Thursday, 27 October 2011

Ramblings: Things That Don't Go Bump in the Night

It’s almost Halloween and I’ll be indulging in an activity which I love at the weekend. Namely, dressing as a corpse. Last year I joined an attempt to break the record for the most people around the world dressed as zombies simultaneously dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. We failed in breaking the record, I hated Michael Jackson for his strange facial self mutilation and insincerity but my dancing was passable. I won a prize for best dressed zombie with my depiction of a nurse with multiple gunshot wounds. Very classy.
There’s something very liberating about trying to make yourself look as sinister and horrendous as possible. Try it. I can guarantee you’ll feel a lot differently about yourself once you look in the mirror and see yourself with fake blood dripping from your eyes and ears. This year I’m taking part in a charity zombie walk and am planning to dress as a partly decomposed vicar. Vicars are a little bit sinister anyway, so this one should be easy. I have two un-dead brides accompanying me, so I may be officiating over the first zombie gay wedding in England. I’m expecting the press to come knocking.
I love Halloween but detest trick or treating. It’s a nasty little tradition which should be called by its real name, extortion. The children where I live don’t want sweets or apples (with or without razor blades in them) but demand money with menaces. Neither do they generally bother to dress up but just come in out in their usual sportswear with a cheap mask on and present you with an outstretched hand. Like the grumpy middle aged man I am, I just stay in and don’t answer the door.
I do love the macabre though. The ghost stories of M. R .James and the spooky tales of Edgar Allen Poe thrill me still. I gasp at “Psycho” and cower in front of “Nightmare on Elm Street”. I love “The Innocents” and anything that makes me jump and increases my heartbeat gives me an adrenaline rush which makes me feel alive.
I’ve spent many a night shift over the years listening avidly to improbable ghost stories about doctors hanging from the ceiling after mistakenly killing a child, shadowy nurses who wake the patients then vanish and strange poltergeist activities in the sluice. There’s no place quite as creepy as a darkened hospital ward, full of emaciated sickly people rasping away through the night.
My grandfather claimed to see a ghost fairly regularly at one time. During the 60s he often saw a shadowy grey lady who would enter my aunt’s bedroom in the working men’s club he lived and worked in. My grandfather’s eccentric sister still sees ghosts everywhere. If you take her to a National Trust property she’ll turn to you wide eyed and tell you about the spirits in the room. This isn’t always good as she doesn’t whisper and people do tend to stare so. My father saw a ghost when he was a child too. A blurred figure which had the shape of a human walked past the window when he was about 9 years old and he swore it was a ghost.
I believe in nothing. Ghosts don’t exist. I’m narrow minded, closed to suggestion and refuse to accept that anything exists. I don’t have any religious faith, don’t think there’s an afterlife, don’t think ghosts make sense and think that there’s a huge industry of phony spiritualist mediums looking to part us all with our money by playing clever confidence tricks. I have however, seen a few ghosts over the years.
My first time was aged 6. It had snowed quite a bit and my dad took me with him to take the dog for a walk. Instead of taking our usual path up the hill on the park, we stayed on the flat, trudging around the football pitch in a light blizzard. Our boxer dog, Benny, was over friendly, loving all people indiscriminately and would generally bound over to people and greet them. As we approached the edge of the pitch the dog stopped in his tracks, began to yelp and then fled across the park. The thing that had startled him was a man. He was unusual in that he was sitting on a bench in snow a foot deep with no footprints around him. Also, although 70s fashions were a bit outlandish, not many people sat around in monks’ habits. The third thing that was striking was that instead of a face there was a void, a darkness. He was groaning audibly and my dad stopped to a halt. Grabbing my hand, he ran with me, as far away as we could get.
We talked about it endlessly and speculated as to what it was we’d seen, coming to the conclusion that as we’d both seen the same thing it had to have been a real ghost. The evidence of the dog’s distress only served to cement our belief. Like the pesky teenagers off of Scooby-Doo we decided to go back the next night and investigate. He was there again.
