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15 Tales of Female Ghosts

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Believe in them or not, the stories of these female ghosts live on. But whether born of folklore or a historical tragedy, each of these ladies has a haunting tale.

1. Anne Boleyn

After King Henry VIII successfully broke from his first wife, he made Boleyn his second, and she became the Queen of England in 1533. However, Boleyn's reign was short because she failed to produce a male heir, which turned her once-loving husband against her. She was beheaded at the Tower of London on May 19th, 1536 and, since then, people have claimed to see her ghost not only at the location of her death, but also at Hever Castle, Blickling Hall, Salle Church, and Marwell Hall. The most chilling tale of her appearance tells of a guard at the Tower of London who was approached by a "whitish, female figure." Panicked, the man stabbed his bayonet at the spirit before fainting from fear.

2. Bloody Mary

Dare you stand before a mirror and call her name thrice, she'll appear. The folklore involving this ghost varies. Some believe she was a witch from the notorious Salem trials. Others claim she was the victim of a grisly murder by a stranger or lover. Still others believe her to be Mary I, Queen of England, damned for her persecution of the Protestants. Even whether or not she's a dangerous spirit in the first place is a matter of debate. To test for yourself, shut off the lights. Take a candle into your bathroom, and give Mary a call. If you dare.

3. Kuchisake-onna

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A freaky figure from Japan's urban legends is this terrifying spirit, whose name translates to "Slit-Mouthed Woman." Rumors of her first surfaced in the late 1970s. Her mouth is said to be sliced open from ear to ear, and she appears solely to chase and torment children. At first she hides her deformity with the help of a surgical mask, but when she finds a child alone she pulls the mask away and asks if they find her beautiful. It's said that if they say no she will slash at them with scissors. But if they say yes, she will slice their faces from ear to ear to resemble her own. Fear of this figure grew so intense that children would travel home from school in groups for safety.

4. The Headless Nun

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This ghost is said to roam about in Canada's French Fort Cove, lonely and seeking her lost head. In Doug Underhill's Miramichi Tales Tall & True, he places her origins in the 1700s, when noble French women were sent to Canada to join convents. But this poor nun met a tragic end when she came across either a deranged fur trapper or a pair of sailors merciless in their search for treasure. Either way, the story ends the same way, with the nun's head lopped off and the rest of her beginning a never-ceasing search to make herself whole once more.

5. The White Lady

There are many ghosts all over the world who are called "The White Lady." In medieval England, she was believed to appear as an omen of death. In Scotland, she was rumored to have been the lost soul of a suicidal girl who threw herself out of a tower. In Malta, she lept from a balcony to escape an undesired marriage. In the Philippines and in Portugal she died in a car accident. White Ladies linger in castles all over the United Kingdom. In the U.S., her white dress is often believed to be a bridal gown for a wedding that would never take place. Other White Ladies are said to be searching for lost children or deceased husbands, or else they are damned to walk the earth for killing an unwanted child.

6. The Grey Lady

There are plenty of stories about apparitions dubbed The Grey Lady popping up in Wales, Scotland, New Zealand, and even Evansville, Indiana. But the English legend of Dudley Castle's Grey Lady got new life recently when a photograph snapped by a tourist appeared to have captured the lady who is believed to have haunted the place for centuries. Having been built in 1071, the castle has had its fair share of residents, and it is said to be haunted by many spirits—chief of which is the Grey Lady. She is believed to be Dorothy Beaumont, who died shortly after giving birth to a stillborn daughter. Her story claims she wanders the castle looking for her husband and baby, both of whom she called for on her deathbed to no avail.

7. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

Believed to be the spirit of Lady Dorothy Walpole, this ghost is so named for the brown brocade dress she has been spotted wearing. She was the wife of Whig statesman Viscount Charles Townshend and lived in the posh country house Raynham Hall, but her life there was one of misery. Her husband was notorious for his bad temper, and when he discovered his wife's infidelity, he imprisoned her in the house they shared. She died there of smallpox in 1726, and the first recorded sighting of her ghost came on Christmas 1835. The following year she so frightened one burly visitor that he fired a gun into her ghostly face. She vanished, but has been spotted since in 1926 and 1936, when a photographer claims he snapped a picture of her as she descended the stairs towards him.

