Space & Innovation

Taxi Drivers Claim Ghost Passengers in Japan

Taxi drivers in Japan claim to have picked up the ghosts of those killed in the 2011 tsunami.

Almost everyone working in the public service industry for any length of time has at least a few stories about strange customers. About a half-dozen Japanese taxi drivers, however, claim to have had not just odd but ghostly customers. They report that all seems like a normal fare until the phantom passenger mysteriously vanishes from the back seat before arriving at their destination.

Not merely fodder for an "X-Files" episode or horror movie, it's claimed to have happened in real life.

According to a story on MSN.com, "At least seven taxi drivers in Ishinomaki, northeast Japan, have reported experiencing a 'phantom fare' in the wake of the devastating 2011 tsunami and earthquake. In each instance, the story is similar. A taxi driver in northeast Japan picks up a passenger in an area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. He starts the meter and asks for the destination, to which the customer gives a strange response. Either then, or sometime later, the driver turns around to address the man or woman-but the passenger has vanished. This is because, it is claimed, it was a 'ghost passenger' who was, in fact, killed in the disaster five years ago."

Ghost Stories: The Science Behind Sightings

In some cases the ghostly passenger is reported to have strangely inquired from the back seat, "Am I dead?"

There are several red flags that the story is implausible, beginning of course with the question of why a ghost would need to take a taxi anywhere. The origins ascribed to the ghosts by the taxi drivers is also curious: none of the reports have the ghosts explicitly stating that they were victims of the 2011 disaster; that detail seems to be assumed by the drivers, likely because of the area's history. Yet why would ghostly victims of the tsunami wait five years to suddenly appear and start taking taxis just to freak out some cab drivers?

The Vanishing Hitchhiker Goes to Japan Though the reports seem new, they are an interesting new twist on a very old story, in fact one of the best-known urban legends in the world. It's known as The Vanishing Hitchhiker and the basic story goes something like this: During a road trip, usually at night, a lone figure is seen standing by the side of the road. A driver stops and offers the person a ride; the drive proceeds either in total silence or with only a few words spoken. The driver later arrives at a destination and turns to the hitchhiker, only to find that the mysterious guest has vanished. Sometimes the story ends with the driver speaking to someone at the destination who identifies his phantom passenger as the spirit of a person who had died somewhere near where they were picked up.

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Folklorist Jan Brunvand notes in his 1981 book "The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings" that "The specific 'proof' in the story of the hitchhiker's actual presence in the car and her status as the ghost of a particular individual is always a key motif. Besides the book she leaves behind . . . the object may be a purse, a suitcase, a blanket, a sweater, a scarf, or some other item of clothing, or simply footprints or water spots in the car."

There are countless variations around the world, all of them told as true stories. While occasionally such spooky experiences are related as first-hand accounts, much more often they are told as second-or third-hand stories-what folklorists call "FOAF tales," or "Friend-of-a-Friend" stories.

Though rare, in recent years a few others have claimed to experience real-life urban legends. In 2014, for example, a man in Seattle claimed he was attacked outside a bar by a mysterious woman with a needle who stabbed him and then said "Welcome to the HIV club," suggesting that he had just been infected with the AIDS-causing virus. In fact AIDS-infected needles have long been the subject of unfounded rumors and legends.

Do Ghosts Exist? Exploring the Paranormal

So what's going on among Japanese taxi drivers? It's difficult to know. A few may have had some genuinely puzzling experience, but it's hard to believe that any passengers literally vanished from the back seat and exited the car without opening a door-or paying, for that matter. Interestingly, there exists a tradition of pranks involving Japanese taxi cabs and ghostly passengers, some of which can be seen on YouTube and which may have inspired the stories.

Predictably, the taxi drivers who claim to have encountered the Japanese ghosts are anonymous, and therefore can't be questioned further. If what they say is true-and some of the thousands of tsunami victims in the Ishinomaki prefecture continue to hail cabs from the afterlife-then proving it should be as simple as installing inexpensive videocameras in the taxis.

Either way it's a fascinating look at modern folklore and how an old urban legend can be adapted for new generations.

VIEW PHOTOS: American Ghost Stories

Good ghost stories require two elements: the ghost and the story. While ghosts themselves may or may not be real -- that's a whole other question -- the story part is a phenomenon we can study and track. In the study of history and folklore, ghost stories have a haunted mansion all to themselves. Ghosts appear, as it were, in the written and oral traditions of virtually every culture on the planet. As they're handed down through generations, ghost stories get retold in different forms and media, depending on the era. America has its share of famous ghosts and hauntings, many of which go back hundreds of years. Our most famous stories tend to wind up on the TV or movie screen eventually. Such is the way of Hollywood. Everyone likes a good ghost story, right? We track five famous American ghosts and their journey from story to screen.

