The stories often share a similar thread. A young, beautiful woman catches the eye of a man, or she finds herself wanting to enjoy sexual intimacy, and she strays from her womanly—motherly, daughterly—duties because of it. Thanks to her vanity or indiscretion, the young woman is castigated or cursed, made to face death or eternal life as an undead being. Her punishment is often also disproportionate to the fates of the men who aided, abetted, or induced her forbidden actions—men who generally then disappear from the story completely.
This genre of ghost story, which I call “wailing women,” is centered on fear, specifically male fears about women with ambition, women who crave power and independence, display anger, or seek ownership over their own sexuality. These stories span generations, civilizations, languages, and cultures; the terrifying ghosts at their centers are less fully explored or comprehended characters than they are devices for instilling fear and disdain in children and adults alike.
Now, as we lurch through another century in which we continue to direct violence and contempt at women for the same age-old fears, we may consider these ghost stories more deeply, as part of a broader narrative that has been used to shape young people’s perspectives on whom to trust and whom to fear. As with any piece of folklore, ghost stories reflect and inform a society of its values—cultural, social, political—and bring gender politics into stark relief.
La Sayona (Venezuela)
From the plains of 19th-century Venezuela comes the story of a particularly violent spirit—that of a young peasant woman Casilda, who was renamed La Sayona after the Spanish word for executioner (sayón). A striking beauty, Casilda was the object of desire for numerous men, despite the fact that she was happily married and had a son. One besotted villager refused to give up his quest for her and followed her into the forest, where she bathed, informing her that her husband was having an affair with her own mother. In a fit of jealous rage, Casilda returned home and murdered her husband and son while they lay sleeping, then attacked her mother with a machete.
As her mother was bleeding to death, she placed a curse on Casilda whereby she would forever exact revenge on men who strayed from their wives. Reborn as the La Sayona, this spirit continues to attract unfaithful men with her looks, or by asking for a cigarette—then she proceeds to finish them off, often with a fair amount of mutilation.
La Llorona (Mexico)
A fixture of Mexican folklore since the days of the conquistadors, La Llorona (the Weeping Woman) is a mother searching for her children. According to legend, a young woman named Maria foolishly set her sights on a nobleman. The gentleman was drawn to her youthful allure and abandoned his concerns about their difference in status, marrying her and fathering a son, or in some versions, two sons, with her. He soon tired of Maria, though, leaving her to raise her sons alone. After Maria caught sight of her faithless lover by the side of an elegant noblewoman, she threw her children into a nearby river and then drowned herself. She was then barred from heaven and destined to walk the earth alone, wailing “Mis hijos” and occasionally snatching away the children of others.
Kuchisake-onna, or the Slit-Mouth Woman, is a hostile figure of Japanese legend dating as far back as the Heian period, some 1,000 years ago. The most beautiful woman in her village, Kuchisake-onna needed constant reassurance of her worth, demanding of passersby, “Am I pretty?”, to which they always responded, “Yes!” After she got older and was filled with a growing confidence, Kuchisake-onna married a powerful samurai, but while he was away at war she began an affair with another man. When her husband discovered her infidelity upon his return, he slit her face from ear to ear, and, unable to bear her mutilated appearance, she committed suicide. Kuchisake-onna’s vengeful ghost covers the scars with a mask, fan, or scarf and continues to approach passersby, asking, “Am I pretty?” If they reply no, she chops them in half with large scissors; if they reply yes, she uses those same scissors to decorate their faces to match her own. The legend warns us that women who are a little too aware of the potency of their beauty—and dare to act on it—will likely suffer horrible fates.
The White Lady (the Netherlands; Brazil)
Ghostly women often wear white, but for some, the color of the dress is particularly symbolic. There are various tales of White Ladies, generally women whose deaths and hauntings relate to their status as married, or almost-married, women. A popular 17th-century version from the Netherlands concerns the real-life daughter of a lord, who was killed in a barn fire on the day of her wedding. Her ghost continues to haunt the area, seeking vengeance on the jealous nobleman arsonist responsible for her death.
The White Ladies of Brazil, also dressed in white, add a chilling racial element to the genre. According to Luiz da Câmara Cascudo, who wrote a 1954 dictionary of Brazilian folklore (its Portuguese title is Dicionário do Folclore Brasileiro), the White Ladies are ghosts of young white women killed by their fathers for consorting with men of other races. Author Gillian Flynn also included a nod to the specter of the White Lady in her now-televised novel Sharp Objects. The town’s inhabitants catch glimpses of a pale woman in a white bedgown, who, according to some townsfolk, may be responsible for the real-life murders of two young girls.
