We experience tales of horror and the supernatural through popular culture and folklore. Both mediums have similarities in that they both follow traditional, tried-and-tested genres and formulas. What makes folklore tales more endearing, however, is that they’re transmitted intimately: face to face or in small groups.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘folklore’ as:
“the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth.”
This act of passing on legends and stories within families and communities attaches sentiment, which can make you think, just for a second, “What actually occurred to create this story?”
So, with that in mind, join us as we explore 7 horrifying, vengeful, and all around unpleasant ghosts found in folklore tales across the world.
1. Oiwa – Japan
Any discussion regarding folklore and supernatural occurrences absolutely has to begin in Japan, where ghost stories are particularly insidious. Oiwa is one such story, and like any good story it has dozens of variants. Originally a loving and doting wife, Oiwa was killed by her sinister husband, who wished her dead so that he might marry a wealthier woman. In one version of the story, Oiwa is killed with a corrupt cosmetic cream that poisons her while slowly and painfully disfiguring her face. In another, she is pushed off a cliff during a late-night walk. Her body is found smashed to bits on the rocks below, her face broken with one eye hanging out, covered in sand and seaweed.
Whatever the method of death, the story progresses the same way. Oiwa’s desire for vengeance brings her back to our world as a spirit. She slowly starts to destroy her former husband’s life. She plays tricks on him every day so that he can never be at peace. She turns his new lover and her family against him. She also wakes him every night, getting right up close and personal with her horrifying and unnatural form!
Her husband, eventually, is driven to madness. In some stories he kills himself. In others, he’s killed by Oiwa or by others he has wronged. His death, however, does not pacify Oiwa; she continues to haunt to this day. Unlike their western counterparts, the anger held by Japanese spirits is eternal! It is no wonder that the story of Oiwa continues to be a major influence on Japanese horror.
2. Myling – Scandinavia
Mylings are the ghosts of small children that were left to die by their parents in acts of infanticide. When such children died, their bodies would never be buried and instead left to scavengers, which is where the problem starts. You see, a typical myling story has a restless child spirit jump on the back of a lost traveller and demand to be taken to a graveyard. As they get closer, they start to get heavier and heavier. Some say it’s because they become more human as they get closer to consecrated ground. Others say it’s because they suck the life force from their hosts. If the traveller buckles under their weight and can’t continue, the myling kills them.
These stories are particularly grim in that they reflect the very real historic practice of leaving new-borns to die in forests and open places. Such practice was common in the ancient world – the Spartans and Romans were famous for it. It was done sometimes as a test of fate but more often than not as a way to terminate the lives of those born with disabilities or unwelcome attributes.
3. Glaistig – Scotland
A ghost from Scottish folklore, the glaistig is a type of fuath (malevolent water spirit). These days, the glaistig is often called the Green Lady, as the ghost is said to appear as a woman wearing a long, green dress, with dusty grey skin. It is half-goat, similar to a satyress, which in folklore cannon can be indicative of links to the Devil. The ratio of human to animal differs by story. The glaistig can shape shift and is said to try and hide its animal features with its clothing whenever possible.
In some stories, it is a mere nuisance, throwing pebbles at highland travellers. In others, it drinks the blood of men after luring them to their death with hypnotic song and dance. It is said to dislike dogs and those with low intellect, but is very fond of cows. Leaving regular tributes of milk to the glaistig might even be enough to win its protection – but should you ever forget to make a payment, beware, for the glaistig does not give second chances!
4. Pontianak – Indonesia and Malaysia
What’s worse than a vampire?
… A vampire ghost!
Pontianak are a type of vampiric ghost in Malaysian and Indonesian folklore and are said to derive from spirits of women who died during childbirth. They arise during the full moon and can be heard by their high-pitched baby cries. Their presence can sometimes be detected by a floral fragrance, followed by an awful stench. The Indian version, the Churail, can be identified by backwards-facing feet.
