Driving alone at night. You encounter a beautiful woman dressed in a flowing white dress on the roadside, asking for a ride home. Feeling compassionate, you pick her up and drive her to her destination. But upon reaching it, you find her vanished in your backseat. You go to the home she said was her residence, and you are then told by its occupants that the woman you just picked up actually died sometime ago, perishing before reaching the location you had just delivered her to.
With the resurgence of urban legends during the 1990s (due largely to the works of folklorist Jan Brunvand), the mysterious Lady in White was thrown again into the spotlight. This familiar motif in American folklore has actually been around for over a hundred years, predating cars and reaching as far back as stagecoaches and carriages. And to no one’s surprise, this mysterious spirit has also been seen across cultures and across the world.
In the Filipino context, the Vanishing Hitchhiker is generally referred to as the White Lady. This entity is often associated with a location in Quezon City, specifically a street called Balete (or Banyan) Drive. Over the years, taxi drivers and general motorists claimed to have seen a mysterious woman dressed in white, procuring rides to go home, only to disappear upon reaching her destination. There are two origin stories ascribed to this spirit: She was either a woman who died in a car accident at that location, or she was a woman who died there after being raped by Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Over the years, the term “White Lady” in the Philippines has evolved to encompass any spectral woman dressed in white. This includes spirits wandering along desolate roads or locations at night (without asking for a ride) and ghosts haunting abandoned houses or sites associated with deaths. Sightings have been reported across the archipelago and are occasionally “caught” on video.
Local filmmakers have made popular horror movies in her name, exploring her origins and motives while entertaining a younger generation of moviegoers.
But the phenomenon of ghostly women dressed in white is not unique to the Philippines. It is actually quite common in Mexico, across the Asian continent and even in the Pacific Islands.
La Llorona, the White Lady from Mexico, is one of the most famous ghosts in Latin American folklore. While her origin varies from storyteller to storyteller, it is generally accepted that hers is a hybrid of Spanish and Aztec traditions. According to legend, the wife of a conquistador killed their children after learning that he must return to Spain. She dismembered their bodies and threw them in the river. Upon dying and talking to St. Peter at Heaven’s gates, she is told that, in order for her to enter, she must first find the body parts of her offspring. She is now doomed to wander the world in search of them, wailing and weeping at roadsides on dark and lonely nights.
In Japanese culture, female ghosts (yurei) are often depicted as having a gaunt appearance, disheveled hair, hooked hands and wearing white robes. They have been used as characters in traditional art, theater and fiction for hundreds of years, usually as victims who were wronged when alive, but returning to exact revenge as a spirit. Perhaps the most famous female spirit in Japanese literature is Oiwa, a woman who was murdered by her unfaithful samurai husband, only to come back and drive him to madness.
Korean female spirits also return from the afterlife dressed in white. The most feared are those of vengeful women who died prior to experiencing marriage and those that missed out on the physical pleasures of life.
Malaysia’s famous lady in white is the dreaded Pontianak, the stillborn offspring of a woman who died at childbirth. She returned as a vampire and now feeds on the blood of children. In Thailand, Mae Naak embodies unrequited love, pursuing her beloved husband despite dying herself and returning as a ghost to maintain their relationship.
The Pacific Islands also have their share of women dressed in white. White Ladies have been seen on the Micronesian island of Guam, frequenting banyan trees, alongside its most famous ghost, the ancestral Taotaomona.
Hawaii’s own vanishing hitchhiker is said to be Pele, the goddess of fire, capable of changing her appearance from young to old. But unlike the admonition of not picking up this spirit, locals maintain that you should pick her up and bring her to her destination, otherwise you will incur her wrath.
Around this theme, the famed Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu used to host its annual Haunted Lagoon attraction on the month of October, centering on the Laie Lady ghost named Nalani. Dressed in white, she is said to haunt the PCC’s lagoon after going mad from losing her husband and son.
In the South Pacific archipelago of the Cook Islands, a legendary red-headed woman haunts the roadsides of Rarotonga, seeking ghostly revenge against her unfaithful warrior mate (as well as all males) by causing cars to crash into the river.
White Ladies, along with a slew of legendary ghost figures that permeate our culture, continue to exist in oral stories, movies and television. Regardless if she is real or not, we can’t help but wonder what would happen if we encountered her at night while driving home, when we see a second pair of eyes on our rearview mirror.
Alex G. Paman is a graphic designer and freelance journalist who lives in Sacramento, California. He is the author of “Filipino Ghost Stories” with Tuttle/Periplus, and “Asian Supernatural, including Hawai’i and the Pacific” with Mutual Publishing.
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