The vanishing hitchhiker (or variations such as the ghostly hitchhiker, disappearing hitchhiker, phantom hitchhiker) is an urban legend in which people travelling by vehicle, meet with or are accompanied by a hitchhiker who subsequently vanishes without explanation, often from a moving vehicle.
Public knowledge of the story expanded greatly with the 1981 publication of Jan Harold Brunvands non-fiction book The Vanishing Hitchhiker. In his book, Brunvand suggests that the story of The Vanishing Hitchhiker can be traced as far back as the 1870s and has “recognizable parallels in Korea, Tsarist Russia, among Chinese-Americans, Mormons, and Ozark mountaineers.” Similar stories have been reported for centuries across the world.
A common variation of the above involves the vanishing hitchhiker departing as would a normal passenger, having left some item in the vehicle, or having borrowed a garment for protection against the cold. The vanishing hitchhiker may also leave some form of information that encourages the motorist to make subsequent contact.
In such accounts of the legend, the garment borrowed is often found draped over a gravestone in a local cemetery. In this and other versions of the urban legend, the unsuspecting motorist makes contact with the family of a deceased person using the information the hitchhiker left behind and finds that the family’s description of the deceased matches the passenger the motorist picked up and also finds that they were 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.
Other variations reverse this scenario, in that the hitchhiker meets a driver; the hitchhiker later learns that the driver is actually an apparition of a person who died earlier.
Not all vanishing hitchhiker legends involve ghosts. One popular variant in Hawaii involves the goddess Pele, travelling the roads incognito and rewarding kind travellers, other variants include hitchhikers who utter prophecies (typically of pending catastrophes or other evil events) before vanishing.
In Mormon culture the disappearing hitchhiker is often attributed to being one of 3 immortal characters of their religious beliefs, namely the three Nephites.
There is a similar story which is about two travellers sitting next to each other on a train (normally a man and a woman), one of them is reading a book and the other person asks what the book is about, the first person says that it’s about ghosts and they then have a conversation about ghosts, the second person then asks if the first person believes in ghosts or has ever seen one, to which the first person says that they have never seen or believed in ghosts at all, the second person then says that, this is doubtful and with that the second person vanishes. This was the version used in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book series.
Beardsley and Hankey
The first proper study of the story of the vanishing hitchhiker was undertaken in 1942–43 by American folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey, who collected as many accounts as they could and attempted to analyze them.
The Beardsley-Hankey survey elicited 79 written accounts of encounters with vanishing hitchhikers, drawn from across the United States. They found: “Four distinctly different versions, distinguishable because of obvious differences in development and essence.” These are described as:
A. Stories where the hitchhiker 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 United States.
B. Stories where the hitchhiker 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, in Lake Michigan, would soon be submerged (this has not yet occurred).
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 hitchhiker 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 localized 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 traveling bag in the car.)
Baughman’s classification system grades this basic story as motif E3188.8.131.52.
E3184.108.40.206(a) for vanishing hitchhikers who reappear on anniversaries;
E3220.127.116.11(b) for vanishing hitchhikers who leave items in vehicles, unless the item is in a pool of water in which case it is E318.104.22.168(c);
E322.214.171.124(d) is for accounts of sinister old ladies who prophesy disasters;
E3126.96.36.199(e) contains accounts of phantoms who are apparently sufficiently solid to engage in activities such as eating or drinking during their journey;
E3188.8.131.52(f) is for phantom parents who want to be taken to the sickbed of their dying son;
E3184.108.40.206(g) is for hitchhikers simply requesting a lift home;
E3220.127.116.11(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 — E318.104.22.168 — being for encounters with divinities who take to the road as hitchhikers. The legend of Saint Christopher is considered one of these, and the story of Philip the Evangelist being transported by God after encountering the Ethiopian on the road (Acts 8:26-39) is sometimes similarly interpreted.
Paranormal researcher Michael Goss in his book The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers discovered that many reports of vanishing hitchhikers turn out be based on folklore and hearsay stories. Goss also examined some cases and attributed them to hallucination of the experiencer. According to Goss most of the stories are “fabricated, folklore creations retold in new settings.”
Skeptic Joe Nickell, who investigated two alleged cases, concluded that there is no reliable evidence for vanishing hitchhikers. Historical examples have their origin in folklore tales and urban legends. Modern cases often involve conflicting accounts that may well be the result of exaggeration, illusion or hoaxing.