The vanishing hitchhiker (or phantom hitchhiker) is a reported phenomenon in which people travelling 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, in many variants.
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 travelling 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
A common variant on 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 sometime 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.
Not all vanishing hitchhiker reports involved allegedly recurring ghosts. One popular variant in Hawaii involves the goddess Pele, travelling the roads incognito and rewarding kind travellers.
Another variant found in on the East African Coast where the local Bantu culture is heavily influenced by Arab Muslim culture involves paranormal beings called "jini" (English genies). The story typically takes the form of a beautiful girl who is picked up by cross country truckers who are looking for some way to stay awake on their long journeys. At some point the truck driver will look over at his beautiful passenger and discover to his horror that she has goat's legs - like the god of mischief Pan. At this point the girl or jini laughs and disappears, although in the worst case scenario, the driver is so shocked that he causes the truck to crash, which was the original intention of the jini.
Other variants include prophetic hitchhikers who utter prophecies (typically of pending catastrophe or other evils) before vanishing.
The Stephen King short story, Riding the Bullet is an example of an opposite version of this story, in which case, a dead man picks up a young hitchhiker, tells him of his mother's upcoming death, and subsequently disappears.
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 analyse them.
The Beardsley-Hankey survey elicited 79 written accounts of encounters with vanishing hitchhikers, drawn from across America.
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, 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 localised 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 travelling bag in the car.)"
Baughman's classification system grades this basic story as motif E322.214.171.124.
- E3126.96.36.199(a) for vanishing hitchhikers who reappear on anniversaries;
- E3188.8.131.52(b) for vanishing hitchhikers who leave items in vehicles, unless the item is a pool of water in which case it is E3184.108.40.206(c);
- E3220.127.116.11(d) is for accounts of sinister old ladies who prophesy disasters;
- E318.104.22.168(e) contains accounts of phantoms who are apparently sufficiently solid to engage in activities such as eating or drinking during their journey;
- E322.214.171.124(f) is for phantom parents who want to be taken to the sickbed of their dying son;
- E3126.96.36.199(g) is for hitchhikers simply requesting a lift home;
- E3188.8.131.52(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 - E3184.108.40.206 - 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
Pre-modern vanishing hitchhikers
The vanishing hitchhiker is not a phenomenon unique to the asphalt highways and byways of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
A 1602 manuscript held by Linköping library in Sweden, describes a recognisable account of the vanishing hitchhiker. Titled Om the tekn och widunder som föregingo thet liturgiske owäsendet (On the Signs and Wonders Preceding the Liturgic Broil), it is the work of a scholar named Joan Petri Klint (d 1608). Klint's work is a quasi-journalistic collection of strange events and portents, which to his apocalyptic mind presage the triumph of Protestant reform (the 'liturgic broil' of the title).
One account dates from February 1602 and was collected from an unnamed vicar of Klint's acquaintance who was travelling back from a Candlemas fair at Västergötland to the town of Vadstena by sleigh. The three men stopped to give a ride to a young girl by the roadside. When they stopped to draw in at an inn for refreshment, the girl requested a drink and was given a jug of beer. She did not drink from it, and the surprised vicar observed that the beer had changed into malt. A second jug was brought and this was handed to the child, whereupon, to general consternation, it mysteriously changed into acorns. This was too much for the vicar to bear and he closely supervised the fetching of a third jug, only to see its contents transmute into blood in the young girl's grasp. At this point, the passenger announced: "There will be good crops this year. There will be enough fruits of the trees. There will also be many wars and plagues." Having delivered this information, she vanished.
Klint's account contains all the characteristic hallmarks of a classic vanishing hitchhiker, fitting Beardsley and Hankey's Versions 'B' (prophetic) and 'C' (vanishing). The beer-transforming waif also fits Baughman's 3.3.1(b) (by virtue of leaving behind the malt, acorns and blood), 3.3.1(d) (prophesying, although Klint does not record whether the forecasts were correct), 3.3.1(e) (wanting refreshment) and 3.3.1(g) (homeward bound).
Old English Ballad
An English ballad, found in a 1723 anthology, relates the story of A Suffolk Wonder, which mysterious appellation is explained in a somewhat lengthy subtitle: Or, a Relation of a Young Man, who, a month after his death, appeared to his Sweetheart, and carried her on horseback behind him for forty miles in two hours, and was never seen after but in his grave.
The similarities with the modern vanishing hitchhiker are striking. The titular girl is given a lift on horseback -- presumably a solid horse, not least since the girl recognises it as belonging to her parents -- by her recently-deceased lover. The lover had previously been separated from the girl by her disapproving parents, during which time he had (unbeknown to his beloved) expired through unrequited love.
- Forty miles distant she was sent,
- Unto his brother's, with intent
- That she should there so long remain
- Till she had chang'd her mind again.
The ghostly lover is also a token-leaver (cf, Beardsley and Hankey's Version 'C', Baughman's E3220.127.116.11(b)). He borrows his former love's handkerchief to knot around his aching head, and this becomes the means through which the girl's disbelieving parents ascertain the truth of their daughter's account:
- A handkerchief she said she tyed
- About his head, and that they tryed;
- The sexton they did speak unto,
- That he the grave would then undo.
- Affrighted then they did behold
- His body turning into mould,
- And though he had a month been dead,
- This kerchief was about his head.
Nor is this the climax of the tale. In true melodramatic style, the shock of this double-blow -- the death of her love, and his ghostly reappearance -- results in horrid tragedy for all concerned:
- This thing unto her then they told,
- And the whole truth they did unfold;
- She was thereat so terrified
- And grievd, she quickly after dyed.
There is a conclusion to be drawn:
- Part not true love, you rich men, then;
- But, if they be right honest men
- Your daughters love, give them their way,
- For force oft breeds their lives' decay.
This ballad has itself been traced to far older sources, although because of the apparently recurrent nature of the vanishing hitchhiker phenomenon, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Prophetic hitchhikers of the 1970s
For some unknown reason, 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), although he is also reported to have commented on more topical items such as the taking of hostages at the American Embassy in Iran. After revealing his insights, he would vanish from the moving car. The 'presentable young man' continued his excursions for over a year. The last 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 North-West 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.
- Later in 1979, a hitchhiker began "violently bleeding a orangish goo" from his ears as his driver's car turned around a tight pass in Western Nebraska. As the driver screamed, the man suddenly disappeared, but left behind odd colored stains on the seat of the driver's car. The actual seats are on display in the Western Nebraska History Museum, and the composition of the "goo" has never been determined.
The vanishing hitchhiker in music and film
- 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 on The Complete Vanguard Recordings.
- David Allan Coe's song "The Ride" and Red Sovine's "Phantom 309" reverse 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'." "Phantom 309" depicts Sovine thumbing a ride with a trucker. 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.
- Hilton Edwards directed a 1951 movie called Return to Glennascaul, starring Orson Welles, which centred around a Vanishing Hitchhiker event.
- In 1942, the radio show Suspense broadcast an episode titled "The Hitchiker" in which Orson Welles plays a man who repeatedly sees a mysterious hitchhiker while driving cross-country. (audio link) The Twilight Zone aired an episode titled "The Hitchhiker" which was based on the radio show.
- 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 decides to believe any and all urban legends following an encounter with a vanishing hitchhiker.
- 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 truck driver named "Large Marge" who relates to him the story of "the worst accident I ever seen." 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.
- 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)
- Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur, A Case of Identity, an adventure in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes describes something similar to this concept.