A Note Of Warning: The topic I discuss this week may not be suitable for listeners under the age of 13.
Stories of Ladies in White are some of the most iconic ghost tales ever told. So where exactly did the genre of wailing women come from? Jumping across the globe I investigate the different types of Ladies in White who have graced our castle halls and waved us down on the road.
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Hello, my friends and welcome back to yet another episode of Strange Origins, where I dive deep into the folklore, mythology, and real-life stories behind our favorite spooky stories. This week I decided to investigate the history behind the Ladies in White.
While I was familiar with the concept of a Lady in White, I didn’t realize just how many variations of her there are. She goes by lots of different names depending on what her circumstances in life were. Sometimes people refer to her as the White Woman, the Wailing Woman, or the Weeping Woman. Usually, she is wearing white because she died on her wedding day, or she can be heard weeping from far away. I first remember seeing the Woman in White in the pilot episode of the Supernatural series. It featured the characters' interactions with a Woman dressed in a white nightgown who was known for hitchhiking. While waving down cars she was always in search of men who would cheat on their girlfriends or wives. If they were willing she would take them back to her house in the middle of the woods in order to kill them.
We see the Woman in White, or slight variations of her, in a lot of horror films. The women from The Grudge and The Ring franchises could be considered Ladies in White in their own way, while the character of Bathsheba from The Conjuring could also be seen as a Lady in White in a completely different way. That’s probably why her archetype has lasted for so long in stories and film; she never has the same exact story or the same powers as other Women in White.
One of my favorite Ladies in White featured in Hollywood from recent years is the Lady in the Lake from Mike Flannagan’s Haunting of Bly Manor. She’s a pretty severe version of a Lady in White. In search of her daughter, she is known for walking around and killing literally anyone in her way without mercy.
Though these types of Women in White can be terrifying, it’s the less supernatural stories that are more chilling, in my opinion. Those are the stories that could easily happen in real life. As a woman a hundred or more years ago, you didn’t have a lot of options in life. If you weren’t born an heiress who had the choice of not marrying, a happy or profitable marriage seemed to be your only option to avoid servitude. You also couldn’t make a mistake as to who you were marrying since actions like divorce were deeply frowned upon. A big part of the Woman in White concept is that suicide, or murder seemed to be the only solution in troubling times.
One of my favorite stories of a Lady in White is the Headless Bride of the Old Faithful Inn. I’ve visited the Old Faithful Inn a few different times since I live nearby, and every time I do I’m taken aback by just how beautifully crafted the building is. I’ve also been keenly interested in the story of the Headless Bride that is said to haunt the place. According to the rumor, a young woman and her husband went on a honeymoon trip to Yellowstone where her husband quickly gambled away all of her money. After asking her father for more funds, he refused. In a fit of rage, her husband beheaded his wife and then ran from the hotel. Seeing as at the time the older house was the only part of the building that had been constructed when she was alive, the bride has only been known to roam those halls.
Another classic example of a Lady in White is the Lady of the Lake in Rochester, New York who is said to haunt Durand-Eastman Park. Dressed in 19th-century clothing, it’s said a ghostly woman roams the area of the park. According to the story, it’s because she was in a desperate search for her daughter’s body. Her daughter ran out one night with her boyfriend and it’s said she was murdered by either her boyfriend or a group of men. When she could never find the corpse of her child she was said to have either killed herself or died in grief.
Who is the White Lady?
To help clear up any confusion about what makes a Lady in White, here’s some general rules that most stories follow. First, a Lady is White was usually a beautiful young woman, fresh from her wedding, or a married woman with children while living. Second, her death, whether it was by murder, suicide, or accident, was usually related in some way to a man. Third, romantic betrayal, rejection, or loss are all tragedies that can transform a woman into a Lady in White. In some stories, she is murdered after marrying a wicked man. In others, she runs away from her family in pursuit of a man she believed to love her only to be rejected and murdered for her money in the end. And in others, she has been married for quite some time only to be cheated on. And in some she is abused by her husband but ends up finding love with another, where afterward she is murdered for adultery.
In the categorization of spirits, the Lady In White falls in line with what is called a Vengeful Ghost. In mythology and folklore, it’s a vengeful ghost who is said to haunt those who mistreated them in life or even murdered them. While it usually only takes the punishment of their abuser for them to be able to rest peacefully, this outcome rarely happens. This will often lead vengeful ghosts taking their anger out where they can. That’s where the idea that men are usually the ones targeted by Ladies in White come from.
It seems that Ladies in White have their favorite haunting places. Unluckily for you and me, one of those places is the roads we drive on everyday. While a lot of the more Gothic versions of these stories occur in castles, manors, and even Antebellum homes, quite a few supposed encounters with Ladies in White happen to those who decide to pick up hitchhikers on the road.
