‘The bicycle is a great good. But it can turn nasty, if ill employed’, writes Samuel Beckett in  Mercier and Camier (1974).

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When attending a sell-out concert in Manchester last week, in which American director John Carpenter, backed by a band that included his son Cody, played theme music from his films as well as music from his last two albums, my friend Brian Baker mentioned that a bicycle turns up in Carpenter’s 1987 horror film, Prince of Darkness. The film tells the story of a group of scientists and research students who are summoned to an abandoned church to spend the weekend studying a glowing green flask that has been discovered in the basement. Rather than stay the night, one of the assistants decides to leave and is cornered in the alley behind the church by a group of homeless people who have been possessed by the satanic power that is now spilling out of the flask and have surrounded the church. One of these shuffling zombies, played by rock star Alice Cooper, picks up a broken bicycle frame and impales the bewildered student on the top tube. They all watch silently as he falls forward and then comes to a halt, bouncing slightly, propped up on the wheel.

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Perhaps because of its association with children, the bicycle only seems to make rare appearances in horror cinema. Exceptions include the British thriller And Soon the Darkness (Fuest, 1970) about a couple of female friends on a cycling holiday in France who are pursued by a killer. However the most well-known example is The Shining (Kubrick, 1980), in which the young Danny pedals furiously around the vast, empty, haunted hotel on his little tricycle. As with the British thriller, the machine leads him into a series of dangerous encounters, culminating with his investigation of room 237, which the hotel caretaker had warned him to stay away from.

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However, the most comically grotesque ‘death-by-bicycle’ scene appears in the science fiction film Turbo Kid (Whissell, Whissell, Simard, 2015). Sharing a nostalgic affection for popular culture of the late 1970s and early ’80s with the TV series Stranger Things (2016) and the film, Super 8 (Abrams, 2011),  one of the pleasures of watching Turbo Kid is identifying the allusions to the films of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, George Miller, Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg, Richard Stanley, and Troma studios, as well as later TV series such as Power Rangers.

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Set in a contaminated, post-oil wasteland in which people rely on bikes for transport, the BMX-riding teenage ‘Kid’ models himself on ‘Turbo Rider’, a character in the precious comics he collects. The film-makers clearly took great delight in filming the gruesomely inventive prosthetic effects as hands, limbs and heads are severed and skewered while the patient actors are showered with blood and pelted with viscera and chunks of meat, but perhaps the most gleefully disgusting sequence is an interrogation scene which begins with the victim waking up to find himself tied to a chair. When the canvas hood is taken off his head he looks down with horror to see that his stomach has been sliced open and his intestines, which are spilling out of his body, are attached by a cord to the rear wheel of a bicycle. Of course, he immediately tells the sadistic, one-eyed ‘Zeus’ (played by Michael Ironside, star of Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981)) exactly what he wants to know and asks desperately, ‘You’re gonna help me put these back in, right, please?’ Zeus, clearly disappointed by the speed with which he spills the beans, asks ‘Do you have any idea how long it took to set this up?’ The bewildered victim just stares at him and Zeus chuckles warmly, ‘I’m sure you’ll understand’, signalling to his sidekick to start pedalling.

The use of the bicycle as improvised weapon in these films is an intriguing reminder of the historical association of this technology with violence. One of the most important early precursors of the bicycle, the ‘Laufmaschine’ (running machine) or ‘accelerator’ patented by Karl von Drais in 1818, appears to have been conceived by him as a military vehicle, and he tried to demonstrate its potential by staging races with stagecoaches. As Jim Fitzpatrick argues in The Bicycle in Wartime: an Illustrated History (Star Hill Studio, 2011) thinking about the history of the bicycle in relation to warfare allows us to understand the role of machinery in soldiering and organised violence more generally. And, as he recounts, the history of the weaponisation of the bicycle is extensive, ranging from the use of bicycles as vehicles for transporting troops and military equipment, through the use of the bicycle as weapon (with rifle and machine gun mounts or, occasionally as a concealed pipe bomb). In a broader sense, we might note the symbolic function of the bicycle as the tool of colonisation, with British diplomats and settlers using them to travel around India in the late 19th and early 20th century from hill station to hill station.

More broadly, the pneumatic tyres that propelled the bicycle boom of the 1890s, and made John Dunlop a billionaire, were made from rubber harvested by slaves in the plantations of ‘British Malaya’ among other places and so the history of this machine is saturated with violence. Samuel Beckett’s comically oblique observation from the absurd novel Mercier and Camier is a reminder that, for all the utopian enthusiasms that have circulated around the bicycle throughout its development, there is a darker side to the history of this product of industrial modernity.