Everyone has a ghost story. My brother told me of a menacing boarding house he once stayed at whilst playing repertory theatre in the early 1970s: anomalous knockings in the middle of the night, dried blood splashes on the wall behind the bed, a general air of foreboding. The place was such a forbidding environment that my sister, staying the night after going to see a Saturday evening show, fled at 3 a.m., unable to take the threatening atmosphere. As she put it: ‘Something terrible happened in that house’.
For her part, my other sister has her own story about haunted theatrical digs. She was staying in the modern wing of an old house, and her room was at the end of a long corridor that seemed to take an age to walk down. As the week wore on she had a feeling something was coming … in bed one night she heard a child’s voice calling her name in her ear. She later discovered that this boarding house had once suffered a fire in which a child had died. After that experience, my sister was troubled to hear that a little girl had been seen by visitors staying in her own house.
Other family stories concern an old house my parents once owned, situated in a beautiful but secluded spot in the Surrey hills. On one occasion, my brother was staying there alone one night when he was awakened in the small hours by voices and laughter coming from downstairs. Following the sounds, he went and stood by the door to the drawing room; from beyond it he heard the unmistakable echo of a cocktail party in full swing. He opened the door, turned on the light and – of course – the room was empty.
My girlfriend has a story about something she saw in a house in Brockley. Staying over after a party, she was sleeping on a sofa in the kitchen extension – where the original scullery might have been – and awoke to see a green figure standing in the room making an energetic motion which suggested ironing – but the motion was angry, desperate. As she watched, the apparition grew larger and less defined until it dissolved in a jade haze.
I first heard this story when said girlfriend told it to me in my own house in Brockley, just around the corner from where she had once spent a disturbed night. My place in SE4 was on a street which was struck by a V1 cruise missile in August 1944: according to ‘Flying Bombs and Rockets’, the rocket destroyed 6 houses and damaged a further 45 on Endwell Road, leaving my house as the end of a terrace. My girlfriend, my sister, my daughter and at least one other visitor independently identified a spot at the bottom of the staircase (a floor below street level) as, variously, ‘sad’, ‘eerie’, and ‘sinister’. In addition, they all reported the same sensation: as they headed up the stairs they felt that something was trying to catch hold of their foot. Nine people died in the V1 hit on Endwell Road; I never found out whether anyone was killed in my old house – but, for whatever it’s worth, my sister said that her impression of my basement was that there was someone trapped in it.
(But basements are always good copy: the best ghost story I ever heard relates to a club in Hoxton that had a persistent problem with its basement dance floor; but I told that story this time last year so I’m not going to tell it again.)
Needless to say, I have never had any supernatural experiences of my own. None. My existence has been so relentlessly quotidian that I would welcome an encounter with the uncanny. I have stayed in many houses that were said to be haunted and never sensed the presence of ‘the further realm’. Stanley Kubrick observed, when discussing The Shining, that all ghost stories are ultimately optimistic as they suggest the survival of the human personality. So laughter in a distant room, a inexplicably rattling doorknob, a child’s ball that bounces on its own, a voice in your ear in an empty chamber, may all be seen as comforting: they reassure us that the day-to-day is not all there is.
I was trying to think what images I could use to illustrate this piece and ended up digging out a selection taken in various locations around London in the late 1970as or early ’80s. Photography is a form of magic that we somehow take for granted: it fixes time and can resurrect the dead. These pictures of mine also present me with my younger self: an under-employed 20-something loitering on suburban streets, Leica in hand, hoping to find something worth photographing. Sometimes I’d get lucky but more often than not, not.
If I am haunted by anything it’s by my own photographs. I’m not just talking about the good ones, or the ones where I was consciously trying to capture atmosphere; all of them are fragments of a past life, people and places lost to me. (For example, the misty garden in the picture above no longer exists; nor, to my dismay, does the fir planting seen in the Hampton Court photo.) Cartier-Bresson said that if he tried to calculate the time his shutter had clicked over the decades, all those 60ths and 500ths of a second, it would probably only add up to a few minutes. Photography can take over your life but what are you really left with? Just a few moments. The upside is that those moments give your life back to you, not always accurately, but in ways that allow us to recreate the past in a way that suits us. Photographs let us become our own ghosts. D.S.