In order to entice man, they appear as young women; before they attack, they turn old and haggard. They drain the blood of their victims and might also dig into their stomachs to remove their organs. Sometimes, they attempt to do this via the eyes!
Some versions of the Pontianak legend state that the spirit smells out its victims by seeking out laundry that’s being hung out to dry. In some Malaysian communities, people avoid leaving laundry outside after dark for this very reason. Not all of the Pontianak’s victims are random; sometimes they’re individuals that wronged the deceased individual. They also target women with new-borns out of spite and malice.
5. La Llorona – Latin America
Raúl Anguiano: ‘La Llorona, The Weeping Woman’, 1942
La Llorona – the Weeping Woman – is a legendary ghost prominent in Latin America folklore. This terrifying story has become so popular in Mexican folklore in recent years that it’s made its way into European urban legend and inspired movies. According to tradition, La Llorona was once a fine looking girl named Maria. So beautiful was Maria that she thought she was better than everyone else. She would only marry a man of equal standing, and found one in a neighbouring village – a dashing young ranchero. This man was a playboy and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. He married Maria, fathered her children, but quickly grew tired of it all.
One day, Maria was strolling with her two children near a river when the ranchero came by in a carriage. Sat next to him was an elegant, younger and prettier lady. The ranchero acknowledged his children but not his wife. Her pride wounded, Maria was filled with a violent rage. She turned on her innocent children and threw them into the river. Straight away, Maria came to regret her actions. She ran down the bank, searching for them, but they were long gone. Stricken by grief, Maria took her own life.
At the gates of heaven, Maria was challenged on the whereabouts of her children. As punishment for her crime, she was sent back to Earth, doomed to walk along the river bank for all eternity. She does so whilst lamenting her loss, crying the mournful wail “¡Ay, mis hijos!” which means “Oh, my children!”
Sometimes, if she comes across other children, she gets confused and begs for their forgiveness. As they cannot give it, she again succumbs to her anger and drowns them, and so the horror continues.
6. Krasue – Thailand and Cambodia
Another entry from Asia, and a frightening one at that. This spirit manifests itself as the head of a woman, usually young and beautiful, with her internal organs hanging down from the neck, trailing below the head. In life, Krasue was a beautiful princess who fell in love with a poor man despite being promised to a powerful nobleman. When the affair was discovered, Krasue was burned to death. A sorceress tried to save her with a spell. However, the spell came too late and only Krasue’s head, neck and organs were saved.
The Krasue preys on pregnant women and baby placenta. It strikes at their homes just before or after childbirth. It is eternally hungry, with some suggesting that it thinks if it consumes enough flesh, it will regrow its missing body.
7. Carl Pruitt – U.S.A
In the 1930s, a man called Carl Pruitt discovered his wife had been having an affair. Distraught and angry, he strangled her to death with a chain, before killing himself. However, death did not stop his rage. Weeks after his death, the pattern of a chain appeared on his gravestone and a discolouration in the stone kept growing until it formed a small-linked chain that twisted back on itself to form a cross.
Some daring young lads thought they could win some kudos from their peers by visiting the tombstone. One boy threw rocks at it, knocking out several chips. While cycling home, a peculiar accident occurred; the boy’s bike started speeding up before the sprocket chain tore loose, wrapped itself around the boy’s neck and strangled him to death. A few weeks later, the boy’s mother took an axe to the tombstone and destroyed it. When she returned home to bring in her washing, the clothesline came loose and wrapped itself around her neck. She too was strangled. Authorities visited the cemetery shortly after and found the tombstone intact.
Locals decided to avoid the cemetery, until the ‘40s when one man decided to defy the curse. He took a large rock and proceeded to pound away at the tombstone – neighbours could hear him at his work. Suddenly, the sound stopped, and a bloodcurdling scream was heard. The man was found entangled in a chain used to keep the cemetery gate in place, with a look of horror upon his face. Again, authorities were stumped but theorised that he had been disturbed in his work and ran into the dark, only to get fatally caught. The question is, what disturbed him?