It’s odd how things work out. A student recently sent me an e-mail with a link to my old material from Massachusetts Paranormal Crossroads. I decided to post some of the stories as part of documenting some of the hauntings and legends I’ve covered over the years, but also as a way of tracking how some of these stories have changed over the years since they were originally published.
The story of the Red Headed Hitchhiker or Phantom of Route 44 was the first story I every tracked down after reading about it in Charles Robsinson’s New England Ghost Files. I decided to post it with no editing for two reasons; first, I wanted to document how I first published on the topic back in 2003, second, I wanted to put it out there to see how the public has changed its opinion on the it and how might have changed how I feel about it. The only change is a switching around of a few paragraphs to move some first hand account I published in a follow-up the next year up into the main article.
Enjoy, and let me know what changed to the legend you’ve heard over the years.
People from New England survive on a history of oral tradition, passed down by word of mouth in accents that sound funny to the rest of country. Whether it is the sports they play or the lives they live, people from that area are natural storytellers. From the beginnings of European settlement to today, the history of this country goes through New England, and an area with such a rich history is bound to have rich legends and folklore, but that reputation might work against reality. People with real experiences are seen as spinners, and although they might try to raise a voice to protest, their words become part of the myth of the state. People have claimed to see a red-headed man walking down U.S. Route 44 in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, and some have stopped to pick him up only to have him disappear on them. It sounds like an excellent story, giving people chills around a campfire, but the story might be more truth than legend and the ghost might be more supernatural than literary.
Descriptions of the ghost and the encounters seem to follow the same basic pattern. The driver is driving along Route 44 at night, usually near the Seekonk-Rehoboth, Massachusetts line, when they encounter a well-built man between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five. He has red hair and usually a beard and is dressed in a red flannel shirt with either jeans or brown work pants and work boots. Sometimes he is well kept, but other times he appears disheveled with an overgrown beard, dirty pants and an untucked shirt. Most times he appears solid to the drivers but not quite all there and there is a rare report of him seeming transparent throughout the entire encounter.
The biggest discrepancy in the physical description of the hitchhiker is with his eyes. Some say they look normal but just don’t feel right. Some say they are black and empty, others glowing and lifeless. Every color has been attributed to them at one time or another, from yellow and red to green and it is this inconsistency which adds fuel to the skeptic’s argument against the existence of a genuine spirit.
The basic encounters all follow a similar pattern. Someone is driving along the road, usually alone, when they see a man in the road or on the side of the road. They may hit him or stop to pick him up. The hitchhiker will interact with the person and then eventually vanish before their eyes or no longer be there when they turn to look. This is followed by some type of audio finale where he laughs at them, yells or taunts them.
Anyone who has driven that stretch of road at night can understand the uneasy feeling that pervades Route 44. A similar scene plays itself out in any rural towns across America where there are more legends than streetlights. It is a classic movie set up, which may have something to do with the appearance of the spirit. There is documented proof of accidents in that area that have proved fatal, and Rehoboth is located at one end of the Bridgewater Triangle, an area in Massachusetts made of about a dozen small towns having a documented history of high paranormal activity, UFO activity and anomalous animals. Rehoboth might be the most active town, with Route 44 being home to the haunted Annawan Rock and several cemeteries that have supernatural histories ranging from sightings and car failures to attacks.
The earliest formal written record of the occurrence was set down by Charles Turek Robinson in his 1994 book New England Ghost Files. In it he describes several encounters in detail. In one, the hitchhiker is seen outside the window of a fast moving car. Another person picked him up, only to have him vanish from the car. The most disturbing story in his book tells of a couple who broke down at about 10:00 PM. The woman stayed in the car while the man went to get help. They both suffered separate experiences. The man saw him on the side of the road and tried to talk to him. The red headed man began yelling at him and then disappeared, laughing from all directions as the man made his way back to the car. The woman heard his voice come over the radio, taunting her until she ran from the car.
Stories like this make the believer in us nod our heads and avoid roads and the skeptics laugh. Every state has something like this, they say, and despite dozens of sighting over the decades, there is no documented proof other than first hand stories of the encounters. There are psychological and physical alternatives to the hauntings, as well as entire cannon of myths and urban legends utilizing the basic motif of the lonely road and the hitchhiker or traveler. Yet just because something can be explained doesn’t mean it has been.
Most hauntings like the red headed hitchhiker have fallen into the realm of local legend, told as cautionary tales and local color. The most famous of these is Resurrection Mary in the Chicago area that has been reported in books and television shows such as Unsolved Mysteries. Mary was a teenage immigrant who was killed in a car accident while going home from a dance. She is still seen in her dress traveling the road between the hall and cemetery at which she is buried trying to get home. She is often picked up and has been known to interact with the people who do so. She asks to be dropped off near the cemetery and vanishes near it or vanishes from the car as it passes.
If this sounds familiar, it should. It has been adopted by most states and several countries on both sides of the ocean. There have been similar occurrences in other parts of the country including Kentucky, St. Louis, North and South Carolina and Arkansas. Hawaii has a long history of hitchhikers vanishing, and for a long time it was thought to be the volcano god Pele who stole rides with horsemen and drivers. All have some twist to unique to that area of the country and all are built upon first hand reports later spiced up and allowed to fall into myth and exaggeration.
