The Vanishing Hitchhiker

Vanishing Hitchhiker
M. Eric Honeycutt/Vetta/Getty Images

Also known as "The Ghost Hitchhiker," "The Phantom Hitchhiker" and "The Lady in White"

A newlywed couple, Nathan and Heather, were driving up the northern California coast to spend their dream honeymoon in a quaint bed-and-breakfast with a seaside view. They had hoped to arrive before dark, but a heavy fog had descended on Highway 1 and their progress was slow. They were at least an hour-an-a-half from their destination as night fell.
If you've ever driven that stretch of highway you know how tortuous it can be, with its narrow lanes and switchback curves. It was just as they were rounding one of those curves that they passed a solitary hitchhiker, a young woman in a wispy white dress standing on the shoulder with thumb outstretched.
"Good luck getting a ride on a night like this," muttered Nathan under his breath.
"Stop the car and turn around," said Heather. "Please, she's all alone. We have to give her a ride."
"We're two hours late."
Nathan pulled off the road and turned around. As they approached the girl from the opposite direction they could see her dress was in tatters. Her face was pale and gaunt.
"Can we give you a ride?" Heather asked as they pulled up beside her.
"Oh, thank you," said the young woman, who appeared to be in her late teens or early twenties. "I have to get home. My parents will be worried sick."
"Where do you live?" asked Nathan.
"Just down the road, about 10 miles," she said, climbing into the back seat. "There's an intersection with an abandoned gas station. Across from there. It's a white house with a rose garden. They're waiting for me."
As they made their way north again Heather attempted to make conversation, but the girl fell silent and slumped in the back seat, apparently asleep.
After about 15 minutes Nathan spotted a dilapidated service station.
"Is this it?" he asked. "Hey, is this the intersection?"
Heather turned to wake the young woman and caught her breath. "Nathan, she's gone."
'"What do you mean, 'she's gone'?" Nathan said, pulling into the driveway of the white house. "How can she be gone?"
She was right. The hitchhiker had vanished.
A light came on and two people, an elderly couple, stepped out onto the porch.
"Can we help you?" the man asked. He looked as though he dreaded hearing the answer.
"I don't know," Nathan began. "We were driving, and we picked up this hitchhiker, a girl."
"And she gave you this address," said the man, "and asked you to bring her home."
'Yes," said Heather.
"And then she was gone?" Heather nodded. "You aren't crazy," the man said. "And you're not the first. She was our daughter. Her name was Diane. She passed away seven years ago, killed by a hit-and-run driver on the highway. They never caught whoever did it. I guess her spirit won't rest until they do."
Nathan and Heather were speechless.
"Won't you come inside for coffee or tea?" said the woman. "You've had a shock. Some in and sit down."
"No. Thank you, but no. We're late," said Heather. "We have to get going."
After exchanging uncomfortable goodbyes, the newlyweds departed, as they had arrived, in stunned silence.


Thanks to the excesses of Hollywood, our expectations of ghost stories have come to include unrelenting violence and gore, but these were never integral to the genre. Ghost stories of old traded in the mysterious and the uncanny. They were about fleeting encounters between the living and the dead, the latter being portrayed as desperate souls stuck between life and the afterlife, unable to rest in peace. There's a fundamental melancholy to these stories, which are more apt to raise goosebumps than shrieks of terror.

"The Vanishing Hitchhiker" is a ghost story in the traditional mold. Jan Harold Brunvand, who literally wrote the book on this somber tale (The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, 1981), described it as "the most often collected and the most discussed contemporary legend of all." It was given a unique entry in Baughman's Type and Motif-Index of the Folktales of England and North America (1966 edition):

Ghost of young woman asks for ride in automobile, disappears from closed car without the driver's knowledge, after giving him 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 anniversary of death in automobile accident. Often, too, the ghost leave some item such as a scarf or a traveling bag in the car.)

Variants of "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" are told all over the world, each imbued with its own local color and details. In Chicago, the homesick ghost is known as Resurrection Mary and is said to haunt Resurrection Cemetery in nearby Justice, Illinois. In northern California she's known as the Niles Canyon Ghost (or White Witch of Niles Canyon); in Dallas, the Lady of White Rock Lake; in Spanish-speaking countries, she's often referred to as La Chica de la Curva.

The ghost grieves for the loss of her home and her parents; her parents grieve for her. Grief is a natural emotion, but here it's protracted because the lost loved one continually reappears. Is it a subtextual argument for the necessity of letting go? One could make such a case if this were a literary work, but it's not. It's folklore. In the absence of a sole authorial voice, the most we can say is that the story gives visceral expression to our feelings about that most vexing of human predicaments, mortality.