Vanishing Hitchhikers are an incredibly common motif in American folklore. Every state in America has at least one version of this story which is told and retold. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand even used these stories as the keystone of his 1981 book The Vanishing Hitchhiker, which introduced the concept of the urban legend to a large audience. Urban legends are tales that occur in contemporary setting, are influenced by popular culture, and reflect the concerns and worldview of contemporary societies. They are the folklore of the now. They are, by and large, not stories of things that have happened, but stories of how we think things should happen. This is important to understanding why this story is told.
There are multiple versions of the Lydia story, but there’s one detail of the story that is consistent through all the tellings. She’s returning home form a dance. And that, in a midcentury Southern setting, is not a neutral place. Lydia is a young, white woman who is subtly stretching the boundaries of what he socially accepted role is.
For a middle or upper class white woman in the midcentury South, there was a high commodity value placed on a young woman’s purity and social reputation. In a world where women had very little ability to control their own social destiny, and where women were entirely economically dependent on their husbands, endangering that reputation was to face financial and social disaster.
The balls and cotillions of the time were an elaborate vetting process to determine a young woman’s social worth and marriage value. There was an approved structure for displaying these social skills. But this isn’t what Lydia was attending. This was a dance. A place where the structures were looser, and the temptation to sin didn’t have the boundaries of patriarchal control around it. And to make matters worse, she was traveling from that dance alone in a car with a boy.
This is not an innocent detail in the context of the time. Girls were just not supposed to be alone in cars with boys they were not related to. It was to invite people to talk. And to invite the temptation for that talk to be justified. That she might have just wanted to dance would never be the limit of the gossip.
This story seems to originate at a time when this was also beginning to change, as automobiles became commonplace and life spread out into the suburbs, and this story reflects that tension. But there’s also an assumption of the superiority of the old school morality is indicated by the fact that, even in the context of the story, Lydia’s death is an event already long past. She is expected to have known better. She’s a warning to the young women of today.
Lydia, by traveling alone with a boy, has placed herself in a situation which has the potential for multiple transgressions. She has the opportunity to drink. To smoke. For possible sexual encounters. And who knows what kind of devil music they were playing at that dance? Maybe rock and/or roll music. She is in a situation which pushes the boundaries allowed for a young woman in midcentury America. And while we are traditionally given no narrative confirmation that she has actually indulged in any of this, just for daring to push the boundaries, she is punished.
And for her sins, she is doomed to eternally be attempting to return home, to return to a state that will remove the stain that the transgressions have placed on her. When maybe all she really wanted to do wast just enjoy a dance.
Even in the afterlife, Lydia is offered no agency in her life. She is forever dependent on strange men being willing to pick her up by the side of the road, subtly signaling that she has reduced herself to the social state o a prostitute. She is, in effect, being shamed through eternity.
These types of morals are part and parcel of the whole genre of urban legends. These stories are almost inevitably tales of punishment for those who stray outside of the boundaries of midcentury white, middle class America. They speak to the inherent anxieties and precariousness that arise from inhabiting a position whose boundaries are inherently defined by otherness. In the urban legend , to transgress boundaries is to bring doom. To contact the other is to place yourself in danger.
This is the point of the story, This is why the story continues to be told and retold, because that idea of white femininity as something which must be protected and kept pure is still very deeply embedded in American culture, in the South, and in North Carolina. Efforts to track down the “real” Lydia are missing that point. Because ghost stories and urban legends don’t really deal with facts and figures. They deal with larger certainties than death certificates and newspaper clippings.
This is folklore. These are the stories that we tell because they tell us about our ideas of the world. Hunting for real-world details to back up the truth of the legend allows the larger narrative to go unquestioned. There is no one Lydia because, even to this day, every girl is Lydia. Every young woman faces a world where her choices will be prescribed and her actions and appearance subject to an appraisal that won’t stop even after she’s dead. When maybe what she really wants to do is just enjoy the dance.
And we can change those ideas through those stories. We can be conscious of the stories that we tell.
There were over 16,000 traffic fatalities on North Carolina roads in just the first decade of this still-new century. Each of those deaths was traumatic. If we envision a world where those dead linger because of this trauma, we might also imagine a whole shadow world of transportation, where the dead travel to highway rest stops we can’t see, where chains of supernatural gas stations offer dead phantom cups of self-serve coffee. To find some meaning where all of those lives have meaning. Or imagine new ways we can interact and acknowledge those seemingly endless roadside crossed placed to mark where one of these individual lives was lost. What brief blessings could we whisper to commemorate the life of a stranger who shared the road? How can we acknowledge the real lives that are lost on the highways and backroads every day of every year?
And how can we acknowledge Lydia?
Lydia’s bridge is popular legend tripping destination. But if we really to believe it to be the site of an accident that has bound the soul of a young woman forever, maybe we should approach those trips with respect for the dead. Maybe instead of bringing electronic voice recorders and electromagnetic field reads, we should bring flowers. Maybe we could acknowledge what this story has to teach us, and commit to not binding the next generation in the same way. And maybe if we do see Lydia, we can admit to her that the sin was not hers, but ours. We can ask her forgiveness.
And ask if she would still like to dance.