Vanishing hitchhiker legends go back hundreds of years. According to Snopes.com website, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand wrote of the phenomenon in his 1981 book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker:
…the legend of the vanishing hitchhiker evolved from earlier European stories, usually about travelers on horseback. In Hawaii, the hitchhiker became associated with the ancient volcano goddess Pele. A prototype of the story shows up in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-39), in which an Ethiopian driving a chariot picks up the Apostle Philip, who baptizes him and then disappears.
The most common [since turn-of-the-century 1900] version of the legend involves a driver who stops for a strange girl on a highway, then during the course of the ride realizes his hitchhiker has disappeared. Upon arriving at the address the girl had mentioned, the driver learns from her relatives that she has been dead for years.
Vanishing hitchhiker (aka ghostly hitchhiker, disappearing hitchhiker, phantom hitchhiker) stories are appealing, because the ghost/hitchhiker appears to a person, rather than the person seeking out a supernatural encounter. The part of this supernatural experience that borders on horror is the ghost appears as a living person. This adds another level of hair-standing-on-end scariness, because we have no idea how many other ghosts-masquerading-as-living-persons we’ve encountered along the way.
Typically, vanishing hitchhiker stories include these variations on a ghostly theme:
- Always encountering the ghost at a specific location
- Ghost leaves a memento behind: book, scarf, sweater, lingering scent or aroma
- Person recognizes the ghost from a photograph, such as in a family album or picture on the mantel and the ghost is wearing the same party dress
- Passenger/ghost disappears from the vehicle when the car passes a cemetery, and upon investigating, driver discovers the coat he/she lent the ghost draped over a headstone
- Ghost never harms the person who encounters it and sometimes acts as protector
Here are four vanishing hitchhiker-themed songs you may have heard. You can find a rendition of each on YouTube.
- Bringing Mary Home (1965) The Country Gentlemen (and Red Sovine)
- Laurie, Strange things Happen (1965) Dickie Lee
- The Ride (1983) David Allan Coe
- Riding with Private Malone (2001) David Ball
Regrettably, I’ve never encountered a vanishing hitchhiker. Oh, wait. I’d have to actually pick up a hitchhiker to have a vanishing experience.
I do, however, remember when I learned about this urban legend (gave me the heebie-jeebies…could be the reason I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker). It was Red Sovine’s version of Phantom 309 in 1967. I later learned the song is based on an actual event.
Regardless of your familiarity, or not, with the song Phantom 309, here is the short version of the story behind the story.
The crash in the song actually happened on January 29, 1963 when a gasoline tanker truck driver named John William “Pere” Trudelle came upon a school bus stopped to pick up children. There was a car waiting behind the bus. Rather than run into the bus and the car, Trudelle crashed into a bridge abutment. He tried to escape, but the 4,600 gallons of gasoline exploded before he could. The driver of the car also died from the explosion, but bus driver and the six children had time to reach safety before the bus caught on fire. Full story, HERE.
Day 12 – Spooky Blogging – Country music legend Hank Williams, Sr. – restless spirit and vanishing hitchhiker
Until next time,
Find Kaye on…
Vanishing Hitchhiker Sources: