Thursday, March 7, 2013

Urban Legend: Killer in the Backseat

Just like ghost stories, urban legends often take on the flavor of the area or region where they are told. I decided to write about “Killer in the Backseat” because it is a good example of how stories morph as they are spread. 

This legend first appeared in the late 1960s and quickly caught on. Urban legends just like folktales most often are circulated by word of mouth but what is unique about this one is that it appeared in a widely syndicated newspaper column in 1982.

One advice column, “Ask Ann Landers” appeared in newspapers across America for 56 years. During this time several woman wrote this column but in 1982 when Ann Landers was at its helm she published a letter sent in by one concerned woman. 

In this letter the woman states that a young female friend of hers experienced a terrifying incident where a car had followed her all the way home. But as it turned out the man who followed her was actually a Good Samaritan because he warned her about an armed and dangerous man who was hidden in the backseat of her car. This letter was represented as being true.

This woman’s story was the urban legend, “Killer in the Backseat”. 

Despite the persistence of this story there are not any documented cases proving it ever actually happened. * Instead it is a cautionary tale that warns women that they must be vigilant about their surroundings. This legend unfortunately is both sexist and sometimes racist. 

The assumption is that that the woman in the scenario is helpless—in all versions she needs a man to save her. In some versions of this story the male who lurks in the backseat is represented as being a minority--often a black man. In this legend this bad man’s unspoken intent is to rape and then murder his victim.

Here is one typical version of this legend:

A woman, who lived in Salt Lake City, was visiting friends in Ogden. When she got in her car to leave it was early in the morning, around 2:00 A.M. She was startled to hear a car engine start up behind her as she drove off. 

There were not many cars on the road so she was surprised to see this car follow her onto the highway. Picking up speed she noticed the car behind kept close on her bumper. Now worried, she slowed down so that the driver behind could pass. But he slowed down as well.

Concerned she picked up speed hoping to leave the other car behind but this car sped up too. After what seemed an eternity, she was relieved to see her exit up ahead. But the car followed her down the exit ramp. 

Frightened now, she ran several red lights but the driver behind did the same. Entering the street that led to her house she started to honk her horn, as she pulled into her driveway her husband hearing ran out.

The car that followed pulled in right after her. Her husband ran passed her car and grabbed the other driver as he stepped from his car. The woman ran toward the two men as her husband slammed the man back against his car. The woman quickly explained, “He followed me all the way from Ogden.” 

As the husband went to hit the man, he managed to blurt out, “As your wife got in her car…I saw a man duck down in her backseat…” The threesome glanced over just as a back door on the wife’s car opened and a man got out and ran down the street.

Despite regional variations of this legend the main story stays the same. One version has the woman stop at a gas station where the attendant lures her away from her car in order to tell her a man is hiding in her backseat. 

In another version the car that follows her keeps turning its headlight brights on and off. As the driver of the car later explains he did this every time the man in the backseat popped up, holding a knife, but the light flooding the car forced him to duck back down. 

Yet an even more violent version involves gang members hiding in a female's car as a part of gang initiations.

Some state this legend is based upon a real news story. 

In 1964, in New York City there was a case of a killer in the backseat of a car. An escaped murderer did hide in the back of a car but in this case ironically the car belonged to a police detective who shot the felon. 

Considering this story does not involve a lone female, it does not happen late at night on a lonely road and it does not have a third person that becomes involved makes it a bad fit.

Alvin Schwartz’s book, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has a version entitled, “High Beams”. Here is a recording of this story.

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