"OK, so this couple, they were on a date, see. Anyway, they were parking over by the river, you know, there off of Fairbanks. Well, he turned on the radio for some music while they were parking. Then the DJ came on the air with this newsflash, about a psycho that just escaped from the Federal Pen. He was a mass murderer and a rapist, and he was missing one hand. In its place, he had a hook. The girl got scared and wanted to go home. Well, the guy was all pissed off, 'cause it ruined his plans for the evening, you know what I mean? So he started the car, and punched it ... drove real fast all the way to the girl's house. He slammed on the brakes in front of her house, and got out and went around to let her out ... and there ... hanging from the handle ... was a bloody hook!"
That's the way I remember being told the story when I was a teenager. It's an urban legend, called "The Hook," and it's one of many such that Jan Brunvand has gathered in The Vanishing Hitchhiker. Now let me define urban legend: a legend is a story alleged to be true, and in the case of the urban legend, there is no separation of time or space. To paraphrase Brunvand, to the teller, the urban legend is true; it happened recently, it happened nearby, and it was learned from a reliable source.
Many of the stories in this collection are familiar ones: my mother first told me the "Kentucky Fried Rat" story, a teacher told me of "The Spider In The Hairdo," and another teacher related the tale of "The Vanishing Hitchhiker." That's one of most widely distributed: a motorist sees a girl hitchhiking at night, offers a lift, and upon arriving at the address given, discovers the passenger gone. A man comes out of the house, and the motorist relates his story. The man replies, "My daughter was killed while hitchhiking, on this night, X number of years ago." Not only is this story well dispersed, it also appears to be quite old; variants are mentioned that predate automobiles, instead using horse-drawn vehicles. There are even some versions where the revenant (one who returns) walks with an unsuspecting traveller, only to disappear. Brunvand also lists some examples where the hitchhiker is male; the context usually implies that he is Jesus, or in Utah, one of the Nephites of Mormon tradition. In the cases involving religious figures, the spirit usually makes a prophecy before disappearing.
Brunvand includes some analysis of the legends, although it tends to be brief. "The Hook," for example, may serve to warn young people that there are risks associated with premarital sex. It may also illustrate a society's fear of the handicapped. And is the hook in the door handle a symbolic penetration? "The Snake In The Blanket" (venomous snakes carelessly sewn into textiles from Third World nations) shows a distrust of large corporations, and also of other cultures.
Urban legends have managed to permeate our popular culture. "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" inspired a bluegrass classic, "Bringing Mary Home." A variant of "The Runaway Grandmother" became a scene in National Lampoon's Vacation. There's even a film entitled Urban Legend.
Brunvand has written more books on the subject of urban legends. This one is his first, and having the most analysis, is in my mind the best.
For more on urban legends visit the AFU & Urban Legend Archive, the Urban Legends Reference Pages (this site has an interesting feature -- color-coded bullet markers to indicate stories that have been verified as true or false), or the Urban Legend Research Centre. If you are a skeptic, and serious about it, you may want to check out The Urban Legend Combat Kit.