In Dallas, Texas The Lady of White Rock Lake is a pretty popular story. It’s said the ghost of a young woman, around twenty years old, and wearing a wet 1930’s style dress, appears along the roadside of East Lawther Drive. When passerby's pick the young girl up she asks them to take her to a house on Gaston Avenue. During the carride the driver will inevitably notice that she has vanished, leaving behind a seat still drenched in water. While it’s not really ever explained why she is wearing an evening gown, it’s speculated by some that she died in a boating accident ninety years ago and hitches rides in an attempt to be able to go home just one more time.
While most reports of these encounters were actually published in the Dallas area newspapers in the 1960s, a story published in 1943 tells of the same young woman. It goes that she approached a couple in their car in a white dress, dripping with water. She told them that she had no other way of getting home and that she had been on a boat that had overturned, but not to worry seeing as the other passengers were just fine. After they began their journey to her home she inevitably disappeared from their backseat. When the couple went to the address she had given them the next day, they were told by a somber-looking man that they were the third couple who had come to them with the same story, but that his daughter had drowned in a boat accident three weeks prior.
In the state of Washington, it’s said that there have been sounds that come out of the woods just off of Clearview Drive of what sounds like a woman crying and screaming near a waterfall. While auditory accounts are usually pretty unreliable, it’s the sightings of the ghost that are a bit creepier. It’s said that a woman can sometimes appear to be standing in the middle of the road, pointing at nothing in order to confuse the driver, maybe get them to drive off the road and cause an accident, before she disappears like a mist.
Classic Ladies in White
While stories like that still give me a slight chill and make me never want to drive down a lonely road ever again, the classic version of the Lady in White story is by far the most widespread. In England the Okehampton Castle features the myth of a Lady Howard who was known to have killed three of her husbands and two of her children in the 17th century. What’s frustrating about her story is that the reasons for her actions are never explained.
She’s such a popular and old tale that there’s even a ballad written about her. It goes:
"My Ladye hath a sable coach, with horses two an four. My Ladye hath a gaunt blood-hound, that goeth before. My Ladye's coach hath nodding plumes, the driver hath no head. My Ladye is an ashen white – as one who is long dead." While there is no record of a Lady Howard ever living at the castle, it’s still a popular myth that she likes to ride around in a carriage made of the bones of her victims, that her pet hound has only one eye, and that she is cursed to collect every grassblade in the castle ruins before she is allowed to find peace in the afterlife.
Some of the earlier Lady in White tales, unsurprisingly, come from Celtic Mythology. (why lady when) Y Ladi Wen, which translates to mean The White Lady, is most often talked about during (Kay-Lin Geeaf) Calan Gaeaf, which is the Welsh version of Halloween. Instead of the archetypal version of a Lady in White I’ve been describing so far, the Welsh Woman in White is closer to a fairy or an ethereal being.
One of the more popular tales about these fairy-like women is said to have taken place at Ogmore, Bridgend. The story states that after years of wandering around a spirit finally approached a man in his bed one night, beckoning him to follow her so that she could share a secret with him. She took him to Ogmore Castle, led him to an old tower, and told him to lift up a heavy stone. He found concealed in the castle a cauldron full of gold. While the ghost made a deal with him that they would split the gold 50/50, and that he could never touch the other half, the man eventually ran out of money and became greedy. When he returned to the cauldron to take more of the treasure the woman became angry with him. It’s said that her fingers turned into claws and she attacked him. When he returned home became severely ill and only died once he confessed to his greed.
In the same way that these types of tales from places like Wales and Ireland were formed by age-old stories, places like Holland and Germany were also deeply influenced by their pagan and mythical history. German legend features Women in White as fairies who are to be revered. They can be seen sitting in the sunshine either brushing their hair or bathing and are also known to guard treasure or haunt castles, much like the woman at Ogmore Castle.
In France Women in White are referred to as Dames Blanche, and are reported as being seen in the regions of Lorraine, and Normandy. What’s interesting about these fairy-like women is that they appear more often around caves, caverns, and bridges. To continue on their journey those walking by must join her in a dance. If they refuse they are either thrown into the thistles and briar or tormented by woodland animals like cats and owls or even a hobgoblin creature called a Lutin.
Infanticide & Ladies in White
A predecessor to the Lady in White story, in my opinion, is Medea from Greek Mythology. If you have ever studied the Classics you might recognize Medea as being the wife of Jason from Jason and the Argonauts. What’s made Medea such a tragic, or horrific character in Greek mythology, depending on which ending of her story you take as the right one, is the death of her children.
