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Monday, April 10, 2006

The Hitchhiker of Route 44: Fact or Fiction?

phantom hitchhiker
"There is no Redheaded Hitchhiker!" a Rehoboth police officer once told me as I stood in a cemetery not far from rural Route 44 late one night. "Go home! Don't you have anything better to do on a Saturday night?" My answer then was, "Sorry Officer, it's either this or I spend all night at home playing Playstation." That was two years ago and not much has changed in my life. I still spend a good many weekends on the back roads of Rehoboth searching for the Bridgewater Triangle's most infamous ghostly resident - The Redheaded Hitchhiker of Route 44. I also continue to play copious amount of Playstation. Let's just say that Lara Croft and I are intimately acquainted. At the time I thought the cop was just being fashionably skeptical, as those on the police force are wont to do. But the older I get and the more I learn about popular folklore and urban legend the more I'm beginning to think that the officer who derided my social life was on to something. About the phantom hitchhiker, I mean. Not my social life.

Before we take a trip down that dark winding road let's take a closer look at the history of everyone's favorite flame haired phantasm. Stories of bizarre encounters on Route 44 along the Rehoboth-Seekonk line were originally popularized by local author Charles Turek Robinson's The New England Ghost Files, published in 1993. Eyewitnesses in his book describe the apparition as being in his forties, usually wearing a plaid shirt, and sporting a thick lion's mane of red hair. In almost every account he has a strange sneer planted on his face. No one's exactly sure as to what he finds so funny, as he almost never decides to share his thoughts with the rest of the class. The most people ever hear out of him is a strange maniacal laugh. Minute differences in his physical description are apparent from account to account. Sometimes he's neatly dressed, other times his hair is a mess and his clothes are unkempt. One man even described his eyes as being completely clouded over and lacking any pupils.

He's not the friendliest ghost thumbing the haunted highways of New England either. In fact his behavior has been known to be downright menacing. Check out the accounts below to see how he likes to repay a kind hearted motorist who stops to give him a ride.


All of these encounters are paraphrased from The New England Ghost Files:

yikes

Winter 1969 - A man was startled while driving down Route 44 late one night when he glanced out his passenger side window and saw a sneering face glaring back at him. Realizing that this was physically impossible as the car was traveling at 50 mph at the time, the man swerved off the road and jammed on his brakes. When he looked out the window again the strange face had mysteriously vanished.

Summer 1973 - A Seekonk resident stopped his pickup truck to offer a man on the side of the road a ride late one summer's night. Once the stranger climbed inside he began behaving oddly, refusing to acknowledge the driver's questions regarding his intended destination. As a result the driver quickly became uncomfortable. He pulled over and demanded that the hitchhiker exit the truck. The stranger complied - but instead of opening the door and stepping out he disappeared right before the driver's eyes.

February 25 1981 - A young woman slams on her brakes, but unfortunately she's too late. Screaming she plows right into the man standing in the middle of the road. Where did he come from? It was like he appeared out of nowhere! Once the car comes to a complete stop, the woman leaps out to administer aid and to waive down another car for help. Instead of finding a badly wounded man lying in the middle of the road, however, she finds nothing. The woman stands there for a second and tries to collect her thoughts. She definitely saw someone...and then she hears it. A terrible mocking laughter coming from the nearby woods. Frightened, she returns back to her car and continues on, trying to put he bizarre incident out of her mind. And then it happens again. Once more the man instantly appears in the middle of the road, and once more she hits him. Too rattled to exit her car, she rolls down her windows and inspects the highway. There is no one there, just as before. But the laughter returns, this time, much closer, as if it's right outside the car. Terrified, the woman peels out, leaving whoever, or whatever, behind.

October 16, 1984 - On the night of the sixteenth a couple's station wagon broke down on the side of Route 44. The man told his girlfriend to stay in the car while he walked towards the nearest gas station in search of a phone. On the way, he encountered a strange redheaded vagrant sitting by the edge of the road. He was disheveled and kind of dirty. With his mind fixated on calling AAA the man asked this strange drifter if he knew where the nearest phone was. No reply was given besides laughter. That's when he noticed the strange man's eyes. They were completely clouded over, with no visible pupils. The man hurried away, and when he looked over his shoulder he noticed that the vagrant was nowhere to be seen. But he could still hear him. The laughter seemed to follow him the entire way back to the car. When he finally returned he was surprised to find his girlfriend hysterical in the front seat. She told him that she turned on the radio to pass the time while he was gone. A weird voice began to break into the broadcast. At first she thought it was the local DJ, but then it began to address her by name. The voice laughed a terrible laugh, and taunted her. Shaken and disturbed the couple eventually got the attention of a passing car and was able to call AAA.

tshirtAnd it's only snowballed from there. Since publication of Robinson's book the Redheaded Hitchhiker has become legend. Nearly everyone in Rehoboth is at least familiar with some aspects of the story. Just about every website dealing with the paranormal activity in New England makes some mention of him. In fact, one site even sells phantom hitchhiker t-shirts emblazoned with the Route 44 emblem.

