The Phantom Hitch-hiker on Public Transport

Michael Goss
Magonia 22, May 1986

Just when you thought it was safe to bring your car out of the garage ... the Phantom Hitch-hiker is back on the road again. And this footloose, footweary spectral traveller of the world's highways is still going through the timeless routine of hitching rides from unsuspecting motorists - by preference friends of the narrator's friends - and vanishing with the same spectral ease that foaf-lorists everywhere have come to expect.
So blasé has this repetition left us that yet another article on the theme may leave us close to the proverbial feat of supplying fossil fuel to Newcastle; yet there is one aspect of the Hitch-hiker which merits a moments pause. For in the constant effort to modernise, to keep pace with fresh travel developments and opportunities, he/she/it has learned to use public transport.

Hitch-hiker legends are still handled according to the model promoted by Richard K. Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey, whose California Folklore Quarterly paper not only brought the wide distribution of this itinerant road ghost to the attention of other collectors, but also brought it to heel – in the sense that the four main versions of the legend defined by them provided a workable means of classifying each fresh example as it occurred [1]. (For readers new to the game, these variants were:
  • Version A – the Hitch-Hiker identified as the spirit of a deceased road accident victim who haunts the scene of her demise and usually on the anniversary of that terminal event;
  • Version B – the Hitch-Hiker, who may well be an old woman or a nun, vanishes after uttering some sort of prophecy;
  • Version C – another deceased girl, often encountered at a dance or bar, who borrows some article of clothing from the ‘witness’ which he later retrieves from her grave;
  • Version D – the Hitch-Hiker is a deity, e.g. the Hawaiian goddess Pele.
The popularity and logicality of this classification scheme doesn’t prevent researchers from realigning material to demonstrate other common patterns or submotifs, however. As just hinted, a new or newish category looks at the way in which the Hitch-Hiker eschews the normal privately-owned vehicle and boards a public one – a bus or taxi.

Unless ghosts are endowed with either a spiritual indemnity from fare paying or a spectral season ticket, these excursions on public transport seem to imply that, technically speaking, the beings concerned are not true hitch-hikers. The whole point of thumbing a ride, as many would agree, is that you aren’t going to pay for it; whereas these ghost appear quite willing (again, technically speaking) to conform to custom by handing over their cash. In practise, as we are about to discover, they frequently find ways to avoid this expense – ways that would leave human free-riders dumb with envy, if not with disbelief.

Additionally, folklorists perceive too many points of uniformity between these yarns and the more typical Hitch-Hikers to allow the motif to set up as an independent story. Rather, the Phantom Hitch-Hiker on Public Transport is a variant form and moreover one which could have been predicted. the virility, relevance and continued popularity of the tale as a whole depends on its ability to update certain details, one technique of which is to portray the Hitch-Hiker travelling by means of the most common (and credible) kind of transport pertaining to the age and culture against which the story is set. Hence, the bus or taxi is a perfectly legitimate ploy.

I was reminded of this thanks to a cutting from the Sunday Express of 16th February 1986 (p.2) forwarded to me by Bob Rickard of Fortean Times. Now the Sunday Express has a decided fondness for the Hitch-Hiker, chronicling his or her latest stopping-off points wheresoever on the globe they may occur; in the space of just seven weeks in 1979, for example, it gave us two near-classic specimens: the adventure of Roy Fulton outside Dunstable being upstaged by motorcycle cop Mahmood Ali’s confrontation with the vengeful spirit of the beautiful Nessera Begum at Peshawar, Pakistan. Contin-uing its tradition of picking up more Hitch-Hikers than are dreamed of by the average foaflorist (or motorist), the Express now had this little gem to unleash on its readers:
Taiper: A Taiwan bus company near Tainan, 200 miles south of Taipei, has been forced to cancel the evening run to an isolated village because of a ghost. Passing through tall, shadowy, sugarcane fields, the driver picked up a young girl passenger, but by the time the bus journey ended the girl had vanished. The company’s other frightened drivers insisted a Taoist priest exorcise the haunted vehicle before it was used again.
Connoisseurs of the Phantom will relish this latest addition to the canon. Not only because it is always pleasant to be able to mark up a new locale among the already diverse settings registered for the story, but because it has certain elements which, without being absolutely unique, help it to escape the overall stereotyping that usually accompanies the Hitch-Hiker narrative. The careful, slightly artificial scene-setting –‘an isolated village… tall, shadowy sugar cane fields’ – creates a sort of ‘Orientalised Gothic’ effect which subsumes claustrophobia and menace; unlike most Hitch-Hiker venues in, say, the United States or Britain, the incidents is placed away from crowded civilisation in the night-time haunts of all imagin-able kinds of inhuman forces and beings. Malaysian stories are also rich in ‘wilderness’ settings; a lonely strip of road through dense forest is the most likely place for a driver to be thumbed down by a Hitch-Hiker.. .and she may easily turn out to be a langsuyar or vampire spirit. The final note about the Taoist exorcism is another nice orientalizing touch.

