I think many of you will admit that, hidden as she was right in the middle of a goofy kids’ comedy, Large Marge scared the living shit out of you in the ’80s. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was in heavy rotation on cable, and I was always a bit apprehensive that she was waiting there like a rotten Easter egg to show me in claymation form what the driver’s body looked like when they pulled it from the twisted, burning wreck.
And why not? People have been scaring themselves and each other with tales of ghostly vehicles for centuries. It’s probably an archetype born of the loneliness and uncertainty of traveling, fueled by the timeless metaphor of death being a journey. Ancient Norse myths describe chariots driven by spirits taking people away. The ghost of Irish folk hero Cu Chulainn has been reported in his phantom chariot since the time of St. Patrick. The Greeks had Charon the ferryman taking people over the river Styx to Hades; the dead were laid out with coins for the purpose of paying Charon for the ride. If they, like Pee Wee after his ghost ride, had no money, they had to wander the riverbank for a century.
In more recent popular culture, Amelia Edwards wrote the short story “The Phantom Coach” about riding with ghosts during the Victorian era. We see the story of a ghostly wagon driven by a murdered cowboy from the days of the Old West still appearing in modern Austin, Texas. A phantom trucker like Large Marge rolled through country music in the 60s in Red Sovine’s song “Phantom 309.” Country giant Hank Williams has long been rumored to haunt the road between Montgomery AL and Nashville, TN as heard in David Allan Coe’s “The Ride.”
So it’s okay if you were freaked out by Large Marge as a kid. The story of hitching a ride with a ghost has to be as old as transportation. At this point, being afraid of highway ghosts is no doubt encoded in our DNA. Just don’t forget your wallet, or you may end up washing dishes for 100 years.