I just read that in the USA, where Halloween has become such an institution that it is second only to Christmas as a national holiday, it’s estimated that around $6 billion will be spent on costumes, parties and chocolate this year. Can you believe that? When I was a kid Halloween was just another autumn night; something that might have involved witches and ghosts, but nothing to do with the commercialised ‘trick or treat’ and dressing-up that proliferates in the High Streets and malls today. I didn’t believe in the existence of witches or ghosts; the only woman I knew with a hooked nose and a wart on her chin lived up the road from my parents but I never saw a pointed hat or a broomstick there. That didn’t stop me exploring empty churches or ancient graveyards on Halloween nights as a teenager and experiencing the occasional hair-raising imagining but, in reality, there weren’t any ghouls wandering between the gravestones. Well, not of the spiritual kind anyway.
As with most things today, the popularity of an occasion appears directly proportional to the degree of commercialisation that is imposed on it. Halloween is no exception but it has its origins in less enlightened times. All Hallows’ Eve was traditionally the eve of All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day; a holy or ‘hallowed’ time – hence Halloween. It dates back to the 7th century in Rome and possibly encompasses the Celtic celebration of Samhain – summer’s end, which was a sort of pagan harvest festival. The transition from light days to dark nights heralded the superstition that the veils between worlds, this one and that of the spirits, were at their most porous so that spirits could pass through. Traditional plays, pantomimes on morality and preparation for the afterlife would have been rich with symbols of good and bad and perhaps that was the origin of dressing-up on Halloween. Another suggestion is that the practice of dressing as a witch or ghost might originate from pagan beliefs that spirits could be scared back to where they came from. The custom of knocking at people’s doors has more substance; an ancient English tradition of begging for ‘soul cakes’, where beggars would beg for cakes in return for offering a prayer for the dead, was common in the Middle Ages.
Today there’s a lot more belief in the chocolate than in what our ancestors feared so the most frightening aspect is that you might get ‘egged’ if you don’t have sufficient supplies to offer the little buggers that come calling. But is there something more to it? Belief was that the devil is afoot on Halloween, wandering the darkness with witches and cats, hand-maidens and symbols of the Prince of Darkness. I don’t know about that but strange things do happen and on one particular frosty Halloween I experienced the scary side of the superstition. This is a true story.
I was on an outward bound expedition in the Yorkshire Dales. Four of us had been set a task to hike across Great Whernside, a hill that rises to 704m at the summit and which is covered in bogs, heath and rocks. There were well-worn tracks to the summit that we would follow. The trek would be about 14Km on the map from our start point to the grid reference on the far side where we were to meet our controllers and set-up camp. In real terms, we’d have to walk nearly twice that distance. It didn’t start well. The weather was terrible, with heavy rain and wind as we left the road at Starbottom and headed upwards to the moors. We were quickly soaked through and although the rain stopped by about the middle of the day we were walking in low cloud and mist. The wind became stronger but the weather didn’t clear. We weren’t particularly worried but we were uncomfortable and making very slow progress. The ground was sodden and this caused a problem as streams were running full and we had to divert. The cloud made it impossible to take compass bearings and we’d strayed from our planned route. We needed to reach the summit or see a clear marker so that we could orientate a route down but we were lost and had no visible path to follow. As dusk was falling the temperature dropped and there were some clear patches in the weather so we took a sensible guess at where we were – a long way off our route and still several kilometres from our control point.
As it got later we realised that we wouldn’t make our rendezvous but, back then, there were no mobile phones or satnavs so we were very much alone and unable to tell anyone where we were or when we might be at our control point. We were high on wet moorland and it was getting dark. And it was Halloween. Quite suddenly the wind dropped and it grew intensely cold. It was eerily quiet as we discussed what to do. We decided that the fastest way to get down was to strike out directly for a point on the east side of the hill and walk hard in a straight line by sending one guy out at a time, setting him on a direct bearing as a marker and then repeating that with the next guy beyond him; a sort of leapfrog in a direct line. If we kept the line straight we’d eventually come to a stream that we could follow down. Getting to it would be the difficult part as we were on rough moorland and there were escarpments over to our right so it wasn’t without danger. It was rapidly getting dark so we had to use torches and that worked well until, with the cold, came fog. Hill mist closed in all around us and made it barely possible for us to walk as we stepped from rocks to bog to heather and all the time shortening the distance that we could see a torch from. We were having to feel our way.
