We’re back with another edition of Urban Legend: Fact or Fiction. In this chapter, we take a deep dive into an old classic, The Killer in The Backseat. You’ll be double checking your car for weeks after this one.
The Story of The Killer in The Backseat
There is a story about a woman from my home town. She was coming back from a trip late at night, and stopped at a gas station to fill up. When she pulls up she notices their hours showed that they were closing up soon. Not wanting to be an imposition she asked the attendant on duty if he minded. He told her to go right on ahead. The pair makes some small talk but she started to notice he seemed really nervous. But just chalked it up to anxiety or him just being a bit awkward.
He offered to run her credit card inside for her since this was before gas pumps had card readers on them. She agreed, thanking him for saving her the trouble. He walks into the shop but a few minutes later emerges saying the card was declined. She is shocked because that card is nowhere near its limit. He suggests that she comes in and calls the credit card company on the shop’s phone. [We are pre-cell phones here too]. She is hesitant, but the fear that someone has messed with her credit card overrides her sense of danger.
The woman walks into the shop and almost immediately hears the door lock behind her. Panicked, she turns around to the attendant. “Mama I don’t mean to alarm you but there is someone in your backseat with a knife. I have already called 911 I just wanted to get you in here before he realized I saw him,” he quickly explained, knowing how bad this looks.
She starts to raise her voice and head for the door until her gaze catches something near her car. Through the shop window, she sees a large figure crawling out of her back seat. In their hand is a metal knife gleaming in the moonlight.
This legend can be traced back as far as 1964 with some certainty. The version told above, is actually a more modern telling. The original 1960s legend has the female driver pursued on the road by someone who keeps flashing their high beams, honking, tailgating, and sometimes even ramming her vehicle. When she is eventually run off the road or stops to confront the other motorist. They inform her that there is a person in her backseat with a knife or hatchet and they were flashing their lights/ramming her to prevent them from attacking. Sometimes the other driver doesn’t even bother to explain their actions. They just get out of their vehicle with a gun drawn and outright shoot the would-be attacker.
In some rare versions, she is able to shake the crazed motorist and makes it all the way home. Where she discovers the uninvited passenger for herself. These are the only tellings that break from the hero rescuing the damsel in distress trope. Since the genders in this urban legend never seem to change. The driver is always a woman and her savior as well as her would-be killer are always men.
The version with the gas station attendant pretty much always plays out like the version told above, with a few exceptions. In some tellings, the attendant sees the man sneak into her backseat and stops everything right away. In the 1990s this version also began to include an explanation about gangs doing this as part of an initiation. There was a PSA found on a bulletin board in Seattle sometime in 1994 that said an “Asain gang” would hang out at gas stations to sneak into the back seats of white women. These would be gang members were expected to sexually assault the woman and then “slash” her to get in.
Now that credit card readers on gas pumps are so ubiquitous, there is a variant that has the attendant basically doing the same thing but over the loudspeaker or walking out to the pump. Saying there is an issue and she has to come inside of the kiosk. There are even versions where the attendant and the woman fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after.
There is also kind of a reverse telling of that version. It harks back to her being followed on the road but when she stops the big reveal is the person in the backseat is her boyfriend. He is armed with a ring and flowers, with the intent of proposing. This version seems a little less common. Probably because that seems like an exceptionally bad way to pop the question.
A less frequent, but slightly more plausible version has the man enter her backseat while she is on the road with no gas station in sight. Her assailant places a doll on the road which causes her to pull over to check on it, thinking it’s an injured person. Or she has to move it since the doll is blocking the road. Some may recognize the last one from the 1980 film “Motel Hell” where this is done with fake cows.
No matter the cause, this means the driver has to pull over and is distracted enough that they are able to slip into the car. These tales are a play on real instances of groups staging accidents, then ambushing the first good Samaritan to stop. One such occurrence involving two cars happened in Philadelphia, PA in 2012 and another happened in Raleigh, NC
But what would any good urban legend be without a supernatural twist? Our last version has our potential victim driving in a city at night. Every time she stops some crazed person leaps out and start hitting the car with their hands and screaming. No matter how fast she drives she cannot escape this inhumanly fast person. Terrified, she drives to the local police station and tells her story. The cops calm her down and offer her a safe ride home. But when they go to grab some of her things from the car, they find a person in her backseat. Turns out, the crazed person was the ghost of one of the killer’s victims trying to warn her.
