USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘car’
Life cycle

Ghost Mom and her Daughter: Car Guardians

Tim is a father of 3 children, and he currently lives in northern New Jersey. He went to Iona College in New York where he studied mathematics; after graduation, he worked for the family printing business before breaking off and starting his own. Now, he lives about 15 minutes from where he grew up, so many of the local legends he heard while growing up still apply. He told me this story while I was growing up.


Jack: “Dad, do you remember that road we used to drive down, the one that you said was haunted by a little girl and her mom?”

Tim: “Yeah, what about it?”

Jack: “Can you explain how that story goes again, and where you heard it?”

Tim: “Of course! So my dad actually told me and my siblings this growing up. The legend goes that this mom and her daughter were driving down that same road when suddenly their brakes gave out, but the problem was that the mom didn’t realize that until it was too late. When she got to the bottom of the hill and tried to brake, nothing happened, so they kept rolling into the middle of the road. Since it was early, there were some trucks going onto and off the highway, and one of them didn’t see the car so it smashed into it. The mom and daughter both died.”

Jack: “So how does the haunting come into play.”

Tim: “Oh, yeah. So the rumor goes that if you roll down that same hill, the mom and daughter will stop your car and hit the brakes for you, and if your brakes don’t work, they’ll just hold your car back. They’re basically trying to protect people from the same thing that happened to them. So these aren’t really your typical ghosts, I guess, because, you know, they’re nice. I guess ‘haunting’ is the wrong word. They’re more, like, lurking there and protecting the area or guarding the people that go there.”

Jack: “Can you see them?”

Tim: “I’m not sure about that. I haven’t seen them, but that doesn’t mean someone else hasn’t.”

Jack: “So you said that they’re guarding the area and the people there. Do you still think that they’re ghosts, or do you think that they might be something else?”

Tim: “You know, I’m not sure. They could be ghosts, but they also might be guardian angels. But then again, they’re both just spirits, so how different could they be?”


This was one of the first stories I had ever heard about a ghost possessing or controlling some sort of machinery. Since I was young when I first heard this, it’s possible that my dad made the entire thing up just to scare me or give me something to believe in, but the fact that he mentioned his dad telling him the same story gives it a bit more truth/realism. Also, my dad and his father are both very religious, so I doubt they would lie and I also doubt they would make something up about ghosts until he really thought it was true. The parallel between ghosts and angels, however, was very interesting. It is true that they are both entities, and I guess both could be characterized as spirits, but it’s strange that they could both be categorized as this considering they both carry such different connotations. Angels have a positive and friendly connotation while ghosts have a malevolent and scary connotation, but as my dad said, not all ghosts are bad.



Man With the Hook

The informant (my grandmother), loves Halloween and all things spooky. I remember that as a child, I could always expect to hear a horrific legend or other form of narrative when visiting her house. I asked the informant if she would be able to hold a video call with me over FaceTime, and during the call I asked her which of these narratives was her favorite to tell. She said it was a legend almost everyone had heard in some fashion, called “The Man With the Hook.”

“We would always tell this story on the way to Clear Lake. We’d stop the car and park on the side of the road when we got close to Napa State Hospital, then start to tell the story to whichever kids were in the car. It goes that some teenagers were parked near the hospital the night before doing something they were not supposed to be doing, listening to music and making out. Suddenly, the music stops and an announcement comes on the radio that a mental patient who had a history of murdering young girls just escaped from Napa State Hospital. We chose this hospital because in those days, it was the closest place where crazy people were put, and there was a prison part to it. He was distinctive because he had lost one hand and had a hook. The girl got scared and said she heard something outside, but the boy dismissed her saying that she was just paranoid. She yelled at him, and he got mad so he peeled out from where they were parked and sped away. Right when the car started moving she asked if he heard something, and he said no. When they got back home and stepped out of the car, there was a bloody hook on the door. They never found the man, though, and rumor has it he is still out searching for his next victim.”

