Sunday, October 28, 2012

Why I love Halloween

A ghost taps its ethereal hand on your window, a witch's fingernails scratch at your front door. Darkness has fallen and you that pray the light from your Jack O‘Lantern will scare away the evil spirits on this most unholy of nights the 31 of October, Halloween.

I have loved Halloween since I was a small child. TV adaptations of MR James ghost stories and anything to do with the paranormal were required viewing in my home. These were made all the more frightening as my grandmother got exceeding deaf, necessitating the TV volume to be always turned up to high.

I always enjoyed dressing up at Halloween and one of my earliest memories was crashing head-first into my friend Jodey while dressed up as a ghost. Our  local church used to hold Halloween parties and one lady always used to appear as a witch with her face painted green and strangely sporting a pair rubber gloves which made her seem all the more sinister. Later these celebrations were done away with as Halloween began to be seen as encouraging the occult so they changed to 'Hallelujah' parties - but it was never the same. One of the best parties I went to was at a friends house in the country. It was old and creepy and spread out over several floors so seemed even more exotic after my ordinary bungalow. My friend's uncle made us creep up and down the stairs by candlelight as he told ghost stories, which no doubt started my love of investigations in haunted houses.

 The only part of Halloween I felt hard done by was the purchase of a Halloween Lantern. Every year I begged my mum to buy a proper pumpkin and every year I ended up with a Halloween swede. It's only now since reading about the traditions of Halloween that I learnt that a swede was really much more authentic. The tradition of the  the Jack O' Lantern came from Ireland and was usually carved from a turnip. Halloween was part of the pagan tradition that celebrated the 1st of November - Samhain, the day of the dead. The Celts believed that Samhain marked the end of one year and the beginning of another and on the eve of Samhain the dead would rise up and mingle with the living. People would go from door to door collecting wood for sacred bonfires, food for Samhain feasting or offerings for the spirits. Often people would dress up in costume to prevent spirits from recognising them and to trick the ghosts into thinking they were one of their own.

Although Halloween is celebrated widely in the UK it is now America where the most enthusiasm for Halloween currently resides. The tradition was brought over by Irish Immigrants at the time of the potato famine and now Halloween is the country's second largest commercial holiday. In 2002 I went over to America in late October and it was a revelation. We visited fields full of Halloween pumpkins and Halloween supermarkets selling tombstones, and skeletons and all manner of macabre gifts. The highlight was a trip to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. This is an area usually known for its hippies, but that night it was awash with people in fancy dress. My friends and I were in the usual witches and wizards garb but there was a whole mix of costumes including many characters from Star Wars. Best of all my friend was living in an amazingly spooky looking wooden house that could have graced any episode of 'A Haunting' and could scare the life out of you just by looking too closely at its sinister architecture. Fabulous.

As for this Halloween I will be sitting at home by candlelight, curled up with my cat (unfortunately not black) and watching a good horror film. I shall be eating a selection of cupcakes decorated with various ghosts and witches. and some crisps shaped as ghosts My pumpkin will be lit  and placed in the window and I shall round it all off with a reading of MR James’ 'Lost Hearts.' Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Strange goings on at Shepherd Neame Brewery

Shepherd Neame Brewery had long been on my list of dream investigation sites. Founded in 1698 the Brewery is the oldest official brewer in the UK,although brewing in the area is said to date back to the 12th Century. When I first joined the Ghost Club in the 1990s I remember listening to stories of the frightening and foreboding atmosphere that investigators had experienced there.

Fast forward 15 years and I was now investigations co-ordinator and had learned that Shepherd Neame were running their own ghost events for Halloween. Another clue of their continued fascination with ghosts was their promotion of the Halloween brew 'Spooks Ale' described as "offering protection to any who drink it against ghosts and ghouls encountered on All Hallows Eve". A letter and a couple of emails later and the Ghost Club was set for a return visit.

As with all investigations, a pre-visit was a must to check the suitability of the venue, scope out areas of alleged activity and discover the nature and history of the hauntings. I discovered that Shepherd Neame staff and visitors had reported a wide variety of phenomena, including a ghost cat; a man in a frock coat; a ghostly figure in the boardroom; the feeling of being watched; the smell of tobacco smoke and the sound of someone running by the fermentation vessels. It is said that a cleaner resigned after she entered a room in the private flats to find an unseen hand had created a pyramid of chairs and saw a black shape coming towards her. Shortly afterwards the building was exorcised.

A few months later, I returned with eleven other ghost hunters and conducted an evening investigation. We carried out a number of hour long vigils in the reception and spiral staircase area; the boardroom; the Malt Silo and Kiln, and the Brewhouse. We discovered we were following in the footsteps of psychic Derek Acorah and the team from TV's 'Most Haunted'.  We heard how Derek had sensed all manner of activity, but this seemed slightly less impressive when we learnt that the programme's researchers had been fully briefed with information about the hauntings prior to his visit.

Nevertheless we found enough activity on the night to keep us interested during the long hours spent sitting in semi darkness. The highlight of the evening for me happened in the Malt Silos which is pictured in the photo on the right. It is said that here a man had fallen into a Vat of grain and suffocated and in the small utility room at the entrance to the silo, a lady had seen a man staring intently at her who suddenly disappeared into thin air.

Although no figures were spotted there was a pervading sense of sadness and unease about the place and one of the group started feeling very unwell. The strangest happening was the sound of muffled voices that sounded as if two people were having a conversation in the office above us. The sounds carried on for a couple minutes although we were unable to make out what was being said. At the time we assumed that it voice must belong to the security guards we had spotted earlier. However when we reported it to the Shepherd Neame representative who was supervising us, he said that the guards were in a different part of the building and wouldn't have been in that area at the time. So who was talking above us in the deserted building?

The other strange occurrence happened to another group who were sitting in the boardroom, at one end of the long boardroom table. While they were talk amongst themselves,  the trigger object - a coin placed on a piece of paper at the opposite end of the table - suddenly fell onto the floor, along with the end of the tablecloth. No one was near the object at the time and there was no reason for the heavy cloth to suddenly slide off of its own accord. My group also experience a strange cold breeze in one corner of the boardroom which came from nowhere, yet did not register on any of the temperature monitors.

The one thing that evaded us that night was the pervading sense of evil that was reported on the investigation in 1996. This was supposed to be located at the top of the spiral staircase and although strange noises were picked up by our digital recording equipment, there was no feelings of fear or unease reported. It seemed that the earlier exorcism had indeed succeeded in cleansing the building of something rather unpleasant.

However I did take one strange photo at the top of the spiral staircase. This was actually taken on the pre-visit but appears to show some strange light effects. Who knows something may still linger there after all....