The Phantom Hitch-Hiker (known in the USA as the Vanishing Hitchhiker) is recognized by folklorists as nothing less than the classic transport-focused legend, a popular example of contemporary folklore, an Urban Legend.1
This 'returning-ghost' tale is one that is told the world over. Indeed, it has been said that wherever there are roads there are likely to be variations of the story.2 Folklorists argue, with good reason (and even aside from the subject matter, which proposes that apparitions can actually manifest to hitch rides from unsuspecting motorists), that the ubiquity of the tale and its incorporation of a common set of easily recognizable narrative points or 'motifs', clearly designates the Phantom Hitch-Hiker as a creature of folklore.
Typical of such legends, the Phantom Hitch-Hiker (or PHH) is a tale told as a supposedly true event, often by someone who qualifies this claim by reference to a reliable witness a person or two removed from themselves (who is customarily anonymous, or proves to be untraceable), or to a news media source. But, we are told, true events are never so simple or invariable.
The plausibility of urban legends and their setting in contemporary history (i.e. the recent past) marks their distinction from traditional tales of legend and folklore, which is perhaps why we tend to accept them rather uncritically, particularly when the source of the story is a trusted acquaintance or the media (which is, by and large, not predisposed to the deliberate publication of fictional stories). Nevertheless, apart from the important difference in modern times that these tales are also spread by the media, they are passed on in the same manner: by word of mouth. In other words, although the story is somewhat innovative compared to the public's conception of the traditional ghost story, it belongs to the same 'oral tradition'.
Folklorists prefer to interpret urban legends as unconscious expressions of our common fears and neuroses, an exploration of 'what if...?' They are popular because they deal with bizarre, ironic or supernatural themes which invite us to temporarily suspend disbelief in order to milk them of their entertainment, moral, or cautionary value. Urban legends are told and retold in a variety of social settings, and by a cross-section of the population, who quite often fail to recognize that these are legends. Not surprisingly a number of urban legends have found their way into book, television, musical, and filmic plots.
A large measure of the appeal of the Phantom Hitch-Hiker surely lies with the sympathy the story instills for the subject of the tale, the Hitch-Hiker herself - a young woman or girl who has died in tragic circumstances, and is desperately and forlornly trying to complete her last journey. Undoubtedly, though, it is the 'punch ending' - the sudden and unexpected disappearance of the girl, the abrupt contrast between the banal and the bizarre, and the motorist's realization that he has shared his journey with a ghost, that gives the story its special power. And, most important of all, is its assertion that what is described actually happened.
Like other urban legends, the brevity and simple construction of Phantom Hitch-Hiker tales ensures that the essential elements are easily picked up and passed on (usually quite accurately). And their ready relocation, anywhere and at any time, to local and familiar settings - the nuances of local detail - adds to the story's credibility and appeal.
The physical setting, then, is likely to be known well to the audience. It is a place sometimes renowned for similar events; and the protagonist(s) is not only someone known (if indirectly) to the narrator, but also a person with whom the audience can readily identify.
Other conventions allow us (as is the folklorist's claim) to predict most variations of the story as they appear from location to location: The ghost - often, but not exclusively, an attractive young woman in white or light-coloured clothing - is (until her disappearance) taken to be a real person. Traditionally appearing on the anniversary of her demise (a victim of a road accident - a passenger or wayward pedestrian), she attracts the attention of a passing motorist (frequently a lone driver, often male) by various means: by waiting passively or walking along the roadside late at night, encouraging the driver to stop and proffer a lift; or, in the classic situation, actively seeking a lift, thumb raised in characteristic hitch-hiker fashion.
Accepting the offer of a lift, the girl (as a matter of circumstance or choice) assumes the back seat of the vehicle (or its equivalent on a motorcycle, the pillion seat). After a short period of conversation, during which she gives her address, the girl grows quiet, prompting the motorist to look around, only to discover she has vanished. Alarmed, but curious, the driver continues on to the address given, only to learn that he is the latest in a line of motorists to bring the resident's wife-daughter-sister-niece-granddaughter home.
Variations on the theme are manifold. In certain instances, the girl leaves a purse or handbag in the rear of the car, in which the motorist discovers her identity and/or her address, to which he then proceeds. At the destination, he may be shown or notice a photograph of the girl, pictured in the same dress in which the ghost had appeared.
