The Vanishing Hitchhiker (or variations such as the ghostly hitchhiker, the disappearing hitchhiker, the phantom hitchhiker or simply the hitchhiker) story is an urban legend in which people traveling by vehicle meet with or are accompanied by a hitchhiker who subsequently vanishes without explanation, often from a moving vehicle. Vanishing hitchhikers have been reported for centuries and the story is found across the world, with many variants. The popularity and endurance of the legend has helped it spread into popular culture.
Public knowledge of the term expanded greatly with the 1981 publication of Jan Harold Brunvand's book The Vanishing Hitchhiker, which helped launch public awareness of urban legends. The archetypal modern vanishing hitchhiker is a figure seen in the headlights of a car traveling by night with a single occupant. The figure adopts the stance of a hitchhiker. The motorist stops and offers the figure a lift. The journey proceeds, sometimes in total silence, and at some subsequent point, the passenger appears to vanish while the vehicle is in motion. In many cases, the hitchhiker vanishes when (normally) a vehicle reaches the hitchhiker's destination.
A common variation of the above involves the vanishing hitchhiker departing as would a normal passenger, having left some item in the car, or having borrowed a garment for protection against alleged cold (whether or not the weather conditions reflect this claim). The vanishing hitchhiker can also leave some form of information that allegedly encourages the motorist to make subsequent contact.
In such tellings, the garment borrowed is often subsequently found draped over a gravestone in a local cemetery. In this and in the instance of "imparted information", the unsuspecting motorist subsequently makes contact with the family of a deceased person and finds that their passenger fits the description of a family member killed in some unexpected way (usually a car accident) and that the driver's encounter with the vanishing hitchhiker occurred on the anniversary of their death.
Other variations reverse the scenario, in that the hitchhiker meets a driver; the hitchhiker later learns that the driver is actually an apparation of a person who died earlier.
Not all vanishing hitchhiker reports involved allegedly recurring ghosts. One popular variant in Hawaii involves the goddess Pele, traveling the roads incognito and rewarding kind travelers. Other variants include hitchhikers who utter prophecies (typically of pending catastrophe or other evils) before vanishing.
Paranormal researcher Michael Goss in his book The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers discovered that many reports of vanishing hitch-hikers turn out be based on folklore and hearsay stories. Goss also examined some cases and attributed them to a hallucination of the experiencer.
The first proper study of the story of the vanishing hitchhiker was undertaken in 1942-3 by American folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey, who collected as many accounts as they could and attempted to analyze them.
The Beardsley-Hankey survey elicited 79 written accounts of encounters with vanishing hitchhikers, drawn from across the USA.
They found: "Four distinctly different versions, distinguishable because of obvious differences in development and essence."
These are described as:
- A. Stories where the hitch-hiker [sic] gives an address through which the motorist learns he has just given a lift to a ghost.
- 49 of the Beardsley-Hankey samples fell into this category, with responses from 16 states of the USA.
- B. Stories where the hitch-hiker is an old woman who prophesies disaster or the end of World War II; subsequent inquiries likewise reveal her to be deceased.
- Nine of the samples fit this description, and eight of these came from the vicinity of Chicago. Beardsley and Hankey felt that this indicated a local origin, which they dated to approximately 1933: two of the version B hitchhikers in this sample foretold disaster at the Century of Progress Exposition and another foresaw calamity "at the World's Fair". The strict topicality of these unsuccessful forecasts did not appear to thwart the appearance of further Version 'B' hitch-hikers, one of whom warned that Northerly Island, in Lake Michigan, would soon be submerged (this never happened).
- C. Stories where a girl is met at some place of entertainment, e.g., dance, instead of on the road; she leaves some token (often the overcoat she borrowed from the motorist) on her grave by way of corroborating the experience and her identity.
- The uniformity amongst separate accounts of this variant led Beardsley and Hankey to strongly doubt its folkloric authenticity.
- D. Stories where the hitch-hiker is later identified as a local divinity.
- E. Where a driver gives a girl a lift and drops her off but she leaves something in the car, the driver must return it to her house but when he gets to the house, no one answers. Soon, the driver finds that the girl died when she got out of the car.
