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Male Neuroses in the Vanishing Hitchhiker Legend

Male Neuroses in the Vanishing Hitchhiker Legend

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Published by andrewcul2698
An examination of the old urban legend. This is an important essay for me personally, because I wrote it shortly before getting engaged to my wife. I think by writing this I realized that I did, in fact, want to have a wife to spend my life with, despite years of bachelorhood and telling myself I never wanted marriage.
An examination of the old urban legend. This is an important essay for me personally, because I wrote it shortly before getting engaged to my wife. I think by writing this I realized that I did, in fact, want to have a wife to spend my life with, despite years of bachelorhood and telling myself I never wanted marriage.

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Published by: andrewcul2698 on Feb 26, 2010
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Male Neuroses in the Vanishing Hitchhiker Legend
The Vanishing Hitchiker legend has become so pervasive that it has earned a place inThompson’s Motif Index, categorized under E332.3.3.1. Yet if we look at contrasting versions of the story as collected in Ainsworth’s
 Folktales of America
we find a remarkable difference of meanings in the stories. Depending on the region of the country, there is an apparently limitlesssupply of variations from the anonymous informants. The stories appear to have specific details,as in the names of the parties involved, the locations they occurred, and how the hitchhiker died.Interestingly, though, these stories all contain instances of a man picking up a female hitchhiker who turns out to be a ghost. Two of these tales will be contrasted, with the hope of showing thatunderlying these stories is a deep reserve of male anxiety towards women in all their roles– mother, sexual partner, wife, and everything in between.Clarissa Estes, in her book “Women Who Run With the Wolves”, discusses theimportance of the “wild woman” character as she appears in myth and folklore in variouscultures. She is called variously the “woman who lives at the edge of the world” or the “womanwho lives at the end of time.” (9) The female ghost, wandering on the road, seems to be aquintessential embodiment of this archetype. According to Estes, the wild woman is “both friendand mother to all those who have lost their way, all those who need a learning, all those whohave a riddle to solve, all those out in the forest or the desert wandering and searching.” (9) She points out that the wild woman is an archetype representing an undomesticated female force of nature, and that she “engenders every important facet of womanliness.” (9)This “wild woman” character is one of utmost importance to women, who need thearchetype to attain full womanhood. “Without her, women are without ears to hear her soultalk or to register the chiming of their own inner rhythms. Without her, women’s inner eyes areclosed by some shadowy hand, and large parts of their days are spent in a semi-paralyzing ennui
 
or else wishful thinking.” (9) This wild woman, a symbol of nature, is shown to be a force of vitality to women, and a kind of social empowerment. While this analysis is undoubtedly helpfulto women, it ignores the complex role these archetypes play in the minds of men. For the male psyche the wild woman represents a dangerous distraction from his role as husband and father.In our first tale, “The White Woman” (see appendix), a tale is told of a mountain inPennsylvania where the locals know not to pick up hitchhikers. However, truck drivers passingthrough who don’t know the local legend don’t think twice before picking up a woman dressedin white waiting for a ride. When they get to the bottom of the mountain the woman disappears.Apparently the woman died while searching for her son, who had disappeared on the mountainlong ago. She wanders the mountain for eternity, never giving up the search. Ominously theteller ends the story with the sentence “And she still looks for him every night.” The mother’slove is eternal.The fact that a truck driver, the symbol of a grown man, is usually the person who picksher up, carries weight. We associate truck drivers with a class of men that are about as manly asyou can get in our culture, and yet as lonely as one can imagine. They are carriers of goodsacross hundreds and hundreds of miles of terrain, driving with little sleep and littlecompanionship, far from their families, if they have them. But this story reveals hidden needs of even the “manliest” of men. If we look at the characters as elements of one family dynamic it becomes obvious what this story means for men. The dead mother is the truck driver’s ownmother, and the lost child is the child he once was. The fact that the white woman is forever searching for her lost son touches on a sense of guilt all men have about their mothers – we hadto leave them, the first woman we ever loved, the woman who gave us life. All boys at sometime must leave their mothers in order to choose a mate. The biological necessity of this actdoesn’t assuage the guilt that lays dormant in men’s minds even into adulthood. Beneath this
 
guilt is the fear of the passage of time, the knowledge of aging, and the mystery of separatedidentities. The dead child, lost in the mountain, is not the same person as the trucker, but hisghost is always somewhere deep within the trucker. How much of the boy survives, and howmuch is dead? And will we ever forgive ourselves for leaving our mothers? These are thequestions raised by the encounter of the trucker with the white woman.In “Lavender,” we are told of a poor, sexually promiscuous girl in a small farmingcommunity named Melissa. She goes to a church social, apparently for the town’s upper class,and is given a lavender dress as an act of charity. She is seen around town wearing nothing butthe dress from that point on. One winter night she freezes to death because all she is wearing isthe dress. If we stop here, we already have plenty of implicit messages for young girls: don’tventure outside of your social class; wear modest clothing; don’t go around at night alone withfew clothes on; be wary of accepting charity. A feminist critic could get pages worth of implications from this cautionary tale of a young woman who didn’t follow society’s rules. Butthe tale goes on – years later some college students pick her up and offer her their jacket to givesome warmth. The girl wants a ride to the dance, so they all go together. After the dance theydrive the girl home, and go back several days later to get the jacket. The old woman who livesthere says, to their horror, that the girl has been dead for ten years. When they go to her gravestone they find the jacket lying on the ground.The girl’s transgressions have an obvious message for girls to stay in their social class,and to refrain from being promiscuous. But more interesting is what she means to the collegestudents who pick her up. These young men are apparently out looking for a good time, and sheis available, scantily dressed and helpless on the highway. What she represents for these youngmen struggling to find an adult sexual identity is the power of sexual attraction and the distrustmen feel towards their own sexual impulses. The fear of impregnating a woman, the fear of a

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