The legend of “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” is a tale almost as old as time – at least, it was present for as long as I can remember.
The basic legend goes as follows: A motorist picks up a female hitchhiker – usually in the middle of nowhere – and drives her home. Upon arriving at her destination, the motorist finds that the woman has vanished from the back seat. In the confusion, the motorist knocks on the door of the hitchhiker’s home only to find that his description matches that of a young woman who was killed in a car accident in the exact spot where he picked her up.
This urban legend not only has a variation of titles, but also a variation of the story itself. It has been called “The Ghostly Hitchhiker,” “The Disappearing Hitchhiker,” “The Phantom Hitchhiker” or simply “The Hitchhiker.” Many believe that the hitchhiker remains in the car until it is stops and departs as normal, but leaves something behind that causes the motorist to try to make contact later. When he reaches the family of the girl, he then finds out that the girl was dead the entire time. A similar variation is that the hitchhiker keeps something that belongs to the motorist – usually a jacket borrowed to fend off the cold. In this variation, the garment is usually found draped over the young woman’s grave.
A popular version in Hawaii claims that the vanishing hitchhiker is the Goddess Pele, who is traveling the streets incognito and rewards kind motorists. Other versions tell of the hitchhiker prophesying disaster.
According to the Beardley-Hankey survey, taken in 1942-1943, there are 4 common variations of this urban legend:
The basic urban legend, where the motorist finds out the girl is dead from knocking on the door to the address given by the hitchhiker.
The hitchhiker is an old woman, who prophesies disaster.
Stories where the hitchhiker meets the motorist in a social setting instead of on the road, then leaves some token from the motorist – usually a jacket – draped over her grave.
The hitchhiker is a local God or Goddess, such as Pele.
This survey concluded that the first variation, told by 49 of the 79 participants, is the closest to the original story, as it contained the most essential elements of the urban legend.
Researchers believe that this urban legend can be dated back to 1870, with similar stories not only across the United States, but also in various parts of the world. Jan Harold Brunvand’s book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker, suggests that the legend can be found all over the world, from Korea and China to Russia, the United States and the Ozark Mountaineers.
So, tell me, with a legend so wide-spread, would you dare pick up a hitchhiker in the middle of the night?