Puhvel, Martin. “The Mystery of the Cross-Roads.” Folklore, vol. 87, no. 2, 1976, pp. 167–77, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1260026. Accessed 9 May 2022.
Sprecht, Mary Helen. “At the Crossroads.” World Literature Today, vol. 87, no. 5, 2013.
Jackson, Craig. “Scotland – the Grisly Deeds of Alexander Bean.” BBC, https://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/sawney_bean.shtml.
Mhandu, Edwin, and Takawira Kazembe. “Urban Myths Pertaining to Road Accidents in Zimbabwe: The Case of Chinhamo Service Centre along Seke Road Linking Harare and Chitungwiza.” Africana (2155-7829) 6, no. 2 (March 2013): 170–86.
Summers, Montague. The Vampire – His Kith and Kin. 1928.
The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.
The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.
Other music for this episode: “Thor.” by Haxxy. licensed through Shutterstock
“Don’t cross the bridge! Don’t cross the bridge!”
A man shouted those words at me, and no doubt countless other people, when I was just a kid. Okay, he didn’t shout them at me, he didn’t even know I existed. He was but a voice on a record made to provide spooky ambience for children’s Halloween parties. I happened to be hosting one–meaning my parents were hosting one on my behalf–and they had bought that record. And all these years later, I still wonder who that fictional man was supposed to be speaking to. He’s not part of a story, the record, as I remember it, consisted largely of instrumentals and creepy sound effects like hollow footsteps, cawing crows, creaking doors and rattling chains. I’m sure some other people spoke up from time to time as well to say something cryptic, but his words are the only ones I remember. He sounded so urgent.
“Don’t cross the bridge.”
I managed to sell a story loosely inspired by those words. It was a rework of a story I had tried years and years before, when I first got serious about writing. In the original version, a driver heard the voice and eventually encountered its owner–a waterlogged corpse–while trying to drive across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway at night. For those that don’t know, that is the longest continuous bridge over water in the world. For part of it, you can see only water on either side of you. No land in sight. It’s a bridge I crossed as a passenger on a few trips to New Orleans as a boy. I never enjoyed it. Particularly once when a sudden downpour reduced visibility while we were in the middle of crossing.
When I reworked the story–changing much of the plot and removing direct reference to my good friend who warned someone not to cross the bridge for no apparent reason–I switched the setting from the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway to the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, also found in Louisiana. It’s another bridge I saw from the passenger side that seemed endless to me in my youth, although it was surrounded by swampland as opposed to a large lake. I’ve never crossed Pontchartrain as an adult, but I have driven over the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge in recent years. I found myself far less mystified by the length of the bridge then, possibly because I had grown-up motorist concerns to deal with, such as driving safely in two lanes of traffic sans a roadside shoulder to use in case of emergencies, at a speed most of us likely take for granted as being “not all fast,” perhaps even slow by modern highway standards. But sixty miles-per-hour is more than fast enough to be considered dangerous, especially when you’re amidst other vehicles traveling at the same speed sometimes within an arm’s reach of you. Sometimes closer. Sometimes operated by people who are far more reckless and willing to take risks than you are. All within a space that can only be so forgiving of errors, carelessness, or just bad luck.
In the previous episode, I brought up mortality rate statistics that indicate how comparatively dangerous roads can be for something most of us do on a regular basis. 38,824 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2020, a year when you’d presume there were fewer people on the roads and therefore conditions would have been safer, but that was actually an increase over the previous year. And the thing is, despite their being more cars on the road now than ever before, driving at legal speeds that are considerably higher than they were in decades past, those figures are still markedly lower than the worst year on record, which comes from half a century ago. In 1972, 54,589 people died on American roads. For some perspective, that is–in a single year–about 93% of the total U.S. fatalities from the 20 year span of the Vietnam War. And it’s not like 1972 was an anomaly. We spent over half of the 70’s and a decent chunk of the 60’s north of 50,000 vehicle deaths annually. Yet we don’t view roads as all that frightening, possibly because we can’t afford to view them that way; they’ve become too essential to our lives.
