Updated: Jan 8, 2020
So, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A young man spots a beautiful woman on the side of the road and gives her a ride home. But after he drops her off, he realizes she left her jacket in the car. So he goes back to her house, only to be greeted by an older woman who says the girl doesn’t live there. Once he describes his former passenger, the woman says he just perfectly described her daughter, who died in a car crash twenty years ago on that very stretch of road.
Sounds familiar, right? This ‘vanishing hitchhiker’ legend has been around in various formats for at least a hundred years, and its origins might stretch back even further. Let’s explore the legend of the vanishing hitchhiker.
There are literally hundreds of different versions of this legend, with dozens more variations. But the basic story, at least here in the United States, goes something like this:
A man is driving on the road alone late at night when he sees a beautiful woman on the side of the road, looking for a ride. He picks her up and she gives him directions to her house. When they get there, she thanks him for the ride and goes inside. But later that night or the next day, the man discovers something she left behind in the car — usually an item of clothing like a jacket or scarf, maybe a pack of cigarettes. Now knowing where the woman lives, he goes back to her house to deliver the object she left behind. But when he gets there, he’s greeted by a relative — the woman’s mother, maybe her sister, who tells him that the woman actually died years ago, usually in an accident on the stretch of road where the man picked her up. Sometimes the man will later learn that the clothes she was wearing were the ones she was buried in, or that she appears every year on the anniversary of her death.
In some versions, it was actually the man’s jacket that the woman was wearing and forgot to give back. When the man learns the truth about the woman, he goes to the cemetery where she was buried — having learned its location from the girl’s mother — and finds her grave, with his jacket folded neatly at the base.
So, that’s the basic story that you’ve probably heard a million times. There are way too many different versions and similar stories to go over here — it would take all day. But I want to talk about just a few of them — some you may have heard of, some not.
Believe it or not, the earliest similar story appears in the Bible. A passage in the books of Acts tells the story of the apostle Phillip traveling to Gaza when he meets an Ethiopian man.
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian[a] eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”[b]
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”  [c] 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
So this story is a bit different than the one you’re probably used to hearing. But another, more modern story that more closely follows the traditional formula tells of a woman known as Lydia the phantom hitchhiker.
Lydia is said to haunt a curvy stretch of US 70-A in North Carolina. She wears a white evening dress and desperately tries to flag down motorists. If someone offers her a ride, she gets in and introduces herself as Lydia, saying she’s on her way home from a dance. (In some versions, she’s a bit younger and is on her way home from prom.) Lydia gives the driver her address. If the driver tries to talk to her, she usually seems distant, like her mind is otherwise occupied. When the driver gets to Lydia’s house, she’s disappeared from the backseat.
The driver — usually a man — rings the doorbell and is greeted by an older woman. He explains what happened, and the woman shows him a photograph of Lydia, her daughter who died in a car wreck on that road in 1923. She also informs the driver that Lydia has done this before. She thinks her daughter doesn’t realize she’s dead and is just trying to get home.
But, as with many of these legends, it can’t be historically verified. Nobody named Lydia died in a car crash in 1923 in the area. However, a 30-year-old woman named Annie Jackson did die in a car crash on that same stretch of road in 1920. (Other sources say the girl’s real name was Mary.)
Perhaps there was a mixing up of the names, but if the ghost is real, is she the ghost of Annie Jackson? I’ll let you decide.
Another popular ‘vanishing hitchhiker’ story is that of Resurrection Mary, who I’ve talked about in a previous video. Mary’s story dates back to the 1930’s, when drivers — usually men — would report seeing a beautiful young woman outside a dance hall in the suburbs of Chicago. When someone picks her up, Mary tells them she’s leaving a dance and gives them her home address. But when the driver arrives at his destination, he’s parked in front of Resurrection Cemetery. When he parks the car, Mary gets out and walks a few steps to the cemetery before disappearing into thin air.
Like Lydia, it’s not clear just who Mary was in life. Unsurprisingly, she’s said to be buried in Resurrection Cemetery, and there are a few different women buried there who people think she might be. Again, I did talk about this in an older video — it’s not very good, but if you want to check it out for yourself, feel free.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the show Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction? The premise of the story involves a narrator presenting the audience with five different short dramatizations, all with some sort of bizarre, seemingly inexplicable happenings. At the end of the show, viewers get to find out whether these stories were based on true events or made up — and see if their guesses were correct.