In other, more elaborate versions the motorist, responding to his passenger's complaints of being cold, loans her an overcoat or sweater, for which he returns the following day. The person answering the door (a relation or other knowledgeable person), recognizing the description as belonging to his/her daughter, a former tenant, etc., tells the disbelieving motorist the familiar story, directing him to the cemetery where the girl is buried, where he not only finds proof as to the deceased status of his passenger (confirmed beyond doubt in some cases by the existence of a photograph set into the headstone), but his loaned garment, neatly folded on the girl's grave.
With the above in mind, it is plainly apparent that the majority of Phantom Hitch-Hiker tales must be apocryphal. Wherever the familiar conventions appear piled upon one another, particularly where the protagonist is not forthcoming as a named witness available for interview, there can be no serious objection to the claim that they belong entirely to folklore.
But are all tales of this kind dismissible as folklore? The purpose of folklore study is not to determine whether such tales have any evidential basis to them, but to study their patterns of dissemination, their internal similarities and variations, their genealogies, and above all, to ascertain why these stories are told - what purpose it is they serve in our everyday lives, particularly in our sophisticated modern times.
The fact that at least one genuine case may, in some instances, have provided the inspiration for the host of very similar accounts that become accepted and adapted as urban legends, is largely irrelevant. However, I suspect that the majority of folklorists would tend to deny the existence of an archetypal event, or at least a traceable one, particularly in those cases with the more bizarre or supernatural themes.
Professor Jan Harold Brunvand, in his book The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings3, points out that attempts to trace the originators of urban legends or to locate actual events to account for them, almost invariably prove futile. While this is certainly true for most Phantom Hitch-Hiker stories, where the researcher's task is compounded by the very subject matter, is it necessarily the case for other urban legend themes?
A modern favourite and case in point is 'The Poodle in the Microwave', which relates the story of the old lady who, used to drying her rain-drenched pet by placing it in a moderately-set conventional oven for a minute or two, puts it in her daughter's microwave oven, with predictably disastrous result.
While this story may be an example of the 'what if?' exploration of an unthinkable scenario, is it not beyond the realm of possibility that such an event has actually taken place (or will, at some point in the future), resulting from the actions of particularly technically-naive people, or out of the mindless cruelty of certain evil persons? Folklorists might concede the point, but will challenge us to locate such a case.
Perhaps the classic example of a story proven to contain more than the proverbial grain of truth is found in the rediscovery of the ancient city of Troy by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890).
Schliemann was subjected to ridicule by his peers when he began to search for its ruins, which had for centuries been believed to exist only within the pages of Homer's The Illiad. To the academicians it followed that since Homer wrote much about what we would today regard as mythical and fantastical creatures and situations, Troy itself must have been fictitious. Schliemann proved them wrong.
Can we say the same for the Phantom Hitch-Hiker? While it is difficult to refute the idea that, as folklorists contend, Phantom Hitch-Hiker stories are nothing more than an old and familiar dish served up in a new sauce, is it possible that they are at least based on some modicum of truth? Might the popular versions represent romanticized distillates of one or more - admittedly rare - but true and originally more subtle and internally variable encounters?
The answer of the folklorist would appear to be 'no'. As we have already noted to a degree, almost all of the characteristics of a typical Phantom Hitch-Hiker account can be anticipated, and this fact, coupled with the very impossibility of ghosts, renders them non-starters as far as their consideration as items of potential fact. Even where convention is broken, for instance, where a witness is named, it can be difficult to determine whether this might not simply represent a further bogus detail intended to reinforce its acceptance as a strange-but-true story.
Michael Goss observed in his highly-recommended analysis of the phenomenon, that whereas the repetition of particular anomalous events worldwide (he cites the commonality of poltergeist incidents7) can and have been used to support arguments favouring the existence of such phenomena, when it comes to apparitions, particularly those exhibiting a very specific mode of behaviour such as the Phantom Hitch-Hiker, the reverse seems to apply - undoubtedly a consequence of their patently artistic adornments.
Clearly, any honest evaluation of the Phantom Hitch-Hiker phenomenon must surely concede that most accounts are suspect. It is therefore a very difficult prospect to separate apparently reliably reported accounts of hitch-hiking phantoms from their counterparts in folklore. But this is as it should be. Any account that lays claim as a genuine paranormal event should rightly be subjected to rigorous scrutiny before being accepted as such.
Folklorists have been successful in classifying most variations of the Phantom Hitch-Hiker story, as we have already noted. One system of classification, devised by E. W. Baughman - the Baughman Index - categorizes a particular motif with a code, with each variation or elaboration represented by a suffix. The anniversary Hitch-Hiker, therefore, is described under E3126.96.36.199(a); the meeting of a ghost on the road is E.332.2; the ghost that walks at midnight is E.587.5, and so on.