Nonetheless, there is a long history of roads being viewed as strange, dangerous, or both in ways that range from rational to otherworldly.
The term “highway robbery” is used almost exclusively in a metaphorical sense these days, but has its roots in the activities of the “highwaymen” in Europe and beyond, thieves who preyed on travelers on roads both well-trafficked and also isolated enough to make their work a little less difficult. While they inspired the legendary, loveable rogue Robin Hood, at least one of them, per a reported incident from 1781, employed the phrase “Your money or your life.” A clear threat, made a touch more interesting by the surely erroneous implication that their interests, and your options, are purely dichotomous. Either I’ll take your cash and other material valuables, or take your life. I’m pretty sure a more accurate phrase would be, “Your money, or your life in addition to your money.” I digress. The key point here is that these were armed deadly criminals. Much like pirates, they have been romanticized and even made heroic, and you can find a handful of real world examples of such men–and even women–living up to that standard. But odds are if you were accosted by a highwaymen you weren’t going to run into the “gentlemanly” sort. More likely, you’d run into a man threatening to kill you at gunpoint, knifepoint, or if they’re using a bayonet essentially both, and it was entirely possible that this man was a war veteran with experience in killing.
Sticking with legendary roadway robbers, albeit on the infinitely less Romantic side, you have the Sawney Bean clan of 16th Century Scotland. The absolute worst case scenario for what was essentially a familial team of highwaymen and women, Alexander Sawney Bean, his wife Agnes, and any of their offspring who were of age and able to participate, would ambush travelers, take their valuables, take their lives, and also take their bodies to be eaten later. The almost certainly fictional family of cannibals proved an influence on the films The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and therefore also the many films inspired by those two movies, such as the film Wrong Turn. For the main characters of each of the three films mentioned, with Wrong Turn making it evident in its title, the horror begins with an encounter or incident on the road.
In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the first sign of trouble comes in the form of a hitchhiker, a type of person and activity that many of us were warned about years before we reached driving age. Interestingly, it’s seen as dangerous from each side: It’s unsafe to pick up a hitchhiker, and unsafe to be the hitchhiker who gets picked up. In horror fiction it’s rare to see the kind of hitchhiking connection made by Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins in John Carpenter’s The Fog, where there’s not even a real hint of a threat posed by passenger or driver. It’s likewise rare for hitchhiking to appear as breezy and jaunty as the Vanity Fare song “Hitchin’ a Ride” might make it sound, at least if you’re only focusing on the chorus and tune, not the actual verses. The lyrics actually paint a sad–though not menacing–picture of a broke guy trying to thumb a ride in a downpour, watching car after car pass him by, wondering why there isn’t at least one person who’ll stop to help. Maybe, unbeknownst to him, he’s lucky that no one has pulled over to pick him up.
Not every hitchhiker in fiction turns out to be the absolute psychopath that is John Ryder from the film The Hitcher, nor is every driver the degree of madman that is the villain in the film Road Games, but usually one or the other, in a horror or thriller story, is at least going to make you a feel little uneasy.
In the real world, most accounts of murder involving hitchhikers seem to involve murderous drivers and victimized riders. From California’s Edmund Kemper and Patrick Kearney in the 70’s, to Australia’s Ivan Milat in the late 80’s and early 90’s, to a host of others, this is the more common type of deadly dynamic, but not the only way it plays out. An older serial killer, James Waybern Hall, was a murderous hitchhiker. A bit of a modern highwayman, his apparent motive for killing each of the men who picked him up was robbery. Still, the James Halls of the world are in shorter supply than the Edmund Kempers and Ivan Milats. The very nature of hitchhiking places the hitchhiker at more of a disadvantage than the driver. Ostensibly, the hitchhiker is the one in need of something the driver has the option to provide. The driver can also measure up the stranger, from a basic physicality standpoint, far more easily and earlier than the rider can. Obviously this doesn’t mean a driver has no need to be wary of picking up a hitchhiker–far from it–but generally, in short, someone with a car and means to get wherever they’d like to go has at least that much of an advantage over someone walking along the side of the road, desperate for a ride.
