Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Something followed us home

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Spectre or author messing about in the bathroom mirror with the flash?
I've always loved this introduction to Ishmael of Moby Dick, mainly  for the fact it shows how timeless is the desire to wallow in the mood of the season. In the past it may have been called melancholy, which looks similar to what we now call depression, but doesn’t map exactly to it. Soon night will dominate and SAD-preventing light boxes will have to be purchased. Until then we will revel in this feeling while it is still enjoyable. We must make the delightful first shivers of autumn last as long as possible. For this time of year is supposedly the most haunted and young, soulless Milton Keynes is no exception.

Last month MK Citizen’s erstwhile reporter Anna Sexton ran a series of ghost stories. It was the closest thing to news I’ve ever seen in this paper. After an appeal was made to the public to suggest haunted sites, Sexton and a twenty-strong team of Ghost Busters settled on the Swan Inn in Great Horwood, just a little south west of the city. The team was made up mainly of the local MK Ghostbusters. From their website one can gather their presence the evening of September 18th was to prove the existence of ghosts, while I suspect the MK Citizen reporter’s intent might have been to sell newspapers. The full YouTube video of the weekend of necromancy may be viewed here:

If Sexton’s scepticism doesn’t quite come across in the video “Do members have to pay?”, the write up from 23 September 2010 makes it clear.

Sexton paints a vivid image of a large number of people packed into a small space tearing about madly in the dark. Possible poltergeist activity is noted: a milk bottle is thrown across the room. Conveniently, it is heard only; there were no witnesses. Sexton considers the landlady’s son as likely a culprit as a spirit. In conclusion she says:

I am not convinced however, any of it proves the existence of life after death and of so-called ghosts. But I would happily repeat such an investigation, if only to observe group psychology, meet unfamiliar people, and reaffirm my belief that living human beings are infinitely more bizarre than the things that go bump in the night.
Well, one might argue that “Ghosts are people too,” but I agree that group reactions to hauntings are more interesting than the hauntings themselves.

More open ridicule of belief in ghosts was expressed  in the comments section of  the second story run by MK Citizen at about the same time. The paper claimed that a ghost at the MK Centre had been captured on CCTV, not an uncommon theme at all, as you will find after a quick search of YouTube:

This ghost was, perhaps, deliberately fake-looking, so as not to scare the public too much. The immediate reaction from people was “Whatever you’re selling we don’t want any!” (As it happens all the ghost was trying to "sell"  was free public participation in Art.) 

A recent newspaper article reported that four out of ten Britons reported that they believed in ghosts. You would think that, as we moderns are much more advanced than those who went before, in earlier times there must have been a consensus on the existence of ghosts and the percentage that believed would have been higher. In fact the opposite is true, with 28% percent saying they believed in ghosts in the 1980s and only 19% in the 1970s (Davies p.241), although there is some debate about whether these numbers reflect actual belief, or the acceptability of professing belief in public.

Owen Davies’ The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts provides a comprehensive summary of the commonest forms of hauntings in England and Britain. Of course in the medieval period ghosts were more often put within the context of Christianity. It has long been common for people who were murdered or had some fatal accident to appear before the living on unfinished business, many re-enacting their last moments on some perverse spiritual loop. Like today, people who died by their own hand were considered likely spectres. Great stigma was attached to suicide and victims were often buried at crossroads, sometimes with stakes driven through their hearts in the belief that this would prevent them from becoming ghosts. Also associated with the road were creatures called “shucks,” or black dogs, which were considered to be manifestations of the Devil. Dead highwaymen were also known to haunt the roads they once terrorised in life.

But usually it was the built environment that was the site of most hauntings: often people’s bedchambers, where spectres took the form of hags, demons, or succubae.

In modern England, tales like the following are told. Two children staying at a house in Lacock were frightened by an “ugly little man” who walked through their room. Many years later a skeleton was found under the bedroom wall. A woman slept head resting on her shoulder for two consecutive nights. Later when a wing of the building was pulled down, workers discovered the skeletons of five children. (Tuan Landscapes of Fear p.125)
Buildings associated with sadness in life, such as prisons and mental asylums, are common sites of encounter as are sites of former priories extinguished during the Reformation.

