An urban legend is simply a modern folktale – it is a myth or legend that carries enough significance to make people today intrigued to hear it and motivated to pass it on to others. The story persists regardless of whether it is true and is usually recounted as happening to a ‘friend of a friend’. Despite the name, urban legends do not have to take place in an urban environment; instead the term refers to the fact that the story is set in post-industrial times when most people live in cities. The term was first used by Professor Jan Harold Brunvand of the University of Utah, in 1981, to emphasise that legends and folklore do not occur exclusively in what are thought of as traditional societies.
Some urban legends, like the Hitchhiker, are updates of older legends set in a modern context. Others like the ‘Kidney Heist’ (where a person wakes up from an ambush minus a kidney taken for transplantation), could only have come into being in more recent years, since certain advancements in technology or science. Most urban legends have one or more of the following in common:
An element of caution or warning
An element of mystery or intrigue that often plays on our worries or fears. Urban legends can range from mildly spin-chilling to outright horrific
An element of surprise or shock
An element of humour
The sense that it could happen to anyone in a similar situation. Although often bizarre, urban legends use modern circumstances or elements from modern life that encourage people to believe the story could be true. For example, many are set in cars or involve electronic devices like phones or computers
The content of these legends is very diverse: there are urban legends about alligators in the New York Sewers, spiders killing a woman by nesting in an elaborate hair do, a message that must not be typed into a computer, a game of hide and seek gone wrong and even an exploding Yucca plant!
What is the Vanishing Hitchhiker and when was the story first told?
The most common version of the legend involves a driver who stops for a strange girl on a highway; during the course of the ride he realises the hitchhiker has disappeared and later learns from her relatives that she has been dead for years.
Vanishing hitchhikers have been around, it seems, for centuries. The story is found across the world, with many variations. The modern version of the story, dates back to the turn of the 20th century but the concept goes back much further. Originally it was a stage coach, or wagon and horses, or even a loan traveller or horseback that picked up the ghostly passenger. Indeed, perhaps one of the first vanishing hitchhikers was the Apostle Philip. In the New Testament (Acts 8:26-39), it describes how an Ethiopian driving a chariot picks up Peter; the Apostle baptizes him and then disappears.
One of the most reported versions occurred just after Pearl Harbour in the USA. In this story, a man gives a lift to a woman and when he refuses to let her pay for the fuel she offers to tell his fortune. She tells him that he will have a dead body in the car before he gets home and that Hitler will die within six months, then vanishes. On his way home, he sees an accident and rushes the victim to hospital in his car but the passenger dies before arrival - the implication being that the Hitler part of the prophesy would also come true. The story spread rapidly, due largely to wishful thinking – so many people wanted it to be true! Public knowledge of the Vanishing Hitchhiker story expanded further in 1981 with the publication of Brunvand's book The Vanishing Hitchhiker. It is still one of the most popular and enduring urban legends and continues to be adapted for a modern audience. Its simple formula means that it is highly customisable. “My friend’s friend Joseph told him” can easily become “My friend’s friend Callan told him”. Similarly, the address can be anywhere and the hitchhiker could be child of anyone who has lost a daughter in a vehicle accident. The mode of transport can evolve with technology.
Do the stories have elements in Common?
Nearly all the stories follow similar formula. There are common features that regularly crop up. Most stories will contain at least a number of the following features:
A motorist (usually a man), picks up a lonely hitchhiker. Most often, but not always, a young female.
The Driver lends the hitchhiker an item of clothing and hence has a reason to find her or him
The hitchhiker issues some kind of warning about the future
Before, or on, reaching their destination the hitchhiker vanishes
The hitchhiker leaves behind some item that needs to be returned. This item may help the driver to identify their (former) residence. Or if they disappear at the destination, the driver wants an explanation
When the driver explains the reason for their visit, they are met with confusion
A picture on the wall confirms the driver is in the correct location
The driver learns from the grieving loved one that the hitchhiker died several years ago (the number of years vary)
The item the driver lent to the Hitchhiker is found on a grave stone
Other variants include hitchhikers who utter prophecies before vanishing in front of the driver (typically of pending catastrophe such as natural disasters or other evils). These are usually old women and, again, subsequent inquiries reveal them to be deceased. Very occasionally the ghost is an unsettling or threatening presence. In some stories the girl is met at some place of entertainment, for example, a dance, instead of on the roadside. In Hawaii, the story involves the ancient volcano goddess Pele, travelling the roads incognito and rewarding kind travellers.
Why is the story told so often?
For people to want to retell a story they must identify with it in some way. The story has elements that we can all easily identify with and a character, that although doing something silly or thoughtless, we can sympathise with - and even think ‘that could be me’. Hitchhiking was a fairly common practice, and, although less so now with constant warnings about picking up strangers, is still well known from TV and the movies. The driver is an ordinary person. There is nothing extraordinary or heroic about them, suggesting the story could happen to anyone – even you and me! The driver is basically a good person; they want to help the hitchhiker and keep them safe, but like most people, they are not perfect and they may be doing something thoughtless – like driving too fast or not paying attention. The shadowy presence of the Ghost reminds us all that if we indulge in that kind of behaviour, we too could end up with the same fate as the hitchhiker.
The story also appeals to our enjoyment in being shocked or in hearing about something horrific as long as it is at arm’s length. A lot of these stories are told, or passed on, by young people at sleepovers, around the camp fire or over the Internet. Although the ghost is usually benign and often helpful, the resolution, when it comes, is still spin-tingling, just because it happens in such a normal setting. The ghost is not met in a creepy house or graveyard at dead of night but gets into a car. Furthermore the interaction with the ghost occurs not because the young man went looking for the supernatural, but because it came to him, suggesting that ghosts could be encountered at any time and by anyone. Even more chilling is that the driver does not recognise the passenger as a ghost during their time together, so would we recognise a ghost if we met one?
People tend to pay more attention if a story seems familiar and if it’s somewhat tragic or frightening. There are scary stories, in many cultures, reserved just for frightening children to ensure they behave. And such stories work at some conscience level with all ages. They tell us a lot about our collective fears and our society. So maybe there is a lot that can be learned from modern folklore.