The Death Coach

myth and meme month

I’m becoming more interested in the ways that European folklore traditions were brought over to the States and integrated into American folklore traditions. Many of the stories are effectively the same, or similar to where the stories are told in the same way-just-different-locations. I don’t find that off-putting, I like seeing how the stories were reworked to account for different environments.

I was reminded of the death coach (Cóiste Bodhar) while watching Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry this weekend. An off hand comment is made to the phantom coach. Set in Vermont, it’s suggestive that the story was familiar enough in New England at least as late as the 1950s to make it worth a passing mention (I can’t be the only one who notices stuff like this).

(Completely unrelated, The Trouble With Harry is a wonderful, adorable movie with just enough black humor and death to make it enjoyable for a horror fan, but definitely a comedy and definitely not one of Hitchcock’s heavy movies. Perhaps not a family film, but much more lighthearted than what people think of when they think of his catalog).

The phantom/death coach legend is both lingering and fairly straightforward. The coach is a harbinger of death; those that see it will either die or experience a death close to them. The coach is suggested to not be able to return to the other side empty-therefore, someone -has- to die in order to fulfill its obligations when it enters the mortal plane. The story has evolved over time to begin to include versions and/or related legends about driver-less or cursed motor vehicles that fill a similar role. Further, both the car and the coach are often described as black. Where there seems to be the largest departure between the car and the coach variations of the legend is that the coach, depending on era of telling and location where the legend is set, is driven by the dullohan (a type of faerie known for its decided lack of a head). Alternatively, the Devil Himself drives the Death Coach I’ve not heard of a version set in the States with a headless driver (though the headless entity motif is definitely present in the New York folkloric tradition), but if someone knows of one, let me know.

The Coach seems to be a fairly low level, underground legend in the States, with a lot of passing mentions and “oh yeah, it’s around here” types of transmissions. I’ve seen references to the coach in New York, Vermont, and West Virginia. There’s very little in the way of concrete information on the presence of the coach in specific regions, which may (or may not) suggest that it’s an old oral tradition.


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