Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Conspiracies and Hitchhikers

I spent a very pleasant Monday evening in the company of David Aaronovich and a couple of hundred sceptics who had gathered at The Penderel’s Oak to hear his thoughts on Conspiracy theories. Dave Cole has written a good précis of proceedings.

Rather than exhaustively covering each theory (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Princess Diana was murdered, Jesus founded a dynasty in the South of France et al), Aaronvitch engagingly discussed the very notion of conspiracy theories and the nature of their enduring appeal. Speaking as a person who maintains an official list of ‘Thoroughly Enjoyable Nonsense Books’ (top three BTW: ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ by Lincoln, Leigh & Baigent; ‘The Ultimate Evil’ by Maury Terry; ‘Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution’ by Stephen Knight), I agreed with many of his thoughts and insights.

Conspiracy theories are optimised stories, tales with a pleasing narrative arc. So are fables, parables, folktales and urban legends. Their honed form helps to determine their survival and proliferation as memes.

In these other contexts, one of the best examples I can think of is the urban legend of the ‘Vanishing Hitchhiker’, first analysed in depth by Professor of English Jan Harold Brunvand1. Urban legends bear more than a passing resemblance to conspiracy theories in that they are allegedly true anecdotes. However, ULs are circulated by word of mouth and received from a friend of a friend. In other words, it is reportage close enough to not doubt but far away enough not to check. This urban legend story form is now well enough recognised that listeners may identify anecdotes as urban legends simply by their satisfying story structure. Urban legends are brief and to the point, there is often a moral lesson to be learned and they generally cover life’s critical and dangerous events. Brunvand’s awareness of more traditional folklore enabled him to see the similarities between traditional folklore and their modern sibling. The study of urban legends is interesting for any student of traditional folklore, as it gives an insight into the themes which continue to preoccupy people and how stories in general retain currency and are successfully transmitted.

In the Vanishing Hitchhiker a traveller stops to pick up a hitchhiker. The hitchhiker sits in the back of the vehicle and when they reach their destination, the traveller turns around to find that the passenger has disappeared into thin air. The hitchhiker is then identified by a person at the destination as somebody who died prematurely and whose ghost has done this many times before. There are sometimes chilling or poignant additions. In one, for example, the driver lends the (young female) hitchhiker his overcoat which he finds draped over her gravestone at their destination.

As you would expect, there are parallels (and probably antecedents) in tradtional folklore for the Vanishing Hitchhiker theme. Christina Hole2 recounted the tale of Madam Pigott of Chetwynd Hall who died in childbirth at the end of the eighteenth century. The doctor attending her parturition warned her husband that the lives of both his wife and his unborn child were in danger, to which the man’s callous reply was: ‘One should lop the root to save the branch’. The doctor’s impromptu surgery did no more good for the child than it did for the mother however - both were lost. Madam Pigott’s ghost was reputed to haunt an old tree stump which was shaped like a chair. She would jump up to ride behind anybody who went past at night, especially those on their way to collect midwives. Her spectre disappeared when the horse and rider crossed running water.

Brunvand reports a variant of this tale from the US in the 1890s, where a young woman would jump on young men’s horses when they passed through a certain wood on their way to parties and then disappear when they arrived. Other versions from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries place the traveller and hitchhiker in the more modern configuration of a vehicle, albeit a horse-drawn one. Where people were not affluent enough to afford a vehicle or a horse, the same motif appears with a walking couple, the young woman walking behind the young man: Brunvand’s example of this comes from Chinese immigrants in California. As you would expect, the automobile variant emerged and proliferated at the same rate as the machines themselves, to the point where most people now identify the theme exclusively with cars and a modern context.

A more macabre aspect enters the Vanishing Hitchhiker motif when she becomes associated with dreadful luck or ill health. A Korean version told of a cab passenger who travelled at midnight from the cemetary to a store, into which she went to obtain the fare. When she did not return, the cab-driver woke the people at the store who identified the woman as their daughter. The driver recognized her from a photograph and became fatally ill. A similar story from Russia in 1890 told of a priest who was entreated to attend a house to administer the sacraments to a man who was ill. The man was dead before evening, and the woman who had entreated the priest to visit him turned out to be the ghost of his mother.

Brunvand labelled this theme as 'the ghost in search of help for a dying man'. However, I have more reservations about the ghosts’ motives than Brunvand, and wonder if the kindly aspect of these stories has emerged recently in an age where the powers of the supernatural have largely been reduced and when we are prone to think of family ghosts as kindly. For most of our history, even the familial dead have been treated with fear. Vampires explicitly started with their own family as victims. If a causal relationship must be inferred, it is fair to say that traditionally the dead usually bring death rather than passively presage it.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker motif clearly has a substantial history in traditional folklore and it has retained a couple of the perpetual Unnatural Predator themes: the subject is young – prematurely dead, and may also bring death with them. As you would expect, in its new environments the Hitchhiker story has integrated local characteristics: In Hawaii, the theme has become associated with the volcano goddess Pele and in Chicago, hitchhiker stories were found combined with the tradition of 'La Llorona' or the Weeping Woman'. There is also a substantial sub-set of accounts where the hitchhiker is a beautiful young woman in shining white who speaks about the second coming of Jesus before she disappears.

If you’re interested in good introductions to urban legends and conspiracy theories, I can recommend both ‘The Big Book of Conspiracies’ and ‘The Big Book of Urban Legends’, both square bound comic books by Paradox Press. They’re regrettably out of print (so the ‘Conspiracies’ one may also be a touch out of date) but Abebooks may yield a few copies.

And since Crispian Jago himself brought the subject up, I’d like to add to the psychiatric profile we’re all building of his father in law - a man prone to believing in both conspiracy theories and that he has left the door unlocked. Is there a link? Aaronovitch would have none of it and put the door checking down to a bad experience. Plausible … but I wonder? One of the ‘big five’ personality traits proposed in modern psychological models is neuroticism3. As Aaronovitch pointed out last night, paranoia may actually be a ‘meaning-making’ type of psychological defence against a larger horror - the realisation that the universe doesn’t actually give a shit about you. So - paranoia/anomie … you choose. Several studies have found no correlation between religiosity and neuroticism4, but perhaps scrutiny of specific types of superstitious or religious belief would produce more correlations. Any volunteers for a survey?

1 The Vanishing Hitchhiker Picador 1983 Jan Harold Brunvand
2 Haunted England Charles Scribner’s Sons 1941 Christina Hole p90
3 eg. Costa & McCrae 1992; Russell & Karol 1994
4 Religious Behaviour, Belief & Experience Routledge 1997 Benjamin Beit Hallami & Michael Argyle p 164


  1. Ooh footnotes.

    I wonder why conspiracy theories generally appeal more to men than women?

  2. Felt I had to do footnotes here - asking you all to believe lots of stuff. I could have made it up!

    Hard to say with the guy thing, although I've noticed it too. With no disresepect to men (I like loads of them), it's been said that autism is the extreme male end of the personality spectrum. Perhaps men averagely seek order, patterns etc.?