We didn’t get very close, we were too spooked and the dog, again, had scarpered. We returned a third time, with my brother this time, but alas, the ghost had gone. Looking back, I think we created our hysteria amongst ourselves. It was dark, snowing a blizzard, visibility was poor and our eyes deceived us. Maybe I said “Why has he got no face?” because the light was playing tricks so my dad expected to see no face, also, when he looked. He had no footprints but given that amount of snowfall they’d have been obliterated in no time anyway. People do dress oddly and sometimes can smell a bit odd too, especially if they’re sleeping rough, which explains what looked like a monk’s robe but probably wasn’t and why the dog wasn’t too keen on him. We still talked about it for years afterwards though and part of me expects that my memory of it, even, is skewed through constant retelling.
My first job was in a shoe shop, a part time exercise in stultifying boredom at weekends whilst I studied for my A Level exams. The shoe shop had a notorious poltergeist which had made the local papers and ultimately an exorcism took place. There were incidents of flying shoes, ladders being moved about and strange cackling laughter. We’d all mutter about the events and speculate wildly about why all the shoes would be lined up on the floor in neat pairs when you unlocked the shop in the morning. A troubled girl had worked there, a teenager with severe mental health and social problems and the activity seemed to centre on her. This apparently is the classic pattern of poltergeist activity. I think it also provides an explanation of why a desperately unhappy teenage girl might suddenly have dramatic events taking place around her and why she might conspire to make these happen.
The third incident was in an old hotel. It was being used by a firm my then partner, Barry, worked for. It was being used as office space and there was a legend that it was haunted by the ghost of a murdered prostitute from the 1960s. Things would be moved about inexplicably and turned themselves on and off. People saw pale faces at windows and heard strange noises. It was a genuinely creepy old place, very run down and with lots of dark corners and rotting fixtures. Straight out of a Hammer House of Hammer set.
I went to meet Barry from work one winter evening and entered a scene of hysteria. One of the workers claimed to have felt something touch his face and was in a state of mild panic. There were five of us there and we went into the office where he’d experienced this to take a look and see what was happening. The man (a rather bizarre man of a nervous disposition) who had felt “the ghost” was white and shaky and we all gathered round. The office was stifling with the radiator blasting out and there was a very loud humming noise.
“It’s freezing in here. I feel sick. I feel really sick.” said the panicky oddball.
Suddenly we all felt cold and we all felt sick. The noise seemed to get louder and the spell was only broken when the feisty Italian boss arrived and wanted to know why the phones had all been dead. My explanation: mass auto-suggestion, a loud radiator, exaggerated in our minds due to hysteria and an intermittent fault from British Telecom, of course.
My final ghost appeared when I was about 26. It was about 11pm and Barry was at the pub as usual. I was sitting up in bed reading with the dog lying beside me when I heard the most almighty crashing noise which sounded like someone falling down the stairs. I jumped out of bed and ran to the top of the stairs only to see a crumpled figure lying at the foot of the stairs in a heap. I looked again and it was gone. Dylan stood beside me looking puzzled. I scratched my head, looked again and satisfied there was nothing there went back to bed and carried on reading, barely perturbed.
We had a coat rack at the bottom of the stairs and I reckon that it was a simple optical illusion. I’d glanced at the coat rack and then having just heard what sounded like a falling person, translated this as a corpse at the foot of the stairs. The noise I had heard was, I suspect, my neighbour stumbling on his stairs. It was a thin walled terraced house and I often heard him thumping his way up and down stairs. No ghost to see here, move along.
I love the posters advertising the celebrity psychic to the stars, Sally Morgan. I especially like that she advertises the fact that she advised Princess Diana. Not being funny, Sally, but wasn’t there something minor you forgot to warn Di about? Something about a tunnel? Paris? Seatbelts? Perhaps not the best celebrity endorsement. I loved the recent stories about how someone passing by an open window of the theatre where she was working overheard an assistant feeding her lines on stage via an earpiece. What I don’t love is how these people prey on the desperate and needy, extracting cash from the troubled and bereaved and giving false hopes which may comfort briefly but is more likely to stop people moving forward and accepting things in the long run.
Don’t get me wrong, I find programs like “Most Haunted” hilarious. It’s great to watch a camp TV psychic get himself in a lather and see people ecstatic over a speck of dust picked up on an infra-red camera, which they call “an orb”.
In spite of my cynicism, I still enjoy the thrill of the whole concept. I was only saying so the other day when I was talking to the little old lady who sits in the corner of my lounge. Oh hang on, she’s evaporated again.

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