The American Motel: The Crossroads of Film and Television History

The wondrous worlds of cinema and television have a historical tendency to cross paths. For the better part of their existence as forms of artistic expression, the elements one medium illuminates the other typically follows suit. It’s a cycle of complimentary visions. And throughout them all, there is a common centrepiece to some of the most pivotal moments in film and television that has gone under-recognised for decades: the American motel.

Now a common sight across the states, motels became fashionable and prominent shortly after the Second World War. Springing up across vast interstate laybys, a new form of convenient overnight accommodation had emerged with its unusually isolated rooms. However, aside from revolutionising short-term accommodation, motels had a fascinating impact on stories portrayed on film and television. 

Psycho (1960) – Paramount Pictures

The greatest entry into this rather unusual subgenre of entertainment is undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the Robert Bloch novel of the same name, Psycho. It was in the dark, desolate privacy of a motel run by the infamous Norman Bates that our collective fascination with the lodgings developed into something more. Psycho was the perfect mixture of terror, mystery and paranoia set against the backdrop of the quintessential American motel. The lone rooms, bare and off the grid became catnip for horror film making and rewarded the audience’s anticipation with iconic slashers and cult favourites such as The City of The Dead (1960). 

Perhaps the most significant presence of motels in television comes from one of the best loved series of all time. The X Files by design played into the audience’s intrigue for the unknown, indeed having a hugely successful run following the otherworldly discoveries of special agents Mulder and Scully. At times breath-taking, other times comically off beat; The X Files owes some of its greatest episodes to the use of motels as a backdrop. Namely, in many episodes Scully (Gillian Anderson) writes up her reports of the pairs’ findings in moonlit drenched motel rooms. The sense of trepidation and tension as the secrets of the unknown are unravelled in the bleak silence. 

More recently, the motel found itself an unwitting centrepiece of Drew Goddard’s neo-noir thriller Bad Times at The El Royale, charting the stories of seven strangers as they cross paths at the hauntingly decadent El Royale motel. What follows is revelations, deceit, manipulation and crime all in the heart of a building that is designed to keep away intrusion. Akin to Psycho so many years earlier, the El Royale offered the privacy and the remoteness Goddard’s cast of rag-tag strangers desired. 

As dull and frightening as the media depictions of motels have made them seem, there is a cinematic beauty in the neon drenched entrance signs of the El Royale and a crooked and weather-beaten charm to the Bates Motel. Great cinematography has always complimented the quaint structures and even more importantly helped delve into the development of the characters that reside or take refuge in those rooms.  

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) – 20th Century Fox

Most significantly however, motels are emblematic of post-war America. They are a symbol of that long – cemented American notion of expansion into the great plains of the rural US. The archetypal American motel therefore was the natural successor to war time cinematic set pieces. With the world progressing into an age of Cold War paranoia, motels played into the fear that secluded rooms are the hotbed of spying, duplicity and criminal activities. It was always going to be inevitable that Hollywood would soon profit off that paranoia, in the process creating some of the best loved scenes in film and television history. 

Empty parking lots, the sputtering lights in the long hallways and the unnerving quiet of lodgings that are equal scenes of horrific crimes or love affairs. Motels are at best a cheap and dull offering to the naked eye, but in the hallmark of cinematic and television history they are some of the greatest set pieces to have graced the screen. 

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