There is really only one thing that scares me in life (besides spiders, getting kidnapped, being an adult, and zombies) and that is ghosts. As a kid, I thought that a little girl ghost lived right outside the doorway of my room and even cried when I’d close my door, much to my horror. Obviously, I had a wild imagination when I was little, but since I’d watch episodes of “Are You Afraid of the Dark” and the movie “The Ring” on repeat, there is no wonder those thoughts of ghosts (who can show up anywhere…they’re not usually limited to time or space so I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have a spirit pop up while I’m on the toilet) were usually revolving around my head. I remember the time when I was 8 and I thought the “Princess” from “Thirteen Ghosts” was following me around, I still can’t imagine anything scarier than a female ghost— especially when she wants revenge.
The vengeful female ghost is an enduring character in film and TV. “Supernatural’s” first episode featured “a vanishing hitchhiker” (whose story ended up being more like La Lorona’s or the Crying Woman) while numerous (low budget) movies have been dedicated to the American legend of Bloody Mary and the Japanese/South Korean legend Kuchisake-onna, or the slit-mouthed woman. Even creations like the angry Victorian ghost in “The Woman in Black,” and Kayako Saeki of the “Ju-On” and “Grudge” movies are based off the trope of an angry, female ghost. Articles before have mentioned what it is about these ghosts that make them scary, which I will get into in a minute, but I am going to write about why they are still popular and still important today.
It all starts with urban legends.
Urban legends, folktales, and campfire stories all have the same thing in mind. Most of them, especially some of the older ones, started out as ways to easily scare someone.
Saying “Bloody Mary” into a bathroom mirror three times (or sometimes more) with only a candle as a light is a classic sleepover and party game that started getting popular around the 1960s, but possibly started in 18th century Britain. After saying her name, Mary, a disfigured ghost would pop up and either grant you a wish, gouge your eyes out, or cut you to pieces, depending on her mood.
The origin stories for Mary (her full name was supposedly Mary Worth) are as various as the ways that she could kill you. Some say she was a witch (or an herbal healer) who was mutilated and hung during a witch hunt in her town, while others say she was a young girl who got into an accident that tore apart her once beautiful face. Before her accident, Mary was constantly looking at herself in the mirror, but after, her family warned her to never look at herself again. This didn’t last long as curiosity overtook Mary and she looked at her reflection. Terrified and angered about her appearance, Mary, somehow, went inside her mirror and swore to attack anyone who spoke her name.
Either way, Bloody Mary almost always wants revenge on the people who call her name for the shiggles. Also, the only way I ever found of successfully stopping Mary is by breaking the mirror when you start to see her face after repeating her name. Although other reports claim that if you break the mirror, you only release her into the real world faster, so how ‘bout you don’t say her name into a mirror three times, okay?
Another Urban Legend about a vengeful ghost is that of Kuchisake-onna, also known as the slit-mouthed woman. This legend dates back to (possibly) the Heian Period (794 to 1185 AD). Apparently a married woman cheated on her samurai husband with another samurai and as a punishment cut her face (which was profoundly beautiful) from ear to ear and asked her “who would find you beautiful now?” before she died. These are some great stories to tell your kids before they go to sleep, right?
Anyway, once this woman died, she came back as a vengeful spirit who would roam around town with a cloth over her face, and randomly walk up to people to ask them if they thought she was pretty. If they said “yes,” she would lower the cloth to reveal her new “smile” and ask again if they thought she was pretty. If they said “yes” or screamed, she would slit the victim’s mouth from ear to ear, just like she had. If they said “no,” she would disappear but then would return to kill them when they were sleeping. Like all other urban legends, this story isn’t the only one told about Kuchisake. Modern tales say that she was once a woman who chased and followed children during the 1970s. As she was running after some kids, she was struck and killed by a car, which resulted in a gruesome wound that ripped her mouth in half. Another story is that she was a mental patient who tore her own face apart, because she was bored.