By the time it got dark the mist meant that we could only see the torchlight showing the location of our marker from about 35m. So it was slow, very cold and very, very dark. Then one of the guys said that they could hear something, something coming through the heather towards us. We stood still, silent, listening and there it was – something heavy, purposefully crashing through the vegetation and coming closer. It never arrived; we all heard it come up to us, pass between us and move away, from the darkness and into the darkness, but no one saw a thing. With hair standing on end and goose-bumps on our skin we debated what in Heaven’s name it could have been but couldn’t come up with an answer. It had to have been huge. It walked like a man, two feet, we were all certain – it wasn’t a cow or a deer. And very close. Why didn’t we see something? We pressed on, as fast as we could, surrounded by thickening mist, lowering temperatures and a deathly silence. Several times we heard, way off in the distance, something that sounded like a low mumbling, almost a conversation that was just out of range but indistinct. And then, again, the sound of something moving heavily through the vegetation. This time it again came towards us and was very close but then it stopped, just a short way off and we thought – perhaps imagined – we could hear breathing. Then it moved off again and was gone, into the distance and into the night. Shortly after there was a long, low whining noise, guttural and clearly from something animate. Something large, that none of us had heard before. That was it, the silence returned and the mist settled.
After a couple of hours we came to the stream – called a beck locally – that we had aimed for and were able to follow this down towards the dale. The track that crossed it led across the moor and onto a path that would take us off the hill. Our efforts had been remarkably accurate and we were suddenly on the main path leading to the summit, so it was a matter of following it down.
After a further hour or so walking downwards in the dark we saw moving lights ahead of us and soon, heard voices. This turned out to be an army patrol. They explained to us that a party of army cadets had been making a similar crossing of Great Whernside to us but that they had not made their rendezvous that afternoon. They were officially posted as missing and we were speaking to the rescue party. All we could tell them was that we’d heard something on the moor, something we couldn’t explain but they told us there had been twelve cadets and they were experienced enough to have contacted us if it was them, so whatever it was we’d heard, it was something else. We wished them luck and continued down only to immediately meet our own control team, who had assumed that we would do exactly what we’d done, which was to head for a point that would bring us to this path off the hill. It was something of a relief for all of us; we were pleased that our emergency training procedures had kicked-in and they were slightly smug at having told the army team that they expected us to be late, but safe.
By the time we had left the hillside and reached the allotted camping site the sky had cleared, a full moon was rising and frost was beginning to lend a pale, ethereal glow to everything. Our control left us – probably to get a couple of late pints at a local hostelry – and we set about getting the tents pitched and some hot food. That should have been about it, but Halloween had something more for us. After we’d eaten and sat chatting inside our tents one of the guys called out for us to come and look. What we saw was mortifying; the moon had moved across the sky and was now behind a bare and ragged tree that overhung the tents. It cast a shadow over the field we were camped in and the shadow looked, for all the world, like a clawed hand with one finger-pointing to the far side of the field. And there where it pointed, in the angle of two stone walls, were six oblong shapes on the ground. They were aligned in a row and looked like graves. None of us could say a thing and, for reasons I still can’t explain, we began to speak in whispers about whether we were camped on a graveyard, were the shapes anything to do with the thing on the moor and should we pack–up and leave right then. Two wanted to leave and two wanted to stay. The shapes on the ground became more prominent, standing out more starkly as the frost whitened the landscape. We eventually decided to stay but to take turns keeping an eye on the graves to see if anything happened but in the event we all slept and by first light they had gone. Of course, Halloween was over then.
Back at home we heard that the cadets had been found safe, but cold, wet and huddled high on the moor several miles from where we’d been. They had become lost sometime during that day and had decided bed down to wait for rescue. So it wasn’t them that we’d heard during Halloween. But we did find out that they had camped, by complete coincidence, in the very field that we had used. So those marks on the ground were not portals to the spirit world but areas of ground that were just warm enough to slow the formation of frost so that they showed darker.
As I said at the start of this, I didn’t believe in witches or ghosts but what was it up on the moor that Halloween? We still speak about it when we get together for a pint. Damned if any of us has an explanation. Was the Prince of Darkness afoot that night?