A common international contemporary legend, first so named by American scholars in 1942; it became famous as the title-story in Jan Brunvand's The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings (1981). It has two basic forms, the first being as well known in England as America. A car driver picks up a girl who is hitching a lift home; she chooses the back seat, but disappears while they are in transit. He goes to her home anyway, where he learns she had died years before, in a car crash; sometimes in the cemetery he finds a jacket he had lent her draped over a grave. In the second form (rare in England), the hitchhiker is male, and supernatural, not ghostly; he foretells some large-scale event such as war, and then adds a minor prophecy before disappearing; the latter soon comes true, and the driver realizes his passenger was an angel, or Jesus.
Both versions are often told with full belief; the first draws on the widespread current belief in ghosts, while the second circulates in more restricted groups where its religious implications are credible. How old the story is depends on how you define it; if the criterion is not car travel but the sudden appearance and disappearance of a spectral or super-natural fellow traveller, parallels from the 19th century or earlier are easy to find (Bennett, in Bennett and Smith 1984: 45–63). Hitching a lift features in a tale of an allegedly true encounter in Lincolnshire in 1918: two women in a gig take up a weary-looking man, who silently leaves once they reach an inn; it turns out it is the ghost of a drowned man, whose corpse is laid out in that very inn (N&Q 12s:5 (1919), 205–6).