These common themes can be identified in local tales from Beds, Bucks and Herts. The older towns in and around Milton Keynes are the natural localities of these tales. Many contain the essential elements of ghost stories as discussed by Davies. A tale based in Aspley Guise tells of forbidden love, murder and blackmail. To add to the folklorish flavour of the tale, Dick Turpin features as a major player in the story. Indeed Dick Turpin was thought to have stopped off at the Ye Olde Swan Tavern in Woughton on the Green, where the ghostly hooffalls of his steed were once heard.

It’s no coincidence that famous people feature heavily as apparitions. Owen Davies points out the correlation between the kinds of figures that are seen regularly; Romans, monks, nuns, Cavaliers, Roundheads, soldiers, even phantom RAF bombers, and the British school curriculum.

The focus on such events was further reinforced by the popular histories that formed part of the Victorian school curriculum. The Reformation was obviously held up as a key moment in English historical progress, though some pedagogic texts recognised the brutality of the Dissolution. Similarly, the Civil War and the execution of Charles I was used to defend the righteousness of monarchy and the iniquity of political rebellion. Considering the emphasis on these events it is no wonder that during the early twentieth century ghosts continued to conform to the preoccupation with these periods. (Davies p.42)
I was not raised in the  British education system, I developed my notions abroad.  The ghost stories I grew up with in  New Zealand are clear descendants of European stories, as hauntings tended to occur in the same ways and in the same kinds of places as in England. Sadly, New Zealand has a comparatively limited historical palette from which to draw for its ghost stories. Romans, monks, nuns, roundheads and cavaliers, and headless horsemen are not available as stock characters. It would be geographically and historically inappropriate for these figures to make an appearance, and true to form these figures are not typically found either in the mainstream curriculum or the landscape.

Thanks largely to Jock Phillips, New Zealand history classes focus largely on how men (usually white) have shaped the national identity “from the shafts of strife and war”. In retrospect this does seem a strange claim, as when I was coming up in school I was led to believe that New Zealand had seen no conflict. It made perfect sense at the time. Not until after I finished school did ideas popularised on television by James Belich  filter through.

Indeed soldiers and wars are common figures in New Zealand ghost stories, some hauntings occurring in barracks. The army town of Waiouru features heavily as a site of psychic disturbance on New Zealand ghost message boards. Some ghosts take the form of Māori warriors. As always, Māori have had an impact on New Zealand’s spiritual perceptions. (Māori impact on NZ culture is routinely discussed as significant, well at least up until the point the tourists go home, and we can go back to dismissing Māori as an exceptional anomaly, or worse a foil, an ‘other’). Māori and Pacific Island narrators sometimes speak of being visited by relatives and ancestors.

Christmas had came it had only been a few days after the tangi (funeral). I was at my cousins and I was doing something I shouldn't of being doing. I felt sick so I went to the bathroom to chuck up when I looked beside me I saw Earl standing in the bath tube I was so happy to see him. But the strangest thing was we were in the bathroom but when I was talking to him we were in the kitchen out the marae he was saying to me common bro chuck up I could feel him helping me out. -KayWeezy18 from http://www.yourghoststories.com/real-ghost-story.php?story=6046
Māori people also feature in Pākehā (European settler) visions. As expected, Māori warriors make the odd appearance. It is telling that reactions to visions of Māori shades often depended on race, or familial connection. Though visitations could be disturbing or interpreted as evil among Māori, these narrators were more likely to find Māori ghosts comforting, reflecting the importance of ancestors within Māori tradition.
Pākehā, on the other hand, were more likely to find their encounter threatening, alien or somehow hostile.

