One of the most prevalent American ghost stories is that of the phantom hitchhiker. While these ghosts can be found the world over, they are most concentrated in the United States. These phantoms are rarely dangerous, but lead to some very creepy stories.
The way these ghosts usually appear is late at night or during bad weather. They are almost invariably young women, usually in torn, ragged clothing. She’s usually crying or otherwise in distress by the side of the road. The traveler, usually a man, stops to check on her. Sometimes she claims to be the victim of an accident, other times she has been assaulted by her boyfriend. The man offers her a ride, either home or to the nearest phone. There’s usually a bit of sleaze involved here, as the girl is very beautiful and the man is usually hoping she’ll be grateful for his help.
The man drives the girl to their destination. Often he offers his coat so she can warm up. She doesn’t talk much, or sometimes she gives her sad story of abuse and neglect. They get to their final location and as the man turns to check on the girl, she is gone. If she had his coat, it’s usually gone too. If he picked her up in bad weather, the seat is usually wet. What happens next depends on if the man was taking her home or to a phone or a police station. No matter which it is, the man goes to inquire about the girl, asking whomever is home or asking the police about the girl. The man is told that the girl died many years ago, usually right where he picked her up. A photo of the girl proves that the man did indeed encounter her ghost. Sometimes he goes and visits her grave, and if he gave her his coat, it’s there, draped over the headstone.
The most famous version of these stories is Chicago’s Resurrection Mary. Her real name is unknown, but the story goes that a young woman, Mary, was dancing at a hall in Justice, IL. She and her boyfriend had a falling out and she stormed off into the rainy night, intending to walk home. On the way, she was struck by a driver who drove off, leaving her to die by the side of the road. She was buried in Resurrection Cemetery in the same white dress and dancing shoes she’d worn that night. After her death, drivers reported a young female hitchhiker who would appear and ask for a ride. She would give an address, which would lead them to the cemetery. She would then get it, walk to the gates, and vanish. In the 1970s, there was a story of a woman in white appearing at the cemetery gates, begging to be let out. Instead of helping her, the driver who saw her called the police. They arrived and found that the bars of the cemetery gate were bent out, with clear hand prints on the bar. The cemetery had the bars repaired, and the burnt section where a blowtorch was used to restore them and remove the prints are still visible.
The phantom hitchhiker ghost stories became far more prevalent in the US in the 1960s and 70s, when the fad of hitchhiking swept the nation. Despite the dangers, many teens would hitch rides, and the image of a young person with their thumb stuck out became iconic. However, these stories date back much further, and they were actually quite common during World War II. Those stories often involve young women who seem to have prophetic visions of the end of the war. Also, stories of soldiers returning from the war, hitchhiking home, only to vanish when the driver gets to their door were also common. The driver would then learn that the soldier had died overseas.
In the 1970s there was another sort of phantom hitchhiker that became very prevalent – a phantom nun. The nun would appear by the side of the road, waiting patiently for a driver to stop. She would then speak to the driver about God, Christ, the second coming of Jesus, or sometimes about the end of the world. In one case, the hitchhiker was male, and in addition to his religious message, would give preditions of the weather, most of which turned out wrong.
Later in the 1980s an old, decrepit woman appeared in the state of Washington. She would warn drivers about Mount Saint Helens (after the eruption), claiming that the volcano was a sign of God’s wrath. The old woman appeared many times through the 80s, but despite twenty logged cases by the Tacoma Police, no one ever found her. The woman was described as being filthy and wearing torn, ashy clothing as if she had been in the eruption.
While stories of phantom hitchhikers have trailed off in recent years, they are still a staple of modern urban legends.