Whatever the reason, people in South Korea have claimed to encounter Kuchisake since around 2004. Now she wears a red surgical mask, and if you tell her she isn’t pretty, she’ll cut you in half with a pair of scissors. Fun fact: there is no way to escape her. She will follow you until you give her an answer. For both the older and newer versions of the tale, there is very little in the way of escaping Kuchisake. Some say you have to throw her candy or money. Others say that you have to answer her indecisively to escape her bloody scissors, and escape having to tell people how you got those scars for the rest of your life.
One more famous, vengeful ghost is La Llorona or “the crying woman.” As with the others, her origins are long and dark, dating from at least the 1500’s. Her span of sightings also reaches from the western United States, all the way down to Central America. What’s her tale and how is she going to kill me, you ask? Well, let me tell you. La Malinche, an Aztec girl, was enslaved by Hernan Cortes (the Spanish Conquistador) in the 1500’s. She soon gave birth to two children of his, but was tortured over the fact that Cortes was basically trying to wipe out all of her people, and that she became a part of it. Meanwhile, the Spanish Monarchy at that time was afraid that Cortes was growing too powerful and would betray him, so they asked him to return to Spain. He refused until a beautiful woman was sent over to entice him from the new world. He then was going to leave and take his two children with him, leaving La Malinche in dire straits. She prayed for an answer and supposedly heard from the gods that one of her children was going to return from Spain and destroy her people. The night before Cortes left, La Malinche sneaks away with the babies and kills them at the lake, which Mexico City now stands on. In some versions, she then drowns herself, but in others she dies of natural causes not long after. Since soldiers witnessed how she killed her only children, they came to call her La Llorona for the way she cried when they died.
Again, this is another heavy and dark tale that resulted in an unrestful and sometimes vicious spirit. The many variations of her story (which are always connected to bodies of water) have spread far and wide, but one thing is certain: if you’re a kid walking alone at night, or an unfaithful man, La Llorona will find you and take your soul.
Are you freaked out? You better be, but did you learn something? You better have, because these legends are not only used to scare the bejesus out of you, but are also used as a lesson. These tales are warnings (and reminders) of how scary and ruthless the world can be. Unless you want La Lorona to rip you a new one, don’t cheat on your wife, same goes for the Sihuanaba, a shapeshifting ghost from Central America who targeted unfaithful men. Other stories like Bloody Mary and Kuchisake-onna warn against being too vain, or in Mary’s case, might be an allegory for the terrifying changes we go through during puberty. Also don’t say a spirit’s name three times into a freakin mirror!
What is lost in some of these female-led urban legends is what happens in most, if not all, urban legends: we don’t bring the creature into account. Besides their tragic and brutal backstories these murderous, sometimes animalistic, ghosts barely seem human anymore, but there is something in them that many women don’t ever feel like they have: freedom to do whatever the hell they want! This is agency to nth degree. These women can be everywhere and anywhere and unless a Winchester brother comes along with his shotgun full of salt rounds, nothing can really stop them.
Like some mythological goddesses, these women want you to know how unstoppable they truly are. Unlike most goddesses though, they are tortured and twisted from their former lives, which lends some people to sympathize and even believe that they’re actions are justified. Since many of them gave birth to creatures like Sadako of Ringu fame, Anabelle, Bathsheba of “The Conjuring” fame, and Mama from the (vastly underrated) movie “Mama,” it’s obvious that stories like Mary’s, Kuchisake’s, and La Malinche’s have staying power.
That power has kept their own legends going for hundreds years, as well. There’s just something fascinating about a woman untethered from whatever originally held her back. Yes, there are reasons to be scared of them (they’re unstoppable and murderous), but there are also reasons to praise them for not giving a crap about societal restraints and for also teaching us some important life lessons (I swear to god, do not talk to your mirror!). So the next time you see Kuchisake-onna in the streets, don’t run and hide; shake her hand (not the one holding the scissors) and tell her how great she is for questioning conventional beauty standards. Then throw some candy and run the hell away because she’s going to kill you.