Although many put an undue focus upon male ghosts, there are just as many female specters. In particular, women who become spirits are more likely to have more intricate stories behind them. This may be because of the more vulnerable position that women have held within many patriarchal societies, where trouble has simply been more likely to befall them.
Whatever the reason, some of the world’s most fascinating ghosts are women, and it is certainly time they received just as much attention as their male counterparts.
1. La Llorona
The legend of “The Weeping Woman” proliferates throughout Spanish America and Mexican culture in particular. In the story, a woman named Maria discovers her husband is leaving her for a younger woman and drowns her children in revenge. Upon realizing her crime, she drowns herself but is doomed to wander the Earth forever in search of her children. For the most part, this tale is used to warn children not to wander around at night, or they will be drowned by La Llorona. In some versions, any who hear her cry of “Where are my children?” are doomed to die. Folklorists, however, argue that the story persists in areas with high mountain lion activity, as an adaptation to avoid them – and their blood-curdling mating calls.
2. Bloody Mary
This legend focuses on a phantom that appears when one gazes into a mirror in a darkened room and calls her name 3 times. Historically, the story arose in group games where young women entered a darkened home and climbed stairs while holding a candle to a hand mirror. They would then catch sight of their future husband – or the gruesome visage of the Grim Reaper that foretold death before marriage. In its current form, Bloody Mary is identified as a murder victim, a witch killed at the Salem trials, or even Mary I, Queen of England, who was damned for Protestant persecution. She is in turns benign or malevolent, capable of telling the future or screaming at, strangling, and even scratching victims’ eyes out. In short, Bloody Mary is not to be trifled with.
The Kuchisake-Onna is a Japanese ghost whose name translates to “slit-mouthed woman”, as she bears a mouth sliced ear to ear that is hidden by a surgical mask or scarf. Her earliest sightings date to the Edo period, when stories spread of an adulterous wife whose husband cut her face in retribution. Her spirit wandered urban areas and asked “Am I pretty?” of men, only to hunt down those who said ‘no’ and slash the faces of those who said ‘yes’. In 1979, her legend was revived in Nagasaki Prefecture, where she targeted children and caused children to travel in groups or with school escorts. By most accounts, she can be escaped with a vague response, thrown candy, or by noting that you have a previous engagement, to which she will demure and excuse her manners.
4. The White Lady
Legends of ghostly women in white proliferate around the world. Many act as omens of death or ill tidings, including the white lady of Medieval England. Others are merely specters of past crimes, as in the case of the suicidal girl who haunts a tower in Scotland or stories from the Philippines and Portugal that detail deaths in car accidents. The United States boasts the legend of the vanishing hitchhiker, a woman in white who vanishes shortly after being picked up – leading the driver to discover that she died years ago. Other ghost stories describe white ladies that linger between this world and the next, forever searching like La Llorona for their lost loved ones. Still more remind us of the difficulties of living in misogynistic societies, including the specter of a woman in Malta who leapt to her death to avoid a forced marriage.
5. The Grey Lady
While stories of grey ladies are less common, they share similar themes of death and remorse. For instance, the British legend of Dudley Castle tells how Dorothy Beaumont perished while giving birth to a stillborn daughter. To this day, her spirit lingers, calling out the name of her long-dead daughter and the husband she left behind. In nearby Scotland, the Grey Lady of Fyvie Castle appeared to visitors after the 13th-century tomb of Lady Meldrum was unearthed in the 1920s. One of the more sensational tales is that of the Grey Lady of Fort Saint Angelo in Birgu, Malta, who was killed by her lover’s guards when he feared she would reveal their affair. Over time, she’s gone from a hostile 1900s specter to one that saved soldiers’ lives in World War II, showing how attitudes towards women have shifted over time.
6. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
Perhaps the most famous specter on this list is that of Lady Dorothy, sister to Prime Minister Robert Walpole and wife of Viscount Charles Townshend. Due to her husband’s hot temper, she lived a troubled life in the country house of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England – and was often limited to her rooms. A hundred years after dying from smallpox in 1726, Dorothy’s ghost in a brown brocade dress was first spotted during Christmas festivities. A year later, the Brown Lady mocked a skeptical Captain Frederick Marrat who’d requested to stay in her haunted rooms, causing him to shoot her ghost in the face. She vanished until 1926, when two visitors saw her on the stairs. Then, in 1936, she became famous when Country Life magazine photographers captured her image, though she has scarcely been seen since.
7. The Red Lady of Huntingdon College
As told in the late 1800s, the story of the Red Lady involved a woman in a crimson gown who walked through walls on the college’s campus in Tuskegee, Alabama. In the modern version, a shy girl moves from New York City to Huntingdon’s new campus in Montgomery to fulfil her father’s will. With regret, she moved into Pratt Hall, bringing an array of red curtains, clothes, and a crimson bedspread. But fellow students mistook her shyness for disdain and shunned her, leading Martha to withdraw into her room at the top of the building. Eventually, she had a breakdown and took to wandering the halls at night, draped in her red bedspread. After taking her life, Martha wanders the halls of what is now the Department of Education & Psychology, opening doors and creating flashes of red to remind the college of her existence.
8. The Bell Witch
From 1817 to 1821, the Bell family of Adams, Tennessee was terrorized by the spirit of a woman named Kate Batts, who, while living, had a land dispute with them. Their story inspired many legends, along with the acclaimed Blair Witch Project. At the start, father John Sr. shot at a strange dog with a rabbit head, but, soon enough, the entire family noticed scratching, knocking, and lip-smacking sounds in their home. In time, the witch’s voice accompanied further attacks, including slaps, pinches, flying objects, and several miraculous abilities – from prophesying to being in several places at once. The entity was focused on the father and claimed responsibility for his death by poisoning – before singing drinking songs at his funeral. She would return to bother Betsy, only to leave after being dully ignored.
9. The Headless Nun
Another infamous figure is Sister Marie Inconnue, whose headless ghost roams Canada’s French Fort Cove in Miramichi, New Brunswick. Versions of her story have circulated since the mid-1700s and, though they end the same, the nun in question meets her death in various ways. In Doug Underhill’s telling in Miramichi Tales Tall & True, she was an 18th-century noble who was killed by a mad trapper who cut off her head and stole away with it into the woods. Other versions describe her being confronted and killed by two sailors who demanded to know where some treasure might be found. However she died, the lady in question is doomed to a never-ending search for her head – and cannot rest until she completes herself.
10. Screaming Jenny
This West Virginia tale recalls the troubles faced by many women on this list, but in the difficult context of the Great Depression. Like many Americans, Jenny lived a hard life – taking jobs where she could and living out of one of several abandoned Baltimore & Ohio Railroad sheds. Although she worked hard to keep others hopeful, her shed and its tiny fireplace barely kept the cold out; so, when a stray spark from lit her wool skirts alight one autumn, she barely noticed. It was only when the fire scorched her legs that she jumped up and dashed toward the nearby train station for help. Blinded by the flames and deafened by her own screams, Jenny didn’t see the oncoming train until it mowed her down. Since then, her spirit regularly appears as a screaming ball of fire on the anniversary of her death.
11. Dolley Madison
Not all ghosts haunt the living to memorialize the horrors of human society; in fact, many like the wife of President James Madison linger to protect the people and places they love most. Credited with transforming Washington, D.C. into a cultural hub, Dolley Madison was renowned for her vibrant spirit and judicious interior and exterior design of the White House. Not even her death in 1849 has kept this former First Lady from maintaining the city she helped define. Most famously, during Woodrow Wilson’s time in office, his wife Edith hired a series of gardeners to uproot Dolley’s rose garden, but each was frightened away. Other residents of the White House have spotted Dolley, though you might also spot her relaxing in a rocking chair on the porch of the Cutts-Madison House where she spent her golden years.
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