Grey Ladies in the Crumbling Stones—Our love affair with the uncanny gothic feminine

By Romany Reagan

Why do the dead return? Why, in the darkness of the night, when all activity has been reduced to a trembling in the distance, do the dead disavow their rest and return to the living? Those who pass from the land of the dead to the living carry with them the promise of a place to come, and that place is haunted. –Dylan Trigg

We love our ghost stories. We love to share them, analyse them, hunt for them, and hopefully even capture them with our cameras. But therein lies the troublesome aspect of ghosts—because our search is the pleasure, there is no joy in the answer.

There is in an excitement in these feelings; as a child, many of us remember the sudden horror, then the thrill, of walking through a cemetery and imagining a hand creeping out of a cracked grave. Or walking through an old ruin, forgetting the heritage of the place to instead imagine deep tragedies of our own invention, wishing for glimpses of the ghostly Grey Ladies who cry for justice amongst the stones.

Of all ghostly apparitions we love to share and tell again, in British folklore nothing tops a lone Grey or White Lady. The Lady is the recurring ghost of a woman, usually one who has died from either having been murdered or committed suicide due to a lover’s betrayal. Although named ‘Grey Lady’, this ghost also appears dressed in long, flowing gowns of black or brown. Rarely there are even cases of Orange or Blue Ladies, but they have no place in a classic ghost story.

‘Grey Lady’, William Boxall, 1830

For top gothic atmosphere, we like our Ladies Grey or White. Although these Ladies are not dangerous, there are tales of them hovering next to a sleeping person and whispering her sad tale into their ear. According to some legends, the story is so tragic that the person wakes and, while still wearing their night clothes, walks directly to the nearest cliff, from which they immediately leap. These are the sorts of tales you’d tell around a campfire, inventing new details, relishing your own hyperbole. But most tales of the Grey Lady are benign. She is a figure who, if anything, is pleading for help.

As Jane C. Beck observes in her seminal essay on White Ladies in Great Britain and Ireland: “Of all of man’s traditions and beliefs, his acceptance of ghosts is perhaps the most strongly rooted. Many educated individuals, coming from all walks and stations of life, continue to believe in, or at least entertain, the possibility that the dead may return to the living. This is probably due to man’s desire to find some shred of evidence to prove his immortality—some proof, no matter how macabre, that his identity will be preserved beyond the grave.” (Beck 292) There is a tension between our human desire to believe that we live on beyond the grave, but a horror at believing that we do. The common tale of these trapped spirits we call ‘ghosts’ is that they are searching for rest, but they can’t rest until a specific task is accomplished or truth is revealed—which always has to be accomplished/revealed with the help of the living. A common throughline throughout ghostlore is ghosts are on a mission. A ghost without a mission is probably a faerie, and you were mistaken. (Jane C. Beck shares some wonderful tales of both White Ladies as ghosts and White Ladies as faerie spirits in her essay cited in the bibliography.)

We fear ghosts, so we run from them, but at the same time we seem to know that they need us in some way. We’ve created a belief system around these apparitions that, on one hand, makes them creatures of utter pathos, locked as they are in a cycle of impotent inaction, yet also terrifying, chasing away the very instruments of their salvation. Who would invent such a twisted system? Our relationship with ghosts is at war with itself. We need desperately to believe that they exist, but they seem desperate to complete their missions to cease their existence. Why would this form of afterlife be preferable to the peace of nothing? Who would wish for such a state? If we are searching for proof beyond the grave as a form of comfort, we will find no comfort here.

Our wish to believe in ghosts, sitting alongside the horror of that belief, traps our mind flickering between two states of thought like being stuck between channels. This places our love/fear of ghosts within the unsettling space of the uncanny.

Encounters with Grey Ladies represent a moment of apprehension, rather than outright terror. The uncanny inhabits a liminal psychological space of inbetweenness. It exists in our peripheral vision and is built on uncertainty. When we say to ourselves, ‘Did I just see…?’ The moment our imagination is satisfied into certainty—whether that be certainty of safety or of horror—the moment ceases to be uncanny.

Ghosts lie within the classic gothic landscape, and the gothic must always reach towards what cannot be spoken. “It can gesture towards the sublime, towards the blasphemous, or towards the magical, but it must never fall into the prosaic. […] If the gothic can be explained, it is no longer gothic.” (Wolfreys 3) There is an active curiosity that drives engagement with the darkness—and within the darkness, melancholic whimsy may find ghosts.

In the form of the Grey Lady, the ghost manifests a clash of ideas. The woman is representative of home, but she is out of place. Either haunting a home that no longer belongs to her, or a ruin that is no longer a home. We fear her, but why? Her story is inevitably tragic, and the double tragedy of her fate is that she is then cursed to forever be locked in place reliving that tragedy. What otherworldly judge would victim blame to such an extreme by inventing such a fate? And why do we relish so much the belief that such awful judgement makes up the clockwork of the universe? We are a twisted species indeed with our conflicting desires, making a hell for ourselves wherever we can.

