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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 in

Thompson’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 limitless

supply 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 that

underlying 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 the

importance of the “wild woman” character as she appears in myth and folklore in various

cultures. She is called variously the “woman who lives at the edge of the world” or the “woman

who lives at the end of time.” (9) The female ghost, wandering on the road, seems to be a

quintessential embodiment of this archetype. According to Estes, the wild woman is “both friend

and mother to all those who have lost their way, all those who need a learning, all those who

have 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 the

archetype 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 are

closed 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 helpful

to 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 in

Pennsylvania where the locals know not to pick up hitchhikers. However, truck drivers passing

through who don’t know the local legend don’t think twice before picking up a woman dressed

in 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 mountain

long ago. She wanders the mountain for eternity, never giving up the search. Ominously the

teller ends the story with the sentence “And she still looks for him every night.” The mother’s

love is eternal.

The fact that a truck driver, the symbol of a grown man, is usually the person who picks

her up, carries weight. We associate truck drivers with a class of men that are about as manly as

you can get in our culture, and yet as lonely as one can imagine. They are carriers of goods

across hundreds and hundreds of miles of terrain, driving with little sleep and little

companionship, 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 own

mother, 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 had

to leave them, the first woman we ever loved, the woman who gave us life. All boys at some

time must leave their mothers in order to choose a mate. The biological necessity of this act

doesn’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 separated

identities. The dead child, lost in the mountain, is not the same person as the trucker, but his

ghost is always somewhere deep within the trucker. How much of the boy survives, and how

much is dead? And will we ever forgive ourselves for leaving our mothers? These are the

questions 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 farming

community 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 but

the dress from that point on. One winter night she freezes to death because all she is wearing is

the dress. If we stop here, we already have plenty of implicit messages for young girls: don’t

venture outside of your social class; wear modest clothing; don’t go around at night alone with

few 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. But

the tale goes on – years later some college students pick her up and offer her their jacket to give

some warmth. The girl wants a ride to the dance, so they all go together. After the dance they

drive the girl home, and go back several days later to get the jacket. The old woman who lives

there 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 college

students who pick her up. These young men are apparently out looking for a good time, and she

is available, scantily dressed and helpless on the highway. What she represents for these young

men struggling to find an adult sexual identity is the power of sexual attraction and the distrust

men feel towards their own sexual impulses. The fear of impregnating a woman, the fear of a
sexually transmitted disease, and more deeply, the knowledge of death is what Melissa embodies

to men. This takes us back to the Adam and Eve story and to the identification of sex with the

procreation urge, which only exists because we are mortal. Here, sex and death are irrevocably


The White Woman reminds men of their origins and the painful transition from the role

of son to the role of man and husband. While this story is essentially one of the past, and its

anxieties are centered around guilt and nostalgia, the “Lavender” story is one of the future and

the anxieties of finding a mate. The lesson for men is not to fall for the amoral, helpless and

promiscuous girls, because they are, in a way, doomed for their transgressions. The lesson is also

for a man not to go beneath his social group. The young men who pick up Melissa are college

students who have no business dealing with a poor farming girl.

If we look at what these two women’s spirits have been doomed to do for eternity we

have an even more accurate assessment of what they represent to men. The white woman is

forever searching for her lost son, and Melissa is wandering the highway, looking for a ride to

the dance. The former image carries the weight of motherly love and sacrifice, while the latter

image is reminiscent of a prostitute, walking the cold streets at night wearing a skimpy dress.

Both of these images signify treachery for a man, in that they are comforting or seductive

distractions from what he must do: find a wife and beget children. The mother is forever begging

the man to return to the child-mother relationship and the prostitute wants a quick, anonymous

sexual encounter. Men have both of these desires innate in their personalities, but must

constantly resist them in order to be a father and a husband.

While these two stories involve the well-known motif of the lost hitchhiker, they are

different in their regional details and their implications for men. Whether the stories survived

because of their morally proscriptive qualities or because they reflect an inherent neurosis in the
male psyche may be debated, but it is likely that the stories contain both elements. These tales

show that the kinds of stories that survive in our culture are ones that answer our deepest

questions, embody our deepest fears, or warn us against disaster. The question of what a man

must do in his life is constantly posed to men in our changing society, and these kinds of tales

serve to affirm some of our most basic values.

Works Cited

Ainsworth, Catherine Harris. “Folktales of America, Vol. 1.” Buffalo: The Clyde Press.


Estes, Clarissa Pinkola, “Women Who Run With Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild

Woman.” New York: Ballantine Books. 1992.