Jane Armstrong

When was the first deer frozen in the headlights?

How many deer have been frozen in headlights?

How many deer were frozen in headlights before the cliché was born?

Who first uttered “frozen like a deer in the headlights”?

The time, place and circumstance of the first usage are lost to history, but I know of one recent iteration: Last semester, in an essay written by one of my undergraduates. In a memoir of her teenage years, she recalls escaping from her repressive home “under cover of darkness” to rollerblade to her girlfriend’s house. (On a school night!) After spending a few blissful hours in the girlfriend’s arms, the narrator attempts to escape at five a.m. by jumping out of the girlfriend’s second-story bedroom window. Out on the ledge, she hears a noise below. A light clicks on. Girlfriend’s mom is letting the dog out into the backyard to pee. In that moment, our heroine is ...

I underlined “frozen like a deer in the headlights” and wrote in the margin: “Cliché. Say it another way.”

Still, it was a pretty good essay.

White-tailed, mule, black-tailed, elk, moose, red, reindeer fallow, roe, pudú, chital.

Ruminant mammal.

“Headlights” were once called “headlamps” (first use, 1885).

Say it another way: “black-tailed in the headlamps.”

My next-door neighbor told me that a woman down the street was killed when she hit a deer just around the corner.

Just around the corner from my house.

A little memorial, a bouquet of plastic flowers, marks the spot.

I’d never met the woman. But still.

Did the deer escape? Does it lurk, slightly injured (or “just shook up”) around the corner waiting to get itself frozen in someone else’s headlights? My headlights?

If my headlights should ever shine upon a deer. If I should look into the big unblinking black eyes and observe the deer. And if that deer isn’t frozen, if it is, in fact, animated in motionlessness, every nerve tight, impulses ready to fire, vibrating with potential, bending the dark sky surrounding, will I have earned the authority to declare, “Stop saying that every instantly immobilized thing in the world is frozen like a deer in the headlights”?

Because it’s not. The only thing that is frozen like a deer in the headlights is a deer “frozen” in the headlights.

So the cliché runs in front of your car. At night. Sees your headlights. Freezes.

You can:

Hit the brakes.
Or head into the ditch.
Or swerve into oncoming traffic.
Or plow through the slab of fur and flesh.
Or see the blood splatter the windshield.
Or hear the thump beneath the wheels.
Or gasp as the deer, searching into the light, stunned, suddenly unstunned, fractions of fractions within an endless second, springs off, into the dark woods.

Singular experience. Like nothing else.

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