Do you remember last week when I asked you how you would feel to see that your backseat passenger has suddenly vanished? Would you like to find out? Close your eyes and let us step into this story together:
It has been a long week, and we want to unwind. We have decided that we are going to go on a drive on these old, winding dirt roads in the foothills of the Appalachians. It is a beautiful summer evening, and we are heading out with the intention of turning on any road that seems unfamiliar. We want to get lost. We want an adventure.
Within a couple of hours, darkness has fallen, and the weather, which was forecasted to be clear, has turned sinister. The sky opens up and gives forceful birth to rain drops so numerous and heavy that it isn’t long before the road is little more than a muddy path. The windshield wipers can hardly keep up with the downpour. We decide that it is best if we head home. This kind of rain doesn’t let up quickly, and flash floods are a concern around here. As we round a bend in the road, the headlights of our car fall upon a woman standing on the brim. She is drenched. She looks cold and lost and concerned. Without thought, we stop the car. Looking a bit relieved, she approaches the passenger window. She explains that the bridge ahead has just washed away--her fiancé and their vehicle with it. She refuses to let us call the police. She just needs a ride home.
We let her in the backseat. She tells us her address. She doesn’t live that far away, actually, but we have to take a longer route now that we know the bridge is out. You notice that she is cold, so you take off your jacket as I turn on the heat and the fan to the highest setting. She is fairly quiet—and why wouldn’t she be? She just survived a terrible accident, after all! Anyone would be in shock.
Right before we get to her drive, we hear a faint “Thank you.”
By the time we stop the car, she is gone. The backseat is empty but still wet. We never heard the door. The house is dark. Where did she go?
We get out of the car. The rain has not slowed, and we are soaked before we get to the front stoop. You notice that you are worse off than I as you recall that your jacket is with our mystery woman. The house looks old and abandoned, but we knock anyway. A light turns on upstairs and soon an older woman, head full of stark white hair, opens the door, just a crack. She peers at our faces and tells us to meet her at the back door. Confused but intrigued, we abide and head around the side yard to the back of the house. By the time we get there, we see her walking outside into the yard. We follow her until she reaches a solitary headstone at the edge of the property. It is here that we see your jacket for the first time since you handed it to the mystery woman. It is folded neatly at the base of the headstone.
“Here’s your jacket. Thank you for bringing my daughter home.” she says, clearly satisfied with ending our interaction. In fact, she seems surprisingly unfazed with this entire series of events, as she turns to walk back toward the house.
Perplexed, we stop her, stuttering over our words but nonetheless managing to convey that we wish for an explanation of what has happened. She calmly explains that her daughter died decades earlier while on her way home with her fiancé. A flash flood washed their car away while it was crossing the bridge. They were almost home.
“She has never forgotten to let me know she still wants to come home. She misses me dearly, just as I will always miss her. Today is the day I lost her all those years ago. This is her way of making sure I don’t forget the depths of a love between a mother and a daughter,” she says with a serene smile.
There are multiple versions of the vanishing hitchhiker tale recounted throughout time, and each one of them varies slightly. The story above is a combination of the most common elements from various retellings, but it conveys the same chilling theme: sometimes things (and people) aren’t exactly as they seem.
Until next time,
Beardsley, Richard K, and Hankey Rosalie. “A History of the Vanishing Hitchhiker.” California Folklore Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 1, Jan. 1943, pp. 13–25.
Beardsley, Richard K, and Rosalie Hankey. “The Vanishing Hitchiker.” California Folklore Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 4, Oct. 1942, pp. 303–335.
Jones, James Gay. “Case of the Damp Damsel.” Appalachian Ghost Stories and Other Tales, McClain Printing Company, 2019, pp. 65–68.
Musick, Ruth Ann. “The Roadside Stanger.” Coffin Hollow and Other Ghost Tales, The University Press of Kentucky, 1977, pp. 157–158.
Mirrors allow us to glimpse a living picture of how we look to the eyes of others. We trust them to accurately reflect ourselves and our surroundings. In some cases, we utilize mirrors as a safety measure, such as rearview and side mirrors on vehicles. Humans have used mirrors for other purposes throughout time, however. Sometimes they reveal reflections that betray what our eyes would normally behold and sometimes they open doorways we would prefer to leave closed.
Mirrors have been used for divining and conjuring; from scrying for messages to summoning blood-covered entities. Such stories take careful measure, of course. All of that will be revealed in time. For now, though, please sit and enjoy some death-centered mirror lore from the hills of Appalachia:
When someone is near death, there are a few ways to prepare the home to help facilitate their passage to the other side. For example, it is customary to open the windows so that the spirit has the ability to leave the house. Be mindful, too, while saying final goodbyes, to avoid being at the foot of the bed so the spirit has a clear exit from the body. Likewise, mirrors should be covered. This act serves a couple of purposes. First, it prevents the newly departed soul from getting trapped in the mirror. Catching a glimpse of themselves in the mirror's reflective surface could prevent them from passing over appropriately. While uncovered, the mirror reveals the state of the dead and those mourning in the room, which could certainly also cause unnecessary alarm to the newly departed! Second, there was a belief that if the mirror remains uncovered, the spirit would be made aware that it has departed. After this occurs, the first living person to see their own reflection will soon follow in death. It is best, therefore, to prevent anyone from peering into the mirror: dead or alive.
The fear of following the departed before one's time was strong enough to suggest that mirrors should remain covered until after the first meal that follows the funeral. This meal should be eaten at a table that has a place prepared for the deceased so that they can have proper sustenance for their journey to the other side. Failure to do so could endanger their ability to pass through the veil. However, with successful completion of these steps, the mirrors can comfortably be uncovered with the knowledge that your loved one has moved on without issue.
There are other beliefs found in Appalachian mirror lore, of course. For example, one should not allow a baby to look into a mirror until it is six months old or misfortune will follow. Likewise, if you ever look into the mirror and cannot see your own reflection, this is an omen that you are not long for this world.
Mirrors play a role in ghost lore as well, but that is a story for another day. In the meantime, how do you suppose you would behave if you were to look in your rearview mirror only to see that your backseat passenger has suddenly vanished?
Until next time!
Appalachian Folklore: Omens, Signs, and Superstitions by Nancy Richmond and Murray Walkup
Appalachian Magazine's Mountain Superstitions, Ghost Stories & Haint Tales