There are many American legends spanning many disparate areas of the United States and each imbued with its own strangeness and mysteries. One area that has long had many stories of ghosts, phantoms, curses, and demons, is the realm of the Old West. This is a land awash with numerous Native legends, and those from the settlers as well, and it often seems to be a place of ghosts and phantoms prowling the ruins of what once was. Here we will look at some of the eerie legends of mysterious banshees and witches once said to prowl these wilds, and which in many cases supposedly still do.
Our first tale here comes from the badlands of the U.S. state of South Dakota, where the rugged landscape looks very much as it always has. Looking out over the bleak canyons and jagged peaks of this place, it is easy to imagine one is still in the days of the Wild West, and if the legends are to be believed there are some entities that are here as they have always been. According to the book Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, by Charles M. Skinner (1852-1907), there is a vengeful spirit that roams this desolate land, and strikes fear into the hearts of all who encounter her.
One of the many stories of the area is that there is a lone figure of a ghostly woman who lurks about a lonely butte called “Watch Dog.” Here she has been said to appear since the time of cowboys and Indians and settlers heading west, always by moonlight upon this bleak hill. The phantom is said to approach parties passing through and stand there merely staring, as if waiting for someone to talk to her, yet when someone tries to call out to her she will throw her arms into the air and unleash an unearthly, ear-piercing shriek that echoes about for miles and leaves the stunned party in terror. The banshee will then vanish to leave those present in a state of bewildered fear, the silence of the night crashing back down upon them once again. On some occasions the entity is seen with a companion in the form of a fleshless skeleton, which is said to approach camps in which music is playing, only to ghoulishly sit at the flickering edges of the campfire between light and shadow, bobbing its head to the tune. It is said that if one is to give the apparition an instrument to play, it will do so with breathtaking skill before vanishing into the night, although it is said that this music has a hypnotizing quality and that the skeleton will sometimes try to lead people away into the wilderness to vanish themselves. If one becomes too enamored with this music they are also said to go insane, and it is best to not offer the skeleton a chance to play at all.
The butte itself is apparently shunned by cattle and wildlife, and making it even weirder is that orbs of light and strange electrical phenomena are known to frequent the hill. No one really seems to know what these spirits are. For some the woman is the victim of an Indian raid or a murder victim. The skeleton has been said to be the spirit of a cowboy who died in the middle of a song he was never able to finish. No one really knows, but the legend has remained, and those who know of it will still give Watch Dog butte a wide berth.
Similarly, a very well-known tale of wailing ghosts featured in folklore originates in Latin America, Mexico, and the American Southwest, in particular Arizona and New Mexico, and concerns the sinister entity called La Llorona, or “The Weeping Woman.” The dark tale of this tragic figure has many variations and permutations depending on the geographical region, but they generally begin with a village woman who was renowned for her stunning beauty. The woman, in many tales referred to as Maria, is said to have fell in love with a handsome visiting gentleman who had been entranced by her comeliness, and the two married to go on and have two children. However, the marriage devolved rather quickly due to the fact that the husband was an unrepentant womanizer, and also tended to ignore her when they were at home in favor of playing with their children. Things came to a head when in later years her husband found a younger mistress, and by all accounts, Maria did not take this well. According to the tale, she became insanely jealous, and went about viciously drowning her two young children in a river, before finding some lucidity and regretting her actions. Depending on the version of the story, she then either chases them along the river and drowns trying to retrieve them, or commits suicide by joining them in their watery grave. The lore has it that she was then doomed to wander the earth eternally looking for and crying out for her children, and that she could not rest until they were found.
La Llorona is usually described as an apparition of a woman dressed in white, often with a veil over her face, most often seen prowling the shores of lonely rivers or lakes and shouting out for her children, screaming, and sobbing uncontrollably. Many versions of the tale state that to hear her cry is a portent of incoming death or tragedy, which is very similar to the stories of the Banshee, and she is also said to kidnap children and drown them in a pantomime of her murder of her own children. The story has become one of the most popular spooky tales of Latin America, and has been made into countless books, art, poetry, theatre, and in literature films, and TV shows. While it seems to be mostly pure legend and myth, the tale is a pervasive one, and there are many people in many Hispanic countries and the U.S. southwest who have claimed to have encountered the spirit, and it is undeniably one of the more famous tales of a wailing spirit.
From the rough wilderness of Mount Superstition in Arizona comes the tale of a tribe of little people who are said to have once inhabited the area. These dwarfs were said to stand around 3 feet tall, and while they were mostly peaceful, they were on constant guard against their enemies, the Apache and the Zuni. The story here goes that one day a group of Zuni warriors was approaching the hill that the dwarfs occupied, and since this meant nothing but trouble, the little people began preparations to defend against the imminent attack. On this occasion, the Zuni were coming here in order to take away a companion the dwarfs had made, a pale woman with long, flowing white hair who the Zuni claimed was a witch who had escaped to avoid marrying their chief. When the little people refused to hand her over, the Zuni made preparations to attack, amassing a force of 700 warriors.
According to the tale, the Zuni rushed in expecting a decisive victory against the little people, but they were met the visage of the pale woman standing before them defiantly, wearing a white robe, her hair blowing in the wind, and completely unafraid of the invading force. The warriors paused only for a moment, before approaching their prize with no resistance from the dwarfs, who cowered behind rocks and in caves. It is said that as the wave of warriors rushed closer the pale woman casually emptied an earthen jar onto the parched earth and sparks, lightning bolts, and balls of fire began to erupt from all around them, striking down the Zuni warriors and sending them careening off of cliffs. Seeing their companions dropping dead all around in this intense display of fire and lightning, the remaining Zuni fled. It is said that the Apaches also tried to invade the hill and were similarly driven back by the powerful magic of this mysterious witch woman, who became to be known as “Pale Faced Lightning.” It is said that the dwarfs were then left in peace with their guardian savior, and that the ghost of the sorceress still haunts the Superstitious Mountains to this day.
Another area of the Old West with its share of spooky stories is a place called Spring Canyon, in Carbon County, Utah. The landscape here is littered with decrepit, feral ghost towns baking and crumbling under the sun and years, a place of abandoned mines and the ruins of the past. Yet this was once a prosperous, thriving mining community. With the opening of the remote area in the 1880s, due to the building of route through here by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, coal was soon discovered and the area saw an influx of settlers, mostly miners. This fueled a boom in mines, mining camps, and settlements throughout the rugged hills of the area. In its heyday there were thousands of people living here, but there was something else more insidious lurking here as well.
Over the years the miners began to come back with stories of a mysterious, spectral woman wearing a flowing white dress, who they would encounter down in the gloomy murk of the mines. This Lady in White was apparently not benevolent, as she was said to be the cause of mine and tunnel collapses, and was blamed for miners who went missing without a trace. The phantom woman was said that she has the power to beguile and entrance the men who looked upon her, and would try to lead them further into the dank tunnels, from which they would never return, and many miners refused to go into the mines alone. It does not seem to be clear who this ghost is supposed to be, but what is known is that even after the coal boom ended and the towns and mines were allowed to be reclaimed by the wilderness, the White Lady is still said to wander about calling out to anyone who will listen, and there are sporadic sightings of her to this day.
These have just been a few of the many legends and tales that have sprung up in the areas traditionally known as part of the Wild West, and which have spanned across time to the very earliest settlers in these regions. It is uncertain whether any of these entities are real, but they do cast a bit of dark spookiness into the history of these areas, making them even more enigmatic than they already are. There seems to be something about these vast stretches of untamed wilderness that draws such stories to it, and such tales are likely to remain for some time to come.