8. The Red Lady of Huntingdon College

In her book 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, Kathryn Tucker Windham tells a tragic story of an outsider named Martha, who reluctantly came from New York to Huntingdon College because it was the alma mater of her grandmother. Said to have been a shy girl, the boldest thing about her was her love of the color red, which she draped about her bedroom in blankets, curtains, rugs, and knickknacks. Failing to make friends, she became increasingly withdrawn and eventually began wandering to the doorways of others' dorms, staring in at night without saying a word. It's a pattern she's said to repeat to this day, after having swathed herself in her red blanket and slit her wrists in her room.

9. The Blue Lady

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In California, the Moss Beach Distillery Café claims to be the home of a ghost in a blue dress. As her story goes, she was a young married woman of the Prohibition era who fell for a handsome pianist who played at the café. One night while walking the beach, they were attacked, and she was killed. Those who work at the café claim she still wanders through, looking for her lost lover, and they cite mysterious phone calls, levitating objects, and locked rooms. Her story has been featured on Unsolved Mysteries and Ghost Hunters, but the latter declaried that the Blue Lady legend was bunk. The Café has issued a respectful response titled, "A Visit Does Not An Investigation Make."

10. Screaming Jenny

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A dark tale of West Virginia is that of Jenny, a poor woman reduced to living in a shack near some train tracks. One night, Jenny was huddled near the fire, trying to keep warm while she ravenously gobbled up the meager food she'd acquired. This is when her skirt caught fire. She couldn't put herself out, and so ran down the tracks toward the station, screaming for help. But in her panic, she didn't see the train coming. She was buried in a pauper's grave, and might have been forgotten were it not for her return on the anniversary of her death. She's said to appear in a ball of flame, tearing down the train tracks screaming.

11. The Bell Witch

Named for the family she is believed to have tormented, this poltergeist was once known as Kate Batts. In 1800s Tennessee, she'd had a land dispute with neighbor John Bell Sr., and became notorious for her bad behavior towards him. But things got worse once she died. His children were attacked in their sleep by unseen hands, household objects moved on their own, and a séance revealed it all to be caused by Batts. The story goes that her ghost went on to poison Mr. Bell, and at his funeral her voice could be heard singing a drinking song. Today, her presence is less feared and more a tourist attraction.

12. Dolley Madison

The wife of President James Madison, Dolley is often credited with transforming Washington, D.C. from swamp to a civilized destination to see and be seen. She was known for her winsome spirit, vibrant parties, and for taking exceptional pride in how her tastes shaped the interior design and landscapes of the White House. Dolley is said to have continued the house's upkeep, even after death. Legend has it that during Woodrow Wilson's presidency, his second wife Edith dared to demand the Rose Garden be ripped up, but every time a gardener drew near the place, Dolley would appear to shoo them away. Since her death in 1849, she's also been spotted rocking in a chair on the porch of The Cutts-Madison House, where she lived after her tenure as First Lady ended.

13. Theodora Burr

The daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr and wife of South Carolina governor Joseph Alston, this 19th century lady was positioned for a life of luxury and ease, but sorrow plagued her. Raised in New York City, she struggled to adjust to life on her husband's mosquito-plagued country plantation. Her father was tried for treason, and she lost her only child from malaria when he was just ten years old. Deep in grief, she boarded a ship on New Year's Eve 1812 to visit her father in New York, but she'd never arrive; the ship was lost at sea with no trace. Since then, Theodora's ghost has been known to travel. She's been spotted by the Georgetown dock where she boarded the ill-fated vessel, near her old summer home in Debordieu, and strolling around the old Oaks Plantation, now renamed Brookgreen Gardens. Another version of her tale claims she washed up on shore with a portrait of herself, but no memory of who she was.

14. Madame Marie Delphine Lalaurie

Credited by some as America's first female serial killer, LaLaurie has left a dark stain on her New Orleans home. She was among the social elite of the city in the 1830s until a fire in 1834 revealed the horrible secrets she had locked within her house. When neighbors rushed into help, they followed screams to a locked door. Upon breaking it down they discovered a horror show of slaves, tortured, chained, and mutilated. An angry mob chased LaLaurie out of town, and corpses were reportedly uncovered under the house's floorboards. She died in 1849 in Paris, but some say her hideous acts have condemned her to walk the lands of her old home for all time. She's been spotted with a sneer and a whip, hovering over babies and children. Recently, she inspired a character on American Horror Story: Coven.

