Some people who read the James Dean article remembered this from a while back and asked me to repost it…
Urban legends spread because they touch the universal in our human nature. They tell us our worst fears are true and the thing that we do not want to happen will occur when we least expect it. We relate to it and tell it to someone else because there is that cringe factor when we hear it. The more realistic the legend, the more we say know it could happen to us. We never think an alligator is going to climb out of the toilet, but we still check before sitting down. They attack us where we eat and sleep. They attack us in our most vulnerable moments and in the places where we spend our time and know that while everything might feel safe, it could flip on us at any moment.
It is no surprise then that there are so many urban legends involving our cars. To most of us, the machine is where we spend hours in traffic, sitting within tons of steel and glass, protected by a four inch wide piece if nylon. To others, the car represents freedom and independence. Cars seem to be at the center of what it means to be American and as we have grown as a country, our cars have become more a part of our lives. They are our identity.
Cars can be scary as well. Before you leave the driveway you need to have insurance because chances are something bad is going to happen to you. Once inside you are at the mercy of every other person on the road, most of whom you would not speak to if trapped inside a locked room with. If you survive all of this, there are still the ghost hitchhikers, escaped criminals and mental patients and the person waiting under your car to slash your ankles as you turn the key.
Some of the legends are harmless and tell us more about our sense of greed or our tendency to overreact. There is the legend of the man who buys the expensive sports car for a cheap price only to find he cannot get the smell of a person who died out. Another great deal is found when a scorned wife is asked by her cheating husband to sell his car before he gets back into the area with his mistress. One man, thinking his wife is having an affair because of the beautiful car in his driveway, fills the car with cement before he can be told the car is his, a present from his wife.
Others hint at the fear we feel in the car and our distrust of people. The woman parked in the car with her boyfriend can either drive off before the man in the hook opens the door or find her love hanging from a tree above her, his feet scraping the roof. Chances are there is someone in your backseat, but you’ll only find him if you trust the person in the car behind you flashing their lights. Chances are if you flash your lights at the car passing you to warm them their lights are not on, gang members will turn that car around and kill you.
These legends work because they take a situation we always find ourselves in and make the unthinkable possible. Sometimes, however, the myth touches us because it forces us to come in contact with something outside of the everyday.
Ghosts are on the road with us.
Some drive behind us and others walk the sides of the street. They blur the line between legend and a genuine haunting and are so familiar to us we feel they have to be true and accept them as fact rather than fiction. While the ghostly hitchhiker is the most famous of the road ghosts, there are two others that tell us we are not alone as we coast down the pavement late at night.
The first is the more well know of the two and might be as popular as the hitchhiker. A few years ago a bus loaded with children stalled on train tracks, leaving them defenseless against the oncoming train. The driver and his passengers all died, but they have returned to make sure no other souls share their fate. On these same tracks any stalled car will be pushed to safety by unseen hands. People, not believing the tale, have driven to the crossing, turned off their cars and mysteriously found themselves out of harms way. Sometimes the laughing of children can be heard, and the story often continues with people putting baby powder or flour on their bumper only to see small handprints when they investigate later.
Chances are you have heard the story before. The original event was said to have happened in Texas, usually outside of San Antonio, but most people have heard a version coming from their own backyard. The story seems believable because we want it to be true. It has all the elements of a good ghost story. We would never want to think of small children dying, but if they have to, we are comforted by the fact they become guardian angels. The urban legend takes one of our worse fears, leaving your child in the hands of a stranger to get safely to school, and twists it by making their death an uplifting lesson about the power of spirits.
The story is completely false. While most people believe it has happened in their town, there was only one such traceable tragedy in 1938. It continues to be told because we want it to be true, but also because there are some very true aspects of the story. Many roads have an odd optical illusion that makes it appear to go uphill when in fact there is a slight decline. Some of these roads are near intersections with tracks, so people who stop and place their cars in neural find themselves going uphill. They believe something is pushing them, but in fact they are traveling downhill. The other aspect has more to do with crime scene investigators than paranormal investigators. Our cars may seem clean, but there are always smudges we do not see with the naked eye. Placing flour on your car brings makes these mark visible, like dusting for fingerprints, and many can seem like small handprints, especially if you car is exposed to children.
No matter what evidence might be out there, people still believe. They know someone who remembers the tragedy and they have even tried it themselves. No one can ever remember the year it happened or knows someone who died on the tracks, but they know it has to be true.
The second is seen by many paranormal investigators as a true haunting when they first hear it. It is not as widely told as some other urban legends, so most slip into the trap of falling in love with the story before they can verify the facts. However, when the same haunting happens in many locations all across the country, it has to start being seen as more than meets the eye.
The story starts once again with the death of a child, usually a young boy. While playing near the road, the child is hit by a car, almost always said to be a drunk driver, and killed. The parents, or maybe the community, create some kind of memorial for him. The site of his demise is covered with signs, a cross or teddy bears. The ghost of the child then becomes like the ghost hitchhiker, appearing in cars or seen playing on the side of the road.
If this was where the story ended, an investigator might be able to find a legitimate haunting. There is another ghost seen, however, in connection with the little boy. In almost every report, there is also a ghost car that follows people in the same area. The phantom vehicle come from behind, often honking at the observer or flashing their lights. The car disappears going around the next turn. Most believe the car to be the one that killed the child. The psychic impression of the violent demise is trapped on the road and is forced for some reason to replay itself.
In Massachusetts, there is the tale of Rockadundee Road in Hampden. In this legend a boy was killed by a drunk driver and his parents, in their grief, built a gazebo as a memorial. The boy is seen playing in the structure or nearby. The story goes on that a group of teenagers suffered a mysterious death while jumping on the gazebo as part of a dare. A haunted tailgater is seen in the area and has been reported to run people off the road.
Other states report similar hauntings. In Idaho, the little boy is remembered by a stuffed bear in a tree. His ghost is seen in the same tree, and on some nights a car with one light out will bump you if you stop to observe the stuffed animal. In Maryland, the boy is seen crying at a cross bearing his name before walking into the woods. Again, a car is seen and disappears.
Like the legend of the little ghost helpers, there are very few people that actually experience the haunting. More have heard the story in their neighborhood or might have experienced one of the two and is told of the other. There are other elements of the story that force an investigator to lean towards a new urban legend.
The haunting seems too good to be true and involves a situation too familiar to not connect with the majority of people. We have all seen the memorials on the side of the road and wondered what the back story is. When the deceased is a child we become even more empathetic and more likely to believe the story. We feel for the little boy unable to find peace.
There are usually contradictions or inconsistencies involved in the story. The driver is said to be drunk and never caught. There is also the fact that no one ever reports of seeing both ghosts. The stories are always retold as, “I saw this and I was told this is the reason why and there is this other ghost…” The teller fills in the holes, making the story more exciting. Most importantly, the same haunting is told and told again in different towns around the country.
The lack of provable facts, the perfect design of the story and the multiple locations experiencing the same action make this story feel more like a new emerging urban legend. Like most urban legends, there is probably a true ghost at the heart of the myth, but time has changed it to something different. What might have been a private truth now belongs to us all.
Urban legends change and evolve to allow them to continue to relate. They are always current because we have the same fears and anxieties generation after generation. They wear different clothes, but they boil down to the same theme, playing over and over again. Ghosts have the same ability to connect with modern reader. At the intersection of that common ground are those ghostly urban legends we continue to read and listen to. As long as we have to drive late at night on a dark deserted road our minds will always wander to those tales we are told that seem silly by day and inevitable by the light of the moon. Like the ghostly hitchhiker, we allow them in only to watch the truth behind them slowly fade when we try to take a second look.