This is a classic scary narrative that most Americans will say they have heard in some form. This particular version was adapted to a particular location that was convenient to the informant, so that the fear of the children who heard it was amplified by the supposed proximity of the man with the hook. The legend functions not only as a way to playfully elicit paranoia in children, but also to warn them against misbehaving. It is implied that the teenagers in the narrative are doing something that they shouldn’t be by kissing in the car at a remote location so as to not get caught by their parents, and as a result of this behavior the man with the hook almost gets them. No part of this narrative must take place in a specific geographic location, so it can easily be told by those who know it wherever they happen to be.



Collector: Do you ever say shotgun before you ride in a car?

Informant: Yeah, sometimes.

Collector: Do you have rules for that?

Informant: It’s usually when we’re on my ranch and we want to go for a ride on the four wheeler, on our ranger, which is like a golf cart. If my brother and I want to go, I’ll call shotgun. It’s usually just whoever says it first.


Informant is a freshman at the University of Southern California. She is studying Theater Arts in the School of Dramatic Arts here. She is from Austin Texas. I spoke to her while we were eating lunch at my sorority house. Much of what she told me was learned from her sister or her own experiences.


This is a piece of folklore that I personally see multiplicity and variation in. For many people, the only requirement of shotgun is that you have to call it first. In my experience, we have three rules. The first is that whoever calls it first gets to ride shotgun. The second is that everyone has to be within vision of the car. The third is that everyone has to have their shoes on. This third rule usually trips everyone up, but it has a purpose. It is to make sure everyone is actually ready to get into the car and go. Nobody can run out, call shotgun, and come back to finish getting ready. This type of thing is a funny little ritual, and people put more stock into it when riding in the front is a cooler thing to do than riding in the back, for example if you’re in a Jeep Wrangler with the front doors off.


Hitchhiking Ghost

 Hitchhiking Ghost

Informant: So there was a traffic accident and a girl died on Main Street between like Atlantic and 2nd street. I heard it from my two friends who heard from a couple of people at an event.

So yeah, there was a traffic accident and she died and now her spirit haunts that portion of Main Street. Like if you’re driving on Main Street late at night and you see like a figure, a girl, hanging out on the side of the street, you have to pick her up or else you will get into a traffic accident. Or like you will die from traffic related accident.

Okay, so, my friend’s, friend’s cousin is the one who told the story. He said that he was driving late one night and that he saw the figure. He didn’t think about it at first but then he remembers “ooooh wait, what about that story”. So he drives around just to see if she’s still there. He pulls over and then she hops into the car, into the back seat. He doesn’t know what to do so he’s kind of like, just driving around, driving in circles. She’s not saying anything, but he looks through the rear-view mirror and she’s still there. Then, he isn’t looking, but he feels like a sense of relief. The he looks back and she’s gone. That’s the hitchhiking ghost story.

Interviewer’s notes:

I consider this story to be an oicotype because variations of this story can be found throughout the world. Indeed, vague details, which may take place anywhere indicate the story is not unique to the setting. Additionally, the “hitchhiking” aspect of the story may be precipitated by the fact, that Los Angeles has a large car culture. A common story such as this one, would be even more easily transplanted in a community so fixated on motor vehicles.

Tales /märchen

The Ghost Road Less Traveled

Context: It was late one rainy Tuesday night in early November when I first approached my roommate of 3 months [the Informant] to tell me a ghost story. Like most questions proposed to my roommate, when I asked him if he knew any good stories or spirit encounters, I was met with an immediate enthusiasm for the task at hand. The Informant clearly had something he wished to present to me. Wasting very little time at all, my Informant swooped up one of the desk chairs, lowered the lights, and began sharing with me his personal ghost story. As I recorded his audio and movement, the only light in the room came from the soft glow of the LCD display on my video camera and the desk lamp which sat behind the Informant for dramatic effect. The sounds of rain  tapping against the roof and windows of the New Residence Hall could be faintly heard in the distance. What follows is the story as it was presented to me:

Interview Verbatim:

Me: “Start, whenever you are ready.”