Something about these stories never sat right with me. Reported apparitions of this variety are hardly uncommon. You can hear similar tales in small towns and big cities alike all over the globe. Some famous cases include Justice, Illinois' Resurrection Mary, and the incorporeal inhabitants of Route 666 just to name a few. The notion is so popular that even Walt Disney has jumped on the bandwagon. In their gift shops you can find a bumper sticker from their line of Haunted Mansion merchandise that reads, "This car brakes for hitchhiking ghosts!" These stories are implanted in our pop culture and collective unconsciousness. And since these accounts are so prevalent it makes the line between actual paranormal phenomena and myth extremely fuzzy.

haunted mansion

Imagine this if you will: A man is driving home late one night during a torrential downpour when he spots a white silhouette walking along the side of the road. As he gets closer he realizes that it's a beautiful young woman wearing a white evening gown, soaked to the bone, and deathly pale. Overcome by her odd beauty, and concerned for her well being the man offers her a ride. Without hesitation the girl agrees, and climbs into the backseat. She gives him her address, which is nearby, and then spends the rest of the trip in silence. The whole way there the man is checking his rear view mirror, marveling at her loveliness. Finally they pull up in front of her house and the driver turns around to wish her goodnight, or possibly to exchange phone numbers.

The seat is empty.

vanishing hitchhikerThe upholstery is wet, damp to the touch, but the woman is nowhere to be found. Dumbfounded, the man knocks on the house's front door, and is greeted by an older man who isn't that surprised to have a visitor this late at night. The driver apologizes for bothering him, and then goes on to describe the woman and her strange disappearance.

The older gentleman just nods. "That's my daughter," he says. "You described her perfectly. She's been dead many years, and tonight is the anniversary of her death."

Has this happened to someone you know or perhaps a relative of yours? Did your brother's uncle's sister's cousin's goldfish's previous owner have a similar experience? The reason you've probably heard this supposed true story before in some variation is because it's an extremely popular urban legend that's been going around for centuries. Labeled "Vanishing Hitchhiker" tales, these "anecdotes" are told throughout the world and are often confused for real life paranormal phenomena. There are numerous known versions, but the main theme is almost always consistent - a woman is picked up on the side of the road, mysteriously vanishes from the car, and is then learned to be dead for many years. Sometimes before vanishing the woman makes a prophecy about current affairs (ie Hitler will be dead in six months from WW II era legends), other times she appears in front of speeding cars and is "struck" by unsuspecting motorists who are baffled to find no evidence of her existence once they exit the car (is this starting to sound familiar?).

vanishing hitchhikerBelievers of the Phantom of Route 44 will point out all the major deviations his story makes from the "classic Vanishing Hitchhiker" paradigm. He's male for starters, and is neither beautiful nor benevolent. His entire reason for manifesting seems to be to harass and generally scare the piss out of folks driving late at night. He's not a residual haunting continually playing out past experiences either. He never asks to be dropped off at a specific point, and his actual identity or cause of death is unknown. And while these differences do lend some credibility against the urban legend argument, it's not necessarily enough to change my mind on the matter. Myths and legends are not static. They change over time, and from region to region. Would you believe that the first 'Vanishing Hitchhiker' story involved a young man picking up a woman on horseback, who rode behind him and was cold to the touch? Just check out this list of other legend permutations collected by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand. Just because the Redheaded Hitchhiker breaks the mold doesn't necessarily mean that he isn't a product of it. It's entirely conceivable that the story came about from one of these legends, with a few of the key details reworked.

"Wait a minute! What about all that eyewitness testimony mentioned previously?" you ask. "If this is just a legend, how do you explain what all these people witnessed?"

New England Ghost filesWell, to be honest, I can't. As of today I have yet to meet anyone who has actually seen the hitchhiker themselves. I always hear about it from someone's brother's daughter's cousin twice removed. As for the testimony related in The New England Ghost Files, I'm in no position to dispute their claims. I've never met them, and I never interviewed them myself. Personally I would never doubt the credibility of someone I haven't had the luxury of questioning on my own. Sincerity is very seldom accurately portrayed on the printed page. The problem with Robinson's book however, is that he changed all of the eyewitnesses' names to protect their privacy (understandably). Unfortunately there is no way I can independently corroborate the details of their stories. All I can do is take the writer's word for it that these people do exist, and that they were "intelligent, non-superstitious people who related their accounts sincerely, consistently, and credibly."

Does the Phantom of Route 44 exist? Perhaps. There's a possibility. I can't conclusively say one way or another. I'd love for it to be true, but unfortunately I have my doubts. Maybe I'll run into him the next time I'm trampling through a cemetery near the Rehoboth-Seekonk line. If I do, I'll pray he's not pissed off over this article. Because from what I hear you do not want to get a redhead angry.

Have you actually seen the Redheaded Hitchhiker of Route 44? If you have, please drop me a line and share your experience. I'd love for you to prove me wrong.