But the very fact that the ghost has created work for Taoist exorcists is a clue to the fact that the Hitch-Hiker has taken on a fresh role: it is now an agent of localised hysteria. Formerly its impact was confined to one person, namely the motorist-hero who stops for the girl at the roadside. The shock element, the hero’s realisation that she is no girl at all but a supernatural being, may be implicit in these more typical stories – we would naturally expect the hero to be ‘shaken up’, even if the narrator omits to inform us of as much – or overt, as when we hear that he took to his bed soon afterwards with a high fever, went insane, died… or all three. (A common fate for victims in Beardsley and Hankey’s Version C tales, incidentally, and virtually inescapable if you meet a lang-suyar.)

But that is the personal fate of a single person; the Hitch-Hiker presents no threat to the community en masse. The Taiwanese case is one of several recent stories to depart from this comfortable ethos. Here we read of a fear that severs a [vital?] communications link between Tainan and the ‘isolated village’ once night descends: a situation which conjures forth Jim Corbett’s remarks about the siege-mentality that grip-ped Indian jungle settlements when a man-eating tiger was on the prowl.

The malevolent, disruptive influence of the ghost seems to me a fairly modern or novel feature of Hitch-Hiker stories. It has surfaced a few times in European examples, usually taking the form of some statement suggesting that a species of localised hysteria is rife, corroborated by allegations that motorists have been panicked into acts of dangerous driving. At Griefnau, Germany in 1973, a police chief was said to have imposed a ban (and £200 fine) on spreading the story of an ominous old lady in black – one of the prophecy-and-vanish school – who made one witness almost swerve into an approaching vehicle and terrified parents into keeping their children off the road regardless of whether it was night or day.

Better still, the young male Hitch-Hiker whose prophetic powers were limited to an announcement of the Second Coming allegedly inspired drivers at Ekenassjon, southern Sweden to “speed down the road without stopping for traffic signals, police said. Or they go miles out of their way to avoid what they call the ghost’s favourite cross-roads for hitching a lift”. (Guardian 31 October 1980, but papers from the USA to Japan carried the same story, presumably as a Hallowe’en filler). It will be intriguing to see if this submotif of Hitch-Hiker Menaces Community – always a remote community, notice: – undergoes any further development.

The Taiwanese Hitch-Hiker’s trend towards public transport cannot be seen as a totally modernist or modernizing piece of innovation. In their original 1942 paper Beardsley and Hankey give an undated version from Du Quoin, Illinois where two lads bringing a bus from one town to another through a rain-storm stop to pick up a girl in white; she vanishes routinely after letting slip her address which they subsequently visit (also routinely) to learn that she has been killed in a car-crash four years previous. (In fact the bus is about the only original feature in this yarn). More ingenious is the tale sent to me by Paul Screeton in response to my appeal for Hitch-Hiker material a few years back [2].
The girl-ghost flagged down a United bus driven by a Mr Weatherall at a place called Pittington End near Haswell Plough, Co. Durham, requesting to be dropped at Sherburn Hill and apologising for the fact that she’d no money to pay her fare. Mr Weatherall reasoned that the young lady had been “put out” of a car (by a frustrated boyfriend?) and took pity on her penniless plight – a charitable act ill-repaid, when he found the passenger had vacated the moving bus. Not surprisingly the terrified man was glad when other people got on shortly afterwards. It’s interesting to read that although the witness claimed to have heard a story about a girl who had died in a tragic accident in this area, the police could not confirm the rumour… nor for that matter, had they previously heard anything about this Phantom Hitch-Hiker.
Another ghostly passenger who travels free of charge is an old lady dressed in a dark grey cloak: an apparition seemingly less place-bound than the average spectre, according to Jack Hallam’s description of her activities [3]. Perhaps bored with her perambulations around the ruins of Oxney Court overlooking St Margaret’s Bay near Dover, she has been known to venture out onto the Deal road where she was once picked up by a double-decker. In a novel variant upon the mundane techniques of fare-evasion, she went upstairs and vanished before the conductor could collect her money. But in the next specimen the phantom spurns such paltry behaviour; she vanishes, of course, but not before handing over her fare which (as Steve Moore pondered when passing the relevant clipping on to me) may disappoint tourists.

