From paranormal visitations to curious orbs, from haunted houses to psychic communication in spiritual readings, spectral encounters come in many forms. Throughout the course of many centuries, each unique culture around the world has developed its own distinctive unearthly tales shared throughout generations as ghost stories.
North American ghost stories
One of the most famous ghost stories in the world originates from the United States. Say the words ‘Bloody Mary’ and anyone will know exactly which story you’re talking about. Say the words ‘Bloody Mary’ three times and you’re in serious trouble! However, the tale of Bloody Mary does not derive from 21st century films and TV.
As American Folklore explains, the urban legend originates in North America, perhaps Pennsylvania, where it was said that an old lady lived in a forest cottage. Locals believed she was a witch and called her ‘Bloody Mary’. Then, young girls in the village began to disappear. One evening, townspeople followed as a girl went outside following an enchanted sound only she could hear. They found Bloody Mary in the woods casting an evil spell on the girl, and they shot the witch before burning her at the stake.
Whilst she burned, Bloody Mary cursed the villagers, announcing that if anyone dared mention her name aloud before a mirror, her spirit would avenge itself upon them. Over many years, this has transformed into the horror story we know today.
Great Britain is home to countless ghost stories, from the real-life witch burnings to contemporary tales of spiritual visitation. Urban legends expert Tom Moran of Urban Ghosts shares one of his favourite local ghost stories from his home town of Sheffield. The tale of the phantom hitchhiker follows a young girl whose motorbike had broken down on a lonely lane of the Peak District. Tom describes the story:
“She thumbed a lift from a couple in a car, but upon arriving at the girl’s home, the couple found that she had disappeared from the back seat of their vehicle. They knocked on the door of her house only to be told by her distraught parents that she had actually recently died – killed in a motorbike crash.”
Many ghost stories also arose from the Second World War, where reports of airmen and aircrafts haunting wartime airfields were rife. Tom explains that “there are many tales of apparitions in flying uniforms thumbing lifts from passing cars, or invisible aircraft ‘flying’ near their old aerodromes”, highly atmospheric paranormal sites.
There are many prolific ghost stories in European cultures, many of which are subject to different interpretations in each country. However, one particularly popular paranormal myth can be found in Swiss folklore.
The tale of the “white woman” of the Belchen Tunnel began as late as 1981. The tunnel connects Basel to Chiasso, and at this time drivers began reporting uncanny happenings in the tunnel involving a white-clothed woman appearing from nowhere and attempting to catch a lift. WhatCulture reports how, in 1982, two jurists claimed to have picked up a pale woman who told them, “I am not well at all. Something really awful is going to happen, something very dreadful!”
When the pair looked again to the back seat where the “white woman” had sat, she had disappeared.
Japan is often considered a mainstay of psychic folklore, and for good reason. When the first ghost stories began to circulate in the eighth century, they were considered a sign of good fortune (as Tofugu explains).
However, this changed, and now the country is home to some of the most disturbing ghost stories around. One of the most famous is Yotsuya Kaidan. This tells the story of a young woman, Oiwa, whose husband had an affair with a rich woman called Oume. The husband eventually poisoned his wife so he could be with Oume and get her money. However, only Oiwa’s unborn baby died and eventually he pushed her off a cliff. However, as the husband plans his new wedding, the disfigured face of Oiwa begins to haunt him, finally committing him to the fate he imposed upon her.
A similar story forms a popular part of South American mythology. Known as La Llorona, this legend recites the tale of a beautiful young woman named Maria. Left heartbroken by unrequited love, she drowns her children and then herself. However, when she reaches the gates of heaven, Maria is asked about the fate of her children. Tearfully admitting to her terrible sin, Maria is denied entry into the afterlife. Destined to wander the world as a spirit for all eternity, Maria spends her time searching in vain for her children as she mourns her losses.
Whether or not you believe in ghosts, it cannot be denied that some very uncanny preternatural events have occurred across the globe from ancient times until the present day. As Tom Moran points out, “so common are these stories that similar tales may well have become confused and conflated over time, their facts morphing into urban myth over the decades.”
However, he says, “to me, that in itself is just as compelling as the notion of ghosts.” Whether urban myth or manifest reality, ghosts certainly reveal a lot about the psychic lives of people around the world.