|The Curse of the Crying Woman (1961 / 63). Dir. Rafael Baledon|
Shortly before dawn on Saturday July 15 2017, Bec Edmonds of Kirkby, Merseyside, awoke to the sound of someone knocking at her front door. Listening again but hearing nothing she thought it must have been a dream and managed to drift back to sleep. However, when she woke again later that morning Edmonds found that the gate at the rear of her house was wide open. It seemed there had been someone at her door and whoever it was had probably approached the house from the street, knocked on the door before walking round to the side of the property and leaving through the back garden.
Posting about the incident on Facebook, Edmonds soon found that many of her neighbours had received similar visits in the early hours of July 15 and most of them had heard more than just knocking.
According to the Liverpool Echo residents in and around Burnard Crescent heard “a woman crying through their letterboxes” asking to be let in because she had no money and nowhere to go. Between 3.30 am and 5am it seemed that the unidentified woman moved from house to house issuing the same cry for help. One resident told the woman to go to the police but otherwise, no-one engaged with her and no-one opened their doors.[i] As The Independent reported, the “bizarre wailing” was suspected to be “part of a ploy to burgle people’s homes”. Residents “reportedly fear that if they answer the door, someone will barge in and rob them”.[ii]
This may have been odd behaviour for Burnard Crescent, but wailing women of the night have long been a fixture of folkloric traditions. Two of the best-known examples are the Irish Banshee and the Mexican myth of La Llorona, or ‘Weeping Woman’.
|Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888). Ed. William Butler Yeats|
As the poet W.B. Yeats described in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), “the banshee […] is an attendant fairy that follows the old families, and none but them, and wails before a death.” By “old families”, Yeats means that the banshee is something of a familiar associated with ancestral lines that carry deep Irish heritage. Sir Walter Scott made this clear in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830) in which the “banshie” is described as a “distinction”, a kind of nationally specific, supernatural privilege “only allowed to families of the pure Milesian stock”. Later variants of the myth depict banshees issuing their cries as well as knocking at the windows and doors of the family homes with which they are associated.[iii]
By contrast, La Llorona has less to do with specific families and appears in Spanish American myths more as a genius loci, associated with riverbanks and lake sides. A nocturnal ghost or spirit stuck between this world and the afterlife, La Llorona weeps for the children she drowned in an act of revenge against her unfaithful husband. Anyone who encounters her and hears this weeping will experience a similar domestic tragedy. Just as the wail of the banshee foreshadows the keening of mourners yet to come, the cries of La Llorona prefigure those of her unfortunate witnesses.[iv]
With their mixture of bad omens, family units and the boundaries of domestic spaces, both myths speak loudly of two fundamental, if not universal anxieties: the desire to protect one’s family and the desire to protect one’s home. In this respect the banshee and La Llorona can be placed alongside other examples of ‘household’ folklore, a continuum that includes stories of the devil who knocks at the back door and the vampire who waits to be invited over the threshold.
|Bunworth Banshee, from Thomas Crofton Croker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825)|
Why are these customs so pervasive? Because although our four walls bring security, privacy and comfort, they invariably make strange anything that comes from out there. As generations of mischief-makers know, knocking at the door and running away is one of the oldest scary tricks in the book. It is no surprise, then, that the residents of Kirkby regarded their visitor with such a sense of trepidation.
But beyond these generalities, there remains something very specifically banshee-like about the wailing of the Merseyside woman. Kirkby residents were told to take care and not to open their doors if “something like this happens” because the consensus of Burnard Cresent was that the crying woman was not alone. It was not the woman who was the seen as the threat, but the concern related to who she may have had with her and who may have “barged in” if a door was opened.[v] If this was indeed the case, the woman then acted, like the banshee, as a kind of harbinger. She was a figure who spoke of her own misfortune - her lack of money and her lack of home - and in so doing announced the possibility of this same misfortune befalling those she encountered. The misfortune on this occasion was not death but a suspected attempt at home invasion and robbery: the likely loss of one’s money and domestic security.
If this was a genuine moment of distress, I do hope the woman received the help she needed. That said, shouting through letterboxes in the middle of the night was perhaps not the best way of trying to get it. If, however, skullduggery was afoot, the curiously resonant nature of the ploy probably accounts for its failure. Scams and confidence tricks typically rely on a sense of faith or belief in the veracity of the story told. On this occasion the trick may have caused the banshee to remain outside precisely because we have been taught to believe in (and fear) the things that go bump in the night.
[i] Connor Dunn and Sophie Cockerham, ‘Scared residents warning after mystery woman found “crying through letter boxes”’, Liverpool Echo, 20 Jul 2017. http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/scared-residents-warning-after-mystery-13362051 .
[ii] Shehab Kahn, ‘Mystery over woman “crying through people’s letterboxes in early hours of morning”’, The Independent, 23 Jul 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/letterbox-woman-crying-liverpool-kirkby-mystery-shouting-through-merseyside-a7855396.html .
[iii] W.B. Yeats (ed.) Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, Walter Scott, 1888, p108. Sir Walter Scott, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, John Murray, 1830, p340. For further variants see St. John D. Seymour and Harry L. Neligan, True Irish Ghost Stories, Hodges, Figgis & Co., 1914, p175.
[iv] For a full account see Ray John De Aragon, The Legend of La Llorona, Sunstones Press, 2006.
[v] Liverpool Echo, op cit.