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  • Full Dark Amy

Ladies in White and the Stereotypes that Haunt Them


I can't be the only female paranormal investigator having spent years in the field of weirdness and mystery, who views the Lady in White (or any other color) as a very tired trope in ghost hunting.

It's a story that has been told and retold in nearly every context; in thousands of towns, cities, dark side streets and old stairwells. Wherever one could imagine a woman, semi-transparent, wearing only a flimsy, billowing nightdress would appear, she has. However, she seems to appear far more often in our stories than in any solid evidentiary proof; photographic, recorded or otherwise. Now and again some strange captures have come to be, in places exactly where these women are spoken of, but of course, like all experiences, they too become just stories.

One of the most famous ghostly women wearing a particularly drab color, and perhaps a catalyst for her eventual mainstreaming, is the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. Her appearance has been reported since the 1830's and her description harkens to an historical figure who lived and died (tragically of course) in the Norfolk, England manor home in 1726. While Lady Dorothy Walpole can't actually speak for herself to confirm or deny her portrait, the widely-known photo appearing in Country Life magazine 1936 seems to show something undeniably spooky on the stairs.

I can't prove or disprove these women's existences, and I'm not going to attempt to do so. We're far beyond the "there's no proof, science is out, jury is just peer opinions" point at Full Dark and on this blog. Let's bear forward into the why behind the women. The causes and justifications that we, the living, assign to these women when we tell and retell the stories of their ghostly apparitions and what causes them to return to their haunt with regularity.

We'll include the phrases "woman in white" and "white lady" here as well. It may just depend on the local vernacular as to whether the word "lady" or "woman" is used, and in what order. For this purpose, I'll consider them all interchangeable. A simple Google search will bring up the most common definition of this particular phenomenon, and identifies most reports of her as being in a rural area. This speaks to the earliest incarnations of this apparition in Western culture, and of the appearance of ghosts in the cultural narrative of ancient people. In the 8th Century BCE, ghosts were mentioned in Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. But Homer's ghosts, appearing as misty, foggy translucent replicas of once-living people, were distant, prophecy or insight-wielding entities; more like an oracle to be called upon in time of need than something to be feared.

Ghosts make their way into works of Ancient Greek fiction by the 5th Century BCE, and through Western European evolution into the Middle Ages, retained much of their original qualities. From the earliest inception of African animism and the attribution of spirits as ancestors to be worshiped, much of the idea of ghosts comes from a fear of their retribution for something done to them in life, or for their lack of respect and proper burial in death. This idea of our own family members returning to us visibly in our waking life for nefarious means has driven the fear of them further ever since.

During the Middle Ages, the 5th to the 15th Centuries CE, the apparition of a White Lady was said to foretell a coming death in the family, and was attributed to the spirit of a familial ancestor. The humanity of the White Lady was, at this point in European culture, becoming apparent as someone who had lived before and was thus consciously able to warn their own descendants of a coming tragedy. The rural aspect of the Lady in White's regular appearances takes shape over time somewhat the same way roads themselves did. Slowly connecting together large stretches of open farmland and wooded forests, roads became, and still are, the in-between to our safety, a safety which relies upon the origin and the destination. Traveling distances of unknown terrain at night implies a sense of danger, albeit dependent upon the eras in which we live. There is still a sense of such danger in the dark roads we travel now, even within the perceived safety of our lockable steel-framed vehicles. The "what if" of traversing the unknown brings with it the fear of that unknown as well. The possibility of spirits or something we do not want to encounter is heightened in places we fear the most. Hence, spirits being seen in rural areas and on roadsides has an undeniable hold on our collective understanding of ghosts to this day.

As the roles of women have changed over time, so have their ghosts. No longer confined to rural landscapes, although seemingly always present down an unlit stretch of road, Women in White have made appearances in various portions of homes and businesses. The other aspect of these ghostly women is that they are almost entirely associated with tragedy, most notably the loss of a loved one, usually a child or a spouse. These ghosts are described as women who've never recovered from said loss, and grieve continuously in search of that person. This sort of loss is of course very real, and occurs to numerous people in countless varying circumstances, all over the world. That said, the loss of a child or spouse would be equally as devastating for any male member of a family, and yet we do not see "Men in White" in any capacity that I can think of. In fact, the moniker of "Men in Black" applies specifically to the opposite description of people: someone mysterious in nature who holds an authority just as shrouded in mystery and inspires fear and paranoia. Men in Black inspire a different fear, a threatening fear. These are living people (or aliens, depending who you speak to), not forlorn spirits intent on their own agenda. So why women? This could imply that such a loss, especially that of a child, is something only a mother would be unable to recover from, and men would never suffer such a torment as to carry it to the afterlife for an eternity. The logic seems a little one-sided here.

