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.