Once upon a time, I knew an awful lot about the spooky history of Great Britain. I had dozens and dozens of books on the subject. No holiday was complete until I had bought at least two books on the local folklore. I love a good ghost story.
I even built and ran a website on the topic, a gazetteer of spooks around the isles. It led to me writing a tiny piece in the Daily Mirror, appeared on local TV in London as an ‘expert’ in the paranormal (One of the other guests, bless her, told us how she’s seen an angel riding a motorbike). It is not a topic I have kept up on, as I quickly realised most of the ghosts stories printed in each new book is simply a reworking of an entry in a previous book. I once found that seven pages of one , written in the 1930’s, had been lifted verbatim and placed into a new book, printed in the 70’s by a different author. Naughty naughty.
I don’t believe in ghosts.
I can get the creeps like nobody’s business. I’ve spent many an evening walking home alone in the dark. I’ve camped out in the wilds of Scotland and Sweden without a worry. (Except one night in Sweden, for some reason, I got the creeps like anything and spent the whole night peeping out of my tent and let us not mention the time I watched The Blair Witch Project while staying in the quiet and heavily wooded Centre Parcs in Cumbria and spent the rest of the week creeped out.)
As a fundraiser for charity, I once spent the evening as a spooky ghost expert at a Fright Night at a ruined house in Northamptonshire. A group of people got sponsored to spend the evening in my company. Terrifying. It was an interesting bunch who seemed determined to be scared. One woman had a vision of a red haired lady on a balcony, another smelt burnt toast. Now, I have a little confession to make. We took a tiny, 1cm x 1cm square piece of fabric and dabbed some lavender oil on it, and hid it in a crack in the wall. I was interested to see if anyone would smell it. One man did. Not that I am suggesting he was over acting and attention seeking but he claimed it was such a strong fragrance it almost overpowered him and he had to sit down.
My interest in the supernatural began when I was eight years old. We had a school residential trip to Swanage, Dorset. A class of us were crammed into a utilitarian guest-house. My three friends and I were installed in a ground floor room, on the front of the property, overlooking a little tarmac area at the front, which, importantly, sloped down to the road. On the last day, I took a picture of my three buddies outside, lined up in front of the window. When we got the photo developed (remember that folks? Kids, ask your parents) we spotted a mysterious blurred face in the window behind them. We knew from the layout of the room that the lower bunk bed was level with the windowsill and so nobody could physically occupy that space without moving the beds out the way. And it couldn’t be a reflection of me taking it, because the driveway sloped down and I would be below the window. Arguments raged in the classroom as to whether it was a ghost or not. Further tales of doors opening and closing on their own in the room above were recounted.
Years, many years later, it occurred to me that it probably was me. The angle was wrong unless I was stood on something. Something like a low boundary wall I remembered being there, something I could easily have stepped on. Ooops.
I do have one very scary story though, that did happen to me. Possibly the creepiest experience of my life. It happened when I was fifteen. My school was preparing for a variety concert in the main hall. It was an old school that had expanded over the years with additional blocks and buildings being wedged in any old fashion. It was dark, about nine o’clock probably. A teacher and I were we finishing packing up for the evening. She was leaving through the side door and said she’d lock up after herself if that was okay. I said it was, as I would leave through the other door. She left with a turn of the key and a couple of minutes later, I flicked off the lights and went to go out the other door.
(Let’s pause for a moment to consider In Loco Parentis and how that teacher may not have been wholly upholding its most fundamental principles.) All alone, in a dark and empty school, I had but one choice. The Link Corridor.
The Link Corridor ran the length of the school, a long wide thoroughfare which was bustling with kids and teachers all day long. At night it was black, apart from the pale moonlight filtering in through the occasional window, providing just enough light, to make the shadows really dark.
I set off into the dark, taking the half dozen steps down from the hall entrance into the corridor. One step….two…..three, there suddenly, in front of me, floating in the air, a pale white, hideous, disembodied head, with ghastly huge black eyes starring back at me! A cry of terror rose in my throat as I stood frozen in fear. It took me nearly three seconds to realise that the hideous, ungodly, ghastly apparition before me was, yet again, my own reflection, in the narrow windows that ran across the top of the corridor entrance. I swear I had never seen them before, but when I checked the next day, yup, there they were.
What followed was an extremely nervous progress down the corridor to discover, you guessed it, the door at that end was also looked. I returned to the hall and bravely opened a fire door and wedged it shut as best I could behind me.
I have a little pet theory about why we find some buildings inherently spooky, that stems from that experience. We experience most public, large, old buildings during the day, when they are full of people and bustle. Hospitals, libraries, theatres, schools, churches, pubs and inns and the like. Our normal experience of them is sound and movement and colour. If we happen to find ourselves in them, alone, in the dark, we are left off balance, our subconscious caveman brain is craving normality and finding threat in the unusual environment. We are much more likely to seize on any odd experience and give it a supernatural twist. Compare that to your own home, which most of us can navigate in the dark like a ninja.
So enjoy Halloween, embrace the darkness of the night and scare yourself with a ghost story or two. And if, when you are lying in bed tonight, safely hidden under the duvet, you happen to hear a movement in the attic above, it’s probably nothing worry about.