There is a link here too between the feminine and silence. Silence welcomes lean-in questions, the Grey Lady embodies at once our curiosity with hints of punishment for us for being curious.

Gwach-y-Rhibyn, Welsh Banshee

There are some ugly apparitions, such as the Gwach-y-Rhibyn, a kind of Welsh banshee thought to be the very personification of ugliness, with torn and dishevelled hair, long black teeth, withered arms and claws, and wings of a leathery and bat-like substance. But the Grey and White Ladies are always beautiful—or at least fair enough in form to infer as much underneath their veiled faces.

As Christianity swept across the British Isles, subsuming a heritage of animistic folklore belief under its monotheistic tidal wave, the Mother Goddess became distilled and split into the virgin and the whore. The original Mother Goddess and Water Goddess, the original White Ladies of the faerie belief structure, represented the female pantheon in miniature. It is due to this many-faceted personality that we find that the White Lady of today can be both malevolent and benign. The White Lady harkens back to an older time and perhaps the power she once held as a deity is now manifested in her melancholic beauty.

‘In the Water’, Albert Edelfelt, 1890

Originally, the White Lady probably had no ghostly characteristics whatsoever. It seems that she has been degraded from a form of Mother Goddess, to a kind of faerie, and finally to a ghost. “Today, her deified heritage forgotten, she has been sucked into the quicksand of modern ghostlore, a quicksand fed by a multitude of ancient and diverse traditions. Her older characteristics have been merged and all but lost in the ghostly spirits of a returning dead woman. Nevertheless, she has been bequeathed certain characteristics to the White Lady, characteristics that even today remain as clues to her origin.” (Beck 306)

There are folklore links between White Ladies who appear to have started out as faeries, then changed through retelling into ghosts, and many of this type of faeire-cum-ghost ladies are connected with wells and water. The most common fate of a water-bound White Lady is drowning, she then induces her living victim to throw themselves into the sea or a lake and drown themselves—bridging the gap between the faerie’s (or water spirit’s) link with water and the ghost’s earthly sorrow. However, while there are tales of faerie White Ladies in Wales and Ireland, the majority of our Grey and White ladies are the trapped souls of human women. And because of their once-humanity, we identify with them in a way we wouldn’t with a water spirit. Our fear is tempered with empathy.

There are no answers here in this short essay. Instead, I’d like to open a discussion. Why do we prefer to believe this possible future to be tragedy-locked into place by horrid events? To be made silent and desperate as our material world disintegrates to a ruin around us, rather than believe we simply die and end when we are laid in the earth?

Like most people, I say I don’t believe in ghosts. And yet I sort of, kind of, do—in the way that 2am awoken from our sleep we all find horrors in our hallways. Is it silly? Most probably. But there is something stubborn about ghostlore, and of the things we ‘don’t believe in nowadays’, we do rather believe in the end.

As tragic as the story of our Grey Lady is, we want to believe in her. We want to live in a world that has secrets yet to be unveiled. When we were children, all the world was a puzzle of secrets to be unlocked. As we grow older, things become too known, we are victims of our own quests for knowledge, leaving us in the rather prosaic world of answers. I don’t want to stop looking for mystery, and so I will continue to see Grey Ladies among the stones.

Please see below for further reading on the subject of Grey and White Ladies, Ghostlore, and the Uncanny.

Further reading:

Beck, Jane C., ‘The White Lady of Great Britain and Ireland’, Folklore, Issue 81, Number 4, 1970, p292-306

Brown, Sarah Annes, A Familiar Compound Ghost: Allusion and the uncanny, (Manchester: Manchester University Press) 2012. Book.

Castle, Terry, The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1995. Book.

Freud, Sigmund, The Uncanny, 1919. Essay.

Grimes, Hilary, The Late Victorian Gothic: Mental Science, the Uncanny, and Scenes of Writing, (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited) 2011. Book.

Jentsch, Ernst, On the Psychology of the Uncanny, 1906. Essay.

Masschelein, Anneleen, The Unconcept: The Freudian Uncanny in Late-Twentieth Century Theory, (Albany: State University of New York Press) 2011. Book.

Royle, Nicholas, The Uncanny, (Manchester: Manchester University Press), 2003. Book.

Trigg, Dylan, The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, (Athens: Ohio University Press) 2012. Book.

Wolfreys, Julian, Victorian Hauntings: Spectrality, Gothic, the Uncanny and Literature, (Basingstoke: Palgrave) 2011. Book.

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