The new movie The Conjuring has been called "scary as hell" and "the summer's scariest movie"—it's so frightening, in fact, that it earned an R rating despite an absence of any explicit violence, sex, gore, or foul language. According to star Patrick Wilson, the film gave the ratings board a case of the willies that was simply too intense for a mere PG-13.
Part of what makes the The Conjuring so very disturbing is that, like The Amityville Horror before it, it's "based on true events." The Conjuring tells the story of the Perrons, a family of seven who moved into a rural Rhode Island farmhouse in 1971 to find it already occupied by a variety of spirits, and the real-life paranormal investigators whom they called in to mediate. Those real-life investigators, by the way, were Lorraine and Ed Warren, who would later become known the as couple who investigated that famous house in Amityville.
By all accounts, the second thing that makes the movie horrifying is its central ghost, a terrifying apparition named Bathsheba. Bathsheba is a former resident of the house who may or may not have been a witch, and may or may not have made a deal with the devil, but who without a doubt believes she's been wrongfully usurped by Carolyn Perron, the current lady of the house, played by Lili Taylor. Bathsheba goes to disturbing lengths to both drive Carolyn out and to seduce her husband. Bathsheba is seductive, vengeful, and relentless. In other words, she has a lot in common with her fellow female fearmongerers of movies, books, and beyond.
Vera Farmiga, as Lorraine Warren, notices things getting creepy in The Conjuring
Like the Final Girl and the Madwoman in the Attic, the female ghost is an enduringly fascinating figure, and her presence in both history and contemporary pop culture holds a wealth of perception and stereotype in its clammy hands. From Fruma Sarah, the butcher's wife in Fiddler on the Roof, to The Woman in Black, Daphne DuMaurier's Don't Look Now and Toni Morrison's Beloved to those creepy girl twins in The Shining, female ghosts have what seems like a particular power to haunt our pop-culture memories.
When I asked a number of acquaintences to name the female spirits that stand out the most in their minds, two names seemed to prevail. Bloody Mary, that apparition every preteen girl dreads seeing in the mirror during a slumber party game, was the first. The second was, if I may quote one respondent, "The girl in The Ring. For me, the scariest are dark-haired, lurchy, wet women. What does that say?!" What does it say? What both of these answers, as well as many others, say, for one thing, is that female ghosts are particularly scary because the source of the pain that keeps them haunting the living world isn't supernatural at all, but the result of being all too human.
The legend of Bloody Mary, for instance, emanates from a jumble of history, folklore, and religion. Some believe Bloody Mary to be the spirit of a woman so fixated on recapturing her own youth that she killed the young girls of her village and drank their blood to regain her past beauty.
La Llorona, the "weeping woman" of Latin American folklore, killed her children out of jealous revenge on a husband who no longer loved her, and wanders the night in penance. The titular ghost of Toni Morrison's Beloved was also killed by her mother and haunts her in revenge, hence the chilling opening words of the book: "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom."
And the predatory female ghosts in Asian horror movies like The Ring, The Grudge, and Shutter, as well as their American remakes, are the terrifying manifestations of women who were scorned, abused, wronged, or otherwise have serious beef with the living people who were part of their death. The ghosts even tend to look alike, with long, dark hair that obscures much of their faces, long white dresses, and the disconcerting habit of moving in disjointed, predatory bursts.
In Shutter, for example, the female wraith who makes a male photographer's life a living hell was a clingy ex-girlfriend who was raped by two of his friends as a means to get her out of his life. In The Grudge, the residents of a suburban Tokyo house are menaced by the spirit of a woman murdered by her husband in a jealous rage. And The Ring's damp, television-breaching specter is the ghost of a young girl drowned in a well by her adoptive mother.
When you can pause for a moment between waves of stomach-churning heebie-jeebies, you realize that not only are these women sympathetic characters, but they're all the more terrifying because they have every bit of anger that makes living women sources of fear, but none of the societal restriction.
In this way, ghost stories 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 the feminist horror zine Ax Wound, Collen Wanglund theorizes that the Asian female ghost is an inherently feminist figure whose very presence is a symbol of how deeply men fear female power. Their vengeance isn't necessarily aimed at the person who wronged them, and as such it's as unthinking and randomly destructive as systems of patriarchy.
And yet, even as ghosts, such women are often anxiously managed by the gendered rules of the societies they've departed. Traditional Korean folklore features stories of women who die before being married and having children and thus cannot pass peacefully into death, but will linger around to haunt their family, a problem that is often resolved by the phenomenon of posthumous marriage. There's a Chinese tradition of stories involving female ghosts who can be resurrected by having sex with a living man. And American ghost stories and folktales are chock-full of greedy, vain female spirits—like The Conjuring's Bathsheba—who feed on the youth and beauty that they cannot accept is no longer theirs. Indeed, elderly female ghosts are, in movies at least, played for the most abject horror. In The Shining, when the sexy nude woman who appears to Jack Nicholson's character turns into a withered crone before his eyes, it's particularly horrific. And it's no coincidence that the craggy, bitter curse-caster in Drag Me to Hell is a wrinkled wraith whose target is a fresh young bank employee.
AAA! The demon in Drag Me to Hell.
The recent sleeper horror hit Mama may sum up both the potential and the problem of female ghosts.It's the story of two feral children torn between two mother figures—one a tattooed, beer-swilling rock bassist who is forced into the role of reluctant caretaker when her partner agrees to take in his feral nieces, the other a ghost who had previously been the girls' maternal figure. In positioning women, whether human or ghost, as the only gender capable of parenting, the movie has an obvious pronatalist bent—after all, Mama could have delivered just as many shocks with a story in which the ghost mother battles the girls' uncle. But as Annalee Newitz at iO9 pointed out when the movie was released, Mama also grapples with our society's fear of unfit mothers in all their incarnations, and in doing so challenges the idea that only an ideal mother—that is, a woman who loves unconditionally, puts her children above everything else, and, of course, isn't a vengeful dead spirit—can be an effective parent.
Women unfettered by death have offered some of popular culture's most horrifyingly indelible images, but it's tempting to wonder what these ghosts would look like in a world that was more egalitarian, one that didn't define women and girls by their looks, their ability to bear children, and their relationships to others. Is revolution ghost style now feminism's next frontier? I'd watch the hell out of that.
This essay is featured in our brand-new podcast episode all about ghosts. Listen to the full show below!