Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Vanishing Hitchhiker at Fifty-Five

Academic journal article Western Folklore

The Vanishing Hitchhiker at Fifty-Five

Article excerpt


The legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker hardly needs an introduction. The core story concerns a traveller who offers a ride to a vulnerable-looking pedestrian, only to find his passenger has disappeared without trace. Later investigations reveal that the passenger was a supernatural entity, not a living human being at all.

The very first issue of this journal (then California Folklore Quarterly) carried an article on this story written by two young anthropologists (Beardsley and Hankey 1942). It was followed in the next volume by a second study which continued the discussion and updated some of the ideas (Beardsley and Hankey 1943). The papers attracted the immediate notice of one of the leading folklorists of the day (Jones 1944a), and, of late, the legend has received considerable attention which has resulted in many useful insights (see, for example: Luomala 1972; Wilson 1975; Fish 1976; Mitchell 1976; Langlois 1978; Bennett 1984; Goss 1984; Shenhar 1985; Glazer 1987; Dumerchat 1990; Nicolaisen 1990). Indeed, the Vanishing Hitchhiker has become perhaps the most frequently collected and widely discussed modern story. Nevertheless, Beardsley and Hankey's original work, as well as being one of the first full-length studies of any contemporary legend, remains perhaps the most complete folkloric examination of the Vanishing Hitchhiker.l The present essay reviews the original articles in the light of current information about the legend, and suggests modern readings of a common variant.


The California Folklore Quarterly Articles

Beardsley and Hankey's studies were based on a corpus of 79 Vanishing Hitchhiker stories collected from 60 different locations in the United States. The authors' initial aim was to link the legend with a real-life incident. When that failed, they tried to discover the "original" story. As they could find no obvious analogue in older traditions, they concluded that it was completely new, a product of the previous twenty years or so: "a story that is in no sense a survival from an outdated culture, but stands as a fully-fledged representative of the contemporary tale" (Beardsley and Hankey 1943:16) . Though they were not able to collect versions from outside the US, they confessed that they "would not be surprised to find the story in any part of the so-called civilized world" (ibid., 17). However, as most versions they had collected "had been heard by narrators before 1939" and the incidents were supposed to have happened some time ago, they judged that the story was dying out: "Though still told occasionally, it is no longer a vital, living tale" (ibid., 22).

By analysing their corpus of stories they discovered four variants they thought were quite distinct. In stories of the Version A pattern (49 examples), the ghost is offered a ride by a motorist, gives an address and disappears. The motorist calls at the address he has been given, only to be told his passenger has been dead a number of years. In Version B stories (9 examples) the travellers(s) offer a ride to an old woman who issues a warning or prophecy before disappearing from the vehicle. The traveller(s) later receive information that she has been dead some time. In Version C (11 examples), a young man meets a girl at a dance and offers her a ride home; she asks to be put down at a cemetery and disappears; he later finds she is dead and this is confirmed by some personal possession being left on her grave. In Version D (6 examples) a mysterious old lady carrying a basket is offered a ride and disappears; later the traveller(s) discover that they have given a ride to the Hawaiian Goddess Pelee (see Beardsley and Hankey 1942). As well as these 75 classifiable texts, they had a number of mixed types.

They judged that Version A stories were probably "the closest to the original story" (Beardsley and Hankey 1943:25). Version B texts seemed to be limited to the Mid-West and dated to a very specific time (1933, the year of the Chicago Centennial Fair), so they concluded they might be "a block apart from the standard hitchhiker" (Beardsley and Hankey 1942:312). …

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