Beardsley and Hankey were particularly interested to note one instance (location: Kingston, New York, 1941) in which the vanishing hitchhiker was subsequently identified as the late Mother Cabrini, founder of the local Sacred Heart Orphanage, who was beatified for her work. The authors felt that this was a case of Version 'B' glimpsed in transition to Version 'D'.
Beardsley and Hankey concluded that Version 'A' was closest to the original form of the story, containing the essential elements of the legend. Version 'B' and 'D', they believed, were localized variations, while 'C' was supposed to have started life as a separate ghost story which at some stage became conflated with the original vanishing hitchhiker story (Version 'A').
One of their conclusions certainly seems reflected in the continuation of vanishing hitchhiker stories: The hitchhiker is, in the majority of cases, female and the lift-giver male. Beardsley and Hankey's sample contained 47 young female apparitions, 14 old lady apparitions, and 14 more of an indeterminate sort.
Ernest W Baughman's Type- and Motif-Index of the Folk Tales of England and North America (1966) delineates the basic vanishing hitchhiker as follows:
- "Ghost of young woman asks for ride in automobile, disappears from closed car without the driver's knowledge, after giving him an address to which she wishes to be taken. The driver asks person at the address about the rider, finds she has been dead for some time. (Often the driver finds that the ghost has made similar attempts to return, usually on the anniversary of death in automobile accident. Often, too, the ghost leaves some item such as a scarf or traveling bag in the car.)"
Baughman's classification system grades this basic story as motif E3184.108.40.206.
- E3220.127.116.11(a) for vanishing hitchhikers who reappear on anniversaries;
- E318.104.22.168(b) for vanishing hitchhikers who leave items in vehicles, unless the item is a pool of water in which case it is E322.214.171.124(c);
- E3126.96.36.199(d) is for accounts of sinister old ladies who prophesy disasters;
- E3188.8.131.52(e) contains accounts of phantoms who are apparently sufficiently solid to engage in activities such as eating or drinking during their journey;
- E3184.108.40.206(f) is for phantom parents who want to be taken to the sickbed of their dying son;
- E3220.127.116.11(g) is for hitchhikers simply requesting a lift home;
- E318.104.22.168(h-j) are a category reserved exclusively for vanishing nuns (a surprisingly common variant), some of whom foretell the future.
Here, the phenomenon blends into religious encounters, with the next and last vanishing hitchhiker classification - E322.214.171.124 - being for encounters with divinities who take to the road as hitchhikers. The legend of St. Christopher is considered one of these, and the story of Philip the Apostle being transported by God after encountering the Ethiopian on the road (Acts 8:26-39) is sometimes similarly interpreted.
Prophetic hitchhikers since 1970s
The vanishing hitchhiker phenomenon took on a decidedly divinatory cast during the 1970s and early 1980s.
- 1975 saw a rash of reports of a prophetic nun vanishing from cars after hitching lifts near the Austrian-German border. On 13 April that year, after a 43-year-old businessman drove his car off the road in fright at the disappearance of his passenger, Austrian police threatened a fine equivalent to £200 (1975 value) to anyone reporting similar stories.
- In early 1977, nearly a dozen motorists in and around Milan reported giving lifts to another vanishing nun, who (prior to her unexpected disappearance) forewarned her benefactors of the impending destruction of Milan by earthquake on 27 February (this disaster did not happen) (La Stampa, 25 and 26 February, 1 March 1977; Dallas Morning News 25 February 1977).
- In 1979, near Little Rock, Arkansas, a 'well-dressed and presentable young man' was hitching lifts despite laws against such activity. When safely aboard, he would confide details of the forthcoming Second Coming of Christ to his startled host(s). After revealing his insights, he would vanish from the moving car. The 'presentable young man' continued his excursions for over a year. The last reported sighting took place on 6 July 1980, when the vanishing hitchhiker's prophecy was apparently a bungled kind of meteorology. He assured his worried driver (and passengers, thus making this a multiple sighting) that it would 'never rain again' - before vanishing from the speeding car a moment or two later. A named Arkansas State Trooper - Robert Rotten - later confirmed to the press (Indiana Star, 26 July 1980) that they had logged two reports of this character's behaviour, but were unofficially aware of many more.
