The first proper study of the story of the vanishing hitchhiker was undertaken in 1942-3 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 USA.
They found: "Four distinctly different versions, distinguishable because of obvious differences in development and essence."
These are described as:
- A. Stories where the hitch-hiker 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 USA.
- B. Stories where the hitch-hiker 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 never happened).
- 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 hitch-hiker is later identified as a local divinity.
- E. Where a driver gives a girl a lift and drops her off but she leaves something in the car, the driver must return it to her house but when he gets to the house, no one answers. Soon, the driver finds that the girl died when she got out of the car.
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 E322.214.171.124.
- E3126.96.36.199(a) for vanishing hitchhikers who reappear on anniversaries;
- E3188.8.131.52(b) for vanishing hitchhikers who leave items in vehicles, unless the item is a pool of water in which case it is E3184.108.40.206(c);
- E3220.127.116.11(d) is for accounts of sinister old ladies who prophesy disasters;
- E318.104.22.168(e) contains accounts of phantoms who are apparently sufficiently solid to engage in activities such as eating or drinking during their journey;
- E322.214.171.124(f) is for phantom parents who want to be taken to the sickbed of their dying son;
- E3126.96.36.199(g) is for hitchhikers simply requesting a lift home;
- E3188.8.131.52(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 - E3184.108.40.206 - being for encounters with divinities who take to the road as hitchhikers. The legend of St. Christopher is considered one of these, and the story of Philip the Apostle being transported by God after encountering the Ethiopian on the road (Acts 8:26-39) is sometimes similarly interpreted.
Read more about this topic: Vanishing Hitchhiker
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