Have you heard the tale of the hook on the door handle?
When the golden leaves begin to fall and the evening air turns chill after early sundowns, our warm and familiar automobiles become even more our havens and protective cocoons.
Sometimes, that is… . Then there are those nights you suddenly wonder, with a prickle of apprehension, “Did I check the back seat?”
Was that a sinister chuckle from the rear of the cabin, or just your groceries shifting around? Is this highway darker than you remembered? What was shape on the side of the road, and why is the radio reception so fuzzy all of a sudden?
Sitting around a campfire, tales like “The Hook” – the one where the couple on a deserted country road hear a radio report about a one-armed killer and drive away speedily, only to find the maniac’s prosthetic hand hanging from their car’s door handle later – seem like harmless vintage fun.
But when you’re behind the wheel on a lonely street at autumn twilight, mayhem in the minivan seems a bit more plausible.
Cars and trucks and recreational vehicles are the settings for some of the best spooky stories of folklore and urban legend, from the mid-century lovers’ lane mishaps to present-era cautions about car-key code and robbers who use auto GPS history to find victims’ homes.
Those who study American lore and storytelling offer numerous examples for why the automobile stars in so many urban legends. Such tales tend to revolve on things and preoccupations that are common in a culture or society. Social unease with post-war permissiveness and the burgeoning freedom provided by the revved up auto industry would explain why so many scary stories of the 1950s and ’60s have dire outcomes for couples engaged in rear-seat romance.
It’s interesting to note that modern urban legends related to cars, as collected on sites like Snopes.com, tend to focus more on property theft and the nefarious use of technology, rather than ghostly visions or death and dismemberment on dark lovers’ lanes. The amateur folklorist in me reckons that as mores change and people no longer need to hide out in the country to be alone together, the focus of these tales has shifted from fear of personal harm or being caught doing something scandalous, to fear of being scammed or losing one’s hard-earned stuff.
Because a sense of believability and immediacy is helpful in perpetuating such lore, archetypal stories tend to be updated to reflect modern concerns, author Jan Harold Brunvand points out in his study of legends, “The Vanishing Hitchhiker.”
And some of the frightful and cautionary tales date back to well before the internal combustion engine, but were adapted from the horse-and-carriage to the motorcar era. After all, any mode of transport – from a stagecoach to a camel to a hot-air balloon – takes us to mysterious places and has the potential to bring strangers and the unknown into our midst.
For those who enjoy a spine-tingling story or 10 this time of year – and who won’t be put off commuting by the story of “The Slasher Under the Car” or “The Ghost of US-12” – I’ve dug up a few suggestions.
New to me was “Trucker Ghost Stories” by Annie Wilder, a compilation of mostly first-person accounts of supernatural happenings observed by truck drivers and others. From eerie lights to ghostly bumps in the night, these accounts are amateur in writing but spine-tingling nonetheless. If you dare, this one also is available as an audio book to complement your commute on foggy evenings.
In a similar vein is “Haunted Highways: Spooky Stories, Strange Happenings and Supernatural Sightings,” by Tom Ogden. This is a more traditional telling of roadway-related folklore, with twists on familiar themes like specters by the side of the road, haunted bridges and the like.
And, of course, the classic tomes about urban legends are those by Brunvand, a Michigan native who told me via email he still occasionally tools around in the 1953 Studebaker his father-in-law purchased new in Benton Harbor. In addition to “The Vanishing Hitchhiker,” his scholarly but fun-to-read volumes “The Choking Doberman” and “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid” include plenty of blood-curdling auto-related legends.
Happy October – and don’t forget to check the backseat.
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com