“We need ghost stories because we, in fact, are the ghosts.”—Stephen King.
What truly dies? Even fashion trends and film franchises constantly return from the dead, seemingly exempt from the prescription to “Rest in Peace.”
Similarly, history is ripe with tall tales about (alleged) human souls who (allegedly) stuck around past their expiration date. Unfortunately, though, not all ghost stories are created equal. So while some ghastly tales fade into obscurity, other intelligent yarns simply adapt to the times. Some rise straight from their graves and into local legend.
Subject to constant retelling and spectacle, it’s best to approach “ghost stories” with more than a pinch of salt. Perhaps a cup of salt. Preferably placed in a circle to ward off evil spirits? Anyways, raise a glass of ritualistic blood to these humans—and one chicken—who inspired haunting tales from the afterlife.
42. Roses Are Forever
History remembers First Lady Dolley Madison as a visionary. After all, she almost single-handily made Washington D.C. what it is today. The question is, though, did she ever stop?
When Dolley first reached D.C. (for the inauguration of her husband, James Madison), the town was little more than a haphazard collection of buildings nestled against a dirty swamp. But it didn’t stay that way for long. First Lady Madison immediately set upon a campaign of upgrades which would transform the ramshackle settlement into the fashionable political capital we know today. She even worked with an architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, to perfect the design of the White House.
Dolley eventually died in 1849… but according to many stories, not even death stopped her from caring for her life’s work. Case in point: when Woodrow Wilson’s wife tried to remove Dolley’s precious Rose Garden, the ghost of the First Lady is rumored to have appeared, again and again, to spook the unfortunate gardener away.
41. The Final Flap
Olive Thomas was one of America’s first (and most notorious) flappers. Her reputation persists as America’s most flamboyant ghost…
She reportedly haunts New York City’s New Amsterdam Theatre, flaunting what she’s got (or had?) in a bright green beaded costume and clutching a blue bottle. Thomas reportedly comes in, flirts with any men present (of course), and then disappears. In fact, Thomas is such a revered guest among the living members of the theater, it’s a practice to say “Goodnight, Olive!” as you exist. After all, she was a star.
40. Where in the World Is Anne Boleyn?
By some accounts, Anne Boleyn’s ghost is a full-fledged frequent flyer.
The executed wife of Henry VIII has been spotted in Hever Castle, her childhood home; Blickling Hall, her assumed birthplace; the Tower of London, where she died; Hampton Court, her honeymoon palace; Salle Church in Norfolk, where her body was allegedly moved to be reburied with ancestors; and even Marwell Hall in Hampshire, a house owned by Seymour family, whose daughter replaced Anne as queen. And, of course, she’s often headless.
For those of us who don’t get to travel much, the whole thing is a little bit embarrassing. The Lady Boleyn isn’t letting even death stop her from seeing the sights. And meanwhile, I think of as a trip across down as a big excursion.
39. Later, Bro
For most families, one decapitation (and supposed haunting) is considered to be more than enough. Unfortunately for the Boleyns, Anne wasn’t the only one who went that way.
George Boleyn, her brother, was executed with her for adultery in 1536. Now, it’s said his ghost wanders Blickling Hall, headless and dragged by 4 likewise headless horsemen. When he isn’t playing the ponies, George has also been spotted as a plain-old headless man, without all the frills, walking around the grounds in search of justice.
38. Thanks for the Ride, Dad
On May 19 of every year, it’s said the ghost of Anne Boleyn arrives via headless coachman to Blickling Hall for the anniversary of her execution. Sometimes, the driver is identified as her own father, Thomas Boleyn, who is promptly chased off the grounds by demons who curse him for betraying his family.
The next time you feel a little bit upset with your family, remember to check yourself: you could have been born a Boleyn, and been basically assured to live out eternity as a wandering spirit. Good lord this family had it rough.