Maybe that’s why, in the past, I personally have felt safe giving a ride to a stranger on four separate occasions–nobody tell my mother. None of them were the stereotypical hitchhikers in the sense of being drifters or people looking to travel a long distance, happy just to go as far as you’re willing to take them if you can’t get them all the way. Two of them were men who were about to miss their bus–one man headed to his new job, the other trying to catch the last bus to take him home–who urgently needed a ride to the bus stop so that they wouldn’t be stranded. In another case it was just a guy who needed a lift to the gas station and back to his car because he’d run out of fuel on the side of the highway. The last one, which made for the longest drive, was a man whose ride home from work had flaked on him, and who would have had to walk about twenty miles or so to get home, since the last bus for the night was long gone.
That last one was the only one where I got a little nervous. It was late, a longer drive, and into a neighborhood I was unfamiliar with. Still, being the driver gave me a certain sense of security. Also, as I mentioned before, I was in position to measure these potential riders up and feel secure that they were unlikely to try anything on me. Very possibly a foolish determination on my part, since I’ve never really been much of a fighter, per se, but I am a big dude–6’4″, solidly north of 200 pounds even back then–and based on what I’ve read of serial killer types, they aren’t typically in the market for someone who’s got my size. Lastly, the car I was driving then was a simple, green, Ford Escort, so there was nothing about me or my vehicle that said, “This is worth a possible fight and / or murder.”
Still, what I did was at least a little risky and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anybody. Despite the driver posing perhaps more of a threat in the realm of the absolutely rational, the idea that picking up a hitchhiker can be frightening is so firmly entrenched in popular culture that we have ample ghostlore supporting it. In that regard, outside of an infamous, brilliant, scarring, splendid scene from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure–if you’ve seen the movie, you know the one–there aren’t, to my knowledge, many well-known examples of ghostly drivers who will pick up a hitchhiker. There are so many examples of phantom hitchhikers in modern lore, however, that the perhaps seminal book on urban legends, written by Jan Harold Brunvard in 1981, is titled The Vanishing Hitchhiker.
There are several other famous urban legends present in that book that could have been the title if they were worthier. Some that also involve cars, like the story of the “The Hook,” or “The Killer in the Backseat.” Others that are fairly well-known, or at least were at the time, like “Alligators in the Sewers.” And others, still, that may have been more localized but would have provided a tantalizing title. Far be it from me to pass up a chance to reference San Antonio in my podcast, the story “The Devil in the Dancehall,” has its U.S. origins here in my city. In fact, I know people who say they have older relatives who were present in that specific club the night the Devil is supposed to have made his appearance. I’m saving a deeper dive into that for an episode I have earmarked in season 3, but I bring it up here because, again, I think that title, “The Devil in the Dancehall,” would certainly move books off the shelves. Especially in the midst of Satanic Panics in the 80’s.
But “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” was still the best choice. It had more reach because it was a story already being told for years in different ways in different parts of the world–much less the country. In Brunvard’s book he says the earliest version of the story he could find dates to Illinois in 1876, placing the hitchhiker and drivers in horse-drawn carriages and coaches instead of automobiles. The ghostly hitchhikers in stories from across the globe range from nameless young people who died on an equally nameless road, to the mighty Hawaiian goddess Pele.
