THE HOOKMAN: 60s SATANIC PANIC & AMERICA’S DUMBEST URBAN LEGEND
Everybody knows the Hookman story, right?
Two teenagers are euphemistically “parking” in a remote place one night when they hear a radio report about an escaped maniac with a hook for a hand. They drive off, and later the boyfriend is shocked to find a bloody hook dangling from the passenger door handle.
You will be amazed to learn this story never happened. The fact that a hospital or prison wouldn’t allow a dangerous hook prosthetic for an inmate was, ah, a bit of a tell. As is the fact that a man who lived with this handicap for years would probably know to open a car door with his good hand instead.
But of course that’s not the point. Tales like this circulate as cautionary parables against premarital sex–“parking,” in the parlance of that deeply lame but apparently still down-to-bone generation.
The 1960 Dear Abby column that first featured the Hookman story in print makes this very clear with the signoff, “I don’t think I will ever park to make out as long as I live.” Sure Jan.
The real moral of the story: that stories have agendas. And religions, after all, are largely storytelling endeavors.
Ye old Hookman story is part of a sturdy tradition of 20th century “homicidal maniac” tales. There’s the one about the killer hiding in the backseat (improbably based on a real story from 1964, per Snopes), the one about the threatening calls to the babysitter, the one about the murdered roommate, etc.
Pretty much 100 percent of American kids learn these stories. And 100 percent of us were forced to ostracize the one kid gullible enough to believe them, lest his credulity endanger the tribe in any potential Lord of the Flies-type survival situation.
Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand’s redoubtable 1981 book The Vanishing Hitchhiker classifies stories like the Hookman as legends: tales that are not corroborated, but still believed by at least some people. He also writes that, more often than not, these stories exist to reinforce dominant cultural values.
In the real tale of the backseat killer, the driver was a male police detective who shot his assailant. But the victim in the orally transmitted tale is always an unarmed civilian woman, because women facing violence preoccupy almost all of these stories.
Brunvand writes that in many variations, the pursuing motorist who seems to be harassing the woman is specifically said to be black. In other cases he’s a trucker, biker, or some other “socially inferior” sort.
The story of the babysitter recounts a young woman failing at the proxy task of motherhood–“Have you checked the children?” the mysterious caller asks repeatedly in many popular versions.
And in the story of the murdered roommate, we see young women forsaking the domestic sphere to pursue academia, only to encounter violence, “a stern admonition to young women to adhere to traditional values.”
In reality, women are far more likely to meet violent ends in the home than anywhere else, but that’s exactly the kind of thing stories like this don’t want you to think about.
These are not my interpretations, by the way, they’re Brunvand’s. Folklorists, he writes, presume that all of the elements of an oral tradition tell you something about the people who share it–that there is no such thing as “just a story.”
The titular vanishing hitchhiker tale may be the most oft-repeated ghost story in America, with a night-going motorist (almost always a man) picking up a sympathetic looking pedestrian (almost always a woman), who disappears mysteriously before their final destination.
This harkens back to medieval spook stories about comely young ghosts who leap onto the backs of the saddles of midnight equestrians. But the story didn’t become ubiquitous until the invention of the automobile.
Intriguingly, this narrative often takes on a religious element. In Hawaii, the hitchhiker may be not a ghost but instead the island goddess Pele. In mainland variations, she’s a nun who recounts eerie prophecies.
One story about a San Francisco cab driver reveals that he later recognizes the face of his mysterious fare in a statue of the Virgin Mary. Amazing that a modern artist captured her likeness so perfectly.
Mormons recount stories about traveling pilgrims (“Nephites”) who warn of the apocalypse. Some religious ghost hitchers speak of Jesus’ second coming, often with the implication that Jesus was himself the passenger, described in Brunvand’s book as “a young hippie in shining white.”
You’ve no doubt noticed a distinctly reactionary dint to these stories. And it’s not surprising that most of them, like the Hookman, date to the Mad Men era of the 1960s and early 70s, at least in their most popular forms.
These same cultural fears about youth, women, sex, and violence later manifested in the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and early ’90s, alongside similarly themed scares about migrants, gangs, and for some reason sewer alligators. (They can’t all be winners.)
By the time I was a kid, violent crime was in the midst of a steep decline in America that continues to this day. But I was indoctrinated to the Hookman et al anyway.
When conservative fear-mongers can’t harvest sufficient scare material, they just invent it: the Hookman, the Momo Challenge, migrant caravans, Satan, etc.
I love a good scary story as much as anyone, and I wouldn’t devote time to learning the origins of urban legends without at least a certain affection for the material. Tis the season, after all.
But from a Satanic point of view, I think it’s wise to remind ourselves that the same skepticism we apply to contemporary religious claims is due for all of the other stories that people want to sell us on, especially in the Internet age.
Because it’s never “just a story.”