Killer in the backseat
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The Killer in the Backseat (also known as High Beams) is a common, car-crime urban legend well known mostly in the United States and United Kingdom. It was first noted by folklorist Carlos Drake in 1968 in texts collected by Indiana University students.
The legend involves a woman who is driving and being followed by a strange car or truck. The mysterious pursuer flashes his high beams, tailgates her, and sometimes even rams her vehicle. When she finally makes it home, she realizes that the driver was trying to warn her that there was a man (a murderer, rapist, or escaped mental patient) hiding in her back seat. Each time the man sat up to attack her, the driver behind had used his high beams to scare the killer, in which he ducks down.
In some versions, the woman stops for gas, and the attendant asks her to come inside to sort out a problem with her credit card. Inside the station, he asks if she knows there's a man in her back seat. (An example of this rendition can be seen in the 1998 episode of Millennium, "The Pest House".) In another, she sees a doll on the road in the moors, stops, and then the man gets in the back.
The story is often told with a moral. The attendant is often a lumberjack, a trucker, or a scary-looking man: someone the driver mistrusts without reason. She assumes it is the attendant who wants to do her harm, when in reality it is he who saves her life.
Barbara Mikkelson of Snopes.com has written,
This legend first appeared at least as far back as 1967 and quickly caught on, becoming one of the favorite scary legends of that period. In addition to circulating orally, it showed up in Ann Landers' column in 1982, presented as a harrowing experience that had befallen the letter writer's friend. Despite the legend's many incarnations and long history, there's little or no record of its ever playing out in real life. It's merely a cautionary tale warning us to be vigilant of our surroundings — there just aren't that many bad guys lurking in backseats to get worried about. ... Even as a horror legend, this one is sexist to the core. As mentioned earlier, the prey is always female and both the evil fiend and the rescuer are male...
In popular culture
- The 1998 film Urban Legend begins with this scenario.
- John Carpenter's 1978 film Halloween has the character Annie Brackett killed when she enters the car and the killer Michael Myers sneaks up from behind the back seat and slashes her throat.
- The first segment, "Terror in Topanga," of the 1983 film Nightmares is a depiction of this legend.
- An episode of the detective series Jonathan Creek, "The Coonskin Cap", begins with a version of this legend, except that instead of a killer inside the car, the pursuing driver is trying to alert her that there is a body tied to the back of her car.
- In a 1998 episode of Millennium, "The Pest House", Frank Black chases a doctor from a mental hospital after one of its patients escapes into the back of her car and tries to kill her. When she pulls over at a gas station, the attendant saves her by taking her inside.
- The 2003 Tamil film from India, Whistle, begins with this scenario.
- The story is featured in the television show Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction.
- The story is featured in an episode of The Simpsons when Otto tells Lisa the legend as a bedtime story. In his version, the victim is chased by another car that keeps ramming her vehicle, and she drives off the road into the woods and loses the other car. She is then killed by an axe-wielding maniac who had been hiding in her backseat.
- In the 2006 horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, the victim, Chrissie (played by actress Jordana Brewster) is driving and sees a sheriff and a citizen. She smiles until she sees Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) appear in the back seat. Instead of someone trying to warn her and her surviving, Chrissie is stabbed by Leatherface's chainsaw. She is killed and crashes into the sheriff and citizen (who dies too) and Leatherface gets out of the car and leaves the dead Chrissie.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold (2012). Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, Updated and Expanded Edition. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. p. 361. ISBN 978-1-59884-720-8.
Although other car-crime legends are well known abroad, 'The Killer in the Backseat' does not seem to have taken root very strongly outside North America.
- Drake, Carlos. "The Killer in the Backseat." Indiana Folklore 1 (1968), 107-109.
- Bronner, Simon J. (1988). American Children's Folklore. Little Rock: August House Publishers. p. 149. ISBN 978-08748-306-8-2.
... Suddenly, I realized what was happening and did the first thing I could think of. I flashed my brights to warn her. I saw the figure quickly disappear. I followed the car home and flashed my brights each time I saw the figure. After she ran in the house, I told her to call the police...
- Barden, Thomas E. (1991). Virginia Folk Legends. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia. p. 324. ISBN 978-08139-133-5-3.
The story structure of a suspected harmer turning out to be a savior appears in such modern legends as that of the truck driver following a woman home flashing his lights. For interpretations of this legend, see Carlos Drake ... and Xenia E. Cord, 'Further Notes on the Assailant in the Back Seat'...
- Mikkelson, Barbara (30 August 2013). "The Killer in the Backseat". Snopes.com. Retrieved September 3, 2014.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold (2012). Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. p. 361. ISBN 978-1-59884-720-8.
'The Killer in the Backseat' provided the initial scare in the 1998 film Urban Legend. (In the film, however, the assailant does actually kill the driver.) David Letterman's telling of the legend as he heard it growing up in Indianapolis is included in my book Too Good To Be True...
- Renwick, David (1 March 2003). "The Coonskin Cap". BBC. Retrieved September 3, 2014.
- Handlen, Zack (June 25, 2011). "The X-Files: "The Red And The Black" / Millennium: "The Pest House"". The AV Club. Retrieved September 3, 2014.