37. Final Curtain
In a perfectly dramatic end for a Canadian theater mogul, Ambrose Small disappeared into the ether of Toronto shortly after cashing a cheque for one million dollars. This was in 1919, but 50 years later, the myth of Ambrose Small blew up into one of Canada’s most iconic ghost stories. It’s said that he still haunts his theater property in London, Ontario. In fact, rumors of his ghost saved the theater from being demolished!
36. Ghost Boy
Thomas D’Arcy McGee holds the dubious honor of being post-Confederation Canada’s first assassination victim. A young Irishman was hanged for killing McGee, and the condemned man reportedly haunts an Ottawa youth hostel. If this is the case, he might deserve some of that rest—to this day, his innocence is debated.
35. Looking Hot
Although “Screaming Jenny” was impoverished, she went out in a blaze of glory.
The story goes thus: huddled next to the train tracks, Jenny’s skirt got caught in the campfire. She ran for help down the tracks…but did not see the oncoming train. It’s said Jenny still runs down those same tracks on the anniversary of her death, forever an (ahem) hot mess… and forever calling out for help.
This might be controversial, but I’ll say it: There are better ways to go.
34. The Right to Remain Ghastly
The 1897 death of Elva Shue is the only recorded case in American history where the testimony of a “ghost” was permitted. When Elva was found dead at the bottom of the stairs, her husband Edward was hesitant to let coroners examine her neck. Elva’s mom, Mary Jane Heaster, did not trust Edward, but she could do nothing but pray. Then, according to Heaster, Elva came to her in a “dream” and told her mother how Edward had crushed her neck because he disliked the way she cooked dinner. Heaster successfully petitioned for her daughter’s exhumation and, sure enough, the coroner determined foul play in the same manner as the alleged ghost’s details. Finally, it gets weirder: Edward’s lawyer allowed Heaster to testify in order to make her look insane. But it backfired with the jury fully believing in her ghastly testimony.
33. Do Not Disturb This Wise Guy
Al Capone reportedly does not like to be disturbed at his resting spot in Illinois.
Disrespectful visitors are said to be greeted by a (presumably very annoyed) ghostly apparition, in the shape of the iconic mobster himself.
32. Is Banjo Music Ever Not Eerie?
Alternatively, the eerie sound of banjo music is said to haunt Al Capone’s old cell in Alcatraz prison.
31. To Casper With Love
One of the first written ghost stories in recorded history dates to the first century AD. The letters of Roman writer and statesman Pliny the Younger exchange many ghost stories. The earliest of them details the specter of a bearded old man, who rattles his chain in Pliny’s Athenian house.
30. Footloose Franklin
When Benjamin Franklin isn’t busy gracing is with the presence of his face on $100 US bills, his ghost allegedly animates his statue outside the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. According to some, he even dances down the streets, apparently living up the afterlife. Reports of his dancing date are as old as the 19th century, so Franklin’s ghost has probably mastered hundreds of dance crazes by now.
29. Honestly Haunted
Everyone wants to claim Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. Reports of Honest Abe haunting the old Springfield capitol building are plentiful, but even first ladies and other top officials report feelings of solidarity with his ghost. These feelings peaked in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a war-torn time when politicians would likely welcome his ghastly guidance.
28. Prime Ministerial Puffing
In its prime, the HMS Queen Mary was an 81,000-ton ship that served in the British Royal Navy during World War II. Today, it is retired to dock as a party vessel in Long Beach, California. The Queen Mary’s final engineer, John Smith, left behind strange stories about the ship. He once claimed to have seen the specter of Winston Churchill lighting up a cigar in the stateroom.
27. Wood-n’t You Know?
If you find yourself in New York’s East Village, keep your eyes and ears peeled for Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch colonial governor of the Big Apple. Although he died all the way back in 1672, his ghost allegedly still stomps about this neighborhood—in all his wooden legged glory.
