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, the people are natural storytellers. Many things that happen within the Triangle become the subject of local lore, and in turn much of the mythos of the area seeps into the people’s collective consciousness, turning explainable shadows into ghosts. The truth might be somewhere in the middle, and at that crossroads lives the Redheaded Hitchhiker of Route 44.
For as long as people in the area can remember, there have been claims of 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.
The description of the ghost is always the first thing that draws people in to the story. A driver is going along Route 44 at night, usually near the Seekonk-Rehoboth line when they encounter a well built man between the ages of forty-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, but there are some stories where he is 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 that adds fuel to the skeptic’s argument against the existence of a genuine spirit on 44.
While the man’s look might draw people in, it is the stories of his exploits that keep people coming back. There is something about them that rings familiar, but like many things in the Triangle, there is a twist. There are many variations of the story, making him either a complex spirit or a subject of a town’s imagination. Someone is driving along the road, usually alone, when they see the man on the side of the road. They stop to pick him up and the hitchhiker gets into the passenger or the back seat. He remains silent, ignoring questions and often staring at the good Samaritan. He eventually vanishes before their eyes or is no longer there when they turn to look. This is usually followed by some type of audio finale where he laughs at them, yells or taunts them.
There are other tales attached to the mysterious man. Much like some of the stories from Freetown, there are also tales of people who drive through him, only to find no evidence of an impact when they stop. Others have seen him on the side of road, vanishing into the woods or waving and disappearing. Still others have been scared to see him outside their car window while they were traveling at high speeds or have had him suddenly be in their backseat.
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.
The earliest 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 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.
People in the town have mixed feelings about their resident ghost. In a town known for its many hauntings, the hitchhiker is the most asked about. Law enforcement hates the attention, and the investigators, he brings to the town, but some residents embrace it. Asking a local merchant will get you another story, usually beginning with the preface that it did not happen to him and it was a few years back.
Not all the stories are told in the past tense. One woman claims she saw him walking into the woods on another road. She describes him differently and claims he never had red hair but rather died on another road with the color red in it, most likely, Redway Plain near Wilmarth Bridge Road. She says a local farmer died on that road after getting hit by a car changing a tire for a stranded motorist. None of this has been able to be confirmed.
Chris has an uncomfortable relationship with the ghost. He first read Robinson’s books when he was younger, and became so interested he contacted the writer to talk about the story. He eventually lost the book and recently bought it again when the price had come down on a website. He knew some of the history of the road, and had seen two people die on different part of it over the years.
“I’ve made several attempts to try to reach the phantom but have come up dry each time, although strange things did happen. The first inspection resulted in a tire exploding when there was nothing visible on the road that could’ve popped the tire. The second instance was when my car stalling for a few minutes due to overheating.” He says there was nothing wrong with his car before reaching that stretch of road.
He has all but given up looking for the ghost because of what happened the first time after his tire blew. “While waiting for a tow truck driver we were hearing noises most of the night. There was rustling and we thought it was the wind. It didn’t sound like an animal and we heard walking. We didn’t want to turn the radio on because the story says he can talk through that. We turned the radio and our cells off. It was scary. I had read the story when I was 7 or 8 and it creeped me out enough. To be that close was too much. The truck came and then the rustling just stopped. We were eager to get going.”
While he can explain all of that away, another time driving down 44 makes him put more weight into the stories he hears from others. “I traveled down that strip of road again. It was late and I had fallen asleep as my other friend drove. She stopped short and was panicking. I woke up startled and confused. She said she thought she hit someone and we looked around to see no one in sight. Then I recognized where we were. I told her to get going and not to ask questions, to my surprise the car didn’t start right away and after the third try it did. We drove off and I explained to her about the Red Headed Phantom and she flipped, claiming the man she thought she hit looked like the ghost I had described.”
Another woman name Alice claims her and her friends saw the ghost. “Some of us snuck out one night and walked down that whole road all the way to the railroad tracks. We think that we saw him. We all did. Let me tell you, when we saw that misty figure in the shape of a man, we bolted down that road back to the house as fast as we could.” While Alice and her friends might have seen something, maybe even a ghost, it is only the location of the sighting that connects it to the hitchhiker. According to research, he has never been seen as just mist.
Wanda became interested in the history of the ghost after having seen him in her car one night. She 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. “I looked into it, but I found nothing about him. Who this guy is is a mystery. Why he is here is a mystery.”
Stories like this are not unusual. Like a highway boogeyman, the hitchhiker takes the blame for everything unexplained happening on the road. Then there are those natural things made to feel more supernatural given the history of the ghost. The explainable leaps into part of the lore, and witnesses become convinced before rational thought can enter the question.
It feeds the mythos of the story. Most of the modern stories about the phantom come from second and third hand stories. People retell them as true, almost as if they had happened to them. 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.
The stories also start to feel like urban legends. Melanie has never seen the ghost before, but she says the story travels with her and her friends when they drive around. “Here are some things I have heard from reliable sources about hitchhiker in Rehoboth. Apparently what happens is if you have three people in the car and one empty spot in the backseat he supposedly appears in the vacant seat for awhile, and then vanishes. The second thing is a bit more frightening. The driver will look over at the passenger in the front seat and see the hitchhiker. Upon his disappearance, the passenger will have no recollection of what happened. The second one happens more frequently than the first. Still, I haven’t heard enough information to be comfortable going there. I’m sure something does happen, I just don’t want to be put in a potentially dangerous situation.” The stories do not stop her from driving the stretch of road though.
One of the last stories told about the hitchhiker is almost textbook urban legend. John has never had an encounter with a ghost, but his brother’s friend had the air taken out of his lungs by something he saw on the road. “He 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.” This sounds like it may be true, but John goes on to tell how to bring out the spirit. “See, he had driven to the town line. They say if you drive to the town line, turn off your lights and honk three times, he will appear in your car or in your headlights when you turn them back on. This guy had tried that, but it didn’t work. I guess the ghost was slow that night.”
Stories like this make the believer in us nod our heads and avoid roads. They make 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. We are taught this connection between roads, crossroads and evil early. A recent children’s book explores the alphabet by using American traditions to go from A to Z. V is for Valley Forge and W is for the White House. X is for the Crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul.
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 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: The Unexplained Explained by 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.
Alan Alves describes the active mind and the creative mind. The creative mind is our subconscious where all of our memories are stored. This kicks in when we are driving though places we have traveled before, much like the local residence who represent the bulk of the reported sightings. We basically have this part of our brain take over, which is why we often get home and do not remember anything about the trip. During this time our imagination takes over. We can create very real monsters and ghosts to fill the time, although Alves also admits we may also be open to the paranormal that exists in this state.
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. If you look at the reports before the area was modernized some things stick out. First, most of the people reporting the occurrences did so with no sinister 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.
The first encounters may be true. The stories date back longer before the Internet and before people from the outside started to come in looking to pick him up. The stories were probably met with a half nod when they were told. The original accounts were not farfetched and told by friends. Then the stories started to mix with movies and something someone had heard somewhere before. They became part of the town and people no longer remembered where they had heard the story from. There is a ghost on the patch of road leading into Seekonk, but he is no longer the man people would recognize. Now only the legend of the ghost haunts the town.