At its core, this is a cautionary tale warning us to be vigilant of our surroundings even in places as familiar as our own car. Since the big bad world is always lurking just outside our door.
There is an obvious dose of sexism here so let’s knock out the low-hanging fruit, stereotypical gender roles. The woman is at best a helpless victim, at worst a completely oblivious [read as incompetent] driver. The men are either looking to harm her or save her. While she reasonably sees either the attendant or other motorist’s behavior as aggressive. She is expected to hear them out because, in reality, they are the archetypal good guy [“don’t be rude”]. Because she does not realize the real evil is literally in her backseat. She is portrayed as the very definition of a helpless damsel in distress. A trope that pushes the idea that all women are victims and that most men, given the chance, are victimizers.
Though on a more positive note, it reiterates why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Or in the case of the attendant, their job. While his odd behavior is because he is trying to help, there tends to be an underlying tone of her looking down at him. The opening segment in the 1998 film “Urban Legend” is a good example of this. Even before hearing the attendance’s speech impediment, the character was already a bit short with the guy.
The Killer in The Backseat urban legend also plays America’s love of personal space and cars. Since this tale is apparently rarely heard outside of the US. On average, Americans prefer to be 2-3 feet (60-90cm) away from acquaintances and strangers. Relatively speaking this is larger than many other cultures.
We also use cars in lieu of public transportation more often. While many areas have solid systems in place, urban sprawl and other factors have left us behind other developed countries on public transportation. This is being noted because, from a non-American point of view, this can read as an odd preoccupation with cars and the seemingly impenetrable “space” they create around us. America doesn’t have a monopoly on car culture but that is a stereotype.
While we say this in every installment of this series. This time to cover every single instance of this story in pop culture would be 100% impossible. This urban legend is so saturated even limiting references to only humanoid beings who are hiding in the backseat with murderous intent, STILL yields 44 different titles. Listing all of them would be painfully boring for all involved. So we’ll keep it snappy and just do notable references.
- 1960 – An episode of “The Twilight Zone” titled “The Hitchhiker” adds some ambiguity about this legend’s origin since it aired four years before the first confirmed telling. But this episode is also a cross between the supernatural variation of this story and The Vanishing Hitchhiker urban legend. In this episode, a mysterious hitchhiker keeps appearing near the woman’s car trying to get a ride. He doesn’t even show up in the backseat until the very end. But the confusion he causes, the lone woman’s fear, and his threatening tone is in line with the tale in question. We even get a gas station at one point! The catch is the man who keeps appearing isn’t trying to save the woman from evil. He is trying to tell her she died at the beginning of the episode and needs to cross over. Adding the vanishing hitchhiker flavor to this version of the story.
- This episode was also a direct influence on the 1962 film “Carnival of Souls.”
- 1976 and 2005 – “Assault on Precinct 13,” both have different scenes with someone doing this.
- 1977 – “The Incredible Melting Man,” the melting man kills an elderly couple. He creeps into the backseat of their car while they are away from it for a bit.
- 1978 – “Halloween” Michael Myers creeps into someone’s backseat multiple times through the franchise.
- 1982 – The Killer in The Backseat showed up in Ann Landers’ column presented in the well-worn friend-of-a-friend format.
- That same year David Letterman told the story on his show.
- 1984 – “Children of the Corn” has one of the crazed children attack Burt from the backseat of his car. After he thought they were all dead.
- 1987 and 1990 – “Slumber Party Massacre II” and “Slumber Party Massacre III” both have the killer murder someone from the backseat while they are driving.
- 1998 – “The Simpsons” episode “The Otto Show,” has the bus driver Otto tell Lisa the legend as a bedtime story. The victim is chased by another car that keeps ramming her vehicle. She drives off the road into the woods to lose the other car. Before she is killed by an axe-wielding maniac hiding in her backseat.
