The Ghost in the Machine.
Roger Sandell

Originally published in MUFOB New Series 3, Summer 1976

During the UFO waves of the 1950′s and 1960′s one of the strongest pieces of evidence for those who believed that UFOs seemed to be mechanical devices, was reports of vehicles allegedly mysteriously stopping in the presence of UFOs. A classic case of this nature is the Loch Raven Dam sighting of 1958, in which two men reported seeing a 100ft, egg-shaped object about one hundred feet above them, and stated that their car and its lights went dead as they attempted to approach it. (1) The Condon Investigation described such cases as “one of the more puzzling aspects of UFO reports”. However, examination by the investigators of a car involved in such a case showed that it had not been exposed to magnetism, as ufologists has suggested.

What neither sceptics nor believers realised at that time was that the stories of strange vehicles stoppages were much older, not only that UFOs, but than the internal combustion engine itself. Stories of this nature were told during the witch mania of the sixteenth century. One such tale tells of a carter whose vehicle became immobilised. After whipping his horses, to no avail, the cart moved when he flicked his whip against one of the wheels. Shortly after, a local witch was seen to have whiplash scars across her face. (2)

Such beliefs persisted until surprisingly recently. Eric Maples’s The Dark World of Witches describes the traditions of the Canewden area of Essex:

“Until well after the First World War the tradition persisted that it was unlucky to take a wheeled vehicle into Canewdon, as it would break down. Boys believed that to cycle through Canewdon was to invite a puncture.”

In the same book Maple describes how in the same area, in the first decade of this century, an elderly villager, believed to be a wizard, was credited with the ability to stop farm machines merely by looking at them.

With the decline of witch beliefs similar stories attached themselves to ghosts. One tale, of the ‘Screaming Skull’, a relic of Bettiscombs Manor in Dorset, allegedly associated with ghostly events, states that one tenant of the manor put the skull on a cart to send it elsewhere, but that the cart would not move until the skull was removed. The ‘Boggarts’, ghostly beings of Lancashire folklore, were said to sit on the backs of carts and increase their weights until the cart became immovable.

One of the most interesting ghost stories of this type concerns the ‘Bell Witch’ poltergeist that haunted a farm in Tennessee in 1817-1821.

“General Andrew Jackson was one of those attracted to the Bell homestead during the period of the haunting. As Jackson’s horse-drawn wagon approached the area the wheels suddenly seemed to freeze and the straining horses were unable to budge it. Jackson dismounted and examined the wheels and axles end was unable to find any reason for this sudden problem. As he stood there scratching his head in bewilderment a voice suddenly rang out from behind the bushes: “All right, General” the voice announced, “Let the wagon move” … To everyone’s amazement the wheels began to turn again.” (3)

Similar tales first began to appear in a modern context during World War II. In Britain in the early years of the war there were various ‘secret weapon’ rumours current, one of which would tell of a motorist driving on a remote road who found his oar mysteriously halted. As he puzzled over this, a soldier (or policeman) would appear and order him to start the car, which would then work perfectly. (4)

With tales such as this, the character of the myth has changed radically. Although at a time of national emergency there was a need for rumours of miraculous deliverance, the mental climate of the period did not allow these to be explicitly supernatural, but had to imply that there was a scientific explanation. In 1914 there had been tales of angels over the Western Front, but in 1940 the rumour had to climax with the appearance of the reassuring everyday figure of the policeman.

As the fear of nuclear war grew in the 1950′s and flying saucer stories began to circulate, the vehicle stoppage myth took on a new charateristic and became symbolic of a force more powerful than the technology threatening mass destruction, a force that would save humanity from itself. In the 1952 film The Day The Earth Stood Still an alien arrives in a flying saucer with a message of peace, and demonstrates his power by stopping all the world’s
machines. Strikingly, this film was made before there were any factual cases of UFO vehicle stoppages.

What form will the myth take next? With the
failure of the space probes to discover any evidence of intelligent life elsewhere, and the revival of interest in occultism perhaps we will see the return of explicitly supernatural vehicle stoppage stories. Already one of the more bizarre Uri Geller tales has him stopping the engine of an ocean liner by his powers, and in Carlos Castenda’s A Separate Reality we find the following allegedly factual account of one of his meetings with Don Juan, the Indian sorcerer:

“What is sorcery, Don Juan?”  “Sorcery is to apply one’s will to a key joint”, he said. “In your car it’s the spark-plug. I can apply my will to it and your oar won’t work.” Don Juan got into my oar and sat down. His laughter became higher. I felt some kind of enveloping force around me. “Turn on your oar now,” Don Juan said. I turned on the starter and stepped on the gas pedal. The starter began to grind without igniting the engine. I spent perhaps ten minutes grinding the starter. After a while Don Juan said he had released the car. It started!