Informant: “So, this is a personal story of mine. I was driving to a friend’s house at night, really late. I had all my windows down and uh… and uh… this was like at the point, I think this was like last year because this was the point in my life, where my eyes, my vision was getting worse and so uh… I was not driving with glasses, but uh… I was very close to my grandparent’s house, and I’ve had weird experiences in their house, as well, cause their house is like legitimately haunted. Like they even say it was, they’ve known it from like little kids, like they’d see weird shit in their windows, like people’s faces (looking out) when they were like outside, and apparently they’d bought it like near or like on top of an old Indian burial ground or land, and so that was not ah… not ah… a thrilling point for me. So I’m like literally, I’m like not even a minute like to their house is here ( he holds up a hand to represent the house)  and I’m on the road to go to it, here (holds up another hand to represent his car). So I just see like a, like this fucking thing just like run across the street, while I’m like driving, in my headlights and I’m like ‘Oh fuck!’ and I brake cause I thought, I’m almost certain at this point that it’s a deer, and I hear like a scream and I’m just like, ‘What the fuck is happening?!’ cause I hear like something hit the car, and I hear this like… literally, I thought it was like a baby dear or it sounded to me like a little child had screamed cause it was like, (gets out of chair to make ghost noise) ‘Mmmmeeeeaaaaa!!!’, so I was just like, ‘What the hell was that?!’ (begins to laugh) Hahaha! I freak out because I’m like ‘Did I just kill a deer?’, and I just like get out of the car and there is like literally nothing there. There’s no dent in my car, no trail of any sort, there’s no deer running around, and I’m just like… and I’m just like…’What is happening!’ (holds hands on his head)

Me: “What do you think it was? What you saw, I mean.”

Informant: “I think it was like the ghost of a little Indian child, now that I think about it, because when I think about like the imagery, I didn’t see like a deer. I kind of saw like this blur, like run and it had like a scream which scared the crap out of me, and then I heard a thud, so I thought I hit something and so it freaked me out.”

Me: “Do you think that it had anything to do with you being on top of the Indian burial site or near to the site?”

Informant: “Oh absolutely, without a doubt. I’ve had so many weird experiences on that road.”

Me: “Where is this road?”

Informant: “A place called Fair Oaks, in Texas. And Fair Oaks has been there for like a long time too, so there’s a lot of old land out there. So I wouldn’t be surprised about all the shit that goes on out there.”

Analysis: After hearing this story and reviewing it, I’m not really sure what to make of it. All the pieces are in place in order to create a very frightening experience, but the “skeptic” within me points to this being a simple misidentification. The fact that the Informant prefaced the story by addressing his loss of eyesight seems to indicate that this may just have been a large bird or unknown creature making its way across the road which was not seen clearly. What is, however, very interesting is the sound that supposedly accompanied the apparition, as it crossed the road and the thud he experienced from within the car. This may have possibly been a direct result of him applying the brakes very quickly and having his car jolt to a sudden stop, but it does add some credibility to the encounter. The fact that this encounter directly correlates to the former site of an Indian burial ground also seems to give this experience some validity. The Informant appeared to be shaken from this event and believes this to be evidence of the paranormal.


Calling “shotgun” for a car

The informant describes a game his friends and he would play at home throughout high school and still today in college.  He recounts many times fighting over spots in the car by playing the game, “shotgun.”

Shotgun is a game involving a group of people about to drive somewhere and get into the car.  The game involves deciding who gets to sit where in the car.  The driver takes the driving seat, but the second best seat is generally accepted as the “shotgun” or the passenger seat in the front.  The goal of the game is to get the “shotgun” seat by calling “shotgun” out while the car is visible.  Another individual can steal the “shotgun” seat if they yell out, “blitz” after “shotgun” is yelled.  This indicates that the other person is blitzing the “shotgun” call and getting the front seat.

Interestingly enough the phrase “riding shotgun” originated in 1919 and was later used in print and especially film depictions of wagons and stagecoaches in Wild West movies.  The game is commonly played among teenagers who have recently acquired their licenses.  This shows an interesting liminal stage teenagers enter when they first gain the ability to drive in high school and it makes sense that there are traditions or games that are popular among this transition.

Folk Beliefs

Pig Legend

Informant Background: This individual was born and grew up in Hawaii. His family is of Japanese and Chinese descent. He speaks Japanese and English. His family still practice many Japanese traditions, also many Chinese traditions. They celebrate some of the Japanese holidays. Many of the folk-beliefs and superstitious are still practiced. His relatives who are Japanese lives in Hawaii as well. He currently lives in Los Angeles to attend college.