26. Bottoms Up, Spirit Out
In 1953, modernist poet Dylan Thomas ingested 18 shots of scotch in a single sitting. Which is obviously not a healthy amount. But while the liquor was enough to end Dylan’s mortal existence, it turns out (according to legends anyway) spirits can’t kill a person’s spirit.
Since alcohol supposedly can’t affect him any further, Thomas is said to haunt New York City’s Horse Tavern in the West Village. He is usually sitting at his regular corner table… perhaps contemplating the value of temperance.
25. Shooting Location
The Ohio State Reformatory is perhaps best recognized as the filming location for many scenes in The Shawshank Redemption. However, the former Civil War training camp actually served as a men’s prison from 1896 to 1990. With this grim history, it’s a popular haunt for ghost hunters. Aside from other countless terrible tales, there’s supposedly the spirit of a warden’s wife, who accidentally shot herself by knocking down a loaded pistol from a shelf in 1950.
24. Seeing Red
In life, the ghost that would be known as the “Red Lady of Huntingdon College” was a shy girl. According to chronicles, her only bold feature was a love for the color red, which she wore all the time and dressed her room in. Despite her singular taste, she failed to make any friends at college, opting to simply wander the dorms and stare into the night. Not one to break habits, the student reportedly keeps to this routine into the afterlife—haunting the halls in a red blanket before coming to self-perish again in her old dorm.
23. Can’t Face This
Fort Mifflin was a prominent military post in both the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War. It’s also (and you should probably see it coming at this point…) haunted.
Reportedly, this historic site is visited often by a figure called the “Faceless Man,” whom most believe to be Billy Howe—the only Civil War prisoner to be hanged at the iconic fort. Seeing as the fort was also an ammunition post in both World Wars, Billy got to see some things…
22. Shout Out
The exact identity of the alleged “Screaming Woman” in Fort Mifflin remains a mystery—after all, Fort Mifflin has seen so much warfare. Maybe she doesn’t cope with anonymity well—police have been called to respond to reports of her loud screaming.
21. Gown in Brown
Have you ever been so scared that you shot an alleged ghost in the face? It happened to a man in 1836, who reportedly had a first encounter with the “Brown Lady” of Raynham Hall. Named after her brocade dress, she was imprisoned for life inside her house by a jealous husband. The earth-toned lady has made intermittent appearances in the early 20th century, with one man claiming he snapped a picture of her as she approached him from the stairs. Maybe to say, “No pics, please.”
20. House of Pain
In 1857, a Californian merchant named Thomas Whaley saw a thief hanged. Naturally, he figured this exact hanging spot would be the perfect place to build a house and raise a family. Perhaps for tempting fate, a series of tragedies—including arson and the unrelated deaths of two children—has granted the house a reputation as an eclectic haunting place. Ghosts of the Whaley family—including their pets—have been spotted and felt to the point where this residence is now a museum.
19. Seller’s Remorse
David Burns sold the land on which the White House would be built. According to a valet, the seller’s spirit still hangs around the old property, chanting the accurate but uninspiring mantra, “I’m Mr. Burns.”
18. Step Up
President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson’s bedroom—the Rose Room—is considered the most haunted room in the White House. When Mary Todd Lincoln held séances there, the First Lady claimed to hear the surly, irritable Jackson still stomping and cursing his way through his former home.
17. Foot in Mouth Syndrome
Beware of toeless ghosts! The message varies across Western culture, but here’s the basic structure: a woman finds a human toe in her garden and—of course—she takes it home and throws it into her stew. That night, a furious ghost is summoned in her home, screaming for the missing part of its foot.
16. Frozen Chicken with a Side of Bacon
The site of Sir Francis Bacon’s death is said to be haunted by the chicken that Bacon died to kill. In 1626, Bacon argued with a friend over whether keeping meat cold would make it last longer. To prove his friend wrong, Bacon bought a chicken, stuffed it with snow, and prepared to freeze it! And then Bacon promptly died of pneumonia. Since then, people have reported sightings of a headless chicken doing the rounds and pecking for grubs at Highgate Pond. Alleged spottings of the unlucky clucker occurred well until the 1970s, which proves you can’t keep good KFC down.