Whoever they may be, after you’ve picked them up, they will generally do one of two things. Some live up to the name of the legend and vanish from your car while you’re still driving, proving in the moment–to you and typically you alone–that they were a specter. Others will let you drive them to a destination–sometimes the gate of a cemetery, other times a far more innocuous, simple house–and maybe keep something of yours that you have to come back for later. A sweater, for instance, if you loaned it to them after picking them up in the cold. When you return for your item later, if you dropped the rider off at a cemetery, you will find what you loaned them at a grave, the name on the marker matching the name given by your passenger the night before. If it was a house, the person who answers the door will tell you that the individual you’re describing doesn’t live there anymore–doesn’t live anywhere anymore–as they died some time ago in an accident on the very road where you found them.
There are some works where the hitchhiker is more portent of something scary than the actual cause. In two different television works titled “The Hitchhiker,” one a classic Twilight Zone episode, the other a somewhat underappreciated series that aired on HBO in the 80’s, the hitchhikers in question are not responsible for any terror that ensues, but cannot help but be present for it. They are harbingers, not catalysts, but when they keep showing up in places where something’s gone bad, or someone is scared, it’s hard to tell exactly what they are.
To be a little more thorough here, Brunvard’s write-up of the vanishing hitchhiker is probably what brought it to greater attention, but the first attempt to collect the variety of such stories came in a 1942 issue of the California Folklore Quarterly that opens with an incident involving a man named Sam Kerns. He picked up a girl wearing a thin white evening gown–could she be any more ghostly?–who got in the back seat of his car because he had another person riding shotgun with him. She gave him an address to take her to, but before they could get there, of course, she vanished inexplicably. In their collection of tales, they found two variations adjacent to the ones I mentioned above. In one, the passenger warns them of a future event. In another, the passenger is not a hitchhiker, but someone the eventual driver meets at a party, who nonetheless disappears after they’ve gotten in the car, having agreed to a ride home.
I find the latter particularly interesting, because the ghost entertains the unsuspecting person for most of the night. Dancing with them, no doubt conversing, hell, maybe even getting a drink. It’s a party after all. At any point before they’re in the car, the ghost could disappear. They could do so right before the living person’s eyes, too, to make sure they don’t just assume the girl they were with just left early without saying goodbye. Instead, she–it’s usually a “she”–let’s the driver get on the road before making it in some way apparent that they were among the unliving all along. The party is the pleasant part. The drive on the road is where the ghost does something scary.
Sometimes, in horror stories, the streets are associated with a horror that is–if not quite realistic–at least more tangible. I mentioned John Ryder from The Hitcher before, a man with vaguely phantom-esque qualities, but who is at least mostly human. While Stephen King has written about paranormal horror on the road in stories like “Riding the Bullet,” he’s also given us farfetched but surprisingly well-researched and practical road horror in “Dolan’s Cadillac.” Another famous, storytelling Steven–Spielberg–got his start with an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “Duel,” which turns the road into a terrifying battleground between an ordinary, mild-mannered motorist, and the homicidal driver of a big rig. Roads can be dangerous enough, even in fiction, without ghosts, or even without deranged maniacs hellbent on taking a life. Even so, we do have a penchant for throwing an apparition or some other entity into the mix if we can.
I talked about the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway earlier. Once upon a time, legendary Italian director Lucio Fulci was granted permission to block traffic on the bridge long enough to film a scene where two characters in his masterpiece The Beyond meet. One of these two, Emily, hasn’t aged at all from the 1920’s–when she first read from a cursed book that blinded her–to the early 80’s. The other, Liza, is one of our main protagonists. You can probably guess which of the two impossibly appears in the middle of the bridge, causing the other to slam on the brakes. In the slightly incoherent, dreamlike atmosphere Fulci creates, the moment is especially fitting. That bridge–especially as Fulci films it, with no other cars present–could leave someone susceptible to something called “highway hypnosis,” a drowsy, trance-like state that can either invite sleep or hallucinations, and is more likely to plague those on a long, straight stretch of road. Something somewhat similar appears in John Carpenter’s, In the Mouth of Madness, where the protagonist essentially sleep-drives down a long, flat road at night that–along with a few impossible sights– leaves him open to wonder if he’s stuck in some kind of imperceptible loop.
