Legend has it that travelers driving on Highway 365 in central Arkansas around Halloween sometimes encounter a young girl in a torn white dress—and when they offer to drive her home, things get really weird, really fast.
Once the woman is in their car, the driver drapes their coat over her shivering shoulders and sets off to the address she gives them. But when they get there, she vanishes into thin air. Puzzled, they knock on the door of the house; the person who answers tells the driver something like, “That girl is my daughter, who died many years ago. She hitchhikes back home around this time every year.” For some reason—perhaps to check if that story is indeed true—the driver goes to the cemetery to see her tombstone … where they find their jacket draped over the young girl’s grave.
In the latest episode of The List Show, host Erin McCarthy covers urban legends from all 50 states, ranging from classics like the vanishing hitchhiker to creepy cryptids, ghostly vehicles, deadly curses, and some stuff you’ve probably seen on Facebook.
But what exactly is an urban legend? According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “an often lurid story or anecdote that is based on hearsay and widely circulated as true”—which is why you often see the same types of urban legends popping up all over the place, with distinct local details providing flair.
Take our vanishing hitchhiker, for example: In Hawaii, that hitchhiker takes the form of Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, who is said to appear as an old woman walking along the road. She gladly accepts a ride—then vanishes from the backseat. In Pennsylvania, the hitchhiker is a man in white who once again disappears from the car when they reach his destination. (Sometimes the hitchhiker makes a prophetic statement before he goes poof.) In some places, the hitchhiker is combined with another urban legend—La Llorona, the spirit of a weeping woman who cries because she drowned her children—and in Utah, the tale is combined with the Mormon religion’s “Three Nephites.” Versions of the vanishing hitchhiker tale involving a car go back to the 1930s, but accounts including carriages, horses, and even two people taking a stroll date back as far as 1876 and appear in places as far flung as Russia and Korea.
According to folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand in his book The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, urban legends are essentially modern folklore, “realistic stories concerning recent events (or alleged events) with an ironic or supernatural twist. … They are a unique, unselfconscious reflection of major concerns of individuals in the societies in which the legends circulate” at the point in time when they’re told. Importantly, in addition to being spread through word of mouth, they’re often spread by the media.
Because of all of this, urban legends can be pretty repetitive, so although we do discuss some classics like the vanishing hitchhiker, we also tried to dig a little deeper for most of the stories we’re featuring in the episode, which you can watch here. Don’t forget to subscribe to Mental Floss on YouTube for new videos every week.