Urban legends are a type of modern folklore that typically circulate through word of mouth or online media. These stories are often presented as true accounts and usually involve a shocking or mysterious event or circumstance. One of the most popular urban legends is the Disappearing Hitchhiker.
Imagine driving down a dark road and seeing a man (or woman) standing on the side of the road. There is light rain. You pull up and ask him where he is going. He asks for a ride to his girlfriend’s house, which isn’t far from where you are heading. You tell him to hop in the passenger side. Then you make some small talk about the weather and the town. Furthermore, you drive for a few minutes, but when you look over again, the mysterious hitchhiker is gone.
Variations of a Classic Urban Legend
The vanishing hitchhiker is a classic urban legend that has been circulating for decades. The story typically involves a driver who picks up a hitchhiker on a dark and lonely road. The hitchhiker is often described as being a young woman dressed in white or a soldier in uniform. The driver talked to the hitchhiker while driving, but when they arrived at the hitchhiker’s place, the hitchhiker was no longer there.
Traced back to the early 20th century, this legend has retold and adapted in many different forms, with variations depending on the location and culture. Most accounts involve supernatural or paranormal elements, such as the hitchhiker being a ghost or spirit.
There are different narrative versions about the hitchhiker’s identity, including a young woman who perished in a car accident on the very road she’s hitchhiking on and a soldier seeking a ride back home after dying in combat. Sometimes the hitchhiker leaves behind a physical object, such as a scarf or a piece of jewelry that the driver later returns to the hitchhiker’s family, or the driver goes to the address given by the hitchhiker only to discover that the person they picked up has been dead for years.
Hitchhiking Horror Stories
While the vanishing hitchhiker story is often presented as true, there is little evidence to support the idea that it is based on actual events. Instead, it may be more likely that the story evolved as a cautionary tale, warning people about the dangers of picking up strangers on the side of the road.
Hitchhiking was a common mode of travel in the 1960’s, especially during the hippy movement. People opted for hitchhiking to travel long distances without the high cost. Commercial air travel was still quite new and expensive in that era and generally reserved for businessmen and wealthy people while bus and train travel were more common but also quite pricey.
Unfortunately, hitchhikers made for perfect victims. Usually alone and far from home, they made excellent targets for violent crime. Multiple serial killers reportedly targeted young female hitchhikers; one of the most famous stories being that of 15-year-old Mary Vincent. She was attacked by Lawrence Singleton after accepting a ride in his van to her grandfather’s house. Singleton assaulted her multiple times then cut off her arms cut off with an axe, leaving her for dead. She managed to survive the ordeal after walking three miles with her bloody stumps raised above her heart to decrease blood loss.
Men are not any safer. The movie There is Something About Mary uses humor to show that even a man can be in danger when picking up strangers off the side of the road. By the late 1980s, hitchhiking had all but vanished. So why is this still one of the most popular urban legends?
New Stories Continue To Emerge
In recent years, the disappearing hitchhiker legend has continued to evolve and adapt to changing cultural norms and technologies. For example, there are now versions of the story that involve ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, with passengers reporting picking up a hitchhiker who vanishes from the back seat.
While hitchhiking is no longer used as a common mode of transportation, we can now order our own stranger to bring our intoxicated selves home. As children, we were told to not get in a car with a stranger. Uber and Lyft now allow you to order your own stranger to pick you up and there have been many incidents of assaults stemming from ridesharing. In 2019, Samantha Josephson, a student from University of South Carolina, was raped and murdered after she got into a car that she believed was her Uber driver.
There are several theories about why the vanishing hitchhiker legend has persisted for so long and become so popular. Some suggest that the story taps into deep-seated fears and anxieties about death and the unknown, while others argue that it serves as a warning about the dangers of picking up strangers.
Despite there being little evidence to support the idea that the vanishing hitchhiker legend is based on actual events, it remains a popular and enduring urban legend, with new variations and adaptations continuing to emerge.
Urban legends commonly play on people’s fears and anxieties, such as fears of strangers or the unknown, and can spread rapidly through social media and other online platforms. While many urban legends are generally harmless, some can be harmful or even dangerous if they inspire people to take unnecessary risks or engage in harmful behaviors.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. (1981). The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-95169-3