Have you heard the story of the Vanishing Hitchhiker? You know the one I’m talking about. A young man spots a girl hitchhiking along the side of the road late at night. He picks her up, and when they near her destination she vanishes from the car.
Yeah, that’s the one. It actually happened to a friend of a friend a few towns over. He swears by it. Or maybe it happened to your mom’s old college roommate. Only in that version the hitchhiker was a prophet that warned your mom’s roommate about the impending eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and she needed to get the heck out of dodge, right now.
That’s definitely the true version of this urban legend, right? It depends on who you ask.
The real origin of the Vanishing Hitchhiker is up for folkloric debate. Tales of prophesying numinous beings on the road have existed for four centuries, and a story of a hitchhiker vanishing from a horse-drawn vehicle in Illinois dates back to 1876.
But the modern telling of the Vanishing Hitchhiker – the classic tale of a phantom passenger disappearing from an automobile – has thrived since the 1930s. Hundreds of textual versions of the famed urban legend have been collected over the past eighty years, with stories spread all over the world.
Like this one, from Berkeley, California in 1934: A young man picks up a female hitchhiker in the middle of the night. She tells him her address, but when they arrive she disappears from the car. The man rings the bell, and the girl’s former fiance answers the door. The terrified former fiancé informs the driver that the young girl had been killed in an automobile accident the very spot she had just been picked up.
Africa has its own unique Vanishing Hitchhiker legends. Take this one, taken from Senegal sometime in the 1980s: A young Wolof taxi driver meets a woman at a dance, and he quickly falls head-over-heels in love. He walks her home, and the chivalrous young man offers his sweater to the girl, who has taken a chill. She tells him she can’t see him again, and the now-sweaterless young man returns to his cab and drives home. He returns to the girl’s house the next day, and he is greeted by an elderly woman. The woman becomes upset, telling the man that his dance date just wasn’t possible – because her daughter is dead. The two visit the young girl’s grave, and draped over her tombstone is the man’s sweater. The young Wolof eventually goes insane.
The list of countries with Vanishing Hitchhiker legends go on and on. Versions exist in the UK, Pakistan, Algeria, Korea and Romania. Oftentimes the legend conforms to local beliefs and customs. That young taxi driver from Senegal? According to the storyteller of this version of the legend, insanity is a typical result for a Wolof who encounters a spirit.
How about the Vanishing Hitchhiker in Hawaii? She is often Pele, a Hawaiian volcano goddess who appears and seeks aids from humans. (You would be wise to pull over and help – she punishes those who refuse).
And in Utah, tales exist of phantom Nephites – disciples of Christ from the Book of Mormon – thumbing rides on the side of the road.
So why did these hitchhiking stories begin gaining steam in the 1930s and continue to thrive today? Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand argues that automobiles provided youngsters the means to get away from the world for a while. And for lower- and middle-class families, cars offered a “temporary escape from the humdrum world of home, neighborhood, or suburb.”
Perhaps the modern Vanishing Hitchhiker legends grew out of a shared desire to attain this sense of youthful freedom, a desire that crosses borders, cultures, race and age. And as automobiles rose in popularity in the 1920s, the Vanishing Hitchhiker legends soon followed.
But what about all those ghosts and death? British folklorist Gillian Bennett writes, “I would conclude that modern phantom hitchhikers tell us that it is bad to die unfulfilled, peremptorily denied life’s joys.”
Maybe the Vanishing Hitchhiker story crisscrosses the world because it encompasses humanity’s deepest fears: that it is a terrible thing to die unprepared with an unfulfilled life. And in the stories, the hitchhiker often encounters a death most dreaded: alone, unprepared and random. No one wants to go like that.
So, where did the Vanishing Hitchhiker come from? You could say it comes from us. Because our cultures believe in what the stories stand for, in a way, the tales all represent a form of truth.
Now, about that version you heard that came from your friend’s uncle’s old boss from the gas station somewhere near Portland. Or maybe it was Seattle?
Yep, that’s definitely true.