Since then the voices have come on many occasions and are not confined to early morning visitations nor to myself alone, for others, aware of the mystery and aura of Arapawa, have been allowed a glimpse into the unknown. For some it is frightening but I do not find it so. When I spoke to a Maori friend about it, she listened patiently and said it was `Just the Old People'. She assured me there was nothing to fear. Betty Rowe from http://www.mysteriousnewzealand.co.nz/featurearticles/featart_arapawaghosts.html
Anyone familiar with New Zealand art, literature, film and music will be aware of a gothic pall  that supposedly hangs over the New Zealand countryside. Madness, death, violence and psychic unease are all heavily associated with the land. Popular culture is a particularly deep vein for this topic: Headless Chicken’s “Slice” (or just about any track from Stunt Clown); The Muttonbirds “White Valiant;”  or even Don McGlashan’s uplifting tale of Pākehā place-making, "Miracle Sun," which smacks of death with the spooky refrain “Are you going where we’re going?” (Beware the first person plural, it's never good.) Most famous, or maybe infamous, is “Cinema of Unease: A personal journey by Sam Neill”, in which Sam Neill demonstrates to us, using an inflatable globe, that New Zealand is indeed very far away and has lots of sheep, among other things.

There is a significant point of difference with England, where the landscape is seen as green and pleasant, something of a natural right to enjoy. But it is a common feature of colonial societies to view their land as dangerous. Tuan notes that the vulnerability of settler communities made them wary of boundaries and border zones. This is certainly where some of this sense originated and is common to New Zealand, Australia and the Americas (where the true masters of gothic reside). I think much of this fear of the land in New Zealand is also connected with “Exhibit A”: Māori, particularly the unknown Māori past, as well as related colonial guilt. A sense of a significant disruption in the chain of custody is imprinted on the Pākehā landscape. Evidence of prehistoric Māori landscapes is in plain sight for those who are willing to see. Nowhere is this truer than in Auckland. The many volcanic cones, their very silhouettes created by Māori, dominate the skyline.

Looking from heavily terraced Mt Eden across Auckland
Indeed there is a sense in the New Zealand countryside that the land itself is watching you. Hating you. Wanting to abort you. As a Pākehā, you are the unwanted cuckoo’s egg in Riroriro’s nest.

"It doesn't matter what you  do, we will always be here."

The following slight, but chilling tale seems to know more than its narrator:

But what really got me was when I asked "will you hurt us?"- The [Ouija board] went to territory.

After that night I had frequent headaches and I would often see things in the corner of my eye but maybe it was a coincidence. But was it a coincidence that the next morning Zach and I had very similar scratches on our backs the next morning?

What if something followed us home?

- Jginkx94 from http://www.yourghoststories.com/real-ghost-story.php?story=7063
As opposed to the British, many New Zealanders are disconnected from their past, having only a hazy understanding of their history. British history, on the other hand, is ubiquitous. It permeates British popular culture at home and abroad in ways that New Zealand history does not. This may be at the root of a relative comfort with landscapes and spirits. Perhaps when one is confronted with Romans or Saxons it is ‘just the old ones’. Furthermore there is no apparent guilt, or consequently horror, connected with the centuries of displacement that have occurred on this sceptred isle. (Those displaced would disagree.)

One could say that British ghosts, by comparison, feel safe or even twee. Something to keep visiting Americans amused, perhaps? Certainly our own Milton Keynes ghost story is in keeping with the short and not so time-honoured tradition of ‘ghost tourism’. Before the 19th century, there is no tradition of ghosts haunting inns and pubs. This tradition is kept alive by the media, who regularly encourage public interest in spectres. Local newspapers are among the best sources for reports of supernatural activity in any given area.
But before I get too smug about the superior psychic disturbance of the New Zealand landscape, I should remember that this England is a natural habitat for the gothic, Victorian or otherwise.

The night has long frightened us.