A more palatable system classifies them under the letters A to D, and was devised by two American folklorists, Richard K. Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey from a study conducted in 1942-43.4 Their conclusions were based on an analysis of some 79 cases gathered from across the United States. While they identified four distinct categories, distinguishable from one another because of 'obvious differences in development and essence', the story was, they believed, essentially the same one, with the type A version serving as the 'original' story.
Essentially, these types can be summarized as follows:
The classic address-giving Hitch-Hiker. A motorist (in the vast majority of cases, a lone male, often single) encounters a girl late one night standing along an isolated stretch of road. Accepting the offer of a lift, the girl assumes the back seat of the vehicle. Giving her address, the driver proceeds to the house, only to find that the girl has vanished. The occupant(s) of the house confirm that his description of the girl fits that of a daughter/fiancée, etc., who had been killed several years before at the very spot he had picked up the girl.
The prophesying woman. Encountered in identical fashion to the Version A Hitch-Hiker, it is here that the similarities largely end. The returning ghost theme is subservient to another: prophecy. Characteristically an old woman (sometimes taken to be a nun), the Version B Hitch-Hiker issues warnings of a coming catastrophe. In this instance, the Hitch-Hiker's vanishing act and/or the driver's subsequent discovery that his passenger could not have been a living person serves to further convince the listener of the veracity of the prediction.
Cases (with the exception of those showing a degree of contamination by certain features of the Version A story) in which the title 'Hitch-Hiker' is something of a misnomer, since a social venue - a dance, nightclub, or a bar - serves as the meeting place for the girl. As common an element as this may be, however, the defining characteristic of the Version C story is its ending at a cemetery. In common versions of the story, the girl's complaint of feeling cold is met with the motorist's loan of an item of clothing, for which he later returns. Disbelieving that the young woman he describes could have been a ghost, he is directed by the house's occupant to the local cemetery, where, folded neatly over the headstone of the girl's grave, he finds his jacket. In other versions of the story, the girl may request to be dropped off outside, or be discovered to have vanished after driving past, a cemetery.
Where the Hitch-Hiker is associated with a higher order of being - an angel, a goddess, or some form of localized deity.
From their study, Beardsley and Hankey identified a number of other characteristics, either common to all, or specific to particular versions:
With a few exceptions, the Hitch-Hiker experience is a nocturnal event - that is, it generally takes place after dark. In a number of cases, the hour is 'downright late'. A few cases make specific mention of midnight as the time of the encounter.
The weather is usually poor, be it cold, wet, windy: 'anything but pleasant'.
The Hitch-Hiker is, without exception, female. Variations occur only with regard to age. Excluding those cases where no estimate of age is given, we find a distinct contrast between young girls and old women, with the young girls forming the majority: 47 cases (59%) to 14. Outside of the inclement conditions that, in many cases, provide a logical reason to offer a ride to the Hitch-Hiker, this separation in age serves the same purpose, where it is the attractiveness of the young girl, or the sight of an enfeebled old woman that prompts the driver to stop. Certain variants include additional reason for the motorist to stop: the girl may have an armful of books; the woman, a heavy bag; and the old woman, a basket. Some of these items may be found in the vehicle after the Hitch-Hiker's disappearance, serving as objective proofs of the encounter.
In the majority of cases (58%), the Hitch-Hiker appears to a lone man. The remainder of the time, the driver is accompanied by one or more persons, which may include his wife, his family, or other persons. The different versions show certain biases. Version A, for instance, shows a random variation of witness groupings, but a marked preponderance of single men. Version B - the prophesying woman - however, more often attracts the sympathy of a married couple or a family driving along the highway.
The Hitch-Hiker's dress is never coloured, but may be black or white. The dress itself is usually quite conventional but may, in certain over-elaborate cases, resemble a shroud or the graveclothes of the deceased.
The circumstances and time of the pick-up may vary according to which Version is encountered. Version B is more likely to met during the daytime, while Version C - the girl who is characteristically 'picked up' at a place of entertainment - is, for this reason, encountered exclusively at night. The Version A girl is less particular about her timing, preferring to express her individuality through appearances mainly to lone drivers. Statistically, one can most often expect to encounter the Hitch-Hiker on the open highway. However, as befitting an urban legend, the street corner of a city is also popular. If, however, we take into account the versions proper, we find that Version B, for instance, is encountered only outside of a city. Since prophecy is also the exclusive domain of the old woman of the Version B (never a young woman), if we are looking for a prophecy, we should do well to heed Beardsley's and Hankey's advice and stay in the country.