  1. VALLEE, J. Challenge to Science. For a sceptical analysis of this case see Alan Sharp ‘UFO Evidence in an American reservoir?, MUFOB 6;1
  2. MAPLE; ERIC. The Dark World of Witches
  3. KEEL, JOHN. In the EM Effect a Myth?’; FSR, Nov-Dec 1968
  4. TURNER, S S. The Phoney War on the Home Front



A Haunted Man
Peter Hough

From Magonia 20, August 1983

Most people are now familiar with the term ‘astral projection’, or its more modern version: ‘out of the body experience’ (OOBE). This describes the phenomenon where the mind, or ‘astral double’, is projected from the physical body to wander around our world, enter another time or plane of reality. Here is one such case from here, in England, although I feel that OOBE cannot account for the whole of it.

After hearing of Mr Keith Sefton’s [pseudonym] claims through a friend, I became intrigued, and agreed to investigate them. Mr Sefton, a healthy looking 68-years-old, served in the Lancashire Fusiliers, but now retired, lives in a quiet backstreet in Wigan.

His experiences began suddenly in the summer of 1980. Before then there were no paranormal incidents in his life at all. This in itself is unusual, as most percipients of OOBE phenomena have a history of bizarre events to narrate – what started this great surge of happenings was something very sudden.

It occurred around 12.30, as Mr Sefton was sitting in the front room of his house, having lunch. Opposite, across the narrow road, lived an elderly lady who received a daily visit from the meals-on-wheels service. While he was eating, Mr Sefton glanced across expecting to see her standing in the bay window, waiting for the delivery van to arrive. In her place, and staring across at him, was an apparition of his dead mother.

She stood hands on hips, rigid like a statue, wearing a shawl which in life had been her favourite. Unbelieving, he movedcloser to the window of the sitting roombefore fear overcame him and he turned his head away. Slowly he looked forward again, but his mother’s stony expression stillstared across the intervening yards. The image lasted for about eight minutes. Finally she turned away, and magically resolved into the familiar features of the old lady.

This phenomenon occurred a second time, two weeks later under similar circumstances. Following this, Mr Sefton was to have an altogether different experience. Having been divorced for fifteen years, imagine his surprise early one morning, upon hearing the voice of his wife calling out his name.

It was unlike a voice ‘heard’ in a dream, he explained, but it was a perfectly natural auditory sound. Having received the strong impression it had come from outside, through the letterbox, he pulled on his dressing-gown and went downstairs. The door was unlocked, but there was no-one about. So convinced was he that he had heard his former wife calling out his name he ventured out onto the pavement and looked up and down the road.

This experience was also repeated two weeks later. Unfortunately, because of their poor relationship, he failed to contact his former wife to see if anything was wrong, to provide a possible explanation for this happening. What happened next was the penultimate episode before the main series of OOBE related events.

At eight o’clock one morning he was woken by the alarm clock. Preparing to rise, he suddenly heard footsteps outside the house and children’s voices – voices which had a familiar ring, forcing his mind to drift back to his own childhood, picking up lumps of coal from the surrounding pits, during the 1926 General Strike.

Slowly his attention was brought back to the room. His eyes focussed on a spot two feet above the bed, and the intense feeling that a ‘presence’ hung there, came over him. Then a voice spoke into his mind.

“Yes, and you will hear them again,” It said enigmatically, “You didn’t die you know.” The voice reminded him of his mother’s.

From then on until November 1981, Mr Sefton claims to have had twenty to thirty experiences. Many of these displayed ‘Out of Body’ characteristics. Most occurred upon reaching the point of falling asleep. They usually began with a tiny blue light, no bigger than a pin-head, hovering about nine inches from his head.

After several nights it began to pulsate and expand to the size of a pea, becoming multi-coloured. Eventually the light would suddenly vanish to be replaced by the vivid image of a full moon, dark clouds scudding swiftly across its surface. These clouds thickened until only a halo remained. On these occasions Mr Sefton was drawn towards the bright ring, and through it.

While recounting the bizarre episodes which followed his journeys through the ring, Keith Sefton was at pains to convince me of the lucidity, the realness, of his adventures. On his first and second visit he found himself looking up a long tube, or tunnel. At the other end was an eye, staring down at him. On the second occasion he saw enough of the face to conclude it belonged to a man. He received the intimation that the man was observing him under the lens of a microscope.

