Monday, 12 November 2007

Legends that go bump

The following stories are explored in far more detail in my recent book, The Ghost that Closed Down the Town (Penguin,2006), but hang together here because they are so obviously urban legends.

One reason people enjoy urban legends so much - besides the fact that they are convinced these wonderful tales happened to a friend of a friend - is that they are often hilarious, with punchlines that could have been dreamed up by comedians.

But, just as often, people enjoy urban legends for the exact opposite reason: because they are tales so hideous, or so terrifying, that we are able to get maximum impact from re-telling them to nervous listeners.

This is especially the case when ghost stories take on, err, a life of their own. They cross over from the country of the supernatural into the land of urban legends, and are told and retold throughout the world as stories that belong to whichever area the listeners will relate to best.

The haunted hill

On the outskirts of Pretoria, just as you pass the military base on the way to the highway, a short, uphill stretch of road is haunted by a motorist who died there many years ago. If you stop your car there, and leave the brakes off, your car will suddenly start rolling ... uphill! The ghost of the dead motorist is parked in that exact spot, waiting for others to pause there. And when they do, he pushes them uphill with his own, phantom car.

Alas, for ghosthunters, this is a phenomenon known the world over, and in several places in South Africa.

In the United States, a typical example is a tourist attraction called Gravity Hill, where the road slopes slightly downhill, and trees along the side of the road, instead of leaning the other way, also lean downhill, but at a sharper angle, giving the illusion that the road slopes up. In Pretoria, the road architecture, along with bridges and buildings conspire to create a similar optical illusion. An article entitled Physicists Show "Antigravity" Mystery Spots Are Optical Illusions finally laid this ghost to rest.

The vanishing hitch-hiker

One of the world's best-loved urban legends is the tale of the vanishing hitch-hiker: the mystery woman who hitches a ride on a dark and stormy night.

She tells the kind motorist where she lives, and off they go. But when he turns to speak to her, she's gone, leaving just a gust of chill air. He arrives at her home, only to learn from her parents that she died ten years ago, on the spot where he picked her up, and had been trying to get home ever since.

In some versions, he had let her put on his leather jacket, and he later found it hanging over her tombstone.

South Africa boasts one of the world's best-documented versions of the legend, and even attaches a name to the vanishing lady: Maria Charlotte Roux, who died in a car accident on a lonely road near Uniondale in the Eastern Cape on 12 April 1968. At least three motorists have gone on record claiming to have given her a ride since. However, none of their versions are consistent - one involves stereotyped ingredients like hideous laughter and screams in the night.

But another fascinating version does not rely on lonely roads or stormy nights at all. In fact, it takes place in one of the most densely populated areas on the continent. We're talking of Vera, the hitch-hiking ghost of Meadowlands.

Vera was a Soweto socialite who was shot by her lover in the late 1950s, and has been trying to catch a ride home ever since. Legend has it that she waits for a minibus with only one seat free - which she then claims. And when she boards a bus, the legend goes, the passengers will never reach their destination alive.

Besides its international pedigree, the fact that no one could possibly have testified to this actually happening is proof of the tale's legendary nature. Yet, people have told me to my face that they refuse to accept my argument: they simply won't board a taxi in Meadowlands if there are only two seats left - for they will have to take one, and Vera will then take the other.

Read, among many other stories, more about Vera and the self-proclaimed ghostbuster who claimed to have exorcised her in The Ghost that Closed Down the Town.

And read the book that first turned me on to urban legends, Jan Harold Brunvand's first word on the above topic, The Vanishing Hitchhiker.

Trained to help

Trains are mournful creatures at the sunniest of times, with their wailing hooters and the endless rhythm of wheels over tracks, and many is the tale of a haunted train on its way to some ghostly destination. But at a certain lonely railway crossing in the middle of the Karoo, it is the tracks themselves that are haunted.

One night many years ago, a schoolbus crammed with children on the way back from a day's outing was crossing the tracks when it stalled. Before the driver could react, a train approached, smashed the bus, and killed all the children. Luckily, being children, these are compassionate ghosts. They now hover over the crossing for eternity, waiting for other motorists who get stuck, and push their cars over the tracks if a train approaches.

Equally luckily, this is really an urban legend, told as a true story around the world. You can virtually choose any town from a list and claim it happened there - without anyone contradicting you.

Offroad ghosts

For some strange reason, as we've seen, ghost stories and urban legends usually meet up somewhere on the road. And Vera isn't the only ghost haunting minibuses.

Some years ago,an urban legend emerged out of the lonely roads of the Eastern Free State that a haunted minibus has been abandoned on the side of the road. It was stolen in Durban, and the culprit took the side roads through the Free State on his way up to Johannesburg. But near Ficksburg, he abandoned the vehicle in terror: it had been taken over by a ghost.

It is now parked under the trees on the side of the road - and even the farmer who owns the land is too scared to come near.

If you ask the local police, though, they'll tell you the vehicle doesn't even exist. Except, of course, in the land of urban legends.

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