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Fright Plan

Toward a cultural history of the vanishing lady—with a nod to Jodie Foster

I might not have caught Jodie Foster's latest vehicle, Flightplan, if its ads hadn't revealed it as the latest incarnation of the Vanishing Lady myth—perhaps the most sterling antique in the chest of urban legendry. I love, fear, and, I sometimes think, unconsciously seek out this story. Many of us must, for the Lady insists on appearing and disappearing regularly in our popular fictions, a primal apparition adaptable to any age or stage.

The setup is haiku-simple. Foster plays a recent widow and single mother, flying from Berlin to New York with her daughter. She falls asleep and wakes to find the girl gone. Horrified, she seeks aid—but crew and passengers insist Foster boarded alone.

Vanishing girl: Foster in Flightplan
photo: Courtesy of Ron Batzdorff/Touchstone Pictures
Vanishing girl: Foster in Flightplan

The original legend focused on a mother and daughter arriving in Paris for the Great Exposition of 1889. The mother appears gravely ill; her daughter consults the hotel doctor, who examines the sick woman and, after a hushed conference with the hotelier, writes out, in French, a prescription and explanatory note. He instructs the daughter to take it to a pharmacist on the other side of Paris.

Slow carriage, pressing crowds, and the girl's lack of French make for a tortuous journey. Finally she arrives at the address. The pharmacist reads the note and repairs to a back room; after another painful delay, he reappears with what he says is the necessary medicine. The daughter returns, again by slow twists and turns of buggy and boulevard, to the hotel.

Hours have passed and night has fallen. The hotelier is uncomprehending when the girl inquires about her mother. He claims to have never seen either of them before, and indeed the mother's signature is gone from the hotel register. Racing to their room, the daughter finds it occupied by a French family, with no trace of her belongings—and no evidence of her mother having occupied the room at all.

The myth's premise is immutable, its paranoid logic unassailable. Two loved ones settle into an unfamiliar, confined space; one disappears. The rest varies with the telling, though often there are common elements. The survivor usually enlists the aid of a sympathetic bystander and tracks the disappeared to his or her place of shrouded demise— attributed in the original to a case of the plague, contracted in India and potentially ruinous to the Great Exposition.

Flightplan's deepest vein, despite a mention of "post–9-11" and an obvious pertinence to contemporary airborne anxieties, is not topical but emotional. In the strongest scenes, Foster and director Robert Schwentke catch not just the mortal panic of sudden isolation or surge of nausea as all eyes turn upon the childless madwoman, but the bitter grief that explains the story's resilience.

And grief is the one thing the legend's tellers usually don't catch. Roman Polanski's Frantic (1988) and Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) are unfocused thrillers from jaundiced auteurs. So Long at the Fair (1950) stars Jean Simmons as the girl and a pre-decadent Dirk Bogarde as her intrepid swain; like Anthony Thorne's 1947 source novel, it's routine melodrama with little alienation value. Alfred Hitchcock'sThe Lady Vanishes (1938), from a novel by Ethel Lina White, is exemplary of the Master's English period—soundstage clutter, comic bustle, hushed suspense—but its terror, too, feels thin.

Which brings us to Alexander Woollcott. The great raconteur had a weakness for spooky legends, and among those logged in his 1934 miscellany While Rome Burns was "The Vanishing Lady"—a story "told me some years ago as a true copy of a leaf from the dread secret archives of the Paris police." Woollcott relates the tale with relish, neglecting no detail of Parisian pageantry or paranoid declension. But it's the pure bitter pill of existential fear inside the tale that truly troubles the great wit, he who brought the salt to the Algonquin Round Table. He regrets that the story has lost its original "content of grief" and become a cocktail anecdote. "The story of this girl's ordeal," he writes, "long seemed to me one of the great nightmares of real life."

To his disappointment, he finds the "ordeal" girding the plotlines of both Marie Belloc Lowndes's novel The End of Her Honeymoon (1913) and a Lawrence Rising whodunit called She Who Was Helena Cass (1920). (I haven't read the Rising; the Belloc Lowndes I've attempted, but its dire prose and twee humor laid the veil of sleep upon me in record time.) Woollcott goes on to note the story's already apparent utility as shipboard gossip for vacationing widows, and in prose form it "gets submitted so regularly to the fiction magazines that it has threaded many an editorial head with untimely silver."

But Woollcott stays on the case. A hot tip leads him back to a 1911 item in the London Daily Mail; another, further back still, to journo Karl Harriman of the Detroit Free Press, who is said to have dashed off the fable "one hot summer night in 1889 to fill a vacant column in the next morning's issue." Woollcott, tummy tingling, confronts the still-living Harriman and asks: Was it documented truth, expedient fiction, or existing legend? Harriman says he can't recall.

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