Come, gather ‘round, ye children—the season has come for indulging in candy corn, devouring dope makeup tutorials, and rehashing our favorite spooky stories. While some prefer basking in bloody slasher flicks all October long, we’re flipping the dark holiday on its head with a feminist look at some true accounts of the scariest female ghosts of all time.
Yes, some of these lady ghosts carry tired clichés (the jilted ghost bride, the “angry witch” trope), while others showcase human frailty and evil’s gender-blind empire, like in the case of Madame LaLaurie’s murderous ghost. Some are straight-up cautionary tales against the real-life horrors of domestic abuse, violence against women, misogyny, and coercion. Still, many tell the story of intrinsic feminine power—these are eternal spirits that literally cannot be broken, after all.
Whether you’re a card-carrying member of your local paranormal society or a diehard skeptic, these broads from beyond the grave will have you sleeping with the lights on. Ahead, the spookiest lady ghosts of all time, according to us. Hell hath no fury.
Way before the brilliant writers of American Horror Story: Coven conjured up Kathy Bates as the racist New Orleans aristocrat with a lust for blood and a penchant for tangling with the wrong witch, Madame Marie Delphine LaLaurie contributed to building the bayou bastion’s dark history. Turns out, AHS wasn’t far from the truth, and LaLaurie's posh mansion in the French Quarter—which still stands today as a tourist attraction—contained a literal house of horrors where the elite socialite relished in torturing, mutilating, and murdering dozens of black slaves. Credited as America’s first female serial killer, Madame Marie Delphine LaLaurie was chased out of town by a mob in 1834 when her corpse-filled torture chamber was revealed by neighbors helping to extinguish a house fire. Although she died in 1849 in Paris, Madame LaLaurie’s ghostly figure has been seen hovering over babies at the LaLaurie House, sneering and holding a whip.
Step into a dark room, face a mirror, and chant three times Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, and she’s said to appear to whomever invokes her name in the reflection…with a refreshingly spicy brunch cocktail offered to you from a wraithlike arm outstretched from the looking glass. Just kidding. Brunch cocktails are far more pleasant than the terrifying legends surrounding this classic Western chiller. Bloody Mary’s origins are mysterious in paranormal cannon; some say she’s the ghost of a woman killed by her lover during a quarrel—or creepier yet, a strange drifter—while others claim she is the apparition of Mary I, Queen of England, damned for her atrocities in persecuting Protestants during her bloody reign. Step into your pitch-black bathroom with nothing but a candle and give Mary a buzz—if you dare.
The inspiration behind some of Asia’s most shocking horror flicks, Kuchisake-Onna is a Japanese urban legend with a common thread of terror seen in the gaping majority of lady-centric ghost stories: Horrific violence at the hands of a jealous lover or male admirer. The Kuchisake-Onna, which roughly translates to “Slit-Mouthed Woman” in Japanese (which is, you know, in and of itself incredibly creepy), originated in the late ‘70s when sightings were first reported of—you guessed it—a beautiful, young Japanese woman whose mouth had been slit from ear to ear by her jealous lover’s Samurai blade. She’s said to hide her gruesome visage behind a surgical mask, appearing solely to children. Once she gets a child alone, she corners them, pulling off her mask, asking, “Do you find me beautiful?” If they say no, the Kuchisake-Onna slashes at them with scissors; if they answer yes, she slices their mouth to match her own gaping mouth wound.
Roaming about French Fort Cove in New Brunswick is rumored to be this poor, lonely soul looking for her missing head. Back in the 1700s, way before Drake and the Beibs put Canada on the actual culture map, French women of noble birth were sent to the chilly northlands to join convents. As the story goes, this holy sister met her tragic demise when she stumbled upon either A) a deranged fur trapper (how French-Canadian!) or B) a couple of bloodthirsty sailors in search of treasure, who chopped off her head in a grisly murder. Her disembodied, headless spirit has been seen wandering around in a hopeless effort to make herself whole again. How sad.