Mural, Chaldon Church, Surrey. Photo © David Secombe, 1989.
When I was a boy, Halloween was a shadowy, elusive affair; the occasional carved pumpkin glowing in a window; the occasional fleeting glimpse of a reveller skipping away in a witch’s hat – usually some person you didn’t know and had never seen before. As a festival, it was upstaged by Bonfire Night, and I was frustrated by Halloween in those days. There was nothing you could buy, or be given in connection with it. Today, there is a great deal you can buy, as a result of the promotion of Trick or Treat, by which Halloween has eclipsed Bonfire Night and ghostliness has given way to mock horror. In the weeks before Halloween, Asda stores offer, amid a landslide of plastic tat; the Asda Squeezy Eyeball, the Asda Rat, the Asda Inflatable Coffin, the Child Grim Reaper Outfit (‘one size fits all’), the Adult Grim Reaper Outfit, the Inflatable Pumpkin Cooler (not for cooling pumpkins, you understand), the Skull Martini Shaker.
Asda is American-owned, and Trick or Treat came to us from America. The British folklorist Doc Rowe, believes that the Trick or Treat contagion began with a programme broadcast on BBC2 in the early ’70s as part of a documentary strand called Look Stranger. It depicted life on the American airbase in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and showed the children trick-or-treating. ‘Within two years,’ Doc Rowe told me, ‘all the tabloids were running features on how to dress up for the occasion.’ But his point is that this was merely the re-introduction into this country of a tradition rooted in psychology.
It helps to think of both Halloween and Bonfire Night as outgrowths of the Celtic celebration called Samhain, which marked the turning of their year and the beginning of winter. Samhain was associated with the lighting of fires to honour the dead, and defy malevolent spirits. The medieval church both denounced the festivals as diabolic and sought to appropriate aspects of them in the shape of All Saints Day on November 1st (on which the sanctified are honoured), and All Souls Day on November 2nd (a more democratic honouring of all Christian souls). According to Doc Rowe, ‘By tarring Halloween with an occult brush, by caricaturing it that way, the church made it an occult event.’ But while the original Halloween might not have been thoroughgoingly sinister, it did incorporate games and rituals of licensed naughtiness. All Souls Day, for example, was associated with Soul Caking, wherein poor Christians would say prayers for the departed relations of wealthier ones in return for food – and you can see how there might have been trouble if the rich didn’t play along.
It is likely that these traditions, these precursors of Trick or Treat, were taken to America by Scottish and Irish emigrants of the mid-nineteenth century … so the Asda Inflatable Coffin is actually our fault. But Doc Rowe believes these customs are ineradicable in any case. ‘The more you suppress these things, the greater they become.’ Apart from the Church, he identifies the main suppressors as ‘the health and safety camp’. I know what he means, and I wonder how long it will be before the words ‘high visibility vest’ come up in a ghost story.
… from Ghoul Britannia, published by Short Books. © Andrew Martin 2009.
Chaldon Church is a tiny and ancient (11th Century) church tucked away in an unnervingly isolated hillside location about a mile north of the junction of the M23 and the ‘Magic Roundabout’ (a.k.a. the M25, London’s present-day Roman Wall). The church is famous for its terrifying medieval wall painting, described by Exploring Surrey’s Past thus: ‘The mural on the west wall of Chaldon church is one of the earliest known English wall paintings – it dates from about 1200 and is without equal in any other part of Europe. It is thought to have been painted by a travelling artist-monk. The picture depicts the ‘Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul’ together with ‘Purgatory and Hell’. Wall paintings of this kind were intended as a visual aid to religious teaching. The whole picture is in the form of a cross, formed by the Ladder and the horizontal division between Heaven and Hell.’ No photo can adequately convey the power of this mural, or the sense of unease I experienced whilst photographing it on a bleak, windswept afternoon 20+ years ago.The medieval imagination retains its capacity to disturb; and the thrum of traffic from the nearby motorways seemed very distant indeed.
See also: The Avoided House.