The experience of the living person herself, usually told as an explanation for the appearance of her ghost, also commonly carries an undercurrent of violence. Many times the Women in White were subjects of pain and death at the hands of a male counterpart. Be it a jealous lover or husband, an enraged father or parter, the plot of the story remains the same, and ends in the murder of a woman. The ghost of said woman may be said to appear to warn other women of similar fates, or to continuously replay a moment of tortured existence, burned into the very time and space of that moment. The metaphysical aspect of why and how these spirits are said to appear is for another day.

The reason for these women's ghost stories, not their provable existence, packs with it some stereotypes that cannot be pried apart from their spiritual host. The implied fragility of the female brain in the face of trauma implies that these female spirits, and their once-living selves, were incapable of ever becoming more than a thing to pity in life. That the tragedy was far too much to bear, and irreparably broke the psyche of this person even in death. Again, that there are no stories of Men in White, White Men, Boys in White, etc, implies such a thing could not occur to a man, however fatherly a figure these people were in life, men don't end up as tortured souls.

Bereaved for eternity is one thing, but what about why these women are said to exist so often in white? We find a similar trope in the Lady in Red, implying her ghost status as a jilted lover bent on revenge, instead of sorrowful. Although their plight no less worrisome and piled with tropes, Red Ladies are a slightly less common spiritual frontrunner in the paranormal storytelling world. (Isn't all of the paranormal inherently storytelling though?) The Woman in White is usually described as wearing a dressing gown, which were commonly plain white or beige. The implication of females wearing white is seen in weddings, Christian confirmations and other rituals and occasions in cultures here in the US, and around the world. White implies purity, specifically used to imply purity before marriage, for the living. The aspect of a phantom dressed in white thus implies the female spirit's purity or innocence. This is part of our cultural relevance, persisting for centuries in various contexts. In large part, it is culture that defines a woman's worth, dignity or acceptability in society based on her imposed or implied purity through outward appearance; wearing white. In this way, the use of red as the color for women who seek to cause harm or violence or exact an unjust end, is used for the spirits described as Ladies in Red.

It is a persistent lack of agency that we force upon these deceased women, whether the story identifies them as an historically accurate figure, or they remain an unknown female. A lack of ownership and control over their own narrative in death, supplies collective culture with the fodder for these stereotypes to continue. I would think that by this many decades into modern research into paranormal phenomena, one or more inquisitive minds might have stopped to ask, "Why only women?" "Why white or red consistently more than other colors?" Maybe challenging the tropes of the paranormal dogma is too unnerving an idea to act on. Maybe the easily acceptable theory is just that: easy, accessible, and logical in its simplicity. All the complexities that keep this stereotype alive and well through our paranormal stories can be damaging if left to persist unchecked. The metonymy of a Lady in White implying a woman who is incapable or pitiful and without a sense of agency denotes that of women in life as well. We are accustomed to a Western culture that gives men an advantage in many situations during a lifetime, and the ways in which we uphold this privilege can even be seen in our tried and true paranormal anecdotes. These typifications and received ideas are propelled by the retelling of the Women in White story all over the world, but most pervasive in Western culture, and are rarely pulled apart at any depth for the sake of the paranormal, or women.

As investigators of strange phenomena, maybe we need to approach these stories differently. Maybe we should apply more skepticism, not in the witnesses of the phenomena and the account they retell, but in the origins of the story itself. Delving into the history of any location should come as second nature to a paranormal researcher when trying to give some sort of qualification or quantification to alleged paranormal activity reported therein. However, the simple application of a female figure who once inhabited or can in some way be tied to a location, to a loss or tragedy as cause for a haunting is too suspiciously simple. It takes the agency from that woman yet again, just to create a string of logic that supplies an answer to a paranormal question at present time. Instead of applying female tragedy and suffering to unexplainable or ghostly phenomena, we could apply objectivity and leave a simple emotional cause aside.

Attempting to think around and outside of the tried and true cause and effect for a haunting, researchers of the paranormal may be able to make new inroads to these alleged hauntings. By leaving the common conception of a Lady in White out of the picture, we may be able to gain insight into not just the reported haunting, but the way it's evolved over time and being retold. Pulling apart the stereotype and finding depth to the people who may haunt a place is one aspect, but giving women and their supposed tortured souls the dignity they deserve and not furthering a bias, is exceedingly more important in how we tell our stories and progress forward as better paranormal researchers and respectful, self-aware seekers of the unknown.

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