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Culture Focus

Ghost Stories Around the World

Thi Thanh Ha Doan November 18, 2019

Illustration credit: Phuong Huynh

There is something about ghost stories: the thrill they give you from the jump scare, the spooky appearance, or the nightmares keeps you up past midnight. Nevertheless, while the purpose of ghost stories is often ascribed to pure entertainment, in many parts of the world, ghost stories have become a culturally significant part of daily life. They are not only the inspiration for many horror movies but also to some extent the tools with which we examine the ideals or values of a country. Upon the arrival of Halloween, I think it would be interesting to dig down into some famous folklore around the world about these supernatural creatures. 

  1. Yūrei (Japan)

If you are familiar with Japanese horror movies like The Ring, Ju-On: The Grudge or  The Terror: Infamy then you should know quite a bit about Yūrei. Yūrei is a spirit and roughly translates to “ruined soul”, which means the ghost’s soul is still restlessly wandering the material world and unable to pass onto a peaceful afterlife.

To understand Yūrei’s origin, you first have to understand the relationship the Japanese have with their departed. According to their traditional beliefs, humans can be divided into two parts: the soul and the body. Therefore when someone dies, their soul still lives on eternally. This transition to the heavenly afterlife is usually accomplished through a number of funeral and post-funeral rites by their loved ones over the course of many years. If these rites are done properly, the soul will be reunited with ancestors and protect people from misfortune. Otherwise, these souls cannot pass on and remain stuck in a purgatory that is partly physical world and partly ethereal. This is usually the case for those who die suddenly, tragically, violently, or with grudges or rage in their hearts – the Yūrei. Unable to move on, they are vengeful, angry and will haunt people who offended them or did them wrong. 

There are many versions of Yūrei, but they are typically depicted as a woman dressed in white kimono with disheveled long black hair and floating in the air. In order to exorcise a Yūrei, you have to help fulfill her purpose, usually by enacting revenge and bringing the Yūrei’s slayer to justice, or burying her remains.

The Yūrei’s impact on Japanese arts and culture is significant, as the Yūrei has dominated Japanese religion and politics for millennia. From as old as the 12th century Genji Monogatari (Tales of Genji) and Konjaku Monogatari (Tales of Times Now Past), Yūrei is already mentioned. Until today, Buddhist priests and mountain ascetics are occasionally hired to perform a practice similar to exorcism on those having unusual or unfortunate deaths. 

  1. La Llorona (Mexico)

La Llorona, or “The Weeping Woman,” has been a part of Mexican culture since the days of the conquest. The stories vary in sources but the gist is quite simple: long ago, a woman named Maria got married to a wealthy man, with whom she eventually had two children. Nevertheless, her husband gradually spent less time at home and even when he was home, he only cared for the children. Later, he returned home with a younger woman and abandoned Maria. Enraged beyond reason, Maria drowned her two children only to immediately regret it and tried to find them. Yet the river had already carried her children away, and Maria drowned herself afterward. According to the legend, she had committed murder, therefore, she was condemned to purgatory on Earth until she could find her lost children.

From then on, she is said to have been drifting between the trees along the shoreline or floating on the current. On many a dark night, people would hear her weeping and crying for her children. Wearing a white gown with a veil, people can usually spot her in the middle of the night, so there have been a lot of accounts and stories involved in “meeting” her. People often say that she might kidnap wandering children and drown them with her, mistaking these children as her own. In some versions, people also say that she attack husbands who have betrayed their families.

The story, to some extent, explores how much was expected of women. Without the help of her husband, Maria still had to take the responsibility of looking after their children and their household, only to find out that the man showed her no appreciation and later completely abandoned her for a younger woman. She was pressured and still expected to put her children’s interests first (after all, she was banished from the afterlife until she could find her children).

At the same time, children in Mexico have been growing up with the story of La Llorona as parents often use it as a way to warn their kids not to misbehave or stay out late. Even today, many adults admit that they still believe in La Llorona. 

The values and meanings behind each ghost figure still amaze me with their details and relation with the spiritual life of a variety of cultures in the world. They not only reflect what we believe in the past but also how we behave at present. The more I searched for them the more I realized that these ghost stories are not only meant to be scary but they are also complicated and in a way historically connected to the place of their origins. That’s part of the reason why, in my opinion, that ghost stories still persist and attract a huge number of listeners as well as viewers despite the growth of many other genres nowadays.