Even without the potential hypnosis effect, a simple stretch of road that ought to be relatively safe can prove deadly enough to inspire local legends. Per a write-up that appeared in the journal Africana, written by Edwin Mhandu and Takawira Kazembe, a one-kilometer run of Seke road in Zimbabwe was the site of 32 fatal wrecks from May 2008 to May 2009. This, along with a few previous incidents in that area that included a bus overturning for no apparent reason, inspired several local urban myths that will quite possibly sound familiar to you no matter where you are in the world. Some people say the ghosts of pedestrians who were run down in the street now appear to other motorists, who in turn try to dodge them at the last second, which just causes yet another accident. Another driver claimed he felt spectral hands grab his and try to force him to steer into a ditch, which calls to mind the phantom hands blamed for crashes on road B3212 in England.
Back in Zimbabwe, on Seke road, another story tells of an incident aboard a “kombi,” a minibus used for public transportation. The passenger riding shotgun to the driver wore a hat so low it completely hid his face and just about the entirety of his head. As the bus neared the area prone to accidents and ghost sightings, a woman in back of the bus fell into a trance-like state, claiming to have essentially “caught the Holy Ghost” as some of us might say here stateside, except not in a celebratory sense. The spirit was with her now to warn her of a fatal wreck waiting to kill some of those on the bus. She demanded that the driver stop and for every male passenger to remove any headgear they had on. Everyone complied except for the man in front. The man whose face couldn’t be seen. When another passenger angrily pulled the man’s hat off, everyone saw that this mysterious passenger was suddenly headless. He then promptly disappeared, apparently along with the threat of a fatal accident he seemed to be there to cause, or at least oversee.
Many roads across the world have legends of hauntings and curses attached to them. But there is a particular setting, crossroads that have been traditionally considered the most supernaturally perilous places of all. Places where a wide variety of evils are waiting for you to unknowingly come to them.
As stated by Martin Puhvel in a 1976 issue of the journal Folklore, “cross-roads are associated with the appearance and activities of…ghosts, witches, and demons of many kinds. They are a place where mysterious preternatural phenomena occur and magic rites…are performed.”
And from the World Literature Today article written by Mary Helen Sprecht, regarding beliefs among certain Nigerians about roadways, “The Yoruba believe that crossroads are liminal spaces, thresholds where humans and ancestors, the living and the dead, exist on a cusp. Even in the modern hustle-bustle of West Africa, crossroads are still places you’re likely to find shrines and offerings to the spirits.”
Her interest in this particular region of the world’s thoughts on certain troubling roads came from Nigerian author Ben Okri’s book, The Famished Road, which takes its title from the work of poet Wole Soyinka that states, “May you never walk when the road waits, famished.” In the opening lines of Okri’s novel, he writes of a road that once was a river, and that is now always hungry.
You know, if I was ever driving at or near night in an unfamiliar part of the country and came across a sign saying, “Famished Road,” I think I would turn around, find a place to stay, and wait for the morning.
Blues legend Robert Johnson gave us the song “Cross Road Blues,” which was recorded here in San Antonio–had to mention that–in room 414 of the reportedly haunted Gunter Hotel. “Cross Road Blues” is not a confession to the enduring rumor that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil himself for his guitar-playing talent, once upon a time at a crossroads. Instead, it’s easier to trace its lyrics to a different kind of menace that might involve driving. At one point he references the sundown towns of the United States, places where people of color would be murdered after sunset by backwards ass racists who are burning, burning, burning if there is indeed a Hell, and if you were person of color in a car at the time, you might find yourself trying to drive as fast as you can without speeding to get away before the dark descended, a dilemma captured in the book and television series, Lovecraft Country.
