It’s at the heart of our economic survival, and even connection our to our communities and food supplies.  In horror cinema, however, technology is undependable and twitchy, prolonging the state of suspense/terror.  Sometimes the villain has sabotaged the car.  Sometimes the environment — mud, again — mitigates the advantage technology provides. 
Ash turns the ignition over and over, in The Evil Dead (1983)

Many Car Won’t Start moments are featured in the 1980s slasher milieu and that is so because slashers are almost supernatural predators who appear to operate above our laws of nature and beyond the reach of our cultural infrastructure. 

Jason in the Friday the 13th films, for instance, is frequently associated with nature, with thunder storms and lightning.  His presence often coincides with power shorting out, and if the car won’t start, it’s a good guess that he is nearby, ready with the machete.

In the horror films of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s there are well over 75 examples of moments wherein technology fails, and our preferred mode of transportation fails or stalls.  

The wheels are spinning. From Jeepers Creepers (2001).

Some of the prominent horror films that feature this familiar and common visual language and situation are:

The Hearse (1980), Mother’s Day (1980), Dead and Buried (1981), Friday the 13th Part II (1981), Halloween II (1981), The Howling (1981), Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3-D (1982), Hell Night (1982), Madman (1982), Cujo (1983), The Evil Dead (1983), Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984), Silver Bullet (1985), The Hitcher (1986), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), Creepshow 2 (1987), Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987), Leatherface (199), Night of the Living Dead (1990), Leprechaun (1992), Sleepwalkers (1992), Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993), Urban Legend (1996), Phantoms (1998), Jeepers Creepers (2001) and Silent Hill (2006)


3 responses to “The Horror Lexicon #2: The Car Won’t Start (or Runs Out of Gas)

  1. I remember having seen countless of those scenes when I was just a kid and just thought that cars needed that many attempts. So when I got to try the keys when my brother let me, and I don't know nothing about cars, barely anything new has come up since then in my knowledge about cars, only that they get me from place A to B….hopefully.And my brother was in a car crash with my father, not serious, but I guess my brother was around my age then and thought the car was gonna blow up, like in the movies. Just a small bump just blows them up, sometimes instantly. Heck, I saw one in this small gem of a movie from '81, Just Before Dawn, by director Jeff Lieberman (Squirm, Blue Sunshine and Satan's Little Helper). I recommend those movies, they're worth the look if you can get them, although Satan's Little Helper and Just Before Dawn video presentation are marred by interlacing (!) in this day and age.p.s: I know I should be commenting on the first post about waking up from a bad dream, people don't get up that fast from a dream, have you? At most, you just jolt awake, not work on your six-pack in the way (the old fashioned way).Cheers from Iceland!- Jósef

  2. An oldie, but a goodie, alright ;-). Everybody who has seen a horror film recognizes it, but when done well, it gets the old heart a pumpin' (even if you know what's happening). Thanks, John.

  3. Ahh… yes, the car won't start, the clutch won't shift into gear, the tires spinning. A time proven horror film tactic. What can possibly me more ubiquitous? Maybe the good friend appearing from behind in what was otherwise a empty room possibly? Or maybe the pop-up scare behind a closing mirror or refrigerator door? I'll go with the jump scare from a open window (with no window screen of course). I've seen every one of the films listed and it would seem that there would have been more than these 75. I suppose you were to add thrillers to this list, the total would probably double.

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