The RV in storytelling

The recreation vehicle (RV) is a mobile home away from home, the means in which the whole family can share a road trip experience together. This opens them up to new adventures in the wider world, and to escape from the status quo of their suburban bubble.

The RV can be a symbol of going on a quest, or rootlessness — sometimes a symbol of mobility and family adventure — or it can be a downgrade, a door to an illicit activity even. Unlike a house that’s built with bricks and mortar, where people live for decades, raise families, and develop an extended local community, the RV is defined by the community of people who live ‘on the road’, and as such it signifies an escape from fixed thinking (or economic misfortune).

The RV has a history and cultural place in American culture that’s distinct from Europe: it’s the modern descendent of the wagon train, and the settlers trekking across the Wild West: where progress is measured as part of a linear journey, going from place to place.

In the fast paced horror road movie Race with the Devil (1975) a family, on a holiday in an RV, accidentally interrupts a group of violent devil worshippers, and is forced to flee for their lives. The RV represents the home from home, the safe family space that comes under direct threat. Unlike a normal house, which the monster has to invade, the RV can travel straight into the monster’s den.

In About Schmidt (2002) Schmidt, a remorse laden, listless character, ponders his life, meaning and existence, using his RV to head out on a tour of reconciliation. His RV trip ties in with the notion of going on the road to discover the answer — because he knows he won’t find it at home. The RV is associated with his wife and with connection, and building bridges. This is a common thread associated with RVs and families — they provide an opportunity for family bonding. In RV (2006) a stressed father must balance his work life while sustaining a meaningful relationship with his family. But the crux of his dilemma is really about discovering who he is, and what he wants, only this can give him the confidence he needs to assert himself proactively, instead of attempting to placate everyone around him.

The RV also provides a darker space where characters abandon middle class niceties to conduct secret or illicit activities. In Breaking Bad (2008 - 2013) Walt Whitman, a high school chemistry teacher, uses an RV to manufacture methamphetamine. And in We’re the Millers (2013) a drug dealer assembles a smuggling team to pretend to be a middle class family, it’s comprised of: a striper, and homeless teenager and a clueless boy abandoned by his parents. They plan to bring drugs over the border from Mexico into the US, and the comic road trip that ensues explores notions of middle class stereotype, normalcy, family reconciliation, as well as disparate people pulling together to fight a common enemy. The RV can also be associated with negativity, perceptions of being ‘lower class’, and failure. In National Lampoons Christmas Vacation (1989) Clark Griswold’s brother appears in a battered RV, having sold his house to make ends meet.

In Meet the Fockers (2004) the OCD father-in-law, ex-CIA agent Jack Byrnes, owns a specially kitted out RV which includes a hidden in-the-field command centre. The vehicle acts as his mobile centre of control away from his house. The EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle in Stripes (1981) is another unlikely covert operations vehicle. It looks like a normal RV, but it has special military grade customisations, fitting in with the absurd screwball comedy.

The RV provides a crucible, a space where the characters are forced together into a confined space, a place where they come into conflict — but the conflict will resolve itself, eventually leading to reconciliation and triumph over a common enemy.