15. Olive Thomas

Having starred in the 1920 film that coined the phrase, Thomas was the original flapper. Her life was glamorous and included a stint as a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl and a marriage to Jack Pickford, brother of the movie star Mary Pickford. Her death came too soon, at age 25, when Thomas drank down the mercury bichloride that was intended to treat her husband's syphilis topically. Whether this was accidental—perhaps she thought it was illicit hooch—or intentionally suicidal was a matter of debate. But since then, Olive has been said to haunt the New Amsterdam Theater in New York City, where she once owned the spotlight. Thomas struts around in a green beaded costume that she wore as part of the Follies while clutching a blue bottle. She supposedly appears before men and flirts before she vanishes. She's been spotted so often by stagehands that a superstition has risen, claiming it's best to say, "Goodnight, Olive," as you leave so as not to snub the theater's long-time resident.

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The BBC Halloween Hoax That Traumatized Viewers
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After more than 20,000 phone calls, one induced labor, and thousands of angry letters, the UK's Broadcasting Standards Council convened for a hearing. On June 27, 1995, they ruled that the producers of Ghostwatch, a BBC program that aired on Halloween night less than three years earlier, had deliberately set out to “cultivate a sense of menace.”

Put another way, the BBC had been found to be complicit in scaring 11 million people senseless.

Airing from Northolt, North London, Ghostwatch alleged to report on the paranormal experiences of the Early family, which had been besieged by the actions of a ghostly apparition they called “Pipes.” Four recognized BBC presenters appeared on the show, which took on the appearance of a straightforward documentary and offered only subtle clues that it was an elaborate hoax. For a significant portion of viewers, it appeared as though they were witnessing documented evidence of a malevolent spirit.

Viewers grew so disturbed by the content that the network became embroiled in a controversy over what audiences felt was a ruse perpetrated by a trustworthy news source; cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in children were even reported in the British Medical Journal. What the BBC had intended to be nothing more alarming than an effective horror movie had petrified a country—and would eventually lead to accusations that it was responsible for someone’s death.

There is something of a myth surrounding Orson Welles’s infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast of October 30, 1938. As the decades have passed, accounts of how Welles used the H.G. Wells story to fool a nation into believing aliens had invaded have become embellished. Listeners had supposedly become so infused with terror that they leapt from windows and suffered nervous breakdowns. Major cities had streets crowded with people craning their necks and looking for signs of a violent galactic attack.

While it’s true a number of people may have been disturbed by the “accounts” of military forces being overwhelmed by aliens, it’s unlikely to have been as widespread as later accounts would have it. Newspapers eager to browbeat the competing medium of radio exaggerated the show’s effect, then quickly dropped the matter; it’s not likely all that many people were even listening in the first place, with the program going up against a popular comedy show airing at the same time.

As perpetrators of hoaxes go, only Stephen Volk seems to have lived up to the standard Welles is thought to have set. A screenwriter, Volk pitched the BBC on a six-part series in 1988 about a roving paranormal investigation crew that climaxes in a live tour of a supposedly haunted house.

The BBC, however, wasn’t that enthused about devoting that much time to the idea. Instead, the pitch was condensed down to the last episode—a kind of “mockumentary” take on a paranormal occurrence that the channel could air as a Halloween special.

For Volk, it represented an opportunity to explore what he felt was the relative comfort of a television broadcast. Audiences went to horror films, he believed, knowing what to expect, consenting to being scared. But television was more intimate and less predictable. Viewers who tuned in anticipating a spoof or anticlimactic, tongue-in-cheek exploration would be in for a surprise—and not a pleasant one.

To add to the program’s credibility, Volk and director Lesley Manning structured it so two BBC presenters—Sarah Greene and Craig Charles—would be installed at the Early house, while highly regarded broadcaster Michael Parkinson would anchor from a studio. (Both Charles and Greene frequently popped up on BBC children’s programming, which would prove to be a lure when it came to an adolescent audience.)

Actors portrayed members of the Early family: single mother Pam and daughters Suzanne and Kim all reported instances of strange activity in their home, including rattling, mysterious cat noises, and smashed dishes. Suzanne would sport odd scratches on her face, which she claimed to be the work of Pipes, the ghost who refused to leave their home.

(In a testament to Volk’s commitment, he petitioned the BBC to allow him to try and insert a high-pitched warble on the soundtrack that would be audible to animals near televisions, hoping their bizarre behavior would unsettle viewers more. It proved to be technically impossible to do.)