- 1998 – “Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction” story “Bright Lights” is the supernatural version of The Killer in The Backseat.
- 1998 – “Millennium” episode “The Pest House” Frank Black chases a doctor from a mental hospital after one of its patients escapes into the back of her car and tries to kill her. When she pulls over at a gas station, the attendant saves her by taking her inside.
- 1998 – “Urban Legend” As mentioned above the opening sequence uses the gas station version of this story. Except that time, the attendant could not convince her, resulting in her driving away and getting her head cut off.
- 2005 “Sin City” the Yellow Bastard does this bit, it’s also why we said humanoid in the criteria.
- 2006 – “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” Leatherface hides to surprise a running woman
- 2010 – “Let Me In” has a 10-minute sequence where we follow the killer in the back seat from the time he sneaks in, to when he makes the kill.
- 2013 – “Zombieland” has check backseats as a rule and then illustrates why with the characters Tallahassee and Little Rock.
- 2015 – “Scream Queens” episode “Ghost Stories,” Chanel #5 is driving and a truck starts honking at her and using his high beams. When she pulls over at a gas station, he tells her about the killer Red Devil, lurking in her backseat only to be stabbed by it while #5 makes an escape.
- The series also did this in the pilot episode. When one of the security guards is stabbed to death by the killer hiding in the back of her patrol car.
- 2015-2018 “Ash vs. Evil Dead” loved having Deadites hide and attack from the backseat all throughout the series.
Is it Real?
Despite The Killer in The Backseat legend’s many incarnations and long history, real-life instances are surprisingly and thankfully scarce. Which helps it fit the tried and true urban legend format. Give just enough detail so it’s believable but vague enough to make it hard to hunt down. But, as always, some elements of this echo real life. There have been sexual assaults where the attacker hid in the backseat, while rare these occurrences sadly do happen.
As discussed previously, some groups will stage accidents that mirror one version of this tale. Though in those cases they just tend to attack and not hide in the car itself. This brings us to why many would assume the stowaway would be attacking, to steal the car itself.
When it comes to carjackings, the vast majority of assailants open the door and get into the car while the driver is behind the wheel. For tactical reasons, there is little lurking in the backseat. Since surprising the driver while the car is in motion will most likely cause an accident. This can risk damage to not only the vehicle but everyone inside. The version where the woman makes it home to find the killer herself is the only variant that seems to take this into account.
Deseret New claims there is a headline dating back to 1935 from the Palo Alto Times. With the headline “Man Lurking in Back Seat Slugs Girls. Hurls Victims to Ground, Steals Car and Purses.” But I could not trace it back that far in their archives myself.
There was also a case in 1964, that happened in New York City. An escaped murderer hid in the backseat of a car. Ironically, this car belonged to a police detective who shot him.
In 1990 in Bloomington, Indiana, a man hiding in a woman’s van jumped out when he was spotted at a fast-food drive-through. It’s not specified who spotted him but our guess would be someone behind them in line or an employee. Fitting the theme of bystanders stopping whatever crime he was planning on committing.
And in 1991 in Newark, New Jersey, a man was hiding in the back of a woman’s Jeep when he slashed the victim’s cheek with a knife. There is no confirmation on if that was his intent or if he was after something else.
So while rare, The Killer in The Backseat urban legend is:
Print Sources Used:
- Brunvand, J. H. (2012). The Killer in The Backseat. In Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (pp. 229–230). essay, ABC-CLIO.
- Brunvand, J. H. (2014). In Too good to be true: The colossal book of urban legends (pp. 97–100). essay, W.W. Norton & Company.
- Proud, James. “Backseat Driver.” Urban Legends Bizarre Tales You Won’t Believe, Skyhorse, 2018, p. 39.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. “The Killer in the Backseat.” The Mexican Pet More “New” Urban Legends and Some Old Favourites, 1986, pp. 58–59.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. “The Killer in the Backseat.” The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, W. W. Norton and Company, 2003, pp. 52–53.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold. “The Killer in the Backseat.” Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: The Book of Scary Urban Legends, W. W. Norton and Company, 2004, pp. 75–78.