“We need ghost stories because we, in fact, are the ghosts.”—Stephen King.
History is ripe with tall tales about human souls who 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. So raise a glass of ritualistic blood to these humans—and one chicken—who inspired haunting tales from the afterlife.
Famous Real-Life Ghosts Facts
1. 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 had devastating consequences. It 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.
2. 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 somehow escaped.
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 white, is said to be seen floating down the same gallery, sometimes still screaming.
3. 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 everywhere from Hever Castle, her childhood home, to the Tower of London, where she died, and even to Marwell Hall, a house owned by Seymour family, whose daughter replaced Anne as queen. And, of course, in many of these sightings, Anne is headless.
4. Later, Bro
For most families, one decapitation (and supposed haunting) is more than enough. Unfortunately for the Boleyns, Anne wasn’t the only Boleyn to suffer a heinous death. Her brother George was executed with her for adultery in 1536. It’s said that his ghost wanders Blickling Hall, headless and dragged by four 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.
5. Thanks for the Ride, Dad
On May 19 of every year, people say that the ghost of Anne Boleyn arrives via headless coachman to Blickling Hall for a truly gruesome occasion: the anniversary of her execution. But that’s not the worst part. 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.
6. 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 to slumber for a dark reason—to this day, historians debate his innocence.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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. When they opened the coffins, their blood ran cold. 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!
11. 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 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. But it gets even 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.
12. 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 fell victim to an eerie fate. He drowned in the same canal where he had discovered the first dead girl.
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.
14. 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.
15. 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, utter tragedy struck. A storm destroyed 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.
16. Doe Eyed Ghost
Virginia Dare was the first English child born in North America to the mysterious colony of Roanoke Island in 1587. When her grandfather left for England for supplies and returned later, however, he came back to a disturbing sight. Virginia and the rest of the settlers had vanished. According to lore, Dare was kidnapped by local tribes and transformed 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. Recent evidence suggests that colonizers simply moved closer inland.
17. 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 suffered a terrible fate. She accidentally shot herself while knocking down a loaded pistol from a shelf in 1950.
18. 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.
19. 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 multiple times to respond to reports of her loud screaming.
20. 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 endured horrific torment. She was imprisoned for life inside her house by a jealous husband, and apparently couldn’t escape even after death.
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.”
21. 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.
22. 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.”
23. Frozen Chicken with a Side of Bacon
The site of Sir Francis Bacon’s death is said to be haunted by a very unusual ghost: 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.
24. 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.
25. Honestly Haunted
Everyone wants to claim that they saw Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. But it isn’t just presidents who sense his presence. First ladies and other top officials report feelings of solidarity with his ghost. It turns out that there’s a reason for that. These feelings peaked in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a dark and war-torn time when politicians would welcome Abe’s ghastly guidance.
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) that 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.
27. 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.
Weirdly enough, this particular haunting was more of a help than a hindrance. Rumors of Small’s ghost saved the theater from being demolished. I didn’t think I would end a ghost story with “aww” and yet, here we are.
28. 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 became passé in a culture that wanted bloody spectacles, not polite phantoms. Scholars think that ghost enthusiasts mined old Scottish slang for “boo.” Back in the day, the word was a way for bored, pre-Internet parents to frighten their Scottish kids.
29. 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.
Yup, the first British queen regnant, who is supposedly damned forever for burning hundreds of Protestants in her short but brutal reign.
30. 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.
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. In a now-classic ghost move, the ancient phantom rattles his chain in Pliny’s Athenian house.
32. 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.”
33. 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.
34. 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 a very zany sight: the specter of Winston Churchill lighting up a cigar in the stateroom.
35. Roses Are Forever
History remembers First Lady Dolley Madison as a visionary. After all, she almost single-handedly made Washington D.C. what it is today. The question is, did she ever stop? When Dolley first reached D.C. (for her husband’s inauguration), 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 transformed the ramshackle settlement into the fashionable political capital we know today.
Dolley eventually died in 1849… but according to many stories, not even death stopped 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.
36. Leave or List It
Only in New York, right? In 1991, the state’s Supreme Court officially declared Jeffrey Stambovsky’s house in Nyack 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.
37. 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 that’s it’s a practice to say “Goodnight, Olive!” as you exist. After all, she was a star.
38. 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 are as old as the 19th century, so Franklin’s ghost has probably mastered hundreds of dance crazes by now.
39. Traumatic Memories
When horror writer Stephen King was a child, one of his friends was hit by a freight train while King and the friend were playing together. King has no memory of the incident. What he does know of the accident comes from his mother: King wandered back home alone, and she found him white as a sheet and unable to speak.
As King says, “My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened, if it had occurred before I even arrived, or if I had wandered away after it happened. Perhaps she had her own ideas on the subject. But as I’ve said, I have no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it some years after the fact.”
40. Dark Past
It’s believed that the psychological trauma King suffered from witnessing his friend’s death inspired some of his darkest works, though King has never implied as much. Notably, the horrifying memory didn’t appear in his memoir, On Writing, despite the book covering his childhood at length.
41. Zombie for an Hour
In Brazil, a two-year-old boy tragically died from pneumonia. His grieving family made funeral arrangements over the next few days—and then received the shock of their lives when the boy suddenly sat upright and asked his father for water. Overjoyed and astonished, the parents were still in for another devastating heartbreak, as the boy then lost consciousness once more and couldn’t be revived, leading the coroner to proclaim him dead once more.
42. Based On A True Story
On November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. methodically walked into each bedroom in his house, killing everyone as he went. His parents, two brothers, and two sisters were all found in the exact same position: laying on their stomachs in their beds. DeFeo claimed that voices told him to kill his family, though he changed his story many times over. He is currently serving six consecutive life sentences. The movie The Amityville Horror is based on the chilling experiences of the family who moved into the home after DeFeo Jr went to prison.