These spooky tales—about some of the most famous female ghosts of all time—will have you hiding under your blankets and checking under your bed
When most people die, they’re gone forever. But some folks linger, making things very uncomfortable for the living. When they were on earth, these nine women were scorned, tortured, murdered, betrayed, or just plain evil. And after passing into the spirit realm, they stuck around to shake things up. These ghosts range from benign—like one who just wants to flirt—to straight-up terrifying, like the ghoul who’s hell-bent on murdering children with scissors. Read this as you go to bed, but beware: these stories will take your night from chill to chilling.
Lady Mary Howard
Lady Mary Howard’s dad, Sir John Fitz, was a total dick and a violent drunk who killed two people and then committed suicide, at which point Howard inherited his estate. Her four husbands all died shortly after marrying her, for mysterious reasons, and Howard finally passed away at the age of 75, broken down by grief after the death of her son. But Howard rose again. Residents of Devon, England, say her ghostly carriage takes a nightly trip from Fitzford House, her last residence, to the nearby Okehampton Castle. Her carriage is made of her dead husbands’ bones, and is driven by a headless coachman; Howard is accompanied by her dog, a fire-breathing black hound with bright red eyes. And each night, when the carriage reaches the castle, the dog plucks a blade of grass from its lawn. According to legend, Howard must make this trip nightly until there’s no grass left at the castle—only then can her soul rest. No one’s sure what horrible act Lady Howard committed to deserve such a curse, but since legend says she sits silently in her carriage, we’ll never find out. Howard’s story was immortalized in the folk song “Lady Howard’s Coach,” which contains the lines, “My ladye’s coach hath nodding plumes/The driver hath no head/My ladye is an ashen white/As one that long is dead.”
(1794 or 1801–1881)
New Orleans, LA
This infamous Voodoo queen has one of the most-visited tombs in the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, Saint Louis Cemetery #1. Born a free person of color, Marie Laveau was a hairdresser who popularized the practice of Voodoo in New Orleans. She would hold elaborate rituals on the Bayou St. John, attended by hundreds, and her youngest daughter, Marie Laveau II, took up Voodoo, too. The pair—who also ran a brothel—were often sought after for healing, divination, and other spells. As respected as she was feared, Laveau died peacefully at home, but it’s said her ghost can be seen in the cemetery, walking among the tombs and practicing Voodoo. The apparition is usually recognized by her trademark seven-point Tignon (a type of headscarf that Louisiana women of color once wore), and she’s clearly keeping busy: during the Depression, a homeless man claimed he woke up in the cemetery to see the great priestess holding a ritual at her tomb, surrounded by dancing spirits. You can visit her resting place and make a wish—if it’s granted, you must come back and pay homage. And be sure to leave an offering of cigars, white rum, or money (the priestess’ favorites), so you stay on her good side.
(sometime during the Heian Period [794–1185 AD])
The oldest ghost on our list, Kuchisake-onna is from back in the day when samurais were running shit in Japan. Her real name and birth and death dates are unknown, but apparently, she was very beautiful and very vain. The story goes that she cheated on her samurai husband, and he slashed her face from ear to ear in a rage; that’s how she got her name, which means “slit-mouthed woman.” Legend has it that her masked spirit approaches children walking alone at night, and asks if they think she’s pretty. If the child says “no,” the spirit kills them with a giant pair of scissors. If they reply “yes,” she removes the mask to flash her mangled grin and slices their faces, too. It’s rumored you can confuse her by calling her average, or by politely telling her you have a prior commitment. In the late 1970s, there were numerous sightings of a woman in a surgical mask chasing children in Japan’s Nagasaki Prefecture, and panic set in. Schools reportedly closed early, with students being escorted home in groups. So be sure to tell your kids that if a strange lady in a mask asks them to critique her look, they should yell, “You’re basic!” and run—fast.
The Perron family.
In 1971, the Perron family moved into their dream farmhouse in Harrisville, RI. But as soon as they settled in, things got cray. There were thought to be several apparitions in the house: one kissed kids’ foreheads at night, another smelled like flowers, and another even swept the kitchen floor. But not everything they did was so helpful—beds levitated, doors slammed, and the family claims they saw an orange ooze blood. The nastiest of all was a ghost who focused on Carolyn Perron, the family’s mom. The ghost pulled her hair, taunted her with flaming torches, and once stabbed her in the back of the leg, leaving a deep puncture wound. Once word got out, famous paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren came to help. Lorraine concluded that the dark spirit was that of Bathsheba Sherman, a suspected witch and Satan worshipper who lived on the property in the 1800s, was suspected of sacrificing a baby, and hung herself in 1885. Things came to a head one night when Carolyn was possessed by Bathsheba’s spirit; daughter Andrea recalled, “She spoke in a voice we had never heard before” and then “a power not of this world threw her 20 feet into another room.” The Perrons finally moved out in 1980, and surviving family members are still reluctant to talk about what happened during their time in the house.