This ghoulish gal gets her moniker from the luxurious, chocolate-hued brocade dress she’s been spotted sporting in iconic paranormal snaps of her misty essence cascading down Raynham Hall’s opulent staircase in rural England. Widely believed to be the tormented spirit of Dorothy Walpole, the long-deceased wife of Whig statesman Viscount Charles Townshend, the depressed—and repressed—royal lady spent her life as a captive of her husband’s bad temper, who flew into a rage and forbade her from ever leaving Raynham Hall after he discovered her adulterous trysts. She died of smallpox there in 1726, and has been making Christmastime appearances on the staircase since 1835, where she even startled one surly guest into firing a pistol at her ephemeral apparition.
The poster girl for toxic relationships turned deadly, and arguably one of the first Real Housewives archetypes, Anne Boleyn enjoyed a brief reign as the Queen of England and the scandalous second wife of notorious lothario and Tudor monarch King Henry VIII. When Boleyn’s hotly anticipated royal pregnancy produced a daughter—Elizabeth I, who would later avenge her as Queen—instead of a male heir needed to cement the royal bloodline, Henry lost his mind—and the Queen lost her head. Putting gritty Hollywood divorces to shame, Anne Boleyn was executed on May 19, 1536 by beheading at the Tower of London. Her ghostly essence is said to remain trapped there in the throes of her traumatic and deeply unjust death, and sightings of her chilling apparition have been reported at her old, royal stomping grounds of Hever Castle, Blickling Hall, Salle Church, and Marwell Hall in jolly, old England.
This down-home dark tale comes from West Virginia in the American south, where the Screamin’ Jenny—a young woman who appears engulfed in flames, tearing down rural train tracks—has inspired a number of classic folksongs and ballads. As the story goes, Jenny, a poor girl dwelling in one of Appalachia’s many coal-mining shantytowns, met her end after she fell into her cooking fire. Unable to douse the flames, Jenny ran down nearby train tracks screaming bloody murder for help. But in her state of panic, she didn’t spot the freight train chugging toward her at breakneck speed. After she was killed, Jenny was buried in a pauper’s grave and would all be forgotten if not for her hellish return.
Early silver-screen actress and Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Olive Thomas led a glamorous life, and is credited as the “original flapper” after starring in the 1920 film that coined the pop-cultural zeitgeist. Though #blessed, Olive Thomas met an early grave at only 25 after drinking mercury bichloride prescribed as a topical treatment for her husband’s, uh, syphilis (that seems like another horror story for another day). Nobody’s certain whether her death was accidental—many have made claims that the young starlet thought the poison was bootleg liquor—or a result of suicide. In either case, Olive was obviously not ready to leave the party, as she’s become a constant fixture of the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City where she once performed. Ms. Olive Thomas recounts her flapper routine for hapless men, materializing in an emerald-green, beaded flapper getup clutching a blue bottle. She’s been seen so many times at the New Amsterdam, its stagehands, performers, and employees never close the theatre without a warm, “Goodnight, Olive,” so as to not disrespect the stage’s longtime star.
No college or university is truly worthwhile of consideration if it’s lacking a decent ghost story or urban legend. Look no further than Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, whose dorm rooms and halls serve as the eternal stomping grounds for The Red Lady of Huntingdon College, or “Martha, the Red Blanket Girl.” According to local legend, Martha, a northerner, was made to attend her grandmother’s alma mater. Needless to say, Martha was not stoked about the decision, and as a painfully shy girl, struggled to fit in. She wrestled with depression constantly, eventually becoming freakishly withdrawn, wandering the hallways and doorways to others’ dorms where she’d stare blankly without saying a word. Succumbing to her mental illness, Martha slit her wrists after swathing herself in an oversized crimson blanket—her favorite color. Students and faculty claim Martha still repeats this creepy pattern in Huntingdon College’s dorm buildings.