I used to watch this show all the time as a kid. I could never find the exact episode, but one story featured a plot line that was basically a retelling of the vanishing hitchhiker legend. The motorist who picked up the woman was greeted at the door by the woman’s sister, who informed him of his former passenger’s fate. The man and the sister of his dead passenger ended up getting married. But as romantic as this is, the story turned out to be completely made up.
There’s another popular legend that’s similar to the vanishing hitchhiker story. A motorist is flagged down on the road, usually at night, by a desperate woman. The woman tells the motorist — again, usually male — that she’s just been in a car accident and her baby is trapped inside the car. She leads the motorist to the wreck, but then disappears. When the motorist inspects the wreck, sure enough, he finds the baby trapped inside and is able to save them. But he also finds the mother’s body in the car, and it’s clear she probably died in the crash, or at least soon after, making it impossible for her to have visited the motorist any other way than as a ghost.
Hawaii has its own version of the vanishing hitchhiker legend. In this one, motorists encounter an old woman climbing a volcano. When they offer her a ride, she disappears from their backseat. This woman turns out to be Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes. Pele often appears to mortals and asks for aid, punishing the ones who refuse.
In African tradition, the vanishing hitchhiker usually turns out to be a jinni, the singular form of jinn — a word you may have heard before. The jinni, or genie, is a popular mythical creature in Africa and the Middle East. Jinn were evil spirits that could take the form of an animal — or a person — and was sometimes even said to possess men.
The last version I want to share is a Spanish urban legend known as ‘la chica de la curva’ or ‘the curve girl.’ Not because she was curvy, but because she haunts a particular curve in a road. There are a few different versions, but this is the one I could find the best translation for.
A man is making his way home from work one night, and it’s storming outside. As he drives down a particular stretch of road, he remembers the legends he’s heard about the girl, but never really believed. That is, until the woman appears in his backseat. (This is reminiscent of the woman in white of Stockton, California, which I’ve also talked about before.)
But it’s difficult to feel too bad for this man. As we find out, he’s actually the one who ran the girl over and killed her on that road. So she kills him in revenge. Honestly, I did not see that ending coming the first time I read it. Maybe I’m just an idiot.
So clearly this legend is very widespread, with different versions being told all over the world. But where did it actually come from?
In the early 1940’s, two researchers set out to find out. Richard K. Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey did two studies on the legend, trying to connect it to a real origin story but ultimately failing to do so.
Their first study, The Vanishing Hitchhiker,* was published in 1942 in a journal then known as California Folklore Quarterly. Beardsley and Hankey collected 79 stories from 60 different cities all over the United States (as well as one from Mexico), trying to find the one the story originated from. They also compared and contrasted each version. They initially thought the origin story came from one of the legends they collected — this one from Berkley, California in the 1930’s. But once they researched the story they’d heard, no fatal accidents matching it had occurred in that time and place. They ultimately concluded that the legend had modern origins, since they couldn’t find any stories that definitively dated any further back than 1912.
Their next study was A History of the Vanishing Hitchhiker*, published the next year. In this one, they further solidified their conclusion that the story was a modern one. The legend, they said, may have gotten inspiration from older sources, but was essentially a newer story, at least in the incarnation we’re most familiar with even today. They also noted that even the phenomenon of ghosts appearing as humans is a relatively modern thing, only appearing frequently since the 1800’s or so.
*links require an account with the website
So, is the legend really a modern one? Well, technically yes. Things like the story usually involving an automobile kind of give that away. But the story has been appearing in different versions even further back than Beardsley and Hankey imagined. Remember, they collected stories largely from the continental United States, along with one in Mexico and one in Hawaii. They even admitted in their second study that they hadn’t been able to collect versions from places like Europe, South America or Canada. As we’ve already seen, the story stretches far wider across the globe than that.
In 1998, another paper was published in that same journal, now called Western Folklore. Two more researchers found several versions of the legend from far before the late 1800’s. One I found particularly interesting came from Sweden and dates back to 1602, in which two travelers encountered a girl on the road who predicted wars and plagues before promptly disappearing. I’m not familiar enough with Swedish history to know if these prophecies actually came true. But given how many wars and plagues there have been throughout history — they probably did.
