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“The Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker” Urban Legends

The following is a newspaper report from England that contains the motif by which most subsequent versions of this legend continue to be known, despite the disappearance of the motif in many later variations: An extraordinary story is going the rounds in Leeds and the best efforts of experienced journalists have failed to establish its veracity—or otherwise. It is always told in the most circumstantial terms and the girl at its centre is often identified as working in a hospital or a bank.

According to the story the girl was getting into her car during a power blackout when she was approached by an old woman who asked for a lift home as she could not find her way in the dark. The girl agreed and as the stranger was getting in “she” reached over to place a shopping bag on the back seat. The girl noticed that the hand holding the bag was large and hairy. . . .
She thought quickly and asked the stranger to get out and check the car’s rear lights because they had been faulty and she was concerned about the police. The stranger obliged. And the girl quickly drove off into the night. Later, it is said, the girl found that the bag on the back seat contained a hatchet.

The story of the disguised hitchhiker with the hairy arms, hands, or legs, or with extraordinarily large feet, or wearing men’s shoes (etc.) who turns out to be a man evidently goes back to various disguisedrobber legends known both in England and the United States since the early nineteenth century. The modern version of the legend, one of the best-known crime stories of the late twentieth century, developed in England during the “Yorkshire ripper” scares of 1977 and quickly spread and became localized elsewhere in England as well as in many countries abroad. Sometimes it is called “The Assailant in Disguise,” “The Hairy-Handed Hitchhiker,” “The Hatchet in the Handbag,” or simply “The Sick Old Lady,” and it is similar in several ways to “The Killer in the Backseat.”

The original English circulation of this legend, as Sanderson and others demonstrated, reflected the public’s extreme concern about a series of gruesome local crimes during a period of power blackouts. But the story soon spread to other regions and was even turned into a literary piece that was broadcast on the BBC. The clear warning of the story was that lone women drivers should never allow strangers, even innocentappearing ones, into their cars.

In American versions of the legend, which began to circulate in the mid-1980s, the incident is often said to have happened in a shopping mall’s parking lot. The intended victim—always a young woman—occasionally notices the person’s hairy arms or hands, but more commonly she simply grows suspicious of the stranger’s request for a ride home. She either invents an excuse to return to the mall, where she alerts a security guard, or else tricks the would-be assailant into getting out of the car, then locks the doors and drives off. Later she finds a knife, hatchet, meat cleaver, or the like inside the “old woman’s” purse or bag. Some people telling the story emphasize that given the right strategy and with enough courage, a modern young woman may extricate herself from a dangerous situation rather than having to summon male assistance in the person of the mall security guard.

An updated version of the legend, sometimes called “The Mall Abductor,” appearing in the 1990s described a man coming to a woman driver’s aid when she finds that her car parked in a mall lot has a flat tire. The stranger changes her tire, then asks for a ride to his own car parked on the other side of the lot. The woman pretends to have other errands in the mall, declines to transport the man, locks her car, and returns to it only after staying in the mall for another hour. Later, in a bag left behind by the “helpful” stranger, she finds a rope, a knife, or other tools of the assailant’s trade. She also discovers that her flat tire did not actually have a puncture. A moral for the story is sometimes attached: “Learn to change your own tires!” Circulation of this story is largely carried out on the Internet or via e-mails, thus as a bogus warning. An Australian version of the story circulating as an e-mail in 2010, forwarded to me by Graham Seal, has some variant details, both in the manner of the assailant approaching the driver and the woman’s strategy for escape:

HEAVIEST STORY!!!!!!
A colleague of mine at work (Belinda) has just gathered us girls and told us that her girlfriend that works at the Galleria shopping Centre in Morley had a bit of a situation just over a week ago and all females in Perth should know about it! Her friend came out of work after 5:30 pm and walked up to her car to find an old lady standing next to it and her car had a smashed window.

The old woman said that she had seen the smashed window and she had stood by the car for 20 mins as she didn’t want anyone to come along and steal something out of it. The girl was really grateful and the old lady explained she had missed her bus in the process and asked if she could get a lift. The young girl agreed and within a few minutes she noticed that the nanna had really manly hands, so she panicked and didn’t know what to do so she ran into the back of the car in front of her at a really slow speed but enough to make the other people get out of the car, the police were called and the old lady ran and soon after the cops found a rope and a knife under the passenger seat. This happened in May 2010 on the streets of Perth.

TELL ALL OF YOUR FRIENDS!!! The Police have said there was a similar case of it happening south of the river. “The Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker” is one of the most common and most fully analyzed of all contemporary legends. The story appeals to folklorists because of its long history, its numerous texts and variations, its similarity to some current crimes, and its thematic content. Among the significant aspects of the legend are the switched gender role of the assailant, the distrust of the driver directed against another woman (and a sick old woman at that), the presence or absence of an outside “rescuer,” and the delayed revelation of the true intentions of the disguised person.

Noting that this legend almost invariably involves an elderly woman packing an axe or hatchet, Michael Carroll speculates that the legend “is in some way concerned with a daughter’s attitude toward her mother.” Specifically, he suggests that the story represents “a projection of the infantile hostility which the daughter directs toward her phallic mother when she discovers that she lacks a penis.” The latest versions, which lack the disguise motif, seem similar in their meaning to the other urban legends about threats to women from rapacious or murderous men.

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