La Siguanaba (Central America)
The almighty rain god of Aztec mythology, Tlaloc, is a formidable force throughout Central America, but his rule has not always been kind. According to one pre-Columbian legend from Central America, Tlaloc exacted an incredibly harsh revenge on a young washerwoman named Sihuatl. Based on the Nahuatl words for “woman” and “net”—i.e., a woman who is able to trap men in her net—Sihuatl found her way into the bed of Tlaloc’s son Yeisun and bore him a son, Cipitio, whom she hoped would become heir to the throne. Once she learned Tlaloc had refused to recognize Cipitio as legitimate, Sihuatl lost interest in caring for the boy and went back to spending her evenings with different men. This enraged Tlaloc, and he cursed her to spend the rest of eternity with her body intact, but he replaced her head with that of a horse.
In Guatemalan versions of the story, she takes the name La Siguanaba, which has been linked to the K’iche’ Maya word for “ravine” or “cliff,” to which the spirit leads her victims. Drawing in unfaithful husbands and boyfriends with her alluring figure, she stands, back turned, refusing to show her face until the men have reached the cliff’s edge, where the potential suitors are paralyzed by the sight of her head or fall to their deaths in fright. Young men are instructed to bite into a cross or machete to save themselves from La Siguanaba’s wrath, although in theory actually remaining faithful to their spouses will also prevent her appearance.
Mae Nak (Thailand)
A legend from Thailand dating back to the 1800s tells the story of Mae Nak, who committed no crime other than being alive at a time when childbirth was one of the primary causes of premature female death. A beautiful woman living alongside the banks of the Phra Khanong canal, Mae Nak married a handsome young soldier named Mak, and soon became pregnant. Mak was conscripted to go to war (specifically against the Shan people of Myanmar, in some versions), and while he was away, Mae Nak died during a difficult childbirth. When Mak returned, however, he was startled to see Mae Nak in his home, sleeping next to their son. When she stretched her arm beyond normal human limits to pick up a lime, he realized that she was a ghost and fled to a temple on holy ground where she could not not enter. Devastated at losing her husband a second time, Mae Nak’s spirit terrorized the villagers and was eventually confined to a clay jar until she was finally freed by some local fishermen who happened to find the jar in a river. A shrine was constructed for Mae Nak at Wah Maha But temple in Thailand, where to this day many people visit to receive her blessings and guidance.
The Lady in Red (Europe; North America)
Inversions on the evil seductress story are evident in the Lady in Red myth common throughout northern Europe, Canada, and the United States. A sex worker in life, dressed in the favorite hue of the temptress, the Lady in Red is killed by a jealous lover or his wife. (Sometimes, her ghost appears holding a knife, symbolic of her having committed suicide after being savagely violated by a lover.) As an undead being, the Lady in Red continues to favor the color and wanders through hotel rooms whispering in men’s ears as they sleep, or leaving pearls from the necklace her lover broke on their nightstands. A real-life Lady in Red is said to be the ghost of Jennie Pearl Cox, a socialite (a common euphemism for “loose woman”) in 1940s Vancouver, Canada, who died in a car crash in 1944. Her ghost has been seen floating around the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver as recently as 2017, when a local named Scott Graham claimed to have captured her likeness on film. In general, Ladies in Red are not particularly violent ghosts; the myths seem to suggest they have little right to seek vengeance, given their history as troublemakers.
The Brown Lady (England)
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall is thought to be the ghost of Lady Dorothy Walpole, the sister of the first prime minister of Great Britain and the wife of the ill-tempered Charles Townshend. A British politician and architect of the controversial Townshend Acts said to have helped spur the American Revolution, Townshend had a notorious temper that may have led Walpole into the arms of another man, a dangerous choice because (as legend has it) when her husband discovered the affair, he locked Walpole in her room, where her spirit remains to this day, terrorizing the guests visiting the hall, which is now a tourist attraction. In 1836, a guest of Raynham Hall, Captain Frederick Marryat, the author of a popular series of maritime novels, is said to have shot the ghost right in her face. The figure of The Brown Lady immediately disappeared, but a photograph that was published in Country Life magazine in 1939 depicts a shadowy white-clad figure at the foot of the stairs of Raynham Hall. Legends are difficult to destroy.
Hair by Yusuke Taniguchi. Make up by Christina Lutz