While most ghosts and other paranormal beings are relatively unknown outside of their place of origin, one is world-famous. She hails from Ireland, and her name is known the world over--the Banshee.
Pretty much everyone has heard the expression “screaming like a Banshee”, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t know exactly what a Banshee is. The word comes from the Old Irish ‘Bean-Sidhe’ which translates as “woman of the fairy mound”. The Banshee is a female spirit, and her unearthly screaming and wailing is nothing less than death’s singing telegram. When you hear the Banshee cry, wail, or scream--someone is going to die, and it’s usually a family member.
The first traditional stories of the Banshee appeared in the 8th century about women known as 'keeners' who sang mournful songs to lament someone’s death. Some keeners were said to be sinners because they accepted alcohol as payment--remember, this was the 8th century--and they were punished by being doomed to become Banshees.
It is often said that the Banshee laments or warns only the descendants of pure Milesians of Ireland--those whose surnames begin with O’ or Mac. Though the Banshee usually appears alone, several have been known to appear at once to announce the death of someone great or holy.
Although we associate the Banshee with death, not all of them are bad creatures. Some are the spirits of women who have strong ties to their families, and who watch over them in death. These Banshees appear as beautiful, enchanting women, and their sorrowful songs and the sound of their weeping are heard in the days leading up to the death of a family member. In most cases the Banshee can only be heard by the person she chooses to hear it.
Of course, if there are good Banshees, you can be sure that there are also bad ones. These evil Banshees are the spirits of women who had reasons to hate their families. They appear as hag-like apparitions, and they are filled with hatred. The shrieks and screams of these nefarious Banshees are not a warning; they howl in celebration of the death of someone they once hated.
Other legends say that the Banshee is the ghost of a young girl who suffered a violent death, and her spirit is said to warn of an impending violent death in the family. Although this type of Banshee is the spirit of a young girl, for some reason she appears as an old woman dressed in rags. She has blood red eyes that are filled with hatred, and to look into her eyes leads to instant death. Perhaps the most frightening thing about this particular type of Banshee is that her mouth is always open, and she is constantly screaming.
Most Banshees are said to warn of an impending death, but others are so evil that they take great pleasure in killing people by driving their victims insane with their horrifying screams, and leading them to commit suicide.
Although her shrieks and cries are enough to make anyone think twice about trying to catch a glimpse of the Banshee, there are many reported sightings of this terrifying creature. What does she look like? Descriptions vary. She’s sometimes seen as a filthy old hag dressed in rags with long, dirty grey hair, long fingernails, and sharp, pointed rotting teeth. Others have described her simply as an old woman with a veil over her face dressed all in black with long, grey hair. But the Banshee doesn’t always show herself as an old woman. Sometimes she is seen as a beautiful young maiden with long, silver-white or red hair who wears either a green dress or a shroud.
It’s said that if a Banshee is seen, she will turn into a cloud of mist and vanish. At the same time, a noise similar to a bird flapping its wings will be heard. But there are many stories where the Banshee simply walks away after delivering her message.
Whatever she looks like, and whatever she is wearing, the Banshee’s eyes are always red from crying. In fact the only human-looking version of the Banshee that doesn’t seem to have red eyes is the one where she is described as a headless woman, naked from the waist up. She carries a bowl of blood, and her screams come from the depths of her bloody, gaping throat.
While the Banshee is definitely a female, some sightings describe her as a monstrous creature with the body of a woman, and the head of a bird or a hare. And the size of the Banshee can range anywhere from as small as 3 feet tall to as large as 8 or 9 feet tall. Her arrival is sometimes heralded by flocks of crows, howling dogs, or screeching cats. Whatever form she chooses to take, one thing is for certain; when the Banshee shows up, it’s never a good sign. She is nothing less than a caterwauling harbinger of imminent, unavoidable death.
But for all her faults, the Banshee does have a good side. Some say that her creepy appearance and her high-pitched wailing warns families of an impending death so they can be better prepared for the inevitable. Others say that the Banshee is an escort who’s job is to make sure that a loved one gets safely to the other side.