In most cases the title 'hitch-hiker' is an inappropriate one, since the Hitch-Hiker is offered a lift without actually asking for or appearing to expect one. The full title - Vanishing Hitchhiker, to take the American idiom - is particularly inappropriate as a description of the Version C since the girl is neither hitch-hiking nor vanishes at the end of the encounter.
A noteworthy feature of many stories is the Hitch-Hiker's preference for travelling in the back seat of the vehicle, from where she can vanish unobserved. This feature is common to all versions except Version C, in which the girl quite reasonably takes the seat next to the driver. Only in two of the cases collected by Beardsley and Hankey in which the Hitch-Hiker vanishes does the driver actually observe the disappearance. The greater majority of Version A Hitch-Hikers vanish, compared to one third for Version B, and none in the case of Version C.
Usually the fact of the disappearance stands without elaboration or reason. Confirmation of the driver's fears - the proof that his passenger was a ghost - is put off until the inevitable visit to the girl's former home. Sometimes, however, the Hitch-Hiker will vanish after crossing a stream or, more significantly, passing a cemetery, the circumstances of the disappearance in these cases bringing the driver to a premature realization of what has befallen him.
What distinguishes Version C (at least in its uncontaminated form) from the other versions is that it not only lacks the disappearance, but it is the only version where the girl sometimes alights at a cemetery.
The driver obtains proof of the encounter by various means. Frequently, the source of this is the mother of the Hitch-Hiker, or some other relation, or a new resident of the girl's former home, but may include a host of other sources - the police, a neighbour, a shopkeeper, and so on.
In a number of cases, the driver learns that his passenger suffered a violent death. Most commonly associated with Version A or its variants, around half of Beardsley's and Hankey's caseload of violent deaths involved automobile accidents, and in three-quarters of these (around 36% of the total) the Hitch-Hiker was killed at precisely the same spot where she was picked up
Around 30% of the time, the Hitch-Hiker's appearance is a repeated one. In 10% of cases the Hitch-Hiker reappears on the anniversary of her death.
Frequently the narrator will include or round up the story with some corroborative-sounding detail intended to bolster its acceptance as a true event. Thus, the address given will be said to have proven to be a real one, but the narrator will apologise for not remembering it. Or the witness will be said to have been driven insane or died as a result of the experience. And so on.
While acknowledging that the story contains features in common with or possibly derived from certain literary precedents, particularly in the Version C, in Beardsley and Hankey's view, the Vanishing Hitchhiker's strong dependence on contemporary features clearly marked it as a modern contrivance. The motor car, the circumstances of the pick-up (either through the hitch-hiking habit or a meeting at a dance or other informal social gathering), even the mistaken first impression the driver has that his passenger is, until her disappearance, a normal human female (a narrative point uncommon before the late nineteenth century), are all hallmarks of the modern tale, reflective of and functional only within the context of a modern urbanized culture.
Beardsley's and Hankey's data suggested the Version A probably originated some time in the 1920s; the Version B they could not date much further back than 1933 and was confined to the area around Chicago and the Midwest, while a characteristic example of the Version C - the version, ironically, with the most patent 'literary frosting', the girl who returns vampire-like to her grave - was not heard before 1938.
Another telling feature of this modern tale, perhaps the defining one, is the reportorial style of narration itself. Told in the same factual, everyday fashion as modern items of news, and often included with same, the Vanishing Hitchhiker tale is one apparently made for rapid modern means of news dissemination. Rather than radiating outwardly from its point of origin, slowly evolving on its way, it has the ability to spread swiftly and largely unaltered over great distances. Beardsley and Hankey, who clearly regarded the Vanishing Hitchhiker's origins as having been in the United States, noted that in less than a year one variant had made its appearance on opposite shores of the continent, and may well have spread abroad.
Quite what Beardsley and Hankey would have made of the co-equal subject of this website - the phantom road-accident (or Spectral Jaywalker) cases; or those cases that have come to light that stand in contradiction of their 'rules' (for instance, reported instances involving male hitch-hikers) - is open to speculation. Most likely, whilst conceding that the Vanishing Hitchhiker probably has roots demonstrably far older than their original work was able to appreciate, they would attribute these variations to the story's natural and continued response to an ever-changing and sophisticated world - particularly one that boasts the fastest means of dissemination ever developed - the Internet. Rooted today in the global society and evidently ingrained in the popular culture, B & H, I am sure, would smile at the thought that the Vanishing Hitchhiker had, perhaps, finally arrived home.
Notes & References
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