Even with these realistic terrors in mind, the phantasmagorical fears of and fascinations with cross roads have deeper roots, as indicated in the Yoruba beliefs aforementioned, which match beliefs from other cultures across the globe. It is understandable, then, for some of us to fixate on that while looking for hidden meanings in Robert Johnson’s song. Especially since he also gave us a tune titled, “Hellhound on My Trail.”
Often, what can make a supernatural belief unsettling is not the notion that such things might exist, but the undeniable reality that some influential people among us are ardent believers. Even when these beliefs shouldn’t impact anyone from a hyper-strict, rational sense, when you more realistically account for emotions as well as reason, such things as burying people who committed suicide at a crossroads as a form of posthumous punishment is likely to have an adverse effect on at least some of their loved ones.
This was practiced in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. The unfortunate souls who killed themselves were not only treated as felons and had their property taken by the state, they were sometimes staked through the heart like a vampire prior to burial. The reason for this is explained by Montague Summers, early 20th Century author of books on vampirism, demonology, witchcraft and more. In Chapter 3 of his book, The Vampire, His Kith and Kin, Summers states that “it was generally supposed that all suicides might after death become vampires.” Therefore it was important to bury them in a place and manner that would inhibit their ability to roam from their grave. The four directions that are standard at a traditional crossroad would make the spirit uncertain about where they should go, in part, according to some, because they would think that one of the paths would lead to Hell. So they would remain unsure of where to go through each night until the morning, when the sun would chase them back underground.
But there’s a catch here, one that appears from time to time in such rituals and lore. In punishing the spirit of the dead, you might empower them in a different way to be dangerous to the living. As Montague stated, “woe betide the unhappy being who happens to pass by when [the spirit at the crossroads] is lingering there perplexed and confused. Accordingly, after sunset, every sensible person will avoid all crossroads since there are no localities more certainly and more fearfully haunted and disturbed.”
It was not just vampiric spirits one might find at a crossroad. Summers says that in Wales, witches slept under any boulder found at a crossroad, only to awaken at night to go about placing hexes, stealing children, adopting black cats and whatnot. An old Sri Lankan, Sinhalese poem purportedly–as translated by English-speaker John Callaway–named several different demons that waited for passers-by in places where multiple roads met. And warned specifically that people should be wary of being caught in these areas after nightfall.
In Russian lore, according to William R. S. Ralston, it was stated that a reanimated corpse–the modern equivalent of a zombie, essentially, albeit possibly more intelligent–would wait at night at the crossroads to kill and eat anyone it found.
A less hazardous but no less eerie bit of lore had it that going to a cross road between eleven o’clock and midnight on Christmas Eve–good ol’, scary, vintage British Christmas Eve–would let you hear voices telling you about what’s going to trouble you in the year to come.
With crossroads repeatedly referred to as places you avoided after sundown, that ties them metaphorically to the sundown towns referenced in Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues.” In that light, our man is likely far less diabolically indebted than poetically purposeful, which shouldn’t be a surprise.
As aforementioned, many of us traditionally have a tendency to attach the paranormal to places and circumstances that are already precarious and potentially lethal on their own. Most of us don’t look at intersections now the same way some of our ancestors did. And most of us don’t look at or think of roads in general as something scary, despite most of us probably being no more than two or three degrees removed from knowing someone who has been in a very bad, very frightening car accident, if we’re not that “someone” ourselves. But if you look for new stories about haunted highways, phantom hitchhikers and the like, you’ll find the old tales still being circulated, and fresh tales being created. Something deep within us still recognizes that these commonly used and essential spaces are also sites where many people–millions–have come to a tragic end.
In Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, he famously opens with the line, “The dead have highways.” It’s not meant literally, but when you consider all that has happened on the world’s many roads, and all the stories we tell related those happenings, it can still feel somewhat and somehow true. The dead, in their own way, have the highways, and the side roads, and the back roads, and the main streets, and more. And they’ve had them all for a very long time.