Legend of the Killer in the Backseat

If you live in the United States or Canada, you may have heard of the urban legend “the killer in the backseat.” If you’re reading this and you’ve never heard of this, drop me a line to tell me where you grew up, as I’m curious about which parts of the world don’t have this one.

A dark backseat of a car
Nothing back there but trouble.

I remember hearing this one when I was a kid, though I couldn’t say precisely when or who told it to me initially. It’s about what the title says, a “killer in the backseat,” also sometimes called “High Beams.”

The story goes like this…

The Legend of “High Beams”

A woman left work late at night and took her usual route home along a dark, deserted highway. She stopped at a gas station to grab a coffee and fill up the tank on the way. After her brief stop, she hopped back in her car and resumed her drive home.

A minute later, she noticed a car coming up behind her in her rearview mirror. The car began to flash its headlights and swerve. She didn’t recognize the vehicle, and a little afraid, she sped up to try and lose the car. The car kept with her and put on its high beams.

The woman kept speeding up, searching for anywhere she could stop for help. There were no houses, no stores, and not even a turnoff.

The car behind her lurched, ramming her rear bumper.

Fearing for her life, she floored it, speeding away from the dangerous car behind her. After a short while, she left the dark, deserted highway and turned onto a well-lit city road. The car that had been following her couldn’t manage to keep up as she weaved around the city streets.

When she arrived home, she ran to her front door, rushed inside, and slammed the door behind her. She peeked out the window and found the car that had been chasing her was pulling into her driveway.

A man exited the vehicle, looked straight at her through the window, and began to yell, “Call the police!”

The woman, confused, stared at the man. He kept frantically waving and yelling at her to call the police.

Suddenly the back door of her own car opened. A man in a long black coat stepped out with an axe. Before she knew what happened, the man yelling at her to call the police was resting in bloody pieces on the pavement.

The next day, the woman was found dismembered in her own home.

The killer in the backseat was never found.

That’s one version of the urban legend, anyway.

I still don’t understand how anyone would know what happened when both witnesses died and the murderer vanished.

Dexter Morgan with a caption that says, "I think I can help with that"
Blood never lies. The spatter pattern can tell us the exact route and speed the woman took on her way home from work. It can also tell us she was a Virgo with Libra rising.

Another version is essentially the same; only the woman finds a killer in the backseat while she’s still driving, and the car chasing her flashes its high beams to startle the killer as he’s trying to murder her with an axe.

In yet another version, the woman stops at the gas station, and the attendant asks her to come inside to fix a problem with her credit card. While inside, the attendant warns her that a man with an axe is in her backseat.

There are even more versions of this urban legend, all with minor details changed. The main element that holds true through all variations is that a killer is hiding in the backseat. On its own, that single element sounds plausible enough.

But did it ever actually happen?

Based on a True Story?

Spoiler: yes.

Check your backseats.

Especially if it’s nighttime right now and you’re in your car.

Here’s a news article from 1991 about the killer in the backseat urban legend, claiming that the story had been circulating for decades. The author, Jan Harold Brunvand, cites news clippings from March 1990 and another from 1935 that share some similarities to the urban legend. If that’s true, then the urban legend is quite old, considering how long cars have been around.

The article from 1991 isn’t the oldest reference I found to this legend. There might be ones even older, but the earliest one I uncovered was in “Indiana Folklore” magazine, published in 1968 by Indiana University’s Research Center for the Language Sciences & Hoosier Folklore Society.

You can read the full story printed in 1968, set in Ogden, Utah. It’s not nearly as bloody or axe-murdery as some of the more modern tellings, but all the main elements of the legend are still present.

Jan Harold Brunvand

Today, pretty much everyone is familiar with the concept of an urban legend, but that wasn’t always the case. An American folklorist named Jan Harold Brunvand (aka “Mr. Urban Legend”) popularized the concept through a series of books beginning with The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, published in 1981.

Jan Harold Brunvand taught folklore at the University of Utah and began documenting legends his students had heard after deciding there was a disconnect between his students and folklore.

“They always seemed to think that folklore belonged to somebody else, usually in the past, that was something quaint and outdated.”— Jan Harold Brunvand

Over a few decades, Jan Harold Brunvand published numerous books about urban legends, some of which even inspired horror films. He might even be the reason you’ve heard about several legends, just like the vanishing hitchhiker in the title of his first book.

One of the fascinating things to think about is that Jan Harold Brunvand popularized quite a few urban legends by simply documenting and publishing them, but he didn’t invent them. So, where did they come from?

Urban Legends Never Die

Interestingly, there are a few story elements that are fixed, no matter the variation. Of course, the killer in the backseat is one. But also, it’s always a woman driving, and it’s always a man who is the killer. Snopes has an analysis of the sexism at work in this particular urban legend; you can read that right here.

Most urban legends are hard to trace because they drift and change over time. But who knows how old any of those legends really are? Most of the documentation we have of them comes from the few folklorists in the world who catalog local legends.

Was the killer in the backseat legend a recent invention? Something that came along with cars? Or were there even older versions for other types of vehicles? Somewhere along the line, a true story may have spawned this legend. Or, perhaps it actually happened, but no one has dug up the original story yet.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time an urban legend turned out to be true.

Stories continue to live as long as there’s an audience for them. At some point, cars will become obsolete, so there won’t be room for a killer in the backseat of a car. But we will (supposedly) someday have flying cars, spaceships, and who knows what else. While our technology will change, the existence of killers won’t, and our need to tell these types of stories certainly won’t stop.

I look forward to future generations telling tales of the killer in the backseat of the faster-than-light vehicle or maybe the murderer in the backseat of the wormhole hopper ship.

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