The Feminine Journey of the Woman in a White Dress

In Quezon City, Philippines, there is a well-known ghost of a long-haired woman in a white dress. This woman is said to have died in a car accident while driving along Balete Drive. There are many variations to her story, but they usually involve a taxi driver who was driving late at night and a beautiful woman who asked him for a ride. Along the way, despite the taxi driver’s attempt to strike up a conversation, the woman seemed to be disinclined for a chat. At one point, the driver looks behind and sees the woman’s face was full of blood and bruises, causing him to abandon his taxi in horror.

Woman in White Dress Fueling Car During Night

In Malaysian folklore, a pale-skinned woman with long black hair wearing a white dress are called the Pontianak, the spirits of women who died while pregnant. The word pontianak is a corruption of the Malaysian perempuan mati beranak (“woman who died in childbirth”) The same spirit is called Churel in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Legends have it that a woman who dies during childbirth or pregnancy or from suffering at the hands of her in-laws will come back as a churel for revenge, particularly targeting the men in her family.

This long-haired woman in a white dress also exists on the other side of the world. Her story is also told in Newark, New Jersey, USA. Only this time the ghost was a newlywed who was killed along with her husband on her wedding night when their car skidded out of control and crashed into a tree in the park.

Charming woman resting on windowsill in shabby bathroom

We all have heard variations about this woman. She is a female ghost dressed in all white and associated with some local tragedy. Common to many of these legends is the theme of loss or betrayal of a husband or lover. Also common is the story that she is a restless spirit who has lost her children. She may also be a young woman who was murdered and seeks vengeance. Whatever her reason may be, the result remains the same – the Woman in White walks the earth long after her death, searching for her children, her murderer, or anything else she needs before she can move on to the afterlife.

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Still from the 1912 film The Woman in White, featuring (from left) Alec Frank, Janet Salisbury and Lyman R. Abbe

The Woman in White is already a famous figure in hundreds of years earlier. Sogi Shokoku Monogatari (“Sogi’s Tales of Many Lands”), written in the Muromachi period (1392 – 1573 CE), tells the story of how he saw a spirit of a woman in white when he was staying in Echigo Province, indicating that the legends of the woman in white already existed in Asia in this period.

In legends, in the Ojiya region of Niigata Perfecture, a beautiful woman in a white kimono came to visit a man and became the man’s wife, but she was very reluctant to go into the bath and, when her husband insisted, she disappeared leaving only thin fragmented icicles floating there. This woman is known as yuki-onna (“snow woman”) Other legends say that on the night of a blizzard, as the yuki-onna would be standing there hugging yukinko (“snow child”) and ask passer-bys to hug her child. When one hugs the child, the child would become heavier and heavier until one would become covered with snow and freeze to death. It is also told that if one refuses, the yuki-onna would shoved them down into a snowy valley.

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 Illustration of yuki-onna from volume 5 of Sog shokoku monogatari, published in 1685.

There are various legends about the yuki-onna’s true identity. The yuki-onna is often described as a snow spirit or the spirit of a woman who fell over in the snow. In the Oguni region of Yamagata Prefecture, a yuki-onna was originally a princess of the moon who, in order to leave her mundane lifestyle, came down to earth together with snow but was unable to go home. She therefore appears on snowy moonlit nights. A scholar from the Edo Period (1603 – 1868 CE), Yamaoka Genrin, says that yuki-onna are born from the snow itself.

 In 1625, the Woman in White was first reported to be seen in the City Palace in Berlin, linking the woman to several historical figures, such as the guilt-ridden countess Kunigunda of Orlamünde, who, according to legend, murdered her two young children because she believed they stood in the way of her marriage to Albert of Nuremberg. However, she is quickly dismissed as an urban legend.

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Countess of Weimar-Orlamünde

In French folklore, Dames Blanches (“white ladies”) were female spirits or supernatural beings reported in the region of Lorraine and Normandy. In 1870, Thomas Keightley describes the Dames Blanches as “less benevolent character(s)”. They lurk in narrow places and on bridges, trying to attract the attention of passerbys. They may require one to join in their dance or assist them in order to pass. Those who refused were thrown into the thistles and briars, while those who danced were not harmed.