So we’ve talked about the story, different versions and its potential origins. But one question remains: Why is this story so compelling? Why have people kept telling and retelling it for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years all over the world?
Regardless of the version or details, most of these stories have some sort of element we can easily identify with. The driver is is usually an ordinary person, giving the idea that something like this could happen to us. It also speaks to the dangers of hitchhiking, which are all too real even today. I recently did a video on the Santa Rosa hitchhiker murders, in which at least seven young women were brutally murdered while hitchhiking in or near Santa Rosa, California. The murders remain unsolved to this day. Hitchhiking is clearly dangerous for passengers, but something that’s not often talked about is the potential danger to drivers. The vanishing hitchhiker legend reminds us that if we pick up hitchhikers, no matter how good our intentions, we don’t really know who we’re letting into our cars.
The standard version of the story usually involves a male driver picking up a female passenger. Obviously this man’s intentions could be less than honorable — he might want to get into more than just this girl’s house, if you know what I mean. But it could also speak to the instinct that most men have to protect women. The versions with prophecies speak to our desires to know what’s coming. And ghost stories in general speak to our uncomfortableness with tragic deaths. Nobody likes hearing about a young person dying, or anyone dying a violent death. Ghosts in western culture are thought to have unfinished business, because surely they would come back to earth to finish whatever they were doing when their lives were cut short. The similar version with the ghost mother saving her baby speaks to the maternal instinct to protect your children. Most mothers wouldn’t be able to come back from the dead to save their babys’ lives, but they would certainly give their own lives to keep their children safe.
Another theory I found deals with how the legend morphed from an ordinary story into something paranormal. I found it on Reddit which is, as I’ve been discovering over the past few months, a very interesting place. The post was made by a user named winnowingwinds on a thread about the vanishing hitchhiker legend. (And, of course, all these links can be found in the corresponding blog entry below.)
“I imagine some of these stories are rooted in deep exaggeration.
Guy drives a hitchhiker home. He realizes she left her sweater in his car, and drives back to her house to return it. The person who answers the door says, "uhhh Dorothy Smith doesn't live here." Guy goes to bar and tells his friends. Friends tell THEIR friends, and suddenly Dorothy Smith's been dead for fifteen years, even though that's not what was said. The explanation, meanwhile, is rather simple: Dorothy decided not to tell a stranger where exactly she lived and had him drop her off a block away from her actual house. Or maybe Dorothy's mother didn't approve of a strange man calling on her daughter, even just to return something, and pretended not to know Dorothy.
They also served as cautionary tales. Even when hitchhiking was very common, people still realized there was a risk. Stories like these point out that you don't really know who you're letting ride in your car.”
Obviously I already discussed the theory about the dangers of hitchhiking. But this possible explanation for the truth behind the stories is, as the user said, surprisingly simple. It reminds me of those stories where a man catches a fish that gets bigger every time he tells the story. Or the game telephone you may have played in elementary school, where someone whispers a message that then gets passed around the class and, by the time it reaches the last person, it’s completely different. That game is usually done by teachers specifically to show how rumors get started. Really, this theory could apply to a lot of the paranormal stories I’ve talked about on this channel.
The last story I want to revisit is the biblical one. Even though I grew up in church and have read the Bible (well, most of it), I wasn’t familiar with this story before researching this video. Remember, the story involves Philip encountering an Ethiopian on the road to Gaza. The Ethiopian was reading a Bible passage and asked Philip to explain it. Philip ministered to the man, who decided to be baptized. Then Philip promptly disappeared.
Apparently this story is about how God often has plans for us we don’t expect. Obviously not everyone watching my videos is religious, so this might not apply to you. But I thought it was a really interesting story, and I wonder if it did partially influence the way the vanishing hitchhiker legend is told today — or if it is, in fact, the oldest version of the story.
So what do you think of this ubiquitous legend? What other versions have you heard that you find interesting? Have you ever had your own experience with an incident like this, whether directly or through the famous ‘friend of a friend’ method? Let me know in the comments.