In a novel variant upon the mundane techniques
of fare-evasion, she went upstairs and vanished before the conductor could collect her money

This short item is from Singapore’s Straits Times of 22nd May 1956 and another example of Hiker Hysteria. Malay women in Kampong Mahmudiah and Jalan Mariamah (Johore Bahru) are supposed to have cultivated the habit of locking their doors every evening at 7 p.m. for fear of a supposed ghost, a very beautiful female who used strong perfume. She was seen (and very likely smelled) boarding a bus from the town centre, buying a ticket, taking a seat… but somewhere near the Malay graveyard en route for Kampong Mahmudiah she disappeared.

Eastern stories are highly prone to mentioning graveyards as Hitch-Hiker embarkation or disembarkation points – a rather theatrical element which is meant to arouse the readers’/listeners’ sense of unease and prepare him for the supernatural denoument – and generally assigned to the ‘C’ variants of Beardsley and Hankey. Police spokesmen, whom folklorists regard as ‘authority figures’ invoked to inject a specious credibility into urban legends are apparently available in Eastern climes also, but the quoted comments which end the article make it plain that there was no official cognisance of these disturbances.

The reference to a perfumed, vanishing spectre brings to mind a Malaysian case testified to by Weekend reader Cedric Davidson-Acres, who claimed to have encountered his silent, frangipani-scented and needless to add disappearing Hitch-Hiker amidst the forested roads to Kedah Bridge [4].

But when the Phantom Hitch-Hiker travels by public transport, it is more usually by taxi. Ignoring citations of taxi drivers duped by Gary (Indiana’s) celebrated Cline Avenue Ghost [5], early cases include Beardsley and Hankey’s two prophetic nuns-in-cabs (Case 18: Chicago 1941; Case 19: San Francisco 1942), both of whom were ‘identified’ when dropped at their respective convents; in the SF version the driver identifies his erstwhile passenger from a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary (“After the sister explained the identity of the statue, he went to the police-station to check his sanity”. Where else would you go to check your sanity?).

The same folklorists’ Example 33 offers an undated Washington variant in which a deceased woman travels home by taxi every anniversary of her death – leaving her bereaved husband to answer the driver’s ring at the doorbell, relate the harrowing story… and pay the fare as well. in 1941 Haruo Aoki heard a similar tale from a Guntaku Cab Company employee, the scene this time being the Korean city of Kunsan [6]. The driver has to pick up a cashless girl at the municipal crematorium – hmm: suspicious in itself – and takes her to a (named) hardware store, into which she goes on the understanding that she will reappear shortly with the fare for her trip. “Because Mr Shimo had kept a store at the same locality for many years and was a respected citizen, the driver waited outside without any misgivings”. . . until his patience frays at the girl’s failure to come back. On knocking at the door the hero suffers the doom of a typical Version C witness: there is a sob-story from the bereaved mother and the identification of the absconded fare from a picture of the deceased upon the wall. Oh yes, and the driver dies (of shock?) not long afterwards.

The inference is that the Kunsan story was an American import to Korea and this may also account for the ‘Nightwalker of Nago’, another taxi hailing Hitch-Hiker represented in a spate of cabbie stories from around Neha, Okinawa in the early 1960s [7]. The Nightwalker, a woman in her twenties, with close-cropped hair and black slacks, always appeared on a mountain road between the US Marines’ Camp Schwab and the fishing village of Nago, to which she asked to be taken. According to several taxi-drivers (who are, for once, named) she said nothing else before vanishing in the approved mysterious manner.

As such it is one of those oddly truncated Hitch-Hiker stories in which the phantom simply appears and then disappears – a purposeless procedure which is anathema to her folklore relatives, who value their identity enough to give drivers sufficient clues like addresses for them to discover it in due course. There is no indication of her motive beyond that: no connection with a tragic accident, no identification-data and, unfortunately, no hint that the researcher tried to challenge the assumption that the tale was more than another piece of relocated folklore.

It seems a shabby trick to play on an elderly trishaw-man,
who could hardly offer the charred bits of paper in payment
for his cup of tea.

On a more comic level is another Malaysian example courtesy of Steve Moore and Bob Rickard yet again [8]. Before the scented ghost of Johore Bahru had time to leave footprints (or tyre-marks) a 64-year-old ‘driver’ named Lam Huat of Kuala Kangsar was entering into a financial transaction of a very unfruitful kind with a lovely young woman who wanted to be taken to a spot near the – wait for it. – Hokkien cemetery, to which end she hoped to hire his trishaw; an ethnic equivalent of the taxis we have been considering. Lam, who’d been sitting on the kerb wishing he had just a few cents for a cup of tea, didn’t think it odd that the girl weighed so little and when the mile-long journey to the cemetery gate was over he gladly pocketed the two dollar-notes she gave to him. Pedalling back to town scarce able to believe his luck, old Lam examined the cash. Horror of horrors – shades of faerie gold – the two notes were burnt scraps of paper, crumbled ashes: The Straits Times reporter observed that Lam trembled as he displayed them.