- At around the same time as the above prophetic hitchhiker, a second itinerant soothsayer was vanishing from cars around Interstate 5, between Tacoma, Washington, and Eugene, Oregon. Described as a 50-60 year old woman, sometimes in a nun's habit, the hitchhiker would discourse on God and Salvation before vanishing from the car's cabin. Another witness had been warned to repent his (unspecified) sins, or die in a road accident. As 1980 progressed, this vanishing hitchhiker began to display a worrying interest in Mount St. Helens. She took to warning motorists that the eruption of that volcano in May 1980 signified God's warning to the Northwest and that those who did not return to the fold could expect to perish volcanically in the very near future (18 May, to be precise). Tacoma police logged twenty calls from motorists who had met this sinister individual. Latterly, the woman took on a new guise (or perhaps a new vanishing hitchhiker with similar preoccupations assumed her duties) and the roads were again busy with whispered intimations of pending disaster (this time, set for 12 October). The Midnight Globe (5 August 1980) quotes two police officers who had dealt with shocked motorists and one motorist who claimed to have met the vanishing woman or women.
- In 1941, the Orson Welles Show presented the debut broadcast of Lucille Fletcher's The Hitch-Hiker, starring Orson Welles. The play contained a variation or subversion of the myth where it is the driver that is the ghost, and a hitchhiker (but not the title character) that is alive. A man (or woman in subsequent adaptations) is involved in a car crash that initially appears to have been a minor blown tire. "The Hitch-Hiker", an episode of The Twilight Zone, and the episode "RoadKill" of the TV series Supernatural, were notable television adaptations of this particular variation.
- The vanishing hitchhiker was the inspiration for Dickey Lee's recording on a 45 rpm single (TCF-102) of the song "Laurie", which is subtitled "Strange Things Happen ..." Country Joe McDonald wrote and performed a song about a vanishing hitchhiker called "Hold On It's Coming", later covered by New Riders of the Purple Sage. Other modern songs include "I Guess It Doesn't Matter Anymore" by Blackmore's Night on Village Lanterne and "Bringing Mary Home" by the Country Gentlemen originally on Starday's subsidiary, Nashville Records 45 rpm # 2018 in 1964.
- Author Alvin Schwartz includes a variation of the vanishing hitchhiker legend in his book More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark along with copious notes detailing the origin and variations of the story.
- David Allan Coe's song "The Ride" reverses the vanishing hitchhiker scenario. In "The Ride", Coe is the pedestrian hitching a ride in a Cadillac driven by Hank Williams from Montgomery, Alabama (Williams' hometown) to Nashville, Tennessee. At the end of the ride, Williams turns the car around, stops, and lets Coe out, saying "This is where you get off, boy, 'cause I'm goin' back to Alabam'."
- Keith Bryant's version of "The Ride" is about an amateur Nascar driver that gets a ride to Daytona International Speedway from Dale Earnhardt.
- "Phantom 309" depicts Red Sovine thumbing a ride with a trucker (another reversal of the scenario). When the driver lets Sovine out a nearby truck stop, he tells him to inform the truck stop crowd of who sent him. Silence overtakes the truck stop before one of the patrons tells Sovine the story of the driver, who died after crashing his rig to spare a group of teenagers he hadn't seen in time to stop after topping a hill. Sovine also recorded "Bringing Mary Home", in which he picks up a young woman standing by the road on a stormy night, only to have her disappear before he reaches the address she gives him. Her mother answers the door and tells him that he is the thirteenth man who has come to her, bringing Mary home.
- "Big Joe and Phantom 309" written by Tommy Faile and sung by Tom Waits in his 1975 album Nighthawks at the Diner.
- Hilton Edwards directed a 1951 movie called Return to Glennascaul, starring Orson Welles, which centered around a Vanishing Hitchhiker event.
- In the Girl on the Road episode of the obscure TV series The Veil hosted by Boris Karloff, a motorist aids a girl stranded on the highway. After she vanishes, he searches for her, eventually discovering she had died years before in a wreck on the stretch of road where he met her.
- In the 1960 British horror film The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel), actor Valentine Dyall plays a centuries-old warlock who hitches a ride with two different characters in the movie and then vanishes from the car as soon as they reach an ancient New England witch village.
- The Swirling Eddies released a song on their Outdoor Elvis album (1990) called "Urban Legends". In the lyrics, the narrator critiques the naive belief in urban legends by satirically having the vanishing hitchhiker tell the car driver to "stop telling lies" before he vanishes.