Various ideas were batted around to reinforce the disclaimer, but few made it to the air. Mike Smith, Greene’s real-life husband and an on-air BBC correspondent who appeared on the special, once told the Radio Times that he suspected things might go south. “We had a meeting with the BBC days before transmission,” he said. “And we told them that this was going to cause a fuss. They told us not to worry because it was being billed as a drama in the Radio Times complete with a cast list. But we felt that wasn't enough."

By the time Ghostwatch premiered at 9:25 p.m. on October 31, 1992, the special had already been filmed, showing Parkinson reacting to segments and taking calls—all staged—that invited the audience to discuss their experiences with paranormal activity. In the interests of fairness, he also included an interview with a (fake) skeptic dismissing the Earlys’ claims.

Only highly observant viewers would have done the same. While the show began with a title card indicating it was written “by” Volk, the graphic was onscreen for only a split second; the presence of established and familiar faces to BBC viewers added to the verisimilitude. So did the program’s slow burn. At 90 minutes, it took its time, showing only fleeting glimpses into the Early family’s experiences that were left purposely ambiguous.

In the show’s second half, things took a turn. A viewer called in to tell them that someone had once committed suicide in the home; a mutilated dog corpse was said to be recently found nearby; the Early children were depicted as increasingly upset over the home’s disturbances. Around an hour in, Parkinson even advised viewers they’d be pre-empting scheduled programming to remain with Greene due to the "extraordinary" events taking place: Suzanne speaking in a baritone voice, and unseen cats mewling behind the walls.

Ultimately, Greene disappeared in the crawl space under the home’s stairs while a paranormal expert proclaimed that the television audience had unwittingly participated in a mass séance that had further emboldened Pipes. At the end of the show, Parkinson was seen being apparently possessed by the ghost’s spirit.

The finale laid it on a little thick, but not everyone made it that far in. By the time Ghostwatch signed off, a not-insignificant portion of the show’s 11 million viewers were either convinced ghosts were real, extremely upset at the BBC for traumatizing their children, or both.

The broadcaster had just five operators standing by its phones [PDF] once the show went off air, a number that was quickly overcome by the thousands of calls that flooded in. One woman reportedly went into labor due to the stress caused by watching the program; another reported her husband had soiled himself. Within hours, the BBC aired a brief segment that reminded viewers the show was fictional. It was a little too late.

Public discourse—including on the BBC’s own viewer feedback show, Bite Back—criticized the station for using its reputation to fool viewers into thinking harm had come to both the Earlys and to their hosts. Parapsychologist Susan Blackmore later said that “It treated the audience unfairly. It can be exciting to play on the edge of fantasy and reality, or stretch the accepted norms of television conventions, but this was neither true to its format nor fun. It was horrid to watch the distress of the girls, real or faked. I found it over-long and occasionally disgusting … The lack of adequate warnings was irresponsible.”

Greene quickly appeared on children’s shows to reassure younger viewers she had not been abducted or murdered by Pipes. Volk and Manning offered their own apologies, feeling that the BBC considered them pariahs. They had simply wanted to pay homage to Welles, never imagining the program could have the kind of effect it did.

In a report published in the British Medical Journal 18 months later, doctors in Coventry reported cases they classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder” from consumption of media—in this case, Ghostwatch. Two 10-year-old boys were suffering from panic attacks and sleep disturbances as a result of the broadcast. When the piece appeared, the Journal received correspondence from other doctors relating similar cases.

If not for his reported learning disabilities, 18-year-old Martin Denham might have been more psychologically equipped to deal with some transient nerves from the show. When he became distraught in the days following the broadcast, he began to grow concerned he might make contact with ghosts and committed suicide. His parents, Percy and April, blamed Ghostwatch, leading the Broadcasting Standards Council to rule that the show had been improperly labeled, with too few warnings that it was a fictitious premise.

Later, the handheld-camera, raw-footage approach would unnerve cinema audiences that flocked to films like The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series. While those films rarely resulted in any claims more serious than motion sickness, Ghostwatch successfully married the BBC’s credibility with an effective ghost story to create an experience that’s unlikely to ever be duplicated.

Not that the network wants to try. Since its original airing, the program has never again been broadcast in its entirety in the UK. (Though it is available to stream via Shudder.)