15. Better Late Than Never?
Adrian Daou killed a woman with an ax because he thought it would boost his rap career. In short, he was not a man filled with good ideas. Yet three and a half years later, he would step forward to confess to her murder… claiming he had seen her ghost “speed” by him during a stroll. It took this ghastly alleged encounter to make Daou realize that murder is, in his own words, “really, really wrong.”
Which makes you almost feel thankful that most of us don’t need a supernatural intervention to realize that killing other people is not a very nice thing to do.
14. Weekend with Grandpa
In 1992, Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his invention of a way to copy DNA. Mullis is also a former LSD enthusiast whose autobiography details a week that the scientist spent chilling with the ghost of his late grandfather. Who says science, the supernatural, and intergenerational bonding don’t mix?
13. Make Light of This
Gibraltar Point Lighthouse is Toronto’s oldest buildings. It is also the site of one of the city’s grisliest murders. In 1818, the first keeper, Johan Paul Rademueller, was hacked to death with an ax by a posse of soldiers who came by for drinks but were met with a more violent dispute. No convictions ever resulted from this case, which invites the imagination to fill in the gaps. Although the lighthouse has been out of commission for years, its light is still reported as “on” every now and then. Along with the creepy groans of the unlucky keeper, whose ghost is still waiting for justice—or maybe just boats.
12. Doe Eyed Ghost
Virginia Dare was the first English child born in North America to the colony of Roanoke Island in 1587. When her grandfather left for England for supplies and returned later, however, both Virginia and the rest of the settlers had vanished. According to lore, Dare was kidnapped by local tribes and transformed via magic into a white deer. She was then killed and her ghost—still in white doe form—supposedly haunts the Outer Banks even today. Of course, this tale is probably settler fearmongering. More recent evidence suggests that colonizers simply moved closer inland.
11. Where’s Buffy When You Need Her?
Before there was Dracula, there was a tuberculosis-stricken girl named Mercy Lena Brown. In 1892, the 19-year-old Rhode Island resident died soon after her mother and sister of tuberculosis. As her brother lay dying too, locals whispered that dark forces were behind the family misfortune. Maybe a ghost or two with a grudge? To get to the bottom of it, they dug up the family from their graves—and found only Mercy’s corpse to be 100% free of rot. Naturally, the villagers believed Mercy to be a vampire, cut out her heart, burned it, mixed the remains with water, and fed it to her sickly brother. For some reason, this did not cure the boy and he died soon after. Darn vampire-ghosts!
10. The B-Word
Why is “Boo” the default call of the popular ghost? Before the 19th century, ghosts had a reputation for being well-spoken. But with the rise of “spiritualism” in the 1800s, ghosts that spoke in complete sentences had become en passé, both in literature and in a culture that preferred spectacle. It’s entirely possible that ghost enthusiasts pilfered through the Scottish linguistic tradition to get their scares; yelling “boo” was a popular way for bored, pre-Internet parents to frighten their Scottish kids.
9. Scream Queen
She ain’t just a party drink: Bloody Mary is a ghost whose folklore morphs with the culture. Sometimes she’s a witch murdered in the Salem trials. Other times, she’s just a girl who was strangled by her love. But the “how-to” stays the same: say her name time three times, and there she will be. One of her “grander” backstories identifies her as the Queen “Bloody Mary” of England, aka the first British queen regnant, who is supposedly damned forever for the burning of hundreds of Protestants during her short reign.
8. Tell Me I’m Pretty
Kuchisake-onna is a Japanese folktale and ghost whose name (helpfully) translates to “Slit-Mouth Woman.” She is said to wear a surgical mask that hides her defining feature: a mouth sliced from ear to ear. As the tale goes, she will remove her mask to children and ask whether she’s pretty. Kids who spare her feelings get their faces slashed in the same manner; the blunt ones who go “No,” are simply slashed to death with her scissors.
