The vanishing hitchhiker (or phantom hitchhiker) is a reported phenomenon in which people travelling by vehicle meet with or are accompanied by a hitchhiker who subsequently vanishes without explanation, often from a moving vehicle. Vanishing hitchhikers have been reported for centuries and the story is found across the world, in many variants.
The archetypal modern vanishing hitchhiker is a figure seen in the headlights of a car travelling by night with a single occupant.
The figure adopts the stance of a hitchhiker. The motorist stops and offers the figure a lift. The journey proceeds, sometimes in total silence, and at some subsequent point the passenger appears to vanish while the vehicle is in motion.
A common variant on the above involves the vanishing hitchhiker departing as would a normal passenger, having left some item in the car, or having borrowed a garment for protection against alleged cold (whether or not the weather conditions reflect this claim). The vanishing hitchhiker can also leave some form of information that allegedly encourages the motorist to make subsequent contact.
In such tellings, the garment borrowed is often subsequently found draped over a gravestone in a local cemetery. In this and in the instance of 'imparted information', the unsuspecting motorist subsequently makes contact with the family of a deceased person and finds that their sometime passenger fits the description of a family member killed in some unexpected way (usually a car accident) and that the driver's encounter with the vanishing hitchhiker occurred on the anniversary of their death.
Not all vanishing hitchhiker reports involved allegedly recurring ghosts. One popular variant in Hawaii involves the goddess Pele, travelling the roads incognito and rewarding kind travellers.
Another variant found in on the East African Coast where the local Bantu culture is heavily influenced by Arab Muslim culture involves paranormal beings called "djinni" (English genies). The story typically takes the form of a beautiful girl who is picked up by cross country truckers who are looking for some way to stay awake on their long journeys. At some point the truck driver will look over at his beautiful passenger and discover to his horror that she has goat's legs - like the god of mischief Pan. At this point the girl or djinni laughs and disappears, although in the worst case scenario, the driver is so shocked that he causes the truck to crash, which was the original intention of the djinni.
Other variants include prophetic hitchhikers who utter prophecies (typically of pending catastrophe or other evils) before vanishing.
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 analyse them.
The Beardsley-Hankey survey elicited 79 written accounts of encounters with vanishing hitchhikers, drawn from across America.
They found: "Four distinctly different versions, distinguishable because of obvious differences in development and essence."
These are described as:
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 localised 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 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 travelling bag in the car.)"
Baughman's classification system grades this basic story as motif E318.104.22.168.
Here, the phenomenon blends into religious encounters, with the next and last vanishing hitchhiker classification - E322.214.171.124 - 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.