In Hawaii, there is a tunnel that runs through the mountain. It was a site of battle in ancient Hawaii. It is to be believed that it is full of spirits of the warriors and the chiefs who died in that battle. The one thing you cannot do is bring pork…You can bring anything you want, but not pork. Pork is a big part of a lot of beliefs in Hawaii. Pig in ancient Hawaiian culture is depicted as a pig-god so to bring a dead pig is then to bring the god in dead form to the ghost of the people.  If you bring pork over that tunnel, your car will stop. The way to make it start again is to get rid of the pork somehow like throw the pig out the window. 

The informant stated that this is a knowledge passed to him through his grandparents as he was growing up in Hawaii. He said he never had direct experience with his car stopping but heard from others who forgot to follow the rule and had their engine stopped working.



This legend also shows different beliefs and perspective on how different cultures and places values different animals and objects to be sacred. In this case pig is considered sacred while for Hindus cow is sacred. Though these beliefs seem strange when looking in as an outsider, it plays a large role in the culture.

This legend also shows how the belief transcends generations and technological development through overlapping ancient warrior battle with sacred god-like animal figure with automobile engines. The legend also shows how the believability of the tale can be carried on through a memorate. If one car engine stopped over that tunnel while there is pork in the car, then the legend can continue.

The pig can also be considered as contagious magic. The pig/pork is an object that will be automatically cursed once put into the area. The pig/pork curse can be lifted once the item is discarded; the item is cursed, not the person or car.


Car Game – Zitch Dog

Basically, the point of the game is if you see a dog, you have to be the first person to say, “Zitch Dog!” and then you get a point. Person with the highest score by the end of the car ride gets free dinner.

My informant brought up this game during a long car ride with me and a couple other friends.  He told me that he learned of this game when he was taking a road trip with some of his other friends.  Although, the last time he played, the person with the lowest score would have to pay for everybody’s dinner.

I decided to research the origins of Zitch Dog and found that it came from an episode of “How I Met Your Mother.”  As an avid fan of the television show “How I Met Your Mother,” I had seen the episode before but had assumed that it was already an established game.  I was surprised to find that the writers of the show had invented it.  The one main difference between the TV show version and my informant’s version is that in the show, there is no real prize for the winner, only bragging rights.  When I asked my friend if he was aware that it came from the show, his response was that he had never even heard of the show before.  While folklore has had a big influence over published media, this case is an excellent example of media creating and affecting folklore.

Harris, Chris. “Arrivederci, Fiero.” How I Met Your Mother. Dir. Pamela Fryman. CBS. 26 Feb. 20007. Television.


Punch Buggy

Whenever you see a Volkswagen Beetle car, you have to yell “Punch Buggy” and punch another person.

I found out about this game when I saw my informant’s girlfriend yell out, “Punch Buggy,” and proceeded to punch him. I asked them what this punching business was, my informant informed me of this game.  I asked him where he had learned this game, and he told me that his cousins had taught him.  On the other hand, his girlfriend told me that he had learned of this game from the recent commercials made by Volkswagen that featured this game.

Currently, the true origins of this game are unknown.  However, they have been able to determine that it probably started around the 1960s.  My theory on how this game began is that it might have started as a marketing ploy from Volkswagen to popularize their Beetle car.  Eventually, the game became so widespread that the original origins became obsolete.  In 2009, Volkswagen utilized this game into their commercials which only helped to further popularize the game.


Car Game – Jello

To play Jello, all you need to do is to let your body naturally sway with the movements of the car.

My informant told me about this game while we were sitting in a car full of people.  She told me she had learned about it from her best friend while they were riding the bus.  After talking about it, we started to play Jello.  I noticed while we were playing that there is a competitive nature to the game; the people in the car would also use the force of the car movements to powerfully shove people really hard to one side of the car.

This game was probably developed as a way to make a car ride more interesting and fun as it gave passengers something to do.  At the same time, a typical car ride is filled with a lot of movement.  From my experience, whenever I sat in a full car, I would be constantly leaning and bumping into the people sitting next to me every time the car turned.  Either, I or the other passengers would be constantly apologizing for invading each others personal spaces.  By playing Jello, this awkwardness is eliminated as it is completely okay to lean on other people in order to participate.