Well, there is not much I can tell you about the festival of Samhain or Halloween that you won’t hear or read elsewhere, in much greater depth than I have space for, over the coming month. There will be programs on the TV about it’s pre-christian origins as a time of remembrance, its Celtic status as the new year celebration, and more besides. The old argument that trick or treat is an American abomination will be (erroneously) trotted out again while a pitiful few of us will staunchly shun the transatlantic pumpkin in favour of our native swedes and turnips (the adventurous might even attempt a parsnip lantern, their long, tapering shape is very effective). However you chose to celebrate it, summer is gone, the nights grow cold and long, the mists rise and the veil between the worlds grows thin…
Let us talk about ghosts.
It’s a funny thing but if you take an average room full of people and ask “do you believe in ghosts?” only a few will say yes. Take the same room full of people and instead tell your story of strange, inexplicable noises in an empty house then one by one the majority will recount their own personal experiences with the not-so-departed.
Oh yes, we’ve pretty much all had at least one brush with the supernatural, or know someone who has. Here in Devon we purportedly have more ghosts per square mile than the rest of the country; a country which has more ghosts per square mile than the rest of the world! If you live down this way and haven’t met one yet I suspect it can only be a matter of time…
The problem for a storyteller is that the vast majority of these spectral interludes boil down to the same two stories:
“We saw a ghost… then we heard someone had died!”
“Someone died… now there’s a GHOST!”
Frustratingly, nothing else happens. Searching for a ghost story with some action in it, an event worth expounding to an audience as more than conversation (or evidence in the case for the existence of solidity-challenged persons), is a long and repetitive process.
Thankfully some of the folk tales featuring post corporeal people have a bit more to them and, as ever, come with advice for those who care to listen.
The Dauntless Girl* earns her name by taking on a bet to retrieve a “skull bone” from the dead house in the middle of the night. Despite a disembodied voice repeatedly telling her to leave the skulls alone as they are it’s relatives, she achieves her goal, blows out the candle and locks the voice in, before returning to the warmth and light of the farmhouse where she claims her winnings. The voice, it turns out, was the verger, bribed to scare the girl off, now dead from fear having been shut in with the bones in the dark.
Which brings us neatly to our first piece of advice should you meet with the physically disenfranchised:
1/ Do not be afraid.
Those that expire in ghost stories usually do so as a result of their own fear, not any action on the part of the previously deceased. As the Dauntless Girl says to the shade of her master’s mother in the next bit of her story “Why should I be afraid of you? You’re dead and I’m alive”. (but I’m getting ahead of myself. Ahem.)
Having proved her worth, the Dauntless Girl is now hired by a rich man whose mother, despite her recent relocation to a subterranean residence very close to the church, is still turning up at the house and frightening away the servants. Since the girl shows no fear, the phantom matriarch can at last reveal the whereabouts of the savings she wishes her son to take possession of and move permanently to the next plane of existence; and the Dauntless Girl gets to keep a share of the booty!
Which marvellously illustrates my second piece of advice:
2/ Ask them what they want.
Frankly, I’m surprised more people don’t do this. It’s obvious the spook is hanging around for a reason so why not find out what it is? At the worst you may find yourself listening to the chilling tale of their horrible murder but you never know, perhaps, if you dare follow the apparition in to the cold, dark cellar with nought but their unearthly glow to light the way, you may be shown their hidden store of gold. Either way, you are going to have a better ghost story to tell than anyone else next time the subject comes up at a party.
Speaking of parties, should you go to one around the 31st October, remember that part of it’s original purpose was to contact the ancestors, making use of the thinning of the veil to glean wisdom from those that have gone before. But be aware: there is a sub set of travelling ghosts, such as the husband murdering Lady Howard who turns up in a coach of bones complete with headless driver, these non permanent residents of the netherworld seem to have a free pass at the gates of Hades and should you climb in to their carriage you will surely be whisked away to an eternity of torment.
So so my last piece of advice for the spooky season:
3/ Do not accept a lift from a dead person.
This may seem to contradict Advice No.1 but there is a line between fearlessness and stupidity, and this is where it is!
*Found in the comprehensive Penguin Book of English Folktales Excellently annotated by Neil Philip
The Travelling Talesman www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk