Riding the Blurry Borders — The Evidence for Phantom Hitchhikers

Posted in > ANALYSIS by David on October 31, 2018

Archer Avenue0
a dark stretch of road outside of Chicago, in a town called Justice, Resurrection Mary introduced me to the ambiance of the phantom hitch-hiker. I was 16 years old, sitting in the backseat of my friend’s car as we drove down Archer Avenue at midnight. When we hit the darkest part of the road he turned off the lights and let up on the gas, dropping the car down 30 miles per hour under the speed limit. With experimental naiveté we were hoping that such peculiar behavior would increase our chances of meeting a world famous apparition.

The two police officers that pulled us over for reckless driving were less sure of our research methods. Confused, bemused and annoyed, they questioned us for over an hour with indignation at the allure she still held for legend trippers after so many years of her tale being retold. Weiser Books reissue of Michael Goss’ 1984 work, The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers, gives me the opportunity to pause and reflect on this formative moment in my involvement with applied investigation in the liminal realm. It’s a timely reissue too, as the influence of researchers such as Jeffery Kripal and my friend George Hansen brings greater focus on multi-disciplinary approaches to contemporary anomalistic studies.

Analyzing the phantom hitch-hiker phenomena through the interstices of psychical research and folkloristics, Goss’ methodology implies an important starting point for effective investigation into the night-side of nature. We often make assumptions about common categories like ‘ghost,’ but ask yourself, would you know a ghost if you saw one?

Let go of  believe or disbelieve

As Goss shows in his detailed examination of phantom hitch-hikers, there is a striking difference between folktales or urban legends and personal reports of anomalous experience. If seeing is believing, we should be careful when what we see fits the phantoms found in familiar stories. While there are superficial similarities in terms of experiential themes, i.e. something like encountering an apparition, folktales and urban legends rely on narrative structures and plot developments that are usually missing in reports of anomalous experiences themselves.

An anomalous encounter is, by its very nature, outside of the normal flow of things — they emerge into our view set against the habitual patterns that fashion the narrative of our lives. In Liminality, Marginality, Anti-Structure, and Parapsychology, a paper presented at the 2011 Academy Of Spirituality And Paranormal Studies conference, researcher and theorist George Hansen points out that:

…paranormal phenomena are more likely to occur under liminal and transitional conditions and around liminal and marginal persons than among more ordinary conditions and people.

Generally, those invested in established hierarchies find strongly liminal conditions unpalatable, irrational, and threatening. Thus liminal persons are often marginalized and viewed with some suspicion. (Marginality is a subcategory of liminality, and frequent consequence of it.)

It is not surprising then that catch valves for the maintenance of cultural continuity and status quo, such as academic scholarship and popular media, would foster normalizing approaches to anomalous phenomena like the phantom hitch-hiker, rounding these encounters off in explainable ways.

The mind creates continuity through root structures of information patterning. We see these same structures appear in the artifice of effective storytelling. Good stories stick because they work with the cognitive necessity of pattern recognition. They provide us with a smooth and comfortable movement from introduction of the theme to its conclusion — a person is traveling, encounters a hitch-hiker, they pick them up, hitch-hiker disappears from the car, puzzling over the encounter they later realize that they picked up the hitch-hiker where an accident had occurred, the narrative ends with this revelation which conforms to our need for sensible closure. This sense of closure allows the liminal nature of a liason with an apparition on a lonely stretch of road to be reintegrated into the structure of a culture’s shared worldview.

Anomalous Anomalies

The raw reports collected by researchers lack the strong internal cohesion necessary for this integration — it is only in the urban legend and folk tale that this kind of stock pattern emerges. Psychical researchers usually find that a person encounters an apparition, and…that’s the report.

Over the years it has been possible to collate these reports into specific categories, the apparition looked like a loved one that recently passed away, the apparition was solid, the apparition was misty, and so on, but for the most part no meaningful narrative structure fits the majority of what is reported. Anomalous experiences are just that, anomalous.

As Goss explains in terms of phantom hitch-hiker stories surrounding the Blue Bell Hill area near Chatham England:

the Blue Bell hill phantom may have been either relocated or regional variations on an old, received motif (folklore) or veritable apparitional encounters which, rightly or wrongly, became associated with the memorized fact of (a)1965 accident. What is more certain is that many of these episodes derived a species credibility or even respectability from the indisputably-real crash.

The discomfort of an anomalous encounter entices our curiosity into trying to explain it, and often coincidental events that occur in the area of the phenomena will be drawn in to help with this.

In the story of the Blue Bell Hill phantom a local accident becomes narrative ground to anchor what would otherwise be an inexplicable, and almost pointless, encounter. This pointlessness is a theme that researcher and writer Jacques Vallee covers extensively in his work, and is one of the things that frustrates serious researchers who delve into the field of apparitional appearances, be they ghosts, UFOs, goblins, or whatever else — although popular retellings (especially those sculpted for the media) put meaning to these events by attaching them to historical or pseudo-historical facts, the occurrences themselves are isolated by their often absurd incongruity.

In examining these accounts against the analysis of folklorists Goss differentiates the psychological needs fulfilled by folktales and urban legends and those which coincide with reports of actual believed experience. Citing the work of Aniela Jaffe, and her 1963 study Apparitions and Precognition: A Study from the Viewpoint of C.G. Jung’s Analytical Psychology, Goss highlights how story based and experiential based accounts differ in certain details. This is demonstrated in her analysis of the sole phantom hitch-hiker account found in the 1200 letters she received during her initial research:

Ms. Jaffe almost refuses to comment on this story. To her, it is devoid of significant, symbolic data and the style contrasts with the plain, monotonous tone of the other material she quotes. ‘The lack of archetypal features seems to be a criterion of the improbability of the ‘experience’. Another way of saying this might be to describe the thing as too artificial, too much so to even approximate the sort of account readers might concede as veridical. There is a clear credibility gap, then, between the artistically-devised ‘true story,’ which is fiction, and the real life experience it attempts to mimic.

Urban legends and folktales have their own unique set of archetypes whose artificial gloss differ from those manifesting in perceived experience. Through careful attention to the symbolic content of the story one can get a better idea for where it stands in terms of being a fictional story or a report where the person truly feels they are relating a real experience that they have had.

Breaking the Pattern

The picture of a ghost as an immaterial and spectral figure is a familiar tropeof popular media, accompanied by numerous other incidences that are associated with spirit manifestation — orbs, shadowy shapes, or some kind of purposeful, unseen force. However, as type categories these bear more relation to narrative cues than to actually getting to the heart of the experience itself. All of them fall under the category of ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit,’ yet experientially they are quite different. Stories surrounding anomalies often speak more to our concepts of life and death, and to our relationships with the social order and the natural world around us, than they do about the phenomena themselves.

When I ventured with friends to find Resurrection Mary part of the draw was that outside of the famed hitch-hiker, the area has actively accumulated numerous other urban legends. Stories circulate of mysterious lights over the waterways that converge there, strange monk like apparitions and a vanishing horse drawn hearse are said to have been seen at the St. James-Sag cemetery down the road. Even the old tale about the Devil appearing at a dance, discovered when his dance partner sees his cloven feet (in Southwestern variations his feet are sometimes those of a chicken), has found a home at one of the local ballrooms.

While my search for Resurrection Mary lead me deeper into ghostland, many years later a chance encounter one night with a fellow named Preston would continue to change my understanding of how these patterns emerge and relate to anomalous incidents.

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 9.34.33 AMBorn with a veil

Not long after I moved to Georgia I met Preston in an alleyway behind theLiminal Analytics office as he was walking home from work. He was a cook at a restaurant a few doors down and after a polite introduction, he asked me what I did. The question made me pause and consider the ramifications of revealing my obscure interests to a random stranger in an alley in the hyper-charged religious atmosphere of the Deep South, and finally said:

“I write about … weird things.”

“Oh, like what?” he asked.

“Well, peoples’ belief in the supernatural,” I explained with care. “How stories of the supernatural affect our sense of self.”

Much to my surprise, he didn’t flinch. Instead, he nodded thoughtfully and said, “I believe in the unknown, because to me, not to believe in the unknown is not to believe in God. I can’t see him, neither, but I know he’s there, and I can see him working.” I nodded, smiling to myself, his attitude echoed that of some of the early members of the Society for Psychical Research. It’s clear from correspondences among the founders, as well as the focus of much of their work, that proving anomalous experience was considered one way to shake things up for the philosophical hold of materialist mechanism that was becoming more prevalent during the late 19th century.

“Now, some people are afraid of ghosts,” he continued.

“They don’t like to talk about them none. I tell them, ‘Now I believe in the Lord too strong to be worried about any of that.’ I believe in ghosts because my daddy believed in them. He was born with a veil over his face. They say folks born like that can see things. He used to heal kids with the thrush.”

“Your dad was born with a caul?” I asked with excitement. A caul, as you may know, is a piece of the birth membrane that can cover a newborn’s head and face. Throughout history it has been popularly associated with second sight, and has often been taken as a sign that a child will have special abilities to heal as well. Preston was telling me that his father had been a local seer and faith healer, born directly into the tradition.

“Yeah,” he said, “some people call it that.”