Perhaps he should have expected nothing better, since Steve Moore pointed out to me that the burned paper obviously demonstrates that the ghost had paid Lam in ‘spirit money’, or cash burnt at some Eastern funeral rites to make it serviceable for the dead. Even so, it seems a shabby trick to play on an elderly trishaw-man, who could hardly offer the charred bits of paper in payment for his cup of tea.

A great part of the Hitch-Hiker’s charm is the way in which each reworking of the story is told in a charmingly artless way which suggests that nothing like it has ever been spoken nor heard anywhere, anytime before. Let’s close with a ‘Report from the Readers’ contribution in Fate, December 1983, which possesses this endearing quality. The Fate reader was Swarnakamal Bhattacharyya of Parangas, West Bengal and the narrative which he found in a local paper dated 21 April for the preceding year is my first clue that the Phantom Hitch-Hiker has thumbed a ride as far as India.

The Hiker – this time a tall, robust man in khaki uniform – was wont to hail a taxi after midnight and occupy the back seat, from whence he whispered to the driver, “Nothing to fear”. Which was extremely debatable, since the moment that the taxi slowed to round a bend near the Calcutta Racecourse the man at the wheel would notice the backdoor opening “and the phantom would slip out and disappear” (Why? He could have vanished just as easily and more spectacularly from where he was. Why did he need to alight before doing it? Oh, never mind).

Detectives [sic] didn’t wax enthusiastic when they received the first report of the kind; it was only when ‘two or three’ other taxi-drivers complained of identical-sounding misadventures that they took to the trail and for lack of clues among the living ‘shifted their attention to the land of the dead’. It was recalled by ‘an old experienced officer’ that an Inspector of Armed Police had been killed on the spot where the ghost was reported to wait for a lift and, wonder of wonders, his description tallied with that reassuring cab-hailer.At this juncture the writer refers to the Hindu tradition that the souls of accident fatalities ‘suffer terribly in the other world and the detective recommended the performance of religious rites to ensure the salvation of the afflicted soul’. Would that our police…

So far Swarnakamal Bhattacharyya had done a good job in telling a quite conventional Hitch-Hiker story with a sprinkling of improvisations – the driver’s observation of the cab door opening is unusual, although there is something like it in one of the Uniondale, South Africa tales. But his conclusion showed a nice disregard for folklore tenets, where hitch-Hiker victims are traditionally anonymous and not available for further comment: he flourished a named person who had well and truly met the apparition and was prepared to talk about it. Or rather, he nearly succeeded in doing so

In reality, taxi-driver Ali of Behala, Calcutta could only presume or assume that the figure he’d seen at the haunted spot in 1975 was the Hitch-Hiker everyone was talking about in 1982. It did not attempt to stop his cab and for all we know he may not have been any kind of phantom whatsoever. Still, he had been asked if he’d ever seen one ‘on this or any other road’ and… well, the Figure was the best he could do by way of a positive answer.

No man is a hero to his valet, nor most likely to his wife – especially when he starts rambling on about road-ghosts he has met. Ali’s spouse responded to his confidences with a rebuke and a critical query as to whether he’d been drinking. “‘Believe me”, vouched the man who almost picked up a phantom Hitch-Hiker. “I had not touched a drop – but without saying a word, she poured cold water on my head”‘.Serve him right. Phantom Hitch-Hikers should be seen and not heard – unless you are a folklorist, when the reverse applies. Or something like that.

References for the Curious:
  1. BEARDSLEY and HANKEY, ‘The Vanishing Hitch-Hiker’, California Folklore Quarterly 1:4 (October 1942) pp. 303 ff.
  2. SCREETON, Paul. ‘Tales of Phantom hitch-hikers’ The Mail (Hartlepool) 31 Oct. 80.
  3. HALLAM, Jack, The Ghost Tour, London, 1977.
  4. ‘Mystery of the Beautiful Hitch-Hiker’ Weekend, 29 Nov. 1978.
  5. GEORGE, Philip Brandt, ‘The Ghost of Cline Avenue’, Indiana Folklore V:1 (1972), pp. 56 ff.
  6. HARUO AOKI, ‘A Hitchhiking Ghost in Korea’, Western Folklore, XIII (1954), pp. 280
  7. ‘The Phantom Hitchhiker of Okinawa’, Fate, July 1961.
  8. 'Old Lam felt for the cash and shivered – he’d carried a ghost’, Straits Times (Singapore) 2 May 1956. [They don't run titles like that in our papers, do they?]