Friday, 28 October 2011

Why I love Halloween (and other Ghost Stories)

“Pleasure to me is wonder—the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.” - H.P. Lovecraft

Of all the annual festivals, it is Halloween that most stirs up memories of childhood excitement.

Essentially a celebration to mark the end of the ‘season of the sun’, Halloween is one of the oldest holidays with origins that can be traced back thousands of years.  It is typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, a name historically kept by the Celts in the British Isles and derived from Old Irish meaning ‘summer's end.’ Over time it was adopted into Roman culture as Pomona Day and Christian culture as All Hallows’ Eve.  In its contemporary form it has become a somewhat playful celebration of mythology, horror and the occult, but the sense still persists that this is the time of year when the physical and supernatural worlds are closest and magical things might just happen.

Whilst my Celtic antecedents may in part be responsible for my occasional affinity with the pagan, I consider myself more rationalist than religious.  Nevertheless, it seems entirely rational to me that we are unlikely to ever know or understand even a fraction of the true nature of our existence.  Whilst trick-or-treating had not fully crossed the Atlantic when I was of acceptable age to commit door-to-door candy extortion, I welcome the annual herds of little zombies, miniature witches and midget vampires. They are a reminder to recognise and celebrate the idea of mystery and the unknown – a reminder that becomes even more important as we become untethered from the spiritual certainties of our cosy old Monotheism. It is essential that, in a Godless word, we should still retain the humbling presence of mystery.

My childhood Halloween was mainly a time for parties and the cheap thrills of age-inappropriate horror movies. Night of the Creeps, Dawn of the Dead and, of course, John Carpenter’s Halloween are all fondly remembered October classics.  It makes me nostalgic for a time when even a battered video cassette of the truly craptacular space-horror Inseminoid was momentarily an event movie.

While gory and garish Horror movies may not appeal to everyone, they form an extension of seasonal folk storytelling.  The compelling and near universal draw of the simple ghost story once again speaks of our need for mystery. Observe how even the most egotistical and self-centred gatherings can be brought to hushed attention by a tale of the inexplicable, supernatural or strange incidence.

It seems that almost everyone has at least one short incident or vignette to share.  I’m somewhat sceptical in my outlook, but there is at least one story in my past that refuses to fit neatly into my rational little worldview.

I was probably 14 or 15 and was spending the night with a group of friends in bivouacs in the nearby woods of Thornthwaite on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales.  We were all scattered in an individual favoured spot all around the base of the valley, lost amongst in the thick spiky tangle of conifer trees.

When our fire died and we ran out of stolen cigarettes and teenage wit and wisdom to share, we all separated off to sleep.  I don’t remember actually sleeping, so I can’t have been long settled in the uncomfortable hole I’d quickly and lazily covered over with brush and leaves when was started by a scream.

Assuming it was a friend, I set off to investigate.  It turned out I was right as I found out later that my friend’s equally slapdash shelter had collapsed, but I didn’t discover this until morning because I immediately became hopelessly lost.

I suppose I was half asleep as, although the woods were modest in size and should have been familiar, I became so disorientated that I couldn’t find my way forward or back.  There was an eerie stillness and deep blue tint that seemed entirely alien.  I was just starting to worry when I saw a flickering light in the trees ahead.  Thinking this was one of my friends, I called out and the light started to move, blinking between the tree trunks. As I followed the light with my own torch beam, I realised that I was turning on the spot as it circled completely around me.  At that point the light blinked out.  I was just a little disturbed and ran away in the opposite direction, through the woods and past a long square modern building with the lights still glowing through the windows. I paused a moment to consider whether I could find help inside. Catching my breath, I suddenly felt rather embarrassed about the whole thing.  By now I was in the scattered broadleaves on the edge of the open fields.  From this vantage point, it seemed simple to rediscover my bearings. I lifted my torch to the treeline and shone it straight at what at first glance appeared to be a face. I froze and stared, waiting for the illusion to fade.  With terror, I realised the edge of the woods was now seemingly populated with vague but tangible figures, waiting still, as if frozen at the field break and unable to advance further. I kept staring, convinced it was a trick of branch and shadow, but they were clearly there, staring back at me.

At this point, I snapped, ran furiously across the field and spent a sleepless night in our fortuitously pitched tent near the roadside.  In the morning, I sheepishly had to explain my sudden retreat and had to endure a fair amount of ridicule.  I had to conclude that my experience was a mix of Pareidolia and night terror, but it shook me enough to remember it with incredible clarity, even now, close to 20 years later. The oddest thing about the whole experience – and the thing that interested my friends most at the time – was the incongruous modern building.  Noone can recall it ever being there and, on reflection, I have no idea what or where it was. Later, I’d reinterpret this little tale as alien, phantom or otherwise supernatural, depending on my interest at the time.  But while Tolkien, Argento or Castaneda may have influenced the odd creative flourish here and there, the fact remains that it is, for me, an entirely inexplicable event of non-specific weirdness.

There is an odd mixture of unease and excitement that comes from both the telling and the listening to stories such as this.  In some deep and instinctual way our fascination is rooted in our need for mystery that transcends the mundane.  Especially now, in this time of elephantine vanity and greed, it is a comfort to know that the world is not and never will be wholly knowable or controllable. Faced with a dark and endless universe, where black planets roll without aim and a vast and nameless void defies our comprehension, we find ourselves, friend and foe alike, just a little more equal and huddled just a little closer together for comfort…and isn’t that alone a good reason to welcome a little more mystery into our lives?

1 comment:

  1. Feel free to share any of your own spooky tales here...