Creatures of the Night: Ghosts
It’s Halloween Season!! My favorite time of year. Cooler temperatures, a smorgasbord of hot drinks and tasty treats, scary tales, and fun costumes. What’s not to love?
As I go through the seasonal offerings of my favorite streaming sites, I’m reminded of how common certain creature scares are across cultures. Every region has their own version of the vampire, shapechanger, and ghosts. They represent innate fears which are indelibly human. Despite the many differences from country to country, there are two fears we as a species all share: that of our own mortality, and of the malevolent unknown.
For October, I’d like to share a bit of history on some of the horror genre’s most iconic monsters. We’ll begin with the most numerous and most written about: ghosts.
What’s scarier than being dead? Being haunted by the dead. In many cultures, ghosts represent guilt or unsolved crimes, the manifestation of sins tasked with doling out a comeuppance for ill-treatment or tragic ends. The ghost tales of India, Japan, and Mexico are particularly frightening in their legends of revenge-hauntings and family curses.
A popular cautionary tale to children, the backstory and exact details of La Llorona, “The Crying Woman”, vary by region and teller, but it is one of the country’s most enduring legends. So much so that sightings of a La Llorona figure have been reported across the United States and internationally, as well. Certainly, a distraught mother driven to perform the unspeakable is a common tale in many cultures going all the way back to the Greek myth of Medea.
In the Mexican story, La Llorona was a beautiful woman, sometimes said to be married to an unfaithful man, and sometimes as his mistress, who murdered her own children so as to be closer to him. Exactly why she felt their death was necessary for her happy ever after is never fully explained. Perhaps the man didn’t want the responsibility, or they hindered her ability to run away with him. Whatever the case, La Llorona was subsequently rejected by her lover and she found herself regretting her actions. Unable to live with the guilt, she killed herself and is doomed to walk the earth forever searching for the bodies of her lost children. Parents warn their children if they are bad, La Llorona will kidnap them and use them to re-enact the drowning of her children. Hearing her cries at night is said to be a bad omen of misfortune or death.
The most famous telling of this ghost comes from Chicago, Illinois, though like many urban legends there are versions of this specter in nearly every state. She invariably is a young, beautiful woman wearing a party dress in a retro style and dancing heels. She has a soft-spoken demeanor, polite, and seemingly harmless. While she is usually described as blonde, some renditions paint her as a red head or brunette. Perhaps she changes her appearance to appeal to her victims, or perhaps there are many Marys spread across the country.
While many variants have Mary as a high school student leaving prom, or an abused wife stepping out on her husband, the Chicago Mary’s tale begins at a local dance hall in the 1930’s. Mary had been dancing with friends when an argument breaks out between her and her boyfriend. Angry, Mary leaves the hall, intending to make her way home by herself, walking down the dark streets in her dancing shoes. A drunk driver swerves around the corner and veers into Mary, killing her. The driver speeds on and is never found. Late that night, searching for their missing daughter, her parents find Mary's mangled body on the side of the road. They bury her in her dancing clothes in Resurrection Cemetery.
Since her death, Mary hasn’t stopped trying to get home. She flags down motorists late at night to hitch a ride, engages in polite conversation, yet always mysteriously disappears as the car nears Resurrection Cemetery. She’s even been spotted dancing at the old hall now and again, and asks a ride home from one of her dance partners. She never makes it any farther than the cemetery gates before disappearing without a trace. Though these incidents are unsettling to the victim, Mary has never hurt any of her kindly chauffeurs, nor do her sightings seem to precede any misfortunes. She’s simply a lost woman trying to get home.
Japan is rich with supernatural lore, some of which can be sampled in the font of anime, manga, and movies which stem from Japanese creators. Familiar to American audiences are the Onryo, or Vengeful Spirit.
There isn’t a single particular tale about the Onryo. Rather, it is a classification of ghost, created when someone dies through the direct actions of another. This can be murder, neglect, a fatal chain reaction caused by an arrogant act, or emotional torment which leads the person to commit suicide out of despair. This person dies with vengeance in their heart, which allows them to come back to the mortal realm to exact retribution from those who wronged them. Unlike many other types of ghosts, an Onryo can affect the physical world, hurting, killing, or even causing natural disasters to attain their goals. Tales of Onryo have been in Japan since 729 C.E.
An Onryo will hound their victim, and anyone else who gets in the way, until either the victim dies or atones for their sins. As with many supernatural beings, the ghost can be held back or even banished with religious rituals, but it sometimes comes back to finish the job. The movie series Ringu (remade for American audiences as The Ring) and The Grudge are examples of an Onryo.
This is just a small sample of the types of ghosts in folklore. They are a versatile and enduring staple of the Horror genre, as well as in Fantasy, Spec Fiction, and many sub-categories. And what would Halloween be without a spook or two?
I hope I have whetted your appetite for all things ghastly and encourage you to research some specters in your free time. Not only is it entertaining and educational, but maybe it will spark a short story or two.
Until next time,