Things That Go Bump In The Night: Ghostly Tales For Halloween

All Saints churchyard, Old Isleworth, October 12th 2009

All Saints' churchyard, Old Isleworth

“I’ll haunt you, haunt your bed/Tap the windows, awake in dread/Pray that you’d loved me instead/I’ll haunt you, haunt your bed/And I’ll haunt you, sleep in fear…” – Seth Lakeman, ‘I’ll Haunt You’

Whether you are a true believer in the existence of ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night or you are a complete sceptic on the subject, Halloween has always been a good time for telling a few scary ghost stories. This time of the year has long been associated with the supernatural; nights are getting longer and colder and the boundaries between this world and the next become more and more amorphous… Or something.

I confess that, personally, I fall in between these two extremes – I come from a family which claims some psychic ability and grew up fascinated by tales of haunted houses and spooky legends. I still love ghost stories, whether fictional or ‘real’, and I’ve had quite a few strange and seemingly inexplicable experiences over the years, but I am a bit too cynical and sceptical to immediately and unquestioningly accept these as being supernatural.

However, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe – and Halloween is as good an opportunity as any to suspend that disbelief and try to scare the crap out of you all…

Problem is, some ghostly goings-on are more silly than scary. Some spirits appear to have a slightly strange sense of humour, as bizarre as that may sound. How else can you explain the toilet-flushing ghosts reported in a Manchester hospital and the old AA building in Guildford during the 1970s? Or the more contemporary ghost which chooses – for some strange reason – to haunt a branch of Tesco in Bury St Edmunds? Or the giggling ghost that haunts the gym of a Lancashire school and has been heard telling people to ‘get off my foot’?

But some hauntings really do sound terrifying, and some ghosts are most definitely not the kind of entities you would want to meet on a dark night (if at all). Seriously.

This is the real scary stuff…

One of the most haunted places in Britain is the Tower of London, where many a poor soul met a violent end at the sharpened point of the executioner’s axe. Unsurprisingly, a good few of these individuals have become restless, earthbound spirits, doomed to walk the earth or repeat their final moments for all eternity.

Probably the most disturbing of these tragic shades is that of Lady Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury, who was condemned to death by Henry VIII in 1541 because she was the last surviving legitimate member of the Plantagenet dynasty and thus seen as a threat to his relatively tenuous hold on power.

Aged 67 when she was dragged off to be executed, Lady Margaret was a tough old bird and refused to place her neck on the block. A number of accounts describe how the executioner had to chase her round the block, resulting in her being brutally hacked to death. The ghostly re-enactment of her horrific and bloody end has been seen on several occasions since, terrifying witnesses.

Unsurprisingly, considering its long and often bloody history, London itself is full of ghosts, ranging from the classic disappearing phantom hitchhiker who accosts bikers in the Blackwall Tunnel and the sound of a highwayman’s ghostly horse galloping invisibly through the night, to mischievous poltergeists who take great delight in chucking objects around ancient pubs and the unfortunate shades of prisoners who escaped from the notorious Newgate jail only to be recaptured and executed.

Strangely enough, the London Underground has far more than its fair share of ghostly activity, some of which is very creepy indeed. Possibly the most tragic of all the tube ghost stories is associated with Bethnal Green station, which, in 1943, was the site of the worst loss of life in a single incident on the Underground when a panic during an air-raid alert caused a crush that killed 173 people, including 62 children – a tragedy which took fifty years to be fully publically acknowledged.

Since that night in March 1943, station staff have heard the ghostly cries and screams of women and children trapped by the crush, which terrified and upset one station manager so much that he ran from his office and refused to return. I can’t say I blame him.

Even sadder still are the cases of the poor women whose ghosts are still occasionally seen in other areas of the East End of London, where they have become part of the mythology of the city – and the stories of their short lives and posthumous infamy stretch through London’s history to this day. It is said that the tragic spirits of Mary Kelly, Mary Ann Nichols and Catherine Eddowes, victims of the mysterious Jack the Ripper, can still sometimes be seen in and around the areas where they met their brutal ends in 1888.

Even spookier is the tale that every New Year’s Eve at midnight a shadowy figure leaps from Westminster Bridge into the Thames – this ever-repeating suicide is said to be the ghost of Jack the Ripper himself, ending it all over again at the beginning of every new year….

Have a happy Halloween, and stay safe and warm if you are out trick-or-treating this evening. And don’t forget to check under the bed and behind the door before you go to sleep tonight – you never known what might be hiding there…

Sleep tight, my pretties, and dream sweet dreams.

If you can, that is.

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