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. In his book, Brunvand suggests that the story of The Vanishing Hitchhiker can be traced as far back as the 1870s and has "recognizable parallels in Korea, Tsarist Russia, among Chinese-Americans, Mormons, and Ozark mountaineers."
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. 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.
Beardsley and Hankey
The first proper study of the story of the vanishing hitchhiker was undertaken in 1942–43 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 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.
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 E3126.96.36.199.
- E3188.8.131.52(a) for vanishing hitchhikers who reappear on anniversaries;
- E3184.108.40.206(b) for vanishing hitchhikers who leave items in vehicles, unless the item is a pool of water in which case it is E3220.127.116.11(c);
- E318.104.22.168(d) is for accounts of sinister old ladies who prophesy disasters;
- E322.214.171.124(e) contains accounts of phantoms who are apparently sufficiently solid to engage in activities such as eating or drinking during their journey;
- E3126.96.36.199(f) is for phantom parents who want to be taken to the sickbed of their dying son;
- E3188.8.131.52(g) is for hitchhikers simply requesting a lift home;
- E3184.108.40.206(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 - E3220.127.116.11 - 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 Evangelist being transported by God after encountering the Ethiopian on the road (Acts 8:26-39) is sometimes similarly interpreted.
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 hallucination of the experiencer. According to Goss most of the stories are "fabricated, folklore creations retold in new settings."
Skeptical investigator Joe Nickell who investigated two alleged cases himself concluded that there is no reliable evidence for vanishing hitch-hikers. Historical examples have their origin from folklore tales and urban legends. Modern cases often involve conflicting accounts that may well be the result of exaggeration, illusion or hoaxing.
- Belchen Tunnel (The "white woman" of the Belchen Tunnel, Switzerland)
- Haunted highway
- Highway hypnosis
- List of ghosts
- Niles Canyon ghost
- Resurrection Mary
- Shipley Hollow Road
- The Hitcher (1986 film)
- The Hitch-Hiker (1953 film)
- The Suffolk Miracle, a legend along similar lines
- White Rock Lake
- Raymond Robinson (Green Man)
- Bennett, Gillian. (1998). The Vanishing Hitchhiker at Fifty-Five. Western Folklore. Vol. 57, No. 1. pp. 1-17.
- Langlois, Janet L. (July–September 1983). "The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand". The Journal of American Folklore. 96 (381): 356–357. doi:10.2307/540959. JSTOR 540959.
- Ellis, Bill (1994). ""The Hook" Reconsidered: Problems in Classifying and Interpreting Adolescent Horror Legends". Folklore. Taylor & Francis, Ltd on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd. 105: 61–75. doi:10.1080/0015587x.1994.9715874. JSTOR 1260630.
- Fine, Gary Alan (April 1982). "The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand". Western Folklore. Western States Folklore Society. 41 (2): 156–157. doi:10.2307/1499791. JSTOR 1499791.
- Nickell, Joe. (2007). Adventures in Paranormal Investigation. University of Kentucky Press. pp. 74-82. ISBN 978-0-8131-2467-4
- Beardsley, Richard K; Hankey, Rosalie. (1942). The Vanishing Hitchhiker. California Folklore Quarterly 1: 303-335.
- Beardsley, Richard K; Hankey, Rosalie. (1943). A History of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. California Folklore Quarterly 2: 13-25.
- Baughman, Ernest W. (1966). Type and Motif-Index of the Folktales of England and North America. Indiana University. p. 148
- Wechner, Bernd "Hitch-hiking in the Bible". Retrieved 30 December 2009.
- Schmetzke, Angelika. (1988). The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers by Michael Goss. Folklore, Vol. 99, No. 2. p. 265
- Bielski, Ursula. (1997). Road Tripping. In Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City. Lake Claremont Press.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. (1981). The Vanishing Hitchhiker. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-95169-3
- Cohen, Daniel. (1966). The Phantom Hitchhiker: And Other Ghost Mysteries. Scholastic.
- Goss, Michael. (1984). The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers. Aquarian Press. ISBN 0-85030-376-1