These stories might be part of a broader tradition that continues to grow. Jan Brunvard, the most decorated folklorist in modern times, has written extensively on the topic of the vanishing hitchhiker, even naming one of his collections of urban legends after the tale. It is one of the most popular urban legends and seems to stretch across different times and cultures, and new variants are being added every year. Some stories have a man pick a girl up and drop her off at her house only to find her no longer in the car. When he approaches the door, he is told by the people inside that it was the ghost of their daughter that died years ago on that stretch of road. Often there is a picture the driver of the girl so the driver can identify her. Another has two men or a group of men pick her up and bring her to the prom. They dance with her all night, noticing how cold she feels before she vanishes. There is often proof left behind, like a scarf or a jacket left on a gravestone.
Another whole string, more in line with the hitchhiker on Route 44, has a man being picked up or just appearing in the backseat. He often has something prophetic to tell the driver that comes true and is sometimes Jesus himself.
One of the most disturbing tales is of a naked woman seen lying in the road in California. The driver gets out, but she is no longer there. Despite his searching and the help of the police, there is no one found. After three nights of sightings, they finally find her car off the road and hanging off of an embankment. She is dead inside, but her son is still alive, hanging on to the last moments of life.
Our time and place does not have exclusive rights to the hitchhiker tales. Mythology from England and Ireland has its own version of the tale that dates back hundreds of years. The Fortean Times has published dozens of accounts, sometimes with a supernatural creature such as a vampire, werewolf or black dog filling in. A famous British politician once saw his doppelganger on such a road. Irish fairy tales tell of people straying from the road only to fall into a fairy circle that causes disasters to befall them. There are tales from Roman days of walking along the road only to encounter some paranormal or supernatural being.
There is an account in the Bible and the Devil is known to appear at crossroads to strike deals for hapless victim’s souls.
The connective tissue of these stories is the lonely road and the unknown and there symbols resonate with the reader because they are common and universal. Roads have long been associated with life; the path of our lives, the journey we must take. They also imply the soul is still traveling, never able to get where it needs to go. Are these just motifs of our collective unconscious or is there some basis for these localized hauntings. Myths might point out the archetypes of the traveler trying to get home and the obstacles he must overcome, the lonely road, dark turns, isolation in the woods. The very locations of these hauntings allow our minds to wander and sends us crawling back to our bedrooms as children where we shrink back from the darkness of our closed closet and the underneath our bed. We see the crosses on the sides of roads and maybe even know the names and this adds to our tension.
Michael White offers another theory in his 1999 book Weird Science. He writes about hypnagogic and hynopomic hallucinations and claims it explains away the majority of the hitchhiker stories. During long drives at night, especially in dark, secluded places, we tend to fall asleep. The repetitive scenery, the lull of the motor and the constant yellow or white lines in the road put us in a hypnotic state that simulates the beginning and ending stages of sleep when we begin to enter a type of dream state. Our imagination is fed by the stories we hear about an area or the cliché environment we are in and we see things that are not there. People have even been known to interact and feel physical sensations from this stage of sleep.
With mounting evidence against the possibility of the existence of the red-headed hitchhiker is there any evidence that he does exist. Back roads are primed for paranormal occurrences. People often suffer tragic accidents or die in violent ways in these rural setting without streetlights and quick turns that can not be seen until you are on top of them. Does this particular legend just sound like an established bit of folklore, or is the folklore based on activity that is more common on roads than other places?
Folklorists look for similarities in stories when they create motifs and variants, but evidence of the existence of the hitchhiker in Massachusetts might be gained by looking at what is different in these tales. Recently reports have been posted on the internet by people claiming to have seen the ghost. The majority of these can be discounted because the information seems to be a compilation of the rumors heard. Most do not get the town or physical description right. If you look at the reports before the area was modernized however, some things stick out. First, most of the people reporting the occurrences did so with no ulterior motives, and most of the people Robinson interviewed were asked about a separate legend completely and offered the hitchhiker story. Next, many of the people had never heard the legend and did not know each other. At times, the phantom has appeared to more than one person which would make a hallucination like the one White talked about near impossible.
Then there is the ghost himself. He seems unworldly, unlike the people often seen in the urban legend. He offers no advice or prophetic promises. In fact, he doesn’t talk. His goal does not seem to get home but to scare and taunt. He also has appeared outside cars moving over fifty miles an hour, which shows up in none of the urban myth research. Lastly, he comes from an area long known to have paranormal activity.
Several employees of the Cumberland farms spoke of the spirit. They had not seen it themselves, but had heard of the ghost. One’s brother had been driving alone when he saw him on the side of the road. He stopped and called out to the man who started to walk towards him. As he got closer, he faded until he had completely disappeared.
One e-mail told of the hitchhiker appearing in the backseat of his car. He was alone and saw him in the rear view mirror. The radio started to scan the stations and then became so loud it shook the car. The man disappeared and began to laugh on the radio.
Another e-mail offered some possible explanations and clarification on the source and nature of the haunting. A resident of Rehoboth, the women who sent the e-mail had seen a shadow in her rear view mirror near the area the hitchhiker is known to lurk. She had conducted interviews herself with people in the area. Her research found the identity of the spirit might be that of a local farmer who was hit while changing a tire on 44. His description matches that of the hitchhiker, although his actions during his death do not match traditional hitchhiker stories. She also identified another aspect of the story might contributes to the legend aspect of the story. Some people remember a ghost story involving a traveler seen on the road between Redway Plain and Wilmarth Bridge Road. The name of the street may have helped change the description of the ghost over time, creating the legend that endures today.
There is no physical evidence that the Red-Headed Hitchhiker on Route 44 is real, and that might be enough for the skeptics among us. He has never been recorded by tape or film and never been photographed. Descriptions of him vary. He never talks or explains why he might be there. There is no record of who he might. Just because his existence can be explained by science and anthropology and superstition doesn’t mean it has been.