Lady in White - Despair Let Loose

Updated: May 11, 2020

In this edition of Gather 'Round the Fable, we are exploring the phenomenon of the Lady in White. Many cultures have a wailing woman, "white lady" or other ghostly form identified as a woman who arises and haunts from an event of tragedy, loss and betrayal.

A quick internet search will turn up legends in locations as far apart as Brazil, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Mexico and the Czech Republic, just to name a few. The details of the stories vary regionally, but they share a common thread of a female ghost who has been wronged - either through murder, betrayal, loss of children, or unrequited love.

One of the most famous Lady in White stories - La Llorona - is a tale from Mexico about a woman in white who steals children to drown them. It depends on the version of the tale you find, but one version is that a woman feared that her husband had fallen out of love with her and only cared for their two sons. Her fears were confirmed when she found him cheating with another woman. In her anger, she took the sons to the river and drown them. Realizing what she had done, she drown herself in desperation.

Now, La Llorona, as a ghost, roams the countryside, seeking children to drown, replaying the sins of her life again and again, damned to hell.

Creepy, right? These stories carry that thread throughout - pain and loss and doing the unthinkable. In another version, this time from Malta, a woman who was being forced to marry someone she didn't love, jumped to her death from a balcony, still wearing her white dress - which can be seen on her ghost as she haunts the palace. In a Canadian version of the tale, a grief-stricken woman, learning of her lover's death, decides to jump into the Montmorency Falls clad also in her wedding dress.

There is something about this motif that has spoken to writers and storytellers all around the world. Suicide, child murder, cheating on a husband (or by a husband), caught in betrayal - these threads weave through the Lady in White stories and many of them stem from something the woman herself did, the source of her pain is her own. Other tales are of women who cannot bear the burden placed on them - an unwanted marriage or bearing the grief of losing their love - that forces their hand. In either instance, the woman finds no peace in death and she serves as a warning to others, a ghost to remind us of what happens if we let rage or despair blind us.

Pop culture loves these tales. The Lady in White has inspired art, films, songs, stories, comic books, even a storyline in the video game, Guild Wars 2. Whether the genesis of the tales is really misogynistic is up for debate; you don't see the same kinds of tales about men paying the ultimate price for betrayal, unrequited love, etc. At the heart of these stories, I think the lesson started out that women who let their emotions get the better of them ended up in terrible (and eternal) penance. I'm not sure the lesson is still the same now, though. Modern versions of the tale can have the ghost finding peace, finding resolution to the pain that brought them to their loss.

Good spooky tales or as commentary on societal expectations, either way, you can find a lot to sink your teeth into with a good Lady in White story. What are some of your favorites?

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