A very different version of the Banshee is the Scottish spirit known as the Washer of the Ford. She haunts desolate streams where she can be seen scrubbing the blood from the linen and grave-clothes of those who are about to die. Here’s where it gets a little bizarre. The Washer of the Ford has a very distinctive feature. She is said to have unusually long, pendulous breasts that interfere with her washing, so she does what any woman with a similar problem would do--she throws them over her shoulders and lets them hang down her back. Those who see her must not turn away. Instead, he must quietly approach her from behind and take hold of one of her breasts--decisions, decisions--put it in his mouth, pretend to be nursing from it, and claim to be her foster-child. Only then will she tell him whose clothing it is that she is washing. If she says the clothing belongs to an enemy, he can allow the washing to continue. But if the clothing belongs to him, he can stop her from completing her task and avoid his fate. (i)
Although stories of the Banshee might seem like nothing more than mere fairytales, reports of actual Banshee encounters are abundant. In her online article, The Wailing Irish Banshee, author Serena Ó Longáin shared a Banshee story that was told by her grandmother. The story goes that one cold, blustery night her grandmother’s brother was walking home from an evening out with friends. When he arrived home, he was shocked to see a mysterious woman standing outside his front door. She was dressed entirely in black, and her face was hidden by a dark veil. The woman was crying so much that the man was concerned, so he walked over to her to find out what was the matter. But as he approached her to try to comfort her, she moved away, and as she did she kept pointing at the man’s house. Each time he walked over to her, she moved away, but she continued to cry and point at his house. Finally, this mysterious weeping woman walked away; her cries fading away into the night until all was silent. When he went inside, he shared the story with his sister, and she knew just what it meant. The man had seen and heard the Banshee, which meant that someone in the family would soon die. Sure enough, three days later, one of her brothers died in his sleep. (1)
In his online article, Bizarre Encounters with Real Banshees, author Brent Swancer shares some truly chilling stories. One, which he quotes from the book True Irish Ghost Stories, tells of a family from Ireland who had a number of encounters with the Banshee. The story is told as follows: “My mother, when a young girl, was standing looking out of the window in their house at Blackrock, near Cork. Suddenly, she saw a white female figure standing on a bridge which was easily visible from the house. The figure waved her arms towards the house, and my mother heard the bitter wailing of the Banshee. The vision lasted a number of seconds before the figure finally disappeared. The next morning my grandfather was walking as usual in the city of Cork. He accidentally fell, hit his head against the curbstone, and never recovered consciousness.”
Sometimes the Banshee is heard, but not seen. In the following tale from the book True Irish Ghost Stories, a woman shared her stories of the sound of the Banshee. She said, “In March of the year 1900, my mother was very ill. One evening the nurse and I were with her arranging her bed. Suddenly, we heard the most extraordinary wailing, which seemed to come in waves around and under her bed. Naturally, we looked everywhere to try and find the source, but it was in vain. The nurse and I looked at one another, but we made no remark to my mother, as she didn’t seem to hear the mournful cries. At the time, my sister was downstairs sitting with my father. She heard the wailing and thought that some terrible thing had happened to her little boy who was in bed upstairs. She rushed up to his room, but she found that he was sleeping quietly. Oddly, my father did not hear the sound. However, the neighbors in the house next door heard it, and they ran downstairs thinking that something had happened to their servant. The servant was fine, but she said to them, ‘Did you hear the Banshee? Our neighbor must be dying.’” (2) A few days later, the sick woman passed away.
In another story, the Banshee was heard by a student in 1894 in an Irish boarding school. The boy had taken ill, so he was put in a room by himself where he could rest. The next day, he was visited by the school doctor. As the doctor was examining the boy he suddenly sat straight up in his seat and cocked his head to one side. “What’s wrong?” asked the doctor. “It’s that crying,” said the boy. “Can’t you hear it?” The doctor strained his ears, but he couldn’t hear anything out of the ordinary. The doctor supposed that the boy must have been hearing things due to his fever. But the boy persisted. “You can’t hear that sound? That terribly crying sound? I know what it is. It is the cry of the Banshee. I know, because I’ve heard it before, and I’m afraid because I know what it means. When you hear the cry of the Banshee, someone is going to die.” The doctor tried to comfort the boy who, after a while, settled down and went to sleep. The following morning, the head-master received some very sad news. A telegram arrived saying that the boy’s brother had been accidentally shot, and that he had died.
In a story from the 1940s, the Banshee actually knocked on the front door. It’s told that an elderly man was bedridden by a debilitating disease. One day, scores of squawking crows began congregating around the house for no reason at all. That night his friends and neighbors paid him a last visit. His condition was getting worse, and he was only expected to live a few hours longer. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. When one of the visitors opened the door, an ugly old woman with long white hair and wearing a long white dress was standing a few feet from the front door. She was wringing her hands and sobbing. Without warning, the old woman suddenly let out an ear-splitting scream and rushed at the house before vanishing into thin air. According to the story, the old man died just a few hours later. (2)
Although she is known as an Irish ghost, the Banshee has been known to appear in other parts of the world. In a story from the 1950s, a young man had an encounter with a Banshee in an apartment in New York city where he lived with his mother. It was dusk, and the young man was standing near his bedroom window when he heard what sounded like a newborn baby or a cat crying. The apartment was on the 5th floor, and the window faced an alleyway, so his first thought was that it was a cat. But soon, the cries changed to those of a young child who seemed to be sobbing. The man described it as “the saddest cry I have ever heard.” He thought that it was, perhaps, the boy next door crying. He yelled out, “Tommy, is that you? Are you OK? Do you need help?” But there was no answer, just more crying. Soon, the cries changed to those of a woman sobbing--heartbreaking sobs coming from an unknown source.