Vrouwen in wit (“women in white”), the Dutch counterpart of Dames Blanches are mythical creatures of Lower Saxon origin and so most known in the eastern and northern parts of the Netherlands. They can have both a benevolent as well as a malevolent nature. They show many similarities with the banshee, the fairy, and the elf. In their malevolent moods, they abduct women or newborns and punish the people who have treated them badly. However, in their benevolent capacity they may aid in childbirth or offer good advice. Indeed, though the adjective wit means “white”, it also refers to the Germanic word wid which is related to the English “wise”, and so may be better understood as “wise women”, as they are known in Germany. This would connect them to the Volva, a female shaman and seer in Ancient Norse religion and a recurring motif in Norse mythology.

The ghost of Barbara Radziwiłł, oil on canvas, 281 x 189 cm. National Museum in Poznań, Date 1886.

In Slavic Mythology, a young woman dressed in white roamed field bounds, assailing people working in the middle of hot summer days causing heat strokes and, sometimes, madness. She often takes the form of whirling dust clouds and carries a scythe to stop people in the field to ask them difficult questions or engage them in conversation. If anyone fails to answer her question or tries to change the subject, she will cut off their head or strike them with illness. This woman is only seen on the hottest part of the day and is a personification of a sun-stroke. Legends about her was told to scare children away from valuable crops. Her name is Poludnitsa, a noon demon. Poludnitsa is known as Mittagsfrau (“Lady Midday”) among German speakers of Eastern Germany’s Lusatia. In the state of Brandenburg, a related mythological spirit appears to be the Roggenmuhme (“lady of the rye”) who makes children disappear when they search for flowers among the tall grain plants on hot summer days. In the region around Lunenburg, the woman is called Kornwief (“woman of the corn”).

Stamp: Mittagsfrau und Nochtenerin.

To make sense of the fact that Poludnitsa appears in broad daylight instead of the middle of the night as the Woman in White that we know today, one can turn to old Babylonian theology where a connection can be made to Sitlamtaea and Lugalgira, the “demons of the desert” or, rather, the hot and cold winds of the desert. They are identified as the Heavenly Twins which rise in the dogdays and with the waxing and the waning moon which cause fever and chills. They are manifestations of Nergal, the fiery and destructive god of the sun when it is at noon or in midsummer or in the south, as well as the god of pests and fevers.

An element of the role of the woman in white as a temptress, inducing pain and madness, can also be seen in Greek Mythology. In the Odyssey 12.167-9, As Odysseus’ ship approaches the island of the Sirens, the wind drops and there is a calm. Historians Otto Crusius and Kurt Latte interpreted this “calm” to indicate midday and the Sirens to have been, originally at least, demons associated with that time of day.

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 Siren of the Nile by Hy Hintermeister. Probably Henry Hintermeister (1897-1970)

Of course, through the evolution of the Woman in White, one characteristic remains mostly unchanged – her white dress. The symbolism of this white dress can also be traced to ancient times. In ancient Egypt, white was connected with the goddess Isis and was used to wrap mummies – signifying its relationship with death and divinity. In Greece, white was often associated with mother’s milk – associating it to motherhood and protection.

In China, Korea, and a few other countries in Asia, white or, more precisely, the whitish color of undyed linen, is the color of mourning and funerals. White is also the color of reincarnation, showing that death is not a permanent separation from the world. In Japan, a white kimono is often placed in the casket with the deceased for the journey to the other world. Condolence gifts, or kooden, are tied with black and white ribbons and wrapped in white paper, protecting the contents from the impurities of the other world.

Woman Wearing White Wedding Dress Holding Flower Bouquet Standing on Green Field

Notice that it is always a journey with the Woman in White. From one place to another, from maidenhood to marriage, from a lover to a mother, from life to death. These life transitions scare some men. “She wasn’t like this before we were married” is often heard, or perhaps “can’t go out right now, mate … the missus’ll bite my head off.” It doesn’t sound like a big deal. But it is a big and scary journey for the woman and there is very little that a man can do to be a hero and “fix” this. The man is just a bystander in this case as the best of them try to silently lend their support. Perhaps that is what makes them so mysterious and terrifying – and perhaps that is why the “victims” of the Woman in White are usually men. Traditionally, women don’t “do” journeys. Men are the heroes – they are the ones with the journeys and adventures. Women are the ones they “come home” to and it is understandably very disconcerting when the “home” is not what one remembers. But just as men’s roles and beings evolve through their journeys and experiences, women experience the same thing through their own less talked-about journeys and experiences in life. And like men’s journey of adventures, jumping into the unknown and being prepared to be disappointed, hurt, or even die, women experiences the same fear for the other side of that journey. Men may not be able to accompany them through it all, but a white dress is always there.