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The Vanishing Hitchhiker: An Urban Legend for the Ages

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...urban legends are folklore, not history.
– Jan Brunvand, The Vanishing Hitchhiker

We all know the story: A man driving along a road at night passes a cemetery (or other landmark, such as a roadside marker for a fatal accident). He picks up a hitchhiker, a young woman with a sad look. She claims to live a few miles down the road, and he agrees to take her home. When he pulls up to the house, he turns to tell her that they've arrived, but to his astonishment, there is no one in the back seat of the car. Puzzled, he knocks on the door of the house. Someone in the house confirms that the young woman was a deceased family member who died while hitchhiking. The driver isn't the first person to tell this tale...

This story has existed in the United States in this form since at least the 1930s, when automobile travel became common. The details are usually quite specific: the place and time, even the people, are named, although the details do not stand up to scrutiny. There are variations: the hitchhiker makes a prophecy about current events, or borrows an overcoat which is later found folded over a tombstone in the cemetery, or leaves an object – a book, or a scarf – that can later be identified as belonging to the person. These stories are very satisfying to the teller and the listener, for some reason. But how old is the legend of the 'Vanishing Hitchhiker', anyway?

A Tale as Old as Travel

Modern readers were first made aware of the 'Vanishing Hitchhiker' legend by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, whose book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (1981) has become an enduring bestseller. Brunvand did some deeper research on the story, and discovered that it predates the invention of the automobile. He found tales from as far back as 1876, involving horse-drawn vehicles. One story even cut out the transportation, and had the vanishing spirit walk home with the unsuspecting passer-by. But it turns out that the story is even older than that.

The Book of Mormon was composed by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and presidential candidate who was assassinated in Illinois in 1844. The Book of 3 Nephi (28:30) seems to draw on the legend of the 'Vanishing Hitchhiker' for a description of the Nephites, immortals who wander the earth:

And they are as the angels of God, and if they shall pray unto the Father in the name of Jesus they can show themselves unto whatsoever man it seemeth them good.

Jan Brunvand, professor emeritus at the University of Utah, reports that legends of vanishing hitchhikers are particularly popular there, as the story fits nicely into Mormon theology. But other religious groups find the story compelling, as well. In the 1960s, many vanishing hitchhikers were reported to be lovely young hippie girls who left after delivering a 'Jesus People' message about the Second Coming. This variation may owe something to the Bible story of Philip. This story is unusual for the fact that it's told from the point of view of the hitchhiker, who is an early Jesus follower.

And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. ...And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.
– Acts 8:26, 35

As an early Christian, Philip might be said to have followed the example of Jesus, who seems to have become a vanishing pedestrian after his resurrection.

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs... And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him... And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. – Luke 24, 13-15,30-31

A version of the 'Vanishing Hitchhiker' turns up in the work of US writer Washington Irving. In his tale 'The Adventure of the German Student', a troubled young man picks up a lovely young woman on a dark street in Paris. This is more than usually inadvisable, as it is during the Reign of Terror. After a passionate night in the young man's rooms, the companion, unfortunately, doesn't disappear – she just turns out to be a recently-decapitated aristocrat... the velvet ribbon around her neck was holding her head on... It made people shudder in 1824.

Nobody has any idea how old the 'Vanishing Hitchhiker' is. The tale might have been told by Palaeolithic hunters around a campfire, for all we know. One thing is sure: the story won't die. Researchers have noted that the 'Vanishing Hitchhiker' has achieved the glory of being used as a sermon illustration by pastors. Local newspapers still run the story in the silly season.

Do you personally know a 'Vanishing Hitchhiker' story, that absolutely, positively happened to your second cousin's barber's father-in-law? Feel free to pass it on. Someday, somewhere on a station called Deep Space 42, a freighter captain on the Alpha Centauri run will be telling of his experience with a beautiful Venusian who suddenly vanished from the back seat of his shuttlecraft...

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