The man’s mother came into the room and he said, “Mom, do you hear that crying? It sounds like someone is really hurt.” She shook her head and said that she hadn’t heard anything. The apartment was small, and the cries were so loud that she should have heard them when she was in the living room, but she insisted that she hadn’t heard a thing. As soon as she left the room, the crying started up again. The man said that it wasn’t the cries of someone who was being physically hurt; they were the cries that someone would make if they were just told the worst news possible. It was the sound of a woman crying with a broken heart. After a while, the crying faded away and eventually stopped altogether. Three days later, at 5:30 in the morning the phone rang. The young man’s aunt called with bad news. His aunt Kathleen who had been suffering with leukemia had died. (3)
Not all Banshee stories come from long ago. Modern tales of the Banshee are more common than you might think. After a recent lecture at Kent Library in Kent Falls, New York, a woman told me about a first-hand Banshee experience she had in early 2020. She said, “My father and mother are both from Ireland. My mother's sister Ann lived in the Bronx for most of my life, but she has since moved back to Ireland. When we were young, Aunt Ann would often tell us stories about how she would hear the Banshee when someone died. She was known in her family for this. She would tell us about specific people who passed in Ireland, and how the Banshee visited her prior to their passing. My mother told me that even as a little girl, her sister Ann would tell the family when she heard the Banshee, and sure enough they would hear of someone's passing shortly after.
Fast-forward to a few weeks ago. My husband and I were asleep in bed, and a loud wailing sound right outside our bedroom window woke me up. It was so loud and clear that it was almost like the window was open, but it wasn't. It was a very long, drawn-out moaning sound, as if someone was in deep distress--a very sad moaning kind of a sound, like an old woman was crying. I'm not sure how long I lay there listening to it, but it felt like it kept going on and on and wouldn't stop. I remember thinking I just wanted it to stop. I tried to wake my husband up, but he was fast asleep and he wouldn’t budge. After a while, the sound faded away and finally stopped.
As strange as the experience was, the next day I didn’t give it much thought. It wasn't until I climbed into bed that night that it all came flooding back to me. I suddenly began rambling to my husband about what had happened. I asked him if he remembered the wailing sound outside our window the night before, or if he remembered me kicking him and saying, ‘Do you hear that?’ He said he had no idea what I was talking about. I said to him, ‘I can't believe you didn't hear it.’
He asked if I thought it might have been a coyote that I heard and I said, ‘No way!’ Sometimes we’ll hear coyotes way off in the distance. We always hear several of them howling together, and the sound is always very faint. The sound that I heard that night was completely different. It was one singular being making the sound, and it was directly under our second story bedroom window.
I said, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but I think it was a Banshee. I’ve never heard a Banshee before in my life, but the crying, wailing sound I heard last night was exactly as my Auntie Ann described it.’ My husband asked, ‘What does that mean?’ I said, ‘It means someone is going to die, or has already died.’
I am not joking, literally about three minutes later my phone beeped because I had an incoming text. I picked up the phone and saw that it was from my brother, and it was a message about a family friend. I read the message and said to my husband, ‘Aww, that’s so sad. Mrs. McMahon just died.’ I didn't even put it together until my husband said, ‘Wow, that's crazy. I guess that's it.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘The Banshee sound that you heard last night. Mrs. McMahon--she’s the person who died after you heard it.’ I freaked out! I couldn't believe what had just happened. We were both pretty amazed. I think IR didn't make the connection right away because Mrs. McMahon was not a family member, just a close friend of the family.
Afterward, as I tried to make sense of what had happened, it occurred to me that my Auntie Ann had recently been put in a hospital for exhaustion in Ireland when this happened. Maybe she couldn’t hear it because she was sick at the time. I’ve heard that the Banshee chooses a specific person to hear her. I guess she chose me that night. Thankfully, I haven’t heard her since.
Some think that the Banshee is just a myth, but first-hand encounters with this enigmatic screaming woman are at odds with this theory. If the old adage ‘Believe becomes reality’ is true, then if you believe in something long and strong enough, it actually becomes real. If this is true, then centuries of Banshee lore believed by so many have surely made her a very real creature. So, even if you don’t have a drop of Irish blood in your veins, if you a woman sobbing and moaning outside your window at night, don’t ignore her. She might be the Banshee, and she might be trying to give you a message--like it, or not.