Global Ghosts: 7 Tales of Specters From Around the World

In Nordic countries, ghosts pinch you and cause a plague-like disease, but in Japan, they just want you to tell them they’re pretty.
Christian Charisius/Reuters

The ghost has long been seen as the laziest of Halloween costumes—a white sheet, a pair of scissors—bam, done. But while Americans may envision ghosts as pale blobs hovering above the floor, other countries are home to far more vividly described—and far more terrifying—spirits. Here’s a guide to the scariest:

Toyols: Malaysia and Indonesia

Tiny green-skinned goblins with glowing red eyes, toyols are dead fetuses or stillborn babies reanimated by black magic. Masters are said to keep their toyols in jars, feeding them milk and candy and—on special occasions—drops of blood drawn from the toe of the lady of the house. When bidden, toyols will steal money for their masters or commit other acts of petty crime and sabotage.

Likely origin: The toyol legend may have originated in pre-Islamic Mecca, where infanticide was common and newborns were sometimes buried alive.

Skondhokatas: Bengal, India

The headless ghosts of people decapitated in train accidents, skondhokatas haunt the places where they died. Passengers report seeing them in train stations at night, or from the windows of trains traveling in the dark. They’re said to be violent, but easy to outwit—after all, they have no heads.

Likely origin: Given the patchy safety record of India’s railway system, which is the fourth largest in the world, it’s not surprising that headless train wreck victims would warrant their own category of ghost.

Strigoi: Romania

In the same supernatural genus as the vampire, strigoi are the ghosts of people who lived or died under unhappy circumstances: suicides, the illegitimate, the unbaptized and—sorry “contentedly single” people—the unmarried. With red hair and bluish-purple eyes, strigoi live on human blood. Burying a body with a bottle of whiskey is said to prevent a loved one from returning as a strigoi.

Likely origin: Vampire-like creatures have featured in folklore dating as far back as Mesopotamian civilizations. But modern vampire myths are likely a mishmash of Christian symbolism (holy wood, a dead man rising from the grave, etc.) and pre-science efforts to understand medical phenomena.

Kuchisake-onna (The Slit-Mouthed Woman): Japan

Kuchisake-onna illustration (Wikimedia Commons)

This supremely creepy Japanese ghost is a beautiful woman in a surgical mask, which is commonly worn by cold- or allergy-sufferers in many parts of Asia. She approaches victims at remote train or bus stations at night and asks, “Am I beautiful?” If the victim says ‘yes,’ she removes the mask, revealing a gaping, Joker-like bloody smile. If the victim than says ‘no,’ she pulls out a butcher’s knife and slices the victim’s face like her own. Though the legend is ancient, Kuchisake-onna had a revival in the 1970s, when scores of schoolchildren in Nagasaki Prefecture began reporting sightings, causing police to believe there was a female psychopath on the loose.

Presented by

Emily Matchar is the author of the forthcoming book Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity.

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