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.
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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.

Likely origin: The Kuchisake-onna story may have originated in feudal Japan as a cautionary tale about infidelity. According to the legend, a samurai’s concubine cheated on him, and she was punished by having her mouth sliced open. Modern versions of the story reimagine the samurai as a jealous abusive husband.

La Llorona: Mexico

La Llorona (Wikimedia Commons)

Mexico’s version of Susan Smith, La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman”) was said to be a villager named Maria who drowned her own children in a river in order to be with the man she loved. When he rejected her, she drowned herself. Now she haunts river banks, dressed in white and weeping for her children. Sometimes she’ll try to kidnap living children as replacements, so Mexican kids are warned not to go out alone at night lest La Llorona snatch them away.

Likely origin: Stories of mothers killing children for the love of a man are as old as Medea. But the La Llorona legend may be connected to the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, who represents both motherhood and destruction.

Jiang Shi: China

Sometimes called “Chinese hopping vampires,” these ghastly creatures blur the line between ghost and zombie. The spirits of people who died by suicide or violence, Jiang Shi (“Stiff Corpse”) have greenish skin, wear the robes of the Qing Dynasty, and move by hopping or bouncing. They feed off the qi (life essence) of living humans, though more modern legends describe them as sucking blood, likely due to the influence of Western vampire myths.

Likely origin: The Jiang Shi legend may have come from the pre-Modern Chinese practice of corpse transport, in which the body of someone who died far from home would be transported back for burial. Corpses were attached vertically to two bamboo poles for transport, which made them appear to “hop” when carried. The Qing Dynasty robes of the Jiang Shi in popular culture may stem from the anti-Qing sentiment rampant during the early days of Chinese moviemaking, when the Jiang Shi was seared into the popular imagination.

Gjenganger: Scandinavia

These grouchy Nordic spirits kill via a pinch, usually delivered at night. The pinched skin will turn blue and cause a wasting disease, which will eventually travel to the victim’s heart. Unlike most ghosts, gjenganger look more or less like normal living people, which makes them difficult to spot. So keep your wits about you next time you’re testing beds at IKEA.

Likely origin: Gjenganger myths were likely Viking in origin, and may have to do with fears of plague. 

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

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