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8 Famous Séances
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For centuries, séances have provided entertainment for skeptics as well as solace for people hoping to catch a glimpse of their deceased loved ones. Here are a few notable times mediums have tried to contact the dead.

1. THE ANNUAL HOUDINI SÉANCE

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Before magician and famous skeptic Harry Houdini died in 1926, he said that he would send word of the afterlife, if there was one, once he was gone. He and his wife, Bess, even devised a code word that only they knew. Though Bess held séances on the anniversary of his death for 10 years, hoping to hear their secret word, nothing ever happened. Still, a variety of magicians, Houdini enthusiasts, and spiritualists have continued the tradition ever since.

2. JANE PIERCE’S WHITE HOUSE SÉANCES

Even if you don’t believe séances can produce spirits, you can’t blame First Lady Jane Pierce for trying. She had already lost two young sons before her husband, Franklin Pierce, was elected president in 1852, so she was particularly protective of Bennie, the only surviving child. Unfortunately, it didn’t do her much good—two months before Franklin Pierce was inaugurated, the family was involved in a train derailment that took 11-year-old Bennie’s life.

She wrote her deceased son a letter not long afterward, asking him to appear to her so she could apologize for failing him. To help him find his way, she hired the Fox sisters, famous mediums who did much to popularize séances. There’s no record as to what happened at the White House séance, but we do know Jane reported that Bennie had appeared to her in her dreams shortly thereafter.

3. LEVITATION SÉANCES

Starting in the 1880s, Daniel Dunglas Home convinced some people of his supernatural ability by levitating during séances. Though the stunts certainly generated publicity, Home's "abilities" were called into question when insiders said he simply stood between closely placed balconies or stood outside on wide windowsills. Home counted many celebrities among his fans, including Queen Sophia of the Netherlands, Napoleon III, and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but he didn't impress everyone. Houdini wasn't fooled, calling Home “the forerunner of the mediums whose forte is fleecing by presuming on the credulity of the public.”

4. THE SÉANCE THAT “RAISED” A JUDGE

Judge John W. Edmonds died on April 5, 1874. A month later, he allegedly gave a speech in London, thanks to medium Cora L.V. Tappan, a young woman who had been giving spiritualist performances since the age of 15. The eloquent speech helped bolster the medium's successful career; she became the pastor of a spiritualist church the following year, and helped found the National Spiritualist Association.

5. THE MARY TODD LINCOLN SÉANCES

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Like Jane Pierce, Mary Todd Lincoln’s interest in talking to the dead is pretty understandable. And, also like Pierce, Lincoln employed the Fox sisters to help her reach a loved one taken too soon—specifically, her assassinated husband. There are no reports as to whether she was satisfied with the result, but the Fox sisters later admitted that their method of communicating with the dead—rapping on tables and other objects—was created by cracking their joints and making noises with their feet.

In addition to Abe, Mary also tried to contact her sons via séance, using a variety of mediums—and was quite happy with how those turned out. “Willie lives,” she once reported. “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of the bed with the same sweet adorable smile he always has had. He does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him.”

6. MUSEUM-WORTHY SÉANCES

Georgiana Houghton was an artist who became interested in spiritualism in the early 1860s after the death of her younger sister. It didn't take long for Houghton to combine her two interests, channeling creative spirits during séances to create watercolors and other works of art. Though she originally said that dead family members helped guide her hand, Houghton later claimed to have contacted Renaissance artists Titian and Correggio. Whether or not her works were the result of the afterlife, they're still relevant today—her art was exhibited at a prestigious London gallery just earlier this year.

7. THE BLACK HAWK SÉANCES

In 1913, Mother Leafy Anderson founded the Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Association in Chicago, an organization partly founded on the messages she brought from her spirit guide, Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk tribe, during religious séances. Anderson never knew Black Hawk—he died in 1838, nearly 50 years before she was born. Anderson herself died in 1927, but the word she brought from Black Hawk stuck—some faiths still channel Black Hawk to this day.

8. THE PAY-PER-VIEW SÉANCE

Lest you think that séances are ancient history—a silly diversion for people unenlightened by technology—consider Spirit of Diana, a 2003 pay-per-view event in which British mediums Craig and Jane Hamilton-Parker claimed to have contacted Princess Diana. The things Diana "revealed" weren’t exactly shocking or personal: The mediums claimed she said she was “having fun” in the afterlife, chilling with Mother Teresa. She had planned on marrying Dodi Fayed, and was still watching over her sons.

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