Wandering Women: Four Types of Female Ghosts and Why They’re Scary
There’s no mistaking that urban legends tend to favor the female ghost: along with “ladies” of every spectral color (from green and blue to grey, white, brown, red and even pink), we’ve all heard of Bloody Mary, the Bell Witch, and Screaming Jenny. While there’s no evidence to support that female haunters are any more frightening than their male counterparts, it’s interesting to note that females—many who have been featured in my own fiction—seem to be more terrifying because of what they represent.
Here are four of my favorites. What do you think?
The Faceless/Altered Woman
Many cultures have variations of the faceless or altered woman.
In Japan, there is the noppera-bo, who at first can appear as someone the victim knows; then the face dissolves completely, even though the body and head are still there. This apparition is sometimes confused with the mujina, a magical badger who can take the shape of a faceless woman (in my short story, “Mujina,” published in Skinwalker Press’s Dark Passages II: Tales from the Black Highway, I used the concept of noppera-bo but called it mujina with intent: noppera-bo just didn’t have as melodic a ring to it within the context of the narrative).
Japan also has the Slit-Mouthed Woman. There are many variations of the tale, but the one usually told most is that she was a woman whose jealous husband thought she was cheating. He slashed her mouth with scissors, laughing at her and asking, “Who will think you’re pretty now?” She supposedly approaches her victims and asks them if they think she’s pretty. Whether or not she kills them—or just cuts their mouths to match hers—depends on the answer given.
The Faceless/Altered Woman frightens because she represents a loss of identity. Noppera-bo or mujina represents the awareness that we may be ignored, or that our sense of self will be watered down (consider the person who had a passion for dance but had to give it all up, or the formerly diversified person whose entire existence is now predicated only on his or her spouse). Similarly, the Slit-Mouthed Woman is scary because it is about the loss of another aspect of our identity: we can be young and beautiful, but life or illness takes its toll. In other words, we age; in a more extreme context, consider the beauty queen who needs face surgery following an accident: her sense of who she is and what she could do has now been altered due to circumstances beyond her control.
The Vengeful Spirit
Thanks to the popularity of Suzuki’s Ring and its American counterparts, this is the stringy-haired specter who comes to mind when we think vengeance. She’s based on the Japanese revenant onryou, one who seeks revenge because she was wronged by a man.
Just about every culture has female wraiths hell-bent on retribution. Hindu folklore has the churel (pronounced choo-dale, although she is called by many other names), a woman who dies during menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, or due to her relatives’ neglect; she rises from the grave to suck the blood of her kin. The Venezuelans have La Sayona, who kills adulterous men. In Scandinavian lore there is the mare, who sits on a man’s chest at night and gives him sleep paralysis or nightmares; while there’s little evidence to suggest she is an instrument of justice, her roots have been traced to a story in which an angry queen summoned a devil to kill her womanizing king in his sleep.
Each of us carries an inner dread that we may someday be punished for the injustices we’ve done. The idea that something could manifest itself and attack us in retaliation for those deeds—whether we committed them knowingly or not—is alarming.
The Wailing Woman
Many towns, especially in America, have “White Ladies”—most of who are wandering and crying because they’re grieving a dead loved one. The most famous—and dangerous—is La Llorona.
The story goes that she murdered her children by drowning them in a river so she could be with her lover (he hated children or didn’t want to take responsibility for them, it depends on which version you read). The lover, however, spurned her, and she drowned herself. It’s said she wanders the riverbanks, weeping, wailing—and looking for children to snatch to replace her dead ones. While her roots are most definitely in Mexico, there are versions of her in many South American legends and in the American Southwest—especially in San Antonio, home to a place called Woman Hollering Creek.
The presence of these ghosts suggests a very bleak eternity: they perpetrate the idea that when someone we love dies, we may never move on to find happiness. Grieving a loved one can be the darkest time of any life. It’s bone-chilling to think we’ll be sad for eternity.
The Lost Soul
These popular phantoms are usually the product of suicide or victimization.
My favorite tale is that of the Adirondacks’ Lady in the Lake. In 1963, a mannequin-like body was discovered at the base of Pulpit Rock, deep under the surface of New York’s Lake Placid. She was later identified as Anna Mabel Smith Douglass, who went rowing in 1933 and was never seen again. I don’t think the reason for her death has ever been pinpointed with certainty, although these days people speculate it may have been suicide. Either way, residents say you can often see her spirit, hovering above Pulpit Rock, looking distant and forlorn.
Canada has its Headless Nun, who had her head chopped off in an encounter with some undesirables (again, it depends on which version you read) while she was on her way to a convent in the great north. She spends her nights wandering about, searching for her head.
A third type of lost soul can be connected to punishment. Buddhist traditions have preta (“hungry ghosts”)—famine-stricken beings who are being punished for their greed in a past life by being made to wander the earth in a state of constant, insatiable hunger and unquenchable thirst. Preta, however, aren’t necessarily female.
There’s probably nothing more unnerving than thinking you may spend the rest of your earth-bound allotment in despair. These spirits remind us that there could very well come a time in our lives when our bodies have many years left—and so do our broken hearts.
Kristi Petersen Schoonover loves reading ghost stories as much as she loves writing them. Her short fiction has been featured in several magazines and anthologies; Dark Alley Press published her novel, Bad Apple, in 2012, and a novelette, “This Poisoned Ground,” in 2014. She holds an MFA from Goddard College, is the recipient of three Norman Mailer Writers Colony residencies, and is a co-host on the Dark Discussions podcast. Find out more at http://www.kristipetersenschoonover.com/.