Visions of the moon continued to manifest in the darkness of the moon, and when the clouds obscured all but its aura, he felt himself being drawn upwards and through it. Exotic landscapes spread before him – on one occasion a beautiful pastoral scene of trees and flowers set around a lake. In the centre of the lake was a small rowing boat with a figure seated in it. It seemed the man was observing Mr Sefton, who in turn was observing him.

Once he travelled to a barren desert, strewn with rocks. A man inhabited this scene also, seated on a boulder, staring intensely in his direction. These figures were to crop up many times in various guises. They all shared similar physical characteristics and behaviour – always alone, they never spoke or moved, but seemed very aware of his intrusion. They had a ‘foreign’ look, possibly Grecian, with olive complexions, beards and hair of short, tight curls.

There were a few exceptions. The man in the desert, for instance, wore a long robe and was completely bald. He seemed to be travelling at tremendous speed through an intense blackness. He described how one night he was taken on a journey through the galaxies. One moment he was lying in bed, then he seemed to be travelling at tremendous speed through an intense blackness. Bright spheres rushed towards him then quickly away into the distance. He described this as highly invigorating.

Not all these experiences occurred whilst waiting to fall asleep, sometimes he would wake up in the early hours of the morning. On seven or eight occasions at around six o’clock something roused him. A few times he saw a man dressed in glittering trousers and tails rather like a circus ringmaster [1]. The man would silently wave a white stick at him, as if to emphasise a point. Usually he was only clearly visible if one eye was covered. The last vision of that nature was in November 1981.

Then there was a gap of almost a year.  In September 1982 the visitations resumed. He was awoken at 4am, and described seeing a “little white lady in my eye”. The image remained there for two or three minutes. This too reminded him of his mother,

 wearing a long nightdress. Suddenly the image burst from his eye into the form of a vapourous cloud, reforming into a four inch high figure at the bottom of the bed. [2] The ‘white lady’ walked around in a circle holding something resembling a broom handle. As he put out a hand to touch her she told him with a smile that it was forbidden. Then she passed out of sight as if she had slipped behind a black curtain.

I questioned Mr Sefton carefully about the physiological and psychological effects before, during and after these experiences. I also encouraged him, during our two meetings and subsequent correspondence, to air his own views on the matter.

In answer to my question of whether he could be experiencing very vivid dream imagery, he reminded me they had only begun in 1980, and went on:
“I have dreams, but these are not dreams – when I dream there are no colours, things are not clear. During these events I receive the most inexplicable panoramic views, and throughout I sense that something is feeding information into my mind. If only more people could experience it…”

He went on to explain that often he felt that he was in two places at once: the ‘here’ of the bedroom, and also in another ‘reality frame’. Time seemed suspended and inconsequential. This was illustrated one Saturday afternoon in the down-to-earth surroundings of Wigan market. The aisles between the stalls were crowded with shoppers, stocking up with meat and fresh vegetables for the weekend. As Keith Sefton picked his way through the crowd, suddenly all the noise diminished, and he felt his “consciousness was partially lifted from our plane”. Then out of this unnatural silence a lone child began calling. He focussed hard on a stallholder serving a woman with apples, and the noise and bustle of the marketplace returned.

This cross-references nicely with the sensations reported by people witness to close encounter UFO experiences. Many have noted that all sounds, such a birds singing or traffic noise on nearby roads, disappeared.

Why Mr Sefton’s mother should feature so prominently in these events is open to conjecture. He is not particularly religious, and has sought out books and people who would give him a logical scientific explanation for all this. The tunnel through which he passes on his journeys is a common component of out-of-body experiences, and by those relating accounts of an ‘afterlife’ during near-death experiences.

During questioning it transpired that just prior to many of these events he found himself breathing unnaturally deeply. Could Mr Sefton have unwittingly put himself into a trance? The heavy breathing would involve a degree of hyper-ventilation; flooding the body with oxygen and depriving the brain of sugar. Practitioners of yoga are adept at this, believing that it charges up the etheric double.

Also of interest is the phenomenon of hypnogogic and hypnopompic imagery, under study by psychiatrists. This refers to the state of mind when one is about to fall asleep or awaken, respectively. Something very strange can happen when the brain is neither fully asleep or awake, but ‘in neutral’, as it were. Very vivid hallucinations sometimes occur. This condition is known to effect something between half and three-quarter of the population. Although the sensations generally are visual or auditory, they may also involve heat, cold, odour or touch.

But the question remains – do these states of altered consciousness cause exotic imagery to manifest, or is the brain merely put into a mode where it is receptive to contact from an objective, exterior source? I know of one northern gentleman who would be interested in the answer to that one.