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One of America's earliest and most sensational hauntings, the Bell Witch story begins in rural Tennessee in the early 19th century. As the story goes, farmer John Bell and his family began experiencing unexplained phenomena in and around their farmhouse in 1817. Knocks and whispers soon grew more malevolent, with the spirit throwing objects around the house and attacking the family's children, particularly 12-year-old daughter Betsy. Soon, people were coming from hundreds of miles away to witness the manifestations first-hand, and the legend grew with each retelling. The spirit was identified as the ghost of a witch -- at least, that's the story that stuck. Tales of the Bell Witch haunting were eventually written up by newspapers and book authors, albeit more than 70 years after the fact. Folklorists and scholars have since

investigated the case

and found verifiable details extremely hard to come by. But the Bell Witch story has inspired several books and feature films including "An American Haunting" and -- most famously -- "The Blair Witch Project."

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In 1820, American author Washington Irving published his short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in a collection of essays and fiction. In the story, superstitious schoolteacher Ichabod Crane encounters the Headless Horseman, which legend says is the restless ghost of a Hessian soldier killed during the Revolutionary War. Irving's tale is actually rooted in a ghost story with an immigrant pedigree all its own. The headless horseman is a motif that can be found in many different European myths and legends, some dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. Irving's update was based on a colonial New England version of the legend, and would become one of the first works of American horror fiction. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was first adapted to film in the 1922 silent film "The Headless Horseman." Dozens of TV and film adaptations have been produced in the years since, including director Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" in 1999.

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America's great contribution to the classic ghost story, the urban legend known as "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" has fascinated folklorists for decades. Everyone knows the drill, right? A mysterious hitchhiker catches a ride into town, but mysteriously vanishes from the moving vehicle en route. When the driver asks around, it's revealed that the phantom hitchhiker is actually the ghost of... Well, there are several different endings, depending on regional variations. This particular ghost story is so widespread that folklorist Jan Harold Brunvard named his groundbreaking 1981 book on urban legends, "The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings." Brunvard traced the American iteration of story all the way back into the mid-19th century. Similar stories of roadside ghosts can actually be found further back in history, in Europe and elsewhere, but the classic Route-66 style hitchhiker narrative is distinctly American. Over the years, the Vanishing Hitchhiker story has been recycled in literally hundreds of books, songs, stage productions, commercials, TV shows and movies.

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Like most historical resorts, the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., has plenty of ghost stories. Opened to the public in 1909, the hotel was soon haunted by the ghosts of its original owners, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, who could be seen making their spectral rounds and entertaining guests. Other ghost stories developed over the years and by the 1970s, the Stanley had a dozen different ghosts attached to various guest rooms and public areas. In 1974, horror writer Stephen King and his wife Tabitha spent an evening at the Stanley just as it was closing up for the winter season. After a night of weird dreams, the Stanley became King's inspiration for the sinister Overlook Hotel in his 1977 novel "The Shining." Director Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation is widely considered to be one of the best horror movies ever made. Fact and fiction have been terminally confused ever since, and the Stanley Hotel now trades heavily on its reputation as America's most haunted hotel. The Stanley hosts an annual horror film festival and the owners

recently announced

that they're planning to open a horror museum and film archive on the premises.

Ghost Stories: The Science Behind Sightings

Probably the single most famous American haunting story in the last 50 years, the incidents that took place in late-1970s Amityville, NY, play out like a fast-forward ghost story for the mass media age. In 1975, George and Kathy Lutz, and their three children, claimed to have been terrorized by a series of shocking paranormal experiences. The house they had recently purchased was the site of a mass murder just 13 months earlier, when 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo murdered his parents and four younger siblings. The Lutz's astounding claims, which included demonic apparitions and swarms of flies, were quickly chronicled in author Jay Anson's book "The Amityville Horror," published in 1977 with the subtitle: "A True Story." The book was subsequently made into a 1979 movie, which spawned even more movies, which triggered even more books. Alas, it was

all a hoax

. In courtroom depositions years after the fact, the Lutz family and their collaborators -- including the lawyer for Ronald DeFeo -- admitted that the entire affair had been invented over a few bottles of wine. A lot of people made a lot of money, and the Amityville haunting has since passed into the annals of national ghost story folklore. What could be more American?

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