Bloody Mary! How Ghost Stories Empower and Oppress Women

by Brenda Pitt

I loved the summer horror flick The Conjuring, a creative, visually arresting retelling of a supposedly true exorcism story. The haunted house represented in the film was (as legend has it) haunted by the ghost of a woman who killed her child decades prior. As the final credits rolled on screen, visions of Vera Farmiga as the brave and compassionate medium Lorraine Warren clouded my thoughts; she was nothing short of magical. Then I caught my fiancé’s eye, and we both recognized a clear sexist message in a film we had both otherwise enjoyed. “So I guess all mothers are evil, then?” were the first words out of his mouth. As I exited the theater, I contemplated the iconography that surrounds the mother and permeates the way our society thinks about all women. 


The idea of a mother committing infanticide and later becoming an evil ghost has been a source of terror for centuries. As Andi Zeisler of Bitch Magazine writes in her fantastic essay “The Feminist Power of Female Ghosts”, characters like “La Llorona, the ‘weeping woman’ of Latin American folklore,” who “killed her children […] and wanders the night,” haunt the dreams of young children around the entire world. 


A Haunted House Version of La Llorona 

Zeisler sees these female ghosts as a source of female empowerment. She argues that stories of supernatural women “are often protofeminist tales of women who, if only in death, subvert the assumptions and traditions of women as dutiful wives and mothers, worshipful girlfriends, or obedient children by unleashing a lifetime’s worth of rage and retribution.” 


In many ways, she is right. These female ghosts do challenge the expectation that women must bear and nurture children. But it is key to note that the same stories often offer us a contrasting depiction of a caring, loving matriarch. It is this role (and not the ghost) that The Conjuring ultimately validates.


The worship of the mother in popular culture and folklore is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be quite progressive and beautiful when we extend it to apply to all women. In many ways, the female body is a powerful and iconic symbol because of its reproductive powers: legend has it that through birthing a child, the Virgin Mary contributed to our salvation. While many second-wave feminists saw child-bearing as a repressive, patriarchal expectation placed on women, some introduced a woman’s womb as a site of female power. Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, for example, saw womankind’s stereotypically maternal instincts and nurturing behaviors as the building blocks for a kinder, more compassionate society based on a matriarchal foundation. 


Lili Taylor as the Nurturing Mother in The Conjuring


But films like The Conjuring use a worshipful treatment of the good mother to demonize women who are in some way “bad” mothers. The woman who creates life also has the power to take it away. We’ve all heard legends about Bloody Mary, the ghost who, when called three times, will come and scratch your eyes out. Rumor has it that the evil spirit is based off of Queen Mary I and has become a source of slumber-party horror in part because of her frequent miscarriages. The power given to women, when based on reproduction, is a double-edged sword.  And the woman who cannot, or chooses not to, have children becomes an unnatural, inhuman being, caricatured in legend as an infanticide-committing creature. Thus the  failed mother becomes a symbol of death, just as the good mother is an icon of creation, and that is deeply unsettling. 


Psychologist and activist Dorothy Dinnerstein believed that women’s maternal role was the source of much aggression and hatred towards womankind. She argued that  our dependence on, and yearning for, the mother in infancy leads us in adulthood to be ashamed and afraid of feelings we felt towards her. Although Zeisler’s essay is brilliant and insightful, it is important to recognize that these ghost stories are not as empowering as they may appear on the surface. They are ultimately representative of this fear of powerful women and mothers. They indicate that we can pay a cost for the supernatural power we invest in the woman and the womb.


In the end, if many female ghost stories empower womankind, they do so in a limited way. For they also are expressions of the fear and hatred of the power attributed to women. One way to offset this toxic cultural mythology is to celebrate the creative powers of women, but of all women (not just those who bear children). In our culture, our female bodies, in whatever form they exist, are symbols of strength in part because of the iconography that surrounds the mother. And as long as that’s not exclusive to literal mothers, it’s a beautiful idea. We women “birth” many things besides babies. In the meantime, we cannot allow ourselves to be feared (and therefore oppressed) because of our capacity to create. 


What do you think? Are these ghostly narratives empowering to women? Or do they capitalize on fears of female power?


Thanks to Bitch Magazine/Andi Zeisler

Images via Fanboyseo, Inside the Magic, Warner Bros. Pictures

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