John Bell's deathbed
The Bell Witch, aka Kate Batts
(birth and death dates unknown)
John Bell bought a large chunk of Tennessee farmland in the early 1800s, and in 1817, shit started to get weird. Bell claimed he saw an animal with the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit, and that night, back at the crib, his family began hearing banging on the walls. Soon, the family heard an old woman’s voice singing hymns, and an unseen force began pulling blankets off of Bell’s children, even slapping his youngest daughter, Betsy. During an exorcism, the poltergeist identified itself as Kate Batts, a deceased former neighbor with whom he’d had a land-related dispute. Soon afterward, Bell became violently sick and was unable to leave the house. After he died in 1820, the family found a vial of unidentified liquid in the cabinet, in place of his medicine. Kate’s voice was heard saying the liquid was poison and that she’d given it to him, making this the first murder-by-ghost. Then that bitch showed up (obviously uninvited) to Bell’s funeral, and joyously sang a drinking song. She said she’d be back in 107 years to visit Bell’s next direct descendent, but if she did show up, no one lived to tell the tale.
The Alabama Girls Industrial School, where Condie Cunningham died.
On February 4, 1908, student Condie Cunningham and some friends were in her room on the fourth floor of the main dorm at the Alabama Girls’ Industrial School (now called the University of Montevallo). They were sneakily cooking up a late-night snack on a camp stove when one of the girls knocked it over, and it lit Cunningham’s nightgown on fire. She did exactly what you’re not supposed to do when you catch fire—she ran, feeding the flames. Her friends tried to smother the fire but they were too late; she’d already been engulfed, and died two days later. Following her death, a student staying in Cunningham’s room reportedly heard noises outside her bedroom door. When she opened it, she saw a woman, charred black, running down the hallway in a fiery blaze. Students say an image of Cunningham’s burning face appeared on her bedroom door after her death; while the school had the door replaced several times, the image kept returning. The door was eventually removed, but students still hear blood-curdling shrieks and a woman screaming “Help me!” near Cunningham’s old room, accompanied by the sound of panicked feet running up and down the halls.
Madame Marie Delphine LaLaurie (1775–1842)
New Orleans, LA
Socialite Marie Delphine LaLaurie lived in a mansion on 1140 Royal St. in New Orleans, where she threw grand parties. She also may have been America’s first female serial killer. In 1834, her massive home caught fire, and as the flames grew, neighbors rushed to help. Desperate to make sure everyone got out safely, a group of neighbors broke through a locked door and got more than they bargained for. They found slaves in various stages of torture and mutilation, including some missing limbs and others who’d been beaten so badly they couldn’t walk. The LeLauries escaped; an angry mob chased their carriage but they got away, reportedly fleeing to Paris. Years later, during a renovation, human remains were found under the floorboards—it’s thought that LaLaurie killed as many as 100 slaves at the house. The mansion still stands, and it’s haunted not just by those she murdered, but also by LaLaurie herself. A construction worker claimed that he felt someone tug on his pants leg, and turned around to find a woman in a grayish mist, scowling at him with disapproving eyes. She was reportedly also seen hovering over the baby of one resident and chasing children around with a whip. A monster in life, she should never get to rest in peace.
Anna Dorothea Swarts
Leeds, New York
Anna Dorothea Swarts worked as a servant for a man named William Salisbury, and he was one raging, abusive asshole. In 1755, Swarts finally had enough of Salisbury’s shit and tried to escape. But he chased her down on horseback, and when he caught her, he tied her to the back of his horse and dragged her back to the farm. Swarts died a brutal death on the way, her body torn to shreds by jagged rocks along the path. Salisbury was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. However, the ultra-wealthy man managed to bribe the judge into suspending his sentence until he turned 99, on the condition he’d always wear a noose around his neck, and report back to the judge once a year to make sure he kept it on. But Swarts wasn’t about to let him get off that easy. Shortly after the trial, townspeople claimed they saw her ghost sitting on the wall at the edge of Salisbury’s garden, laughing, with flames rising from her fingertips. Others saw a massive ghost-horse ride past his window, dragging a bloody skeleton draped in tattered clothing. The sounds of screaming and galloping hooves could also be heard near the house. And Salisbury, who’d been ostracized by his community, was eventually driven insane by the hauntings. He hung himself at home.
New York, NY
The original flapper (she starred in the 1919 film Flapper, which coined the term), Olive Thomas was a showgirl in the Ziegfeld Follies and a silent-film actress who once won a contest searching for the “Most Beautiful Girl in New York City.” Thomas was married to Jack Pickford, the younger brother of silent-film superstar Mary Pickford. But things weren’t always dandy between Thomas and her husband, and to save their crumbling marriage, they went on a second honeymoon to Paris. After a night of arguing in their hotel, Thomas downed a bottle of mercury bichloride that had been prescribed as a topical treatment for Jack’s syphilis; it’s unclear if she poisoned herself on purpose, or if she’d mistaken the medicine for booze. Her death from kidney failure became a Hollywood scandal, and her ghost now famously haunts N.Y.C.’s New Amsterdam Theater, once home to her beloved Follies. Thomas has been known to turn off lights and mess with equipment, even materializing, clad in her green Follies costume, to blow kisses at men. During a renovation of the theater in the ’90s, she flirted with a stagehand, freaking him out so badly that he quit on the spot. If you do visit the theater, make sure to say “Goodnight, Olive” when leaving. You don’t want to find out what the glamour girl would do if she felt snubbed.
Story by Callie Watts
Illustration by Dilek Baykara
This story appears in our October/November 2014 issue.