In the myth, it’s said that out of love Medea helped Jason in his quest to find the Golden Fleece. After they had been married for ten years and had had two children, Jason had abandoned her in order to marry a princess. In a fit of revenge Medea killed Jason’s new bride with a poisoned wedding dress, which accidentally led to the death of her father, King as well. In an older, more reliable version of the myth, it’s said that her children were killed in an accident, but in the version written by Euripedes, she herself killed her two sons in a fit of rage. To further punish their father she never allowed Jason to hold their bodies as a way of mourning. A chariot sent to her by her grandfather, Helios, the God of the Sun, then took her back to Athens.
One of the reasons scholars believe the version where Medea murders her own children has stuck around for so long is because of the tragedy of the story. It’s a sad thing for children to be killed accidentally in a Greek myth, but it’s an unforgettable story if the main character, a goddess, murders her own sons as way of punishing a mortal man. While this story is a classic for a reason, it’s actually believed that it didn’t have anything to do with the most famous Lady in White in folklore, La Llorona.
In the hierarchy of Women in White, La Llorona ranks pretty high on the list for popularity. Mostly told in Hispanic cultures such as Mexico and South America, the story of La Llorona is meant as a way to scare young children into behaving. In my opinion, it does a pretty good job of scaring adults at the same time though. While the details of her history vary in the different places it’s told, the basic story goes that a beautiful woman named Maria married a rich man who she fell deeply in love with. After they had two sons together and some time passed, they hit a rough patch in their marriage. One day Maria noticed that her husband was spending less and less time with her and eventually she found out that he had fallen in love with another woman. In a jealous rage, she took her two children down to a river where she drowned them as a way of punishing her husband. Upon seeing their lifeless bodies she cried out for her children, regretful of what she had done, and eventually drowned herself in those same waters. When attempting to get into heaven she was banished back to Earth where she would forever search for her children.
Today it’s said that she will attack kids who resemble her drowned boys, or those kids that disobey their parents. Other stories say that she only seeks out cheating husbands. And other versions of the myth that harken back to tales of banshees state that those who hear her weeping are marked for death in the near future.
Another horrific version of the story comes from Brazil and Portugal and is about Dama Branca or the White Lady. She is said to be the ghost of a young woman who was either murdered by her father or her husband in what is referred to as an Honor Killing in some parts of the world. The causes of which could be anything from adultery to denial of sex, and are meant as a way of restoring honor to a family name by blotting out, mostly women, who disobey the commands of their husbands or fathers. According to a book by Monteiro Labato, a Dama Branca was starved to death by her husband after he suspected she was having an affair with one of their slaves. Based on the details of the hair-raising tale the only food the husband would give her was the stewed meat of the slave's corpse.
Women being starved to death by their husbands and becoming a Woman in White isn’t a rare occurrence in the genre. A German tale I read that is said to have taken place around since 1625 is about the wife of the prince of Westphalia. It’s said that while her husband was away fighting a war his wife had an affair with a singer who was known to travel from town to town. When the prince came home unexpectedly, he found out about the affair and had the singer drowned in the moat that surrounded his property. As for the punishment of his wife, he sealed her up inside a cold wall of the castle, leaving her only enough food and water for as long as he thought it would take for him to return from war. It’s said that he was killed in battle and never did return to release his wife from her prison and she slowly starved to death, mourning the death of her lover.
While these stories are all very dramatic and poetic, the transformation of the Lady in White can sometimes strike a real chord with women. While a lot of other stories I feature on this podcast are meant to serve as warnings against easily avoidable dangers, the stories of certain Ladies in White seem like their sad fate was unavoidable. While drowning your children as an act of revenge seems like a piece of theater, there were times in history when your children were your only leverage in a marriage as a woman. Throughout history, it’s been men who have had the financial, political, and physical power over the lives of their spouses. Even in 1800s England a divorce could be granted if a man found out his wife had been unfaithful, but for a divorce to be granted to a woman proof that he had been unfaithful and had been abusing her in other ways was necessary for the courts to even begin considering her case.
Besides pointing a finger at the blatant sexism of our history, (and at times our present,) what fascinates me so much about The Woman in White is just how classic she is. A Gothic ghost story is the perfect ghost story, in my opinion. And the Woman in White delivers on all aspects of that.
While researching all of these stories I came across about twenty more that all center on ghostly or evil women from cultures all around the world, so I will be sure to do a second episode on this genre. In that episode, I hope to introduce the Women in Black, the Women in Red, and the ghost stories from different Asian cultures that have inspired a lot of our modern horror as a result of just how terrifying they are.
Thank you so much for listening to thirty episodes of Strange Origins, my friends. Stay safe on empty roads out there, maybe sign a prenup, and don’t forget to keep it strange.