[CW: violence against women, murder, suicide, child death, infanticide]
That’s right! Our High Holy Day is almost upon us so this week’s theme is the folklore of ghosts and the supernatural, which really isn’t a huge surprise.
As usual, I put entirely too much thought into what I wanted to write about, and then I decided to go with a classic piece of spooky lore: The Woman in White.
These stories are remarkably common and can be found all over the world. All of the stories involve a woman with long, unkempt hair who is wearing a long white dress in various stages of ruin and rot. And all of these stories contain some combination of the following elements:
- betrayal by a lover/ fiancé/husband
- unrequited love
- lost love
- sexual assault
- a violent but accidental death
- death by suicide
- murdered children
The purpose of the women’s existence also varies, depending on the combination of elements that are driving their legend and the time and place in which the story is being told. Some are looking to rescue or replace the children that have been lost to them. Some appear to herald the deaths of others. And some find themselves stuck in a recursive loop, repeating their deaths over and over again, never resting and affecting nothing.
Basically, we are universally terrified of women with long hair and long white dresses and we can’t stop seeing them everywhere we look. Having said that, there really are just so many of them so I’m going to touch on a few of the more well-known stories.
Mexico, Central America, and northern South America
The Woman in White that people will be most familiar with–especially in the U.S.– is La Llorona, the Weeping Woman. Her story is believed to go back at least as far as the Aztec Empire and Moctezuma, where she was in the guise of the skull-faced goddess Cihuacoatl. She abandons her child at the crossroads and weeps as she warns Moctezuma about impending doom; the doom being, of course, the coming of the Spanish and colonization.
Over the course of centuries, as colonialism set down deep roots and forcibly changed the way of life for countless indigenous people, La Llorona’s story evolved, and began to exemplify the relationship between the indigenous people and the Spanish conquistadores. There are multiple versions of the story but the essential summary is that a Spanish nobleman became enamored of a poor village girl named Maria, who was very beautiful and darker-skinned. The nobleman was taken with the thrill of forbidden love, married Maria, and fathered two sons by her, against the wishes of everyone in his social class. As can be expected, once the thrill was gone, the nobleman decided he wanted to get back into his proper place in society and promptly met and fell in love with a woman who was rich and very fair-skinned.
Filled with rage and grief, and knowing that she and her sons would surely starve after being abandoned by their father, Maria drowns her sons and then herself in the river. Her body eventually washed up, but not those of her sons. And so she is condemned to wander, searching for her lost children, and taking other children that she finds along the way.
So, from what I can unravel, there appears to be three different stories that are being jumbled up together in Malta. Allegedly, in the late 18th century, the niece of Grand Master De Rohan was going to be married off to a man that she did not care for. She could not bear the thought and so jumped from a balcony in Verdala Palace and died by suicide while wearing her white wedding dress.
Another version of the story states that she was locked up after refusing to marry her unwanted suitor. Her wedding dress in this instance was blue, and supposedly she fell to her death while attempting to escape from a window. This version is, however, still in agreement about who she was and why she was fleeing.
The third story veers in a different direction and tells of Mdina’s Headless Bride, who was executed by beheading after she accidentally killed a knight who had attacked her. Just minutes before she was set to be executed, the court allowed her to marry her true love and then the sentence was carried out.
The one connecting thread between all three stories is the claim that these women (woman?) wander the streets of Mdina every night after 8PM. They appear to young children, lovelorn teenage boys, and lonely old men. They make sure that the children make their way home but the teenage boys and old men? Those are invited to join The Lady in her “shadow.” I’m going to assume that shadow is a poetic way to say death, but I don’t really know.
A few notes: while the White/Blue Lady of Verdala Palace is said to be the niece of Grand Master De Rohan, her story is not listed in his biography and she is never given a name. This isn’t necessarily a big surprise though.
As for the color of her dress? Well, I’m inclined to believe that it actually was blue. White wedding dresses weren’t really a thing until Queen Victoria popularized them in the mid-19th century. Up to that point, it was a very uncommon color choice for brides.
The final version we’ll talk about is the kaperosa (White Lady) of Balete Drive in Quezon City. This story seems to have cropped up sometime around the 1950s and has a special focus on Balete Drive and the taxis that cruise those streets.
The street itself had a giant Balete tree right in the middle of it and these trees are believed to be homes for supernatural beings. Basically, they’re ghost hotels. So the giant tree on Balete Drive would be a magnet for any ghost that happened to be created in its vicinity; a ghost such as a young woman who was killed on the street and buried under the tree.
This particular White Lady has a few different versions. One of them states that she was a teenager who was run over and killed by a taxi, after which the driver buried her under the tree. Another version states that she was sexually assaulted and then killed by the taxi driver and then buried under the tree. A third version claims that she was the daughter of a family who lived in one of the old mansions on Balete Drive. She began to haunt the street, seeking help from passersby, after her family killed her.
While her sudden appearances are said to be terrifying, she doesn’t seem to be threatening. She is said to appear in the streets and even in empty back seats within the car itself but she doesn’t cause harm and will vanish after a few moments. Even so, drivers are warned to always have occupied backseats and to never look behind them or into any of the car’s mirrors which is basic ghost precaution, unless you want one to follow you home.
The thing we take away from all of this, it seems to me, is that–on some level–society is and has always been very aware of just how brutally women have been treated down through the centuries. Ghosts and spirits don’t usually just spring to life for no reason. Extreme trauma is generally the catalyst and the existence of this many White Lady stories, from so many different countries and eras, should tell us something about the violent and volatile risk in simply being born a woman anywhere in this world.
Or maybe we just really like it when long-haired women in white dresses scare the shit out of us.
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Winick, Stephen. “La Llorona: An Introduction to the Weeping Woman.” La Llorona: An Introduction to the Weeping Woman | Folklife Today, 13 Oct. 2021, https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2021/10/la-llorona-an-introduction-to-the-weeping-woman/.