A recent novel by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger draws heavily on the Victorian gothic tradition. The site of guilt and angst is the old country home of a Lastian family, the Ayres of Hundreds Hall. Attention is drawn to strange goings-on by the housemaid, Betty, who is frightened of the large and cold house. It is her subsequent illness which invokes the doctor, himself the son of a servant, thus inviting him in to the house with dire consequences for all. Set in 1947, the novel is about the mid-century cultural shift towards a dominant middle class and the unseemly decay of the upper class and its traditions. It forms a backdrop for my own understanding of how this area went from the control of the aristrocracy and church to the MKDC, highlighting the same social engineering that created the NHS, a figure that looms ominously in the novel as the landed gentry takes its last dying gasps. By the end of the tale it is difficult to know just who, if anyone, is responsible for the haunting of Hundreds Hall. One's confidence in the narrative agency of the living, the dead, or even the inanimate in the novel is severely shaken. It is one of the creepiest books I have read in a long time. Not since Janet Frame’s The Carpathians or Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, have I read anything this unsettling.

I think that Waters’s choice to introduce the maid, the doctor and his mother in the opening of the novel is deliberate. Owens notes that disgruntled young female servants were often at the bottom of poltergeist activities. Ghostwatch  also picked up on the stereotype of the young teenage girl as a site of paranormal angst, as well as a perpetrator of it. It’s possible British historical guilt may reside somewhere else. Without the narrative of colonialism to graft over it, the picture here is more complex, entangled in issues of gender, ethnicity, class, geography and religion. It is not easily explained by Sam Neill and his inflatable globe. Is anything?

One significant effect of a longer history is that ghost stories have had more time to settle, to become ossified in tradition. As with any narrative tradition the ghost stories gives its teller a sense making structure to work from. Wellington-based Ghost hunter James Gilberd argues that “ it is the culturally ingrained idea of a ghost being the spirit of a dead person that blocks our thinking.” The compilers of The Oxford Dictionary of English  Folklore agree:

Communal tradition shapes our expectations of how ghosts manifest themselves. Hence even a memorate is likely to include details highlighted because they fit a stereotype (e.g. a drop in temperature, sounds of footsteps, an animal refusing to approach the eerie place), and these become more numerous as the story spreads into the community as rumour. There it may become linked to other anecdotes about haunting set in the same house, road, etc., which ultimately may coalesce into a local legend  from A Dictionary of English  Folklore
To be fair, many of the stories I have read about in the United Kingdom are legendary in type, whereas those in my survey of New Zealand sources tended to be highly personal. And it is personal stories that chill, precisely because they do not always conform to expectations. The final story I shall tell was told to me. It takes place within a family of Pacific Island heritage, where stories of dead relatives saying farewell are an accepted norm. The person who related this story to me is a well-educated, rational person, who would generally be considered highly reliable. Regardless of your own beliefs, respectfully consider that the person who told me this believes it really happened.
It all happened in a place as mundane as South Auckland. The narrator picked up a young female hitchhiker in Manurewa. Soon the driver became unnerved; there was something unnatural about his new passenger. He began to notice that she would sometimes vanish from his rear view mirror, but when he turned, she was there. Sensing his agitation, the hitchhiker suddenly said “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” in a disturbingly calm and even tone. She then asked to be let out in an industrial part of Penrose, in the dark, where there was no sign of human habitation. As the story teller, told it, "there was just nothing out there," no obvious destination for her at all. The hitchhiker was a doppelgänger of the driver’s cousin. When he got home, he discovered the cousin had committed suicide, dying at the same time she appeared in his car.
The vanishing hitchhiker trope is familiar, which might make it easy to dismiss this as just another ghost story. But what was peculiar about this incident was that it was totally out of character for the driver to pick up a hitchhiker. It was not the sort of thing he would usually do. He had never picked up a hitchhiker before and never would again.

It is this that is the most eerie element of this story, for it implies that we may somehow be compelled by strange forces to do things against our nature that bring us face to face with things beyond this world. Similarly, the idea that we may invoke, or invite, spirits by mentioning their names or acknowledging their presence, that we may accidentally allow such forces into our homes, into our homelands, into ourselves, just doesn’t bear thinking about.

