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by Jan Harold Brunvand
This is a true story...
A friend of a friend and his daughter were driving along a lonely country road at night and happened upon a female hitchhiker. The woman asked for a ride to her home just a few miles up the road. The travelers obliged and continued on with the woman riding silently in the backseat. As they approached their destination, the driver turned to inform the passenger they were arriving, only to discover she had vanished from the backseat without a trace! Thoroughly spooked, the travelers inquired at the house and learned that a woman matching the description of the hitchhiker had indeed once lived there, but died several years earlier in an automobile accident. Her ghost, they were told, was sometimes seen wandering beside the highway...
It's not really a true story, I confess, but it is a familiar one to people all over the world. There are as many versions as there are tellers of the tale, each prefaced with the claim that it really, truly happened. That is to say, it's a classic urban legend.
It's also the centerpiece of "The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings," Jan Harold Brunvand's debut volume popularizing contemporary folklore. Though it begat many fine sequels, "Hitchhiker" remains the single best introduction to the topic available for serious students and general readers alike.
Many of the best-known stories are here, rendered in all their variants, debunked, and plumbed for deeper meaning: "Alligators in the Sewers," "The Baby-sitter and the Man Upstairs," "The Spider in the Hairdo," "Kentucky Fried Rat," and more. Brunvand approaches the subject matter as a serious scholar, but recognizes and gives emphasis to the entertainment value of each of the tales themselves. The book offers chuckles and chills alongside thought-provoking commentary.
Most importantly, Brunvand demonstrates how urban legends fit into a continuum of storytelling extending back through the ages. The stories may be thoroughly modern in their particulars, but they dramatize timeless facets of human nature: our wishes, foibles, and fears. To understand the origins and meaning of living folklore is to better understand ourselves and the cultures in which we live.
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