7. Heads? I Got Nun
In the 1700s, French noblewomen would sometimes be sent to Canadian convents. This is the backstory for the “Headless Nun” of Canada. As the ghoulish tale goes, she either came across an unstable furrier or a pair of deadly treasure hunters. But the basic premise is the same: nun’s head exits body and the holy sister begins her post-death career as a literal “head-hunter.”
6. Don’t Ring This Neighbor’s Bell
The Bell Witch was probably known in life as “Kate Batts.” The 19th century Tennessee woman did not get along with her neighbor, John Bell Sr. This feud did not abate with her death. The Bell family made reports of children being beaten in their sleep by an invisible force, and objects allegedly moved on the house on their own rights. Being people of the 1800s, they naturally held a séance and concluded it was their darn late neighbor, Kate! When Mr. Bell eventually died, they of course cited poison by the dead witch, whom they said to be heard singing merrily at his doom.
5. Dear Theodosia
On New Year’s Eve 1812, the young Theodosia Burr (yes, daughter of Aaron Burr) left to visit her father up north via ship. Unfortunately, a storm struck the vessel, and neither the boat nor Theodosia was ever seen again. Decades went by and in 1869, a woman who lived by Nags Head reportedly called a doctor from Elizabeth City to attend to her, saying he could take any item in her house as payment. When the doctor tried to claim a portrait on the wall, the sickly woman sprang straight up, and yelled, “It is mine! You shall not have it! I am on my way to visit my father in New York, and I am taking this picture of his darling Theodosia!”. She then, apparently, snatched the painting, ran into the ocean, and—like Theodosia—was never seen again.
4. Kids in the Hall
Without a doubt, the execution of Queen Catherine Howard of England gets a bit overshadowed—after all, she was only Henry VIII’s fifth wife and not even the first to be executed. However, she inspires one of the more interesting Tudor ghost stories, with reports of her spectral presence in Hampton Court’s “Haunted Gallery.” It’s said that when Catherine was arrested for adultery in 1539, the teen queen was able to escape her guards. She ran towards the corridor which led to the chapel where Henry was at Mass. Before Catherine could reach his door and beg for mercy, the guards caught up with her and dragged her back, kicking and screaming. Today, a ghastly female form, dressed in all white, is said to be seen floating down the same gallery, sometimes still screaming.
3. Leave or List It
Only in New York, right? In 1991, the state’s Supreme Court officially declared Jeffrey Stambovsky’s house to be “haunted.” According to Stambovsky, the previous seller, Helen Ackley, had wronged him when she had willingly sold him the house but did not tell him that the house was filled to the brim with poltergeists. For some reason, the court agreed.
2. Give Me A Clean Death
A stay in the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado-inspired Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. However, the hotel itself certainly didn’t need a horror author to bring ghost stories to its door—it already has its own share. Among them is the tale of a housekeeper who allegedly carried a candle into the infamous Room 217. Thanks to a gas leak, her entry triggered an explosion that sent her crashing down into the room below. The maid shattered both her ankles…but still went to work for the hotel until her death. And, apparently, she carried on after: guests report this specter as haunting the room and still doing her housekeeping duties.
1. This Is a Case for Barbie
One doll? No problem. A huge collection of dolls in one place? Somehow, that’s creepy. Now imagine an entire forest of them—often limbless and headless—nailed to trees. The “Island of the Dolls” in Xochimilco, Mexico City operates as a kind of an afterlife chatroom for dead girls and other spirits. According to legend, a drowned girl was spotted in a nearby river by a man named Don Julian Santana Barrera. Nearby, a doll was floating too. From then on, Barrera would collect dolls and just hang them in the trees to comfort the dead girl’s ghost. Locals even claim the dolls would talk to each other, possessed by other spirits. This practice went on until 2001 when Barrera drowned in the same canal where he had discovered the first dead girl.