The vanishing hitchhiker of the title refers to a ghost story—or a story with any number of variations—that has been around at least since the 19th century but I heard as a kid as a “true story” that happened to “a friend of Bob’s from college.”
The friend of Bob’s from college was driving home with a friend after a party. They noticed a girl walking along the road by herself and offered her a ride home as the night was getting chilly. After some initial reluctance, she agreed and got into the back seat. She told them her name was Lavender. Bob’s friend gave her his overcoat to keep her warm. She asked to be let out by a cemetery, telling them she lived toward the back of it. After the guys let her out, Bob’s friend realized she’d taken his overcoat. They decided to come the next day and see if could find out where she lived—a girl with an odd name like that couldn’t be too hard to find—and get the coat back. The next day, they drove into the cemetery. Toward the back of it, they found Bob’s friend’s overcoat, neatly folded on top of grave in front of a tombstone engraved “Lavender.”
This book opens by discussing what urban legends are and what the folklorist’s role is in collecting them. The scholar does not try to debunk them per se, but the stories cannot be true in the sense that they all happened to so many people’s cousins, friends, grandmothers, etc., in so many different locations. He also says that tracking down the origin of these stories has generally fruitless.
Some years ago, a friend and I were discussing urban legends. I mentioned that the Mexican story of La Llorona, The Weeping Woman, bears some resemblance to a ghost story told about a family in upstate New York where I grew up.
My friend paused for a moment then said, “I know that story. It started in my hometown.” She knew the family of the woman who had, according to the story, drowned her children and herself. The people in the town were at one point so afraid of the ghost they begged the priest to bless the river. My friend saw something herself once, looking down from a footbridge over the river. The priest blessed the river, even though he insisted the ghost couldn’t hurt anyone. If anything, it was just a restless spirit.
This is how urban legends work, how (at least in the pre-internet days) they were kept alive by people who knew them to be true because they happened to a friend of a friend and are filled with enough detail to give them enough weight to make them believable.
Author Brunvand divides his exploration of urban myths by topic: Classic Automobile Legends; “The Hook” and Other Teenage horrors; Dreadful Contaminations; Purloined Corpses and the Fear of the Dead; Dalliance, Nudity and Nightmares; Business Rip-offs: and Two Favorite Media Legends. He further raises the question of why we like to tell each other these stories beyond the obvious reason that they’re good stories. The bad guy is always discomfited. Philanderers are embarrassed. Some offer ways to get back at what appear to be greedy businesses. Many involve ghosts. Some are warnings about the use of new technology such as the legends about the woman who put her poodle in the microwave to dry off. This was current while microwave ovens were still fairly new items in homes.
This is an enjoyable read, full of good stories, but Brunvald’s aim is a more than just to catalogue a bunch of good yarns. He’s successful in educating and entertaining the reader as well. This is a good read for anyone who likes a good story and would like to think a bit about them.