David Kidd-Hewitt explains in Buckingham Stories of the Supernatural:

“.. this is where we are fooling ourselves. There is no special context for a supernatural event. Culturally, we tend towards the Hallowe’en version of the supernatural – spooky places, the toll of the midnight bell, spectres of evil and wailing ghosts. Many of the stories and experience I have encountered are the exact opposite of this.” 
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli 1781
In a strange way, Hallowe’en is a source of solace with which we fortify ourselves against the truly unknown. Perversely, it is our morose thoughts that bring us comfort at this time of year. We make the supernatural into a collective delusion, making straw men of the things that go bump, diminishing them to mere entertainment. By weaving our stories together we build unifying folklore and keep each other company in the dark. The truly unexplained is ruthlessly excluded from this holiday, and we are left in our bedchambers to fend off our demons alone, where even those who sleep peacefully beside us cannot save us.

As night descends here, I will leave you with one final song about precisely this time, to launch myself off into the darkness. Sweet dreams.


  1. I am very suggestible and you have now freaked me the hell out.

    (But also: so interesting!)

  2. What a good overview and thanks for the mention.
    It's an informative read & a thoughfully researched piece
    Best wishes
    David Kidd-Hewitt (Buckinghamshire Stories of the Supernatiral Countryside books 2008)

  3. Boo! The MK Ghost video is not to SELL anything - in fact it is to GIVE away free Hunters Packs for a £1000 prize treasure-hunt - FREE to enter!

  4. I think your comments about the MK ghost video are rather unkind and unnecessary.

    This is part of a public arts project and apart from a free hunters pack that includes a UV torch and 3D glasses, it also offers the winner £1000, which in this economic climate is not to be sniffed at.

    It was blatantly obvious from the video that it was a CG construct and it was intended to be of interest to those imaginative souls with a penchant for mystery and solving riddles. It was always very obvious from the publicity that there was a trail back to the MK Fringe if you spent a little time looking for it.

    I've certainly not come across the vitriol toward the project that you seem to suggest, in fact from what I hear, people are rather excited and inspired by it.

    Perhaps if you supported your local arts scene you may go some way to finding the sense of place you are looking for.

  5. Hey thanks David, I thoroughly enjoyed your book, it kept me awake more than a few nights!Thought it was a great blend of spooky and informative. I like Danielle am highly suggestible and had a few long nights myself while researching the piece.

  6. Yes this comment was meant to point out people's intial reaction to the video on MK Citizen as a sad reflection on our society and how we just assume that whenever something like this crops up someone is trying to sell us something. The comment that it turned out to be about public art was meant to be a laconic "shame on us for being so cynical" reflection, not a criticism of the art itself, (or the marketing of free art for that matter) which was actually a really cool concept. Hope the event went well Glohst. Sorry if it came across here that the event was commercially oriented (I tend to assume art isn't).I have now clarified this. And also thanks for checking in.

  7. Thankyou for your kind words...maybe you would like to join the Hunt yourself?..... and blog about it!

  8. A fascinating ramble again - as usual with lots of diverting links - got sidetracked watching James Belich clips! What was the name of the Sarah Waters' novel though?


  9. Thanks Michael, Silly me to forget to mention the title of the novel: "The Little Stranger" by Sarah Waters.

    I have the MK library copy out at the moment, which I used for reference for this article. I must remember to return it to the library tomorrow so that others may enjoy it. David Kidd-Hewitt's book has been returned already btw.

    Jamie Belich is fun isn't he? He joined the teaching staff at my old University the year after I left, so I missed out on being taught by him by just one year. Bummer eh!

  10. Hi Glohst, I think the blog's going to suffer a little while I adjust to full time work at the moment (I haven't read anything for over a week, not even MK Citizen) but I do want to keep it up. And hey, you never know where Glohst may turn up next. ;)

  11. Hey have a look at page 7 of this week's MK News. Apparently Debenhams in CMK is haunted by someone called Winston...

  12. Google Hayley Stevens blog. Maybe come along to MK Skeptics in the Pub too. Next meeting is Thursday 8th September at The Galleon, Old Wolverton. 7.30 to 9.