He then proceeded to recount a number of stories about encountering “ghosts” with his father. But these were not the ghosts that I would normally have thought of. Some of them, for instance, were solid, as in his recollection of a “ghost” they met while waiting for a bus:

“One time we was at the bus stop, and he tells me ‘Look over there,’ pointing to a man standing across the street at the other bus stop. He was standing with his back turned to us so you couldn’t see his face. My daddy said, ‘That’s a ghost.’ And I said, ‘Now how in the world can that be a ghost? That’s a man standing there solid as me.’ He said, ‘Nah, that’s a ghost. You ain’t never gonna see his face. Watch.’ So we did. We sat there until our bus come. Whole time the man just stands there with his back to us. My daddy, he said, ‘Now wait, we’ll let this one pass, we’re going to sit here until his bus come.’ So we did, we sat there until his bus come, and still that man never did turn or move. My daddy say, ‘Now watch … ‘ The lights inside the bus was bright, you know, and I watched, but I never seen him get on the bus. When it drove away, he was gone. Now, I tell you, I ain’t seen him get on, but he was gone when it left.”

It was upon hearing this that I realized just how far popular and academic media had separated me from nearly every traditional tale of the “Other World” that I had ever heard or read. How many urban legends deal with very solid figures that are only later revealed to have origins other than the waking world? Preston’s account was quite different from the stories that had drawn me to Archer Avenue.

What exactly is a ghost in this sense? And what does it mean to encounter one?

There are ghosts, and then there are ghosts

In folktales and reported experience the phantom hitch-hiker is one of the more solid apparitions that people speak of encountering, at least in terms of the scholarly literature on the subject. Goss points out that, “one important aspect of Phantom Hitch-Hikers consists of their not being readily identifiable as supernatural entities, but as living, unexceptional human persons in need of a lift. Consequently, Beardsley and Hankey were convinced that ‘there is a modernity about the elements and the essence of the story…which sets it off sharply from the tales of the past. The most significant of the modern elements is the hitch-hiker’s successful masquerading as a human being.’ This element, they thought, is rare in European ghostlore and the few exceptions do not rely upon it for their impact. The ghost who is sufficiently real to pass for human — the kind most commonly reported in early psychical research journals — was not popularized until the end of the nineteenth century.” Goss systematically overturns these assumptions with clear examples from folklore attesting to corporeal ghosts.

There is even a name for this type of apparition –a revenant. Medievalist Claude Lecouteux has written extensively on European traditions of revenants and ghosts, and by drawing on court records, medical reports and other official period documents he too has shown how the veil between corporeal and phantasmal flesh is often rather thin.

While Victorian ghost stories and reality television often lead us towards the image of a misty immaterial phantom, traditions which include interacting with the spirit world almost always treat spirit manifestation in fleshy forms. There is a stark contrast between the kind of tropes associated with ghosts in folktales and ‘ghost stories’ and those we find in the living folk beliefs of people whose worldview includes interacting on a regular basis with the spirit world. We can see this very clearly in Preston’s account of his father’s practice as a traditional seer.

Narrative and belief

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 9.33.14 AMIf we seek other sources we find similar accounts appearing in the work of folklorists such as Harry Middleton Hyatt, who collected folk accounts without starting with a particular theme of interest. The folklorists that Goss references were all studying the narrative structures of folktales, and as such they discovered folk accounts with those narrative forms in place. On the other hand, Hyatt, in works like The Folklore of Adams County Illinois, survey’s general beliefs and comes up with many reports of spirit encounters that fit closer to the isolated accounts found by psychical researchers.

When we look for stories, we find stories, when we look for experiences we find experiences. Throughout Goss’ analysis one is given the opportunity to reflect on the nature of our experiential narratives and the effects of belief — as well as how the tools and paradigms used during our investigation help to shape the understandings that arise. Through the interplay of psychical research techniques with folkloristics we are given an interesting clue to how folklore studies, through the functional necessity of gathering and examining narratives, often moves outside the nature of folk beliefs as they are actually lived.

For instance, a local recounting a story told about a witch or faith healer, will be quite different than the experiential account of the witch or faith healer themselves. The vanishing hitch-hiker that we are given to observe in the book is a shadow filtered through popular media and correlated anecdotal reports, yet, as I learned from Preston, behind the blinds of literary leitmotiflays a living world of spirits.

Having gained more understanding since my foray at the age of 16, comparing the accounts that Preston related to me with the stories that lead me so many years ago into the darkness of Archer Avenue in search of Resurrection Mary I can clearly see the divergence of experience and legend. As Goss’ own examination shows, diving into first hand personal accounts we suddenly find that the tight categories which satisfy the needs of a good story are not necessarily those found in actual reports.

In future articles we will go ‘off trail’ and into the wild wood of history with our investigation. We’ll turn off the lights, drive a bit slower and focus on exploring with more detail what we can discover from phenomena such as the phantom hitch-hiker when we move away from the constricting atmosphere of categories like ‘urban legend’ and dance into the areas where experiential accounts fit with older understandings of the thinly veiled borders between the wide roads of the waking world and the darkened paths of ghostland.

Note: Special thanks to Red Wheel/Weiser for the opportunity to enjoy these reflections through Michael Goss’ book The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-hikers — for more information on the book, visit their website. This article originally appeared in a slightly modified form on the web-magazine Reality Sandwich and later Modern Mythology.

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