T H E B A C K S E A T K I L L E R
This tales popularity is most likely due to the very familiarity of it. When driving your car late at night down the dimly lit roads, passing by the white bulbs of the streetlights that shine above in flickering moments as you continue your journey - we are taught to focus on the events of the road ahead.
The anger we feel at incompetent drivers is a nervous reaction cloaked in anger as they create danger on the road that you are trying to travel across. The stresses of the other cars on the road and the constant focus required to avoid a collision with a post, a wall, or an oncoming vehicle requires us to see our car as an extension of ourselves. We must look out into the world through the windows - you and your car - and then the rest of the world.
With all of this in mind, it becomes clear why the story of a killer hiding in the backseat, waiting patiently to pounce as your focus is elsewhere is so popular. For that being to be amongst that extension of yourself is in many ways the ultimate invasion of space; like a virus lying dormant, only to hit with its sickening blow at any moment.
The tale of the backseat killer roots as far back as the 1960s, spreading like wildfire as it quickly became, and remains to this day, one of the worlds favourite urban legends. The narrative spread so far and wide that by 1982, it appeared in a magazine column, written as a horrific experience that had occurred to a friend of the writer who had written in.
Although the story itself has no hard proof of ever truly happening, leading to firm speculation that this is indeed nothing but a work of fiction that has seeped its way into the vivid imagination of those that hear it - there were, in fact, several similar occurrences that felt eerily similar to the legend as recent as 2017 where a woman found a man lurking in the back of her car. She had been driving for several miles when the voice of the individual in hiding began to speak. After what I can imagine was the hell of a fright, the man explained that he meant her no harm and that she was safe - he explained he was simply hiding from trouble when she had begun to drive.
Reagan Landis recommended to the man in the backseat of her car that she should drop him off at a motel. He agreed, unaware that the moment he had been dropped off, she was going to call the police with his exact location. As it turned out, they were already looking for him as the trouble he had suggested he was fleeing from, were not the gangs he had alluded to, but the police themselves after he had fled a traffic stop. Fairly swiftly afterwards, the stowaway, Alan Ongiri, was arrested.
Back in 1993, a small, but equally eerie event took place when a Lawyer by the name of Robert. K. Hirsch unlocked his car at 7 am and got inside, only to hear a voice from behind say ‘give me your cash and I won’t do anything’. Robert handed the man $300 over his shoulder without looking back and at that moment, the man jumped out and fled.
The events ventured darker in the year 2013. A 26-year-old woman was at a petrol station in the U.S; she parked her van, filled it up and entered the building to pay for a couple of items she wanted. On her return, she got back into her vehicle and continued her journey. Unbeknownst to her, and something that was later proved by the petrol stations CCTV footage; an unknown man had begun to check the parked cars outside - when he found her van was unlocked, he crept inside, hiding in the back, waiting for her return.
The marauder did not reveal himself until she had driven away, forcing her to drive to several locations before dragging the victim into the back of her van and sexually assaulting her. After this, he forced her to drive to an ATM machine where she was made to withdraw cash. Once he had completed his evil deeds of that horrible night, he simply left her behind in her vehicle.
Stories of a stranger creeping into the darkness of the back seat of a woman’s car have circulated the grapevine for many years, exploding further, morphing, and evolving at rapid speeds at the creation of the internet. The burst of chain mail that blasted through the doors of early e-mails created millions of unsuspecting recipients to fall victim to false information, once again enforcing the myth of the urban legend, confusing it for reality.
The e-mails, as usual with chain-mail, left a warning at the end of their story with the messages to always lock your car doors - to check underneath and the back of your car before getting inside, and try to be aware of your surroundings at all times.
The moral takeaway from this story is to be somewhat more cautious when travelling, which on the top layer can seem to be an almost positive tale - a dark story with a cautionary meaning reminiscent of the old folk tales of age. In reality, situations like this happen rarely to never, with most assailants approaching a vehicle to commit whatever crime they intend whilst the passenger is already behind the wheel. All that being said and done, a situation that may very well have triggered the narrative of the backseat killer may have been from a true story following the events of New York City in 1964. Although, as true with all Urban Legends, the reality is nowhere near as dark or sexy, hence the common embellishment that comes over time.
In this true case, a murderer had escaped from a local prison and whilst being hunted by authorities decided to take refuge in the backseat of a car - very much a killer in the backseat in its most literal terms. Although, there is no suggestion that this was at night time and there was nobody there to warn the owner of the vehicle. This ended up not being a problem of course as unfortunately for the convict in hiding, the car belonged to a police detective and was shot on sight.
As usual, the new jazzed-up version of this story follows the same tropes we are so used to seeing. Women victimised for their actions or inactions; for the same reasons the only genre that will often have female leads is horror - the physically weaker sex in jeopardy makes it all so much scarier. Someone in the backseat of a man's car may evoke the thought ‘he might be able to fight them off’ whereas, for a woman, it is often too late for her once the killer has chosen them.
Although this is not necessarily sexism, it does open up the conversation of how we perceive the abilities and roles of the genders. With the men in horror stories often hiding their fear through anger and brute force, the men in these stories who openly show their fear, especially in horror films, do so for comedy effect - only recently have we begun to allow ourselves to accept the possibility that fear for our lives and danger affects us all.
In more recent years, the story of the backseat killer is widely known to be an Urban Legend; if you were to ask, I can imagine many would still believe in some factors of truth to the tale but overall, it is now understood to be nothing more than a scary story to tell in the dark and yet, its most recent retellings - its evolution has crept its way into the world once more - and there’s a good chance you’ve seen this for yourself.
With race relations still tense in many areas of the western world and the growing fear of gangs that is perpetuated by certain aspects of the media, the story of the backseat killer has changed to fit these narratives - playing new fears like the keys of a piano as it hits the notes that we hear and recognise in today's society.
Now told through social media more often than e-mails, you may have heard the warnings shared amongst Facebook of a gang initiation process. A trap laid out specifically for women. This trap is that on a quiet, country road, a crib, or a buggy, or pram would be left on the side of the road with what looked to be a baby abandoned inside. Pulling at the heartstrings of the maternal instincts, they would pull over to help, only to discover it was a doll, unaware that behind her somebody had snuck into the back seat of her car.
This story has many variations but they all lead to the same thing, a rape gang that trick women into getting out of their cars in the middle of nowhere so they can attack. Playing on the spreading ideas of Muslim rape gangs and foreigners that come to our western countries to prey on unsuspecting victims.
Like any evolution, you can look back at this happening, as between the original legend and what it is today is the tale of the woman driving her car, trying to get away from the man who was only trying to warn her. In these iterations, either the killer himself was a black man, or the individual trying to save her was black - but due to his blackness, she feared him as more of a predator than a saviour, thus enforcing her reasons for escape before he could explain. The original story itself worked just as it was; logically, there was no reason to ever mention the colour of any of the character's skin unless it was to make some form of statement. If there was, it would happen always, not only when a character was black.
The gang version of this legend lives on to this day with many still sharing it across whatever social media sites they use - I have even seen it myself on several occasions as it spreads across America and the United Kingdom, popping on timelines all over the Western Hemisphere with the all too familiar ‘Please be careful and please share’, often signed off by a police officer that does not exist... reporting on a crime that never happened.
S O U R C E S
(In order of mention)
“Folklore in the News (and, incidentally on the Net) ” by Jan Harold Brunvand
| 28th March 2013
| 5th May 1993
| 7th February 2017
| 7th February 2017