Meanwhile, the experiences have begun again. I quote from a recent letter:

“I have had a few visions on waking in the morning, since last I saw you. I suddenly found myself in a monastery. The entrance and surrounding walls were in dark colours, but the centre was beautifully lit. There were about twelve girls in a ring who were dancing holding the hems of their long white frocks, moving into the ring and out of it. I also saw the faces of two men, whom I did not recognise…”



  1. This rather incongruous Image has a almost identical precedent In the case of ‘Miss Z’, Investigated by John Rimmer and Peter Rogerson, and reported In MUFOB. Other members of Miss Z’s family had reported hypnogogic and hypnopomplc experiences, Including her father “On another occasion there were about a dozen figures wearing ‘glittery’ silver suits… [they were] normal looking human figures and the suits of a normal style, resembling ‘glitter’ suits worn by show-business personalitles” (MUFOB, new series 4, p.4).
  2. This also echoes the experience of Miss Z’s father, who on one occasion awoke to find a number of tiny figures lust a few inches high running about the room – some on tiny horses!



Venus With Her Trousers Down!
Nigel Watson and Granville Oldroyd

From Magonia 17, October 1984

WHILST researching newspaper files for reports of phantom airship sightings made between 1909 and 1913 some interesting incidental material has been collected. In particular we have noticed that the rumoured activities of German secret agents were very much linked in the public mind with the airship sightings [1,2]. This kind of link, and other stories recorded during these periods appears to be very similar to some of the more bizarre aspects of the contemporary UFO scene. For instance, Carl Grove has noted the case of two ‘foreign’ strangers who observed the home of an airship witness for several hours [3]. Also, we have revealed how a stranger who took an interest in chickens during the 1909 airship flap might easily be compared to some entities who were seen exploring chicken runs in a Puerto Rican yard during 1980 [4].

For some people the obvious conclusion to be made is that what were thought to be inquisitive strangers or German agents were in fact MIB. As most readers of this account will be aware, the MIB are regarded by the more credulous members of the UFO fraternity as terrestrial agents of the UFO forces, who are either aliens who disguise themselves in order to infiltrate human society, or they are ‘brainwashed’ humans who are controlled by the aliens.

An example of a MIB-type event which is worthy of mention, since it can easily be compared to a contemporary event, was exposed in the 11th March edition of the [Hull] Daily Mail. The report tells of how a stranger was given a room for the night at a Newport Inn, on Sunday 9th March. Apparently:

He had not been long in the house, when he bolted to the canal with no covering but his shirt. His host got him back to the house, and again
 made him comfortable on the couch for the night. No sooner was his benefactor asleep than he made off again, leaving all his clothes but his shirt behind. Information of the missing man was given to PC Jewett, who searched for the missing one until 6 o’clock on Monday morning. In the early hours of the morning he had knocked at the doors of several cottages in the North Cave district and asked for a pair of trousers. Temporary clothes were provided him and he was escorted by PC Jewett to Newport, where he again donned his own clothes, and as he had broken no law, he was allowed to go on his way.

North Cave is situated to the west of Hull. Over at Wavertree, Liverpool, in the spring of 1977, a woman called Mrs Lilian Owens saw a man with the same peculiar predilection for requesting trousers. It was 8.30 am when she saw the stranger at her kitchen doorway:

He wore brand new clothes, a small green check suit, white shirt and green tie, and had blonde hair, and piercing blue eyes. His skin had a deep tan (despite it being only spring). He said “Have you got any trousers?” a question Mrs Owens thought odd. She said “No”, and went to shut the door but he blocked it with a shiny new black shoe with a steel toecap. She said she would call her son (who was not in) and he left. She shut the door but on looking through the window he was not in sight [5]

Later, the same man suddenly appeared in her living room and asked her for a drink of water. As she went to telephone the police the stranger disappeared. In the summer of the same year Mrs Owens saw a UFO in the early hours of the morning.

Two reports in the Occult Review [6] relate to sightings of MIB which were seen in the early 1900s. The first involved a 13 year-old girl who was trimming a hat one Saturday night when:

As the clock struck twelve, the front door opened, then the parlour door, and a man entered and sat down in a chair opposite to me. He was rather short, very thin, dressed in black, with extremely pale face, and hands with very long thin fingers. He had a high silk hat on his head, and in one hand he held an old-fashioned, large silver snuff-box. He gazed at me and said three times, slowly and distinctly, “I’ve come to tell you.” He then vanished, and I noted that the door was shut as before.

Two years later a visitor to the girl’s home was given the same room to sleep in. At exactly the same hour he saw the same vision, and we are told that he had never heard of the girls earlier experience. A few years later the house was demolished and a skeleton with a silver snuff box was found beneath the room