Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Page 105: The hairy-armed hitchhiker

This legendary encounter in The Billionth Monkey is based on the myth dubbed “The Hariy-Armed Hitchhiker,” even though some later permutations of this urban legend don’t involve hitchhiking at all. It’s basically a “stranger danger” story: A woman narrowly escapes gruesome consequences when she agrees to give a ride to a little old lady who turns out to be a homicidal man in disguise. As Belanger tells us on page 111, the myth has its origins in the 1977 “Yorkshire ripper” scares. The "hairy-armed hitchhiker" legend became so popular that at least seventeen different police stations received reports of this near-miss that happened to a friend-of-a-friend. It soon spread to other locales throughout England and from there into other countries. The original tale is generally of the following form:
A young woman in Leeds was getting into her car during a blackout when she is approached by an old woman asking for a ride, as she cannot find her way home in the dark. The driver agrees. However, as the hitchhiker places a large grocery bag in the back seat, the girl notices something suspicious about her passenger: hairy arms. Thinking quickly, the driver asks the stranger to check her recently-repaired tail-lights, as she wouldn’t want to have trouble from the police. When the obliging stranger exits the vehicle, the driver takes the opportunity to speed off. Only later does she look in the big grocery bag left behind and discover that it contains a hatchet.
Image source: Freebie Photography.
By the time the story made spread across the US in the 1980s, the location became a shopping mall, and other details fell away: The scenario shifted away from a hitchhiker—which by then was a less common sight in the US and prone to more suspicion thanks to things like the movie The Hitch-Hiker (1953)—to the more ubiquitous American shopping mall. There is no blackout. And sometimes the hairy arms are missing in favor of some more generalized suspicion.

The 1953 movie The Hitch-Hiker caused this urban legend
to move to American shopping malls.
By the 1990s the story morphed further: Returning to her car from shopping at the mall, a young lady discovers that she has a flat tire. The nice man who offers to help her turns out to be a not-so-nice killer. This variation appears to have its basis in a real-world incident from 1989. As Mikkelson (2011) reports,
On 16 December 1989, 29-year-old Sedrick Cobb kidnapped 23-year-old Julie Ashe from a department store parking lot in Waterbury, CT, after he helped her change a flat tire on her car that he had let the air out of while she was in the store Christmas shopping. He then drove Miss Ashe to a wooded area, raped her, bound her, and pushed her off a dam into an icy pond 23 feet below. Her feet were found protruding from the ice on Christmas Day, nine days after she disappeared.
Although the legend has changed, chameleon-like, to reflect current events like the 1977 ripper scare or a 1989 murder-kidnapping, its roots are actually much older. Mikkelson points to antecedents going back as far as the early nineteenth century.

This urban legend is a favorite of academics. As Brunvand explains, “The story appeals to folklorists because of its long history, its numerous texts and variations, it similarity to some current crimes, and its thematic content.” (2001, p. 186). The most interesting elements are:
  • The intended victim is always a young woman.
  • The assailant is disguising his gender by dressing as an elderly woman.
  • The absence of a male rescuer.
Naturally, different people bring different perspectives to bear when analyzing this story. As noted at the beginning, it can be taken as a “stranger danger” tale, expressing a general xenophobia symptomatic of the Mean World Syndrome (which we will discuss when we get to page 149). Carroll (1988) offers a Freudian explanation, arguing that the killer symbolizes the mother and the tale reflects her daughter’s feelings on realizing that her mother doesn’t have a penis. The lack of a male rescuer makes this a tale of female empowerment.

Recent research confirms that hitchhiking can also be very dangerous for the hitchhiker.
For Further Reading

Brunvand, Jan Harold, “The Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 184–6.

Carroll Michael P., “The Sick Old Lady Who Is a Man: A Contribution to the Psychoanalytic Study of Urban Legends,” Psychoanalytic Study of Society 1988, 13: 133–48.

Mikkelson, Barbara, “Shopping Mauled,” Snopes.com, April 8, 2011.

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