- Dust Devil a 1993 cult film by Richard Stanley set in South Africa was, according to the DVD commentary, inspired by the director's memory of being told the Vanishing Hitchhiker legend as a youngster.
- The 1985 film Pee-wee's Big Adventure includes a scene that is a variation on "Phantom 309". While hitchhiking across the country in search of his stolen bicycle, Pee Wee (Paul Reubens) thumbs a ride with a female truck driver named "Large Marge" who relates to him the story of "the worst accident I ever seen," which concludes with Marge's face contorting very ghoulishly. When Pee Wee announces to the truck stop that Large Marge sent him, one customer recounts that this particular evening is the anniversary of said accident. It is also explained that this accident happened to Large Marge herself.
- The contemporary folk-style song "Ferryman" by Mercedes Lackey and Leslie Fish offers another version of the reversal. The encounter here is between a young girl seeking to cross a river in a violent storm, and a ferryman who agrees to take her without charge. Although the tone implies an unworldly nature to the girl, in the end it is the ferryman who is revealed as the ghost. This version includes a garment as a token: the girl’s shawl, left as a pledge for the fare, is found in the morning on the ferryman’s grave.
- A popular Bollywood horror film of the 1960s Woh Kaun Thi? meaning "Who was she?", has the sequence where the leading man gives a lift to a beautiful woman on a stormy night. Her manner is mysterious and answers questions vaguely and she asks to be dropped off at a gate. He says "But that's a cemetery!". She looks at him, smiles enigmatically and gets off the car and walks into the cemetery. The gate opens automatically for her.
- The website SCP Foundation has an entry on a vanishing hitchhiker, a woman who was ritualistically murdered, and has anyone who picks her up stop at the cemetery where she was buried, where she will vanish. The hitchhiker would leave her sweater behind, and if the motorist who picked her up touched it, they would be compelled to bring it to her elderly parents. In an attempt to vanquish the spirit, a researcher had her parents killed and their home destroyed, reasoning that if the hitchhiker had nothing to come back to, she would stop appearing. This caused the hitchhiker to become homicidal, and begin appearing as a mutilated corpse.
- the game collection Shiver has a game called "the Vanishing Hitchhiker".
- Disney (or at least those who work for his studios) seems to have a feel for this theme, as at the end of the Haunted Mansion ride, the ghostly guide gives the final warning to the riders "beware of hitchhiking ghosts" before revealing the ghostly reflections of the three ghosts, notably the same ones showing the hitchhikers thumb earlier, attempting to ride on the passenger carts and enjoying the efforts. Some who experience the ride may or may not believe at least one of them successfully escaped the mansion, for the moment. Another of the Disney examples was in the animated sequel "Atlantis: Milo's Return" in which the team, driving through the North American desserts, pick up a man named Shacashi... after passing by someone of his likeness at least three times. Shacashi said all Native Americans look alike to outsiders to make such a detail seem normal, but eventually, as a coyote attack took place in the form of a sandstorm, he told them with glowing red eyes that a form of evil is taking place that he needs help with, then disappears while the vehicle was still moving just before it crashed. Everyone survived, but they made an agreement to avoid picking up any more hitchhikers before investigating the message they were given further. While investigating, it was discovered Shacashi is the name of a tribal wind-spirit, (or at least a ghost called as such, but the same principle either way).
- Haunted road
- Belchen Tunnel (The "white woman" of the Belchen Tunnel, Switzerland)
- Resurrection Mary
- John Keel
- Highway hypnosis
- The Hitcher (1986 film)
- The Hitch-Hiker (1953 film)
- Shipley Hollow Road
- Niles Canyon ghost
- White Rock Lake
- Schmetzke, Angelika. (1988). The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers by Michael Goss. Folklore, Vol. 99, No. 2. p. 265
- Wechner, Bernd "Hitch-hiking in the Bible". Retrieved on 2009-12-30.
- Bielski, Ursula, (1997) "Road Tripping" from Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City (Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1997).
- Brunvand, Jan Harold, (1981), The Vanishing Hitchhiker (ISBN 0-393-95169-3)
- Goss, Michael, (1984), The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-hikers (ISBN 0-85030-376-1)