Articles about female ghosts are scattered across the Internet, each one more compelling and nightmare-inducing than the last. Stories of lonely, ferocious, and tortured ghosts of women haunt our imaginations across cultures, tapping into our deepest anxieties and fears to make us shiver…and behave.
We have to ask why these ghost stories are told, over and over again. What do they tell us about who we are individually, and what do they say about society as a whole? While ghost stories can serve many purposes, many of the tales about female ghosts “are haunted by the injustice and inequality that constitute [a] society’s dirty secrets, by the gender double standard, [and] by men’s sanctioned ability to control women” (Sawin 99). They “covert[ly]” address parts of life that are difficult to “speak about directly, that flicker around the edge of […] consciousness” (99-100). They often speak to the horrors that women have faced across the centuries, demanding that we recognize their pain and their suffering.
Here we examine five female ghosts from around the world through a feminist lens. Each of these hair-raising spirits arise from a context just as frightening as the ghosts themselves.
Number 5: The Yuki-Onna (Japan)
The yuki-onna, or snow woman, is a story that exists in multiple versions throughout Japan. In the most famous version, by Lafcadio Hearn, she is a killer of men who spares a woodcutter’s apprentice. She makes him swear never to speak of her and lets him go. She assumes a human form and marries him, but he eventually tells her the story of how he once survived an encounter with a snow woman. Furious at his betrayal, she tells him that, were it not for their children, she would kill him for speaking of that which he had sworn never to tell. She then vanishes and is lost to her husband forever.
Many of her legends speak of her origin as a young woman lost in the snow with her son. When he freezes to death shortly before her, she becomes a vengeful spirit that seeks out men from whom she can steal hot breath to save her child. In these tales, what is most striking is not the fear she inspires but the sadness. Why is she lost in the snow? Why does she blame men for her child’s death? At their core, tales of yuki-onna are ultimately about fear of grief and loss and the untellable stories that can only be expressed through legends.
Number 4: The Bell Witch (USA)
The tale of the Bell Witch provided inspiration for many other stories (including the infamous 1999 film The Blair Witch Project), but horror is only part of the tale. Versions of the story vary, but the legend centers on the haunting of the Bell family by a seriously vengeful ghost. She bruises, torments, shapeshifts in front of, and even poisons members of the family.
The story says that the ghost responds to the name “Kate,” the name of a woman the patriarch of the family had cheated. According to various accounts, the Bell’s former neighbor, Kate Batts, was a strange woman who was mocked by her community. This positions Kate in the typical profile of the witch: an older woman who is an outcast existing on the margins of her society. Though historical evidence suggests that associations between the real person Kate Batts and the ghost don’t line up (she was still alive at the time of the hauntings!), the association has stuck and the story is rooted in the tradition of a woman wronged by a man and getting revenge in the afterlife. It’s worth considering why it is this story that resonates more than any other version of the tale.
Number 3: La Llorona (Latin America)
La Llorona tales circulate throughout Central, South, and North America and date back to at least the sixteenth century. This ghost goes by many different names, but the most common version of her story is this: When a woman discovers her husband’s infidelity, she drowns their children in retaliation. Then, overcome by grief and guilt, she drowns herself. Refused entry into heaven until she finds the souls of her children, La Llorona steals the children that cross her path and, when she realizes they’re not her own, she drowns them, too.
Though this is an especially unsettling tale, it is, like the yuki-onna, a story about unimaginable loss. Though the woman becomes the ultimate villain of the tale (there’s no getting around it – murdering children is super villainous), it’s also a caution against infidelity and the cruelty that set the story’s horrifying chain of events into motion. It’s a dark fantasy about what could happen when relationships fail.
Number 2: Churels (South Asia)
A churel is the name for a particular kind of female ghost from South Asia. Churels are typically women who have died in pregnancy or due to the poor treatment they received from family members. These ghosts are known to disguise themselves as beautiful women to lure men in their families to their own deaths, but they can always be identified due to the fact that their feet are turned backwards.
Though churels are known to do such heinous things as suck all the blood from a man’s body, her desire for revenge is commonly traced back to her own treatment. Tales that place power and the ability to exact vengeance on the downtrodden can become valuable tactics when other avenues are closed.
Number 1: Mae Nek (Thailand)
In this tale from Thailand, a woman named Nek dies in childbirth while her husband is at war. When the husband makes his way home, however, he finds his wife and child waiting for him as if everything is normal. Anyone who tries to tell him of their deaths is mysteriously killed. One day, however, the ghost stretches out her arm in an inhuman way to catch a falling lime, and her husband realizes what she is. He flees in terror and Nek, full of grief, tries to run after him. When he gets to a temple, however, she cannot follow him. After that, Nek terrorizes the town until she is captured by an exorcist.
Though the things Nek does are unambiguously awful, it is ultimately her sadness at her husband’s rejection of her that leads her to become a monstrous ghost, and not the loving–if dead–wife she wanted to be. While her husband immediately feels nothing but fear of her, as readers we are left primarily with pity.
These ghosts “linger as shadows, absences that hint at a presence, silences that adumbrate the challenges that could be spoken, the accusations that could be leveled, and the alternatives for women that could be articulated” (Sawin 115). Though we have space here to discuss only five of the many, many stories of women ghosts, we hope that this brief list helps you to open up to an exciting new way of thinking about these legends. After all, “[t]he way of the ghost,” as Avery F. Gordon puts it, “is haunting, and haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening” (8). May these tales continue to haunt you.
References & Further Reading
Bennett, Gillian. Alas, Poor Ghost!: Traditions of Belief in Story and Discourse. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1999.
Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.
Gordon, Avery F. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Hufford, David. The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
Sawin, Patricia. Listening for a Life: A Dialogic Ethnography of Bessie Eldreth through Her Songs and Stories. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2004.