Though she’s less an actual, confirmed witch and more of a poltergeist, the Bell Witch is one of the earliest and spookiest American ghost stories, and has been a major inspiration for the supernatural-horror genre. Named for the Bell family whom she’s said to have tormented in 1800s Tennessee, Kate Batts, a single spinster woman rumored to have dabbled in the occult, became enmeshed in a lengthy and fiery land dispute with John Bell, Sr. When the local farmer wouldn’t let up, Kate unleashed curses and hexes on his entire family—including his children—which only became worse when the local firebrand passed away. The Bell family claims to have been attacked while sleeping by disembodied grabby-hands and barraged by objects flying about the room. Supposedly, a séance revealed that Batts’ ghost was the perpetrator, and supposedly her spirit was responsible for poisoning and murdering the Bell patriarch—but we think this smacks of another powerful, outspoken woman mislabeled as a villain. Either way, she was (is?) a force to be reckoned with, and her voice was reportedly heard at Bell, Sr.’s funeral singing a drinking song.
Former FLOTUS Dolley Madison was more than just the wife of President James Madison. Known for her killer style and party-girl attitude, she was always on the cutting-edge of what was hip, and is praised for transforming Washington, D.C. from a war-torn swampland into a sophisticated destination for the young nation’s most powerful, rich, and chic. Most legendary are Dolley’s fabulous parties, and her passion for interior design and landscaping can still be seen today in the White House (there’s even a choice episode of Drunk History starring the babely Casey Wilson on First Lady Madison's efforts). After putting that much passion into her surroundings, it seems Dolley has found it impossible to leave. White House staffers claim she still stays on top of the house’s upkeep from beyond the grave, even materializing to thwart efforts to tear up the famous Rose Garden during Woodrow Wilson’s term. Though not the scariest ghost around, you’ve got to respect that level of dedication to aesthetics and design.
Aristocratic daughter of the famously treasonous Vice President Aaron Burr, Theodora Burr was in the catbird seat of a lush life from birth. But sadly, her life would be plagued with depression and gloom, especially after her marriage to South Carolina Governor Joseph Alston, who demanded she uproot from her native New York City to his mosquito-infested Southern plantation. Her life continued a downward spiral after her father was tried for treason and her only child perished from malaria at 10 years old. Grief-stricken, Theodora boarded a ship to New York to visit her imprisoned father—but the ship was lost at sea without a trace and Theodora was never seen (alive) again. But, that’s not to say that Theodora Burr—ever the self-starter—isn’t still enjoying the finer things of life: It’s said that she loves to travel, making ghostly appearances on the Georgetown docks where her final voyage disembarked, near her summer home in Debordieu, and on the grounds of her husband’s plantation. Girl gets around.
Almost every culture worldwide boasts a “White Lady” entity, and we’re not talking pumpkin-spice lattes or wielding excessive privilege. These ethereal ghost women are often connected to local legend—like the White Lady of Malta who threw herself from a balcony to avoid an unwelcome marriage. Weeping White Ladies are frequently heard wailing as they search for a lost love, tragically still wearing their doomed wedding attire. Other White Lady legends cite infanticide, like Latin America’s La Llorona (literally, “weeping woman”), who roams the countryside at night, crying hysterically as she searches for her children she drowned. Ancient people of Ireland, Scotland, and England dubbed them “Banshees,” and considered the spine-chilling wails of these spirits to be bad omens; those who heard the Banshee’s cries often died suddenly or experienced the death of a family member or loved one.
California may be sunny and warm year-round, but that doesn’t mean the Golden State doesn’t have a few dark corners where demons dwell. Take the cheery Moss Beach Distillery Café, where the presence of Prohibition-era tragedy hangs heavy in the air, especially when the Blue Lady shows up. According to locals, the ghost is that of a beautiful, young woman who fell for the then speakeasy’s dapper piano player. One night as the couple walked alone on the California beach, they were assaulted and the young girl was killed. Angered by her life cut short in a time of bliss, the girl wanders the café’s grounds to this day, levitating objects, walking through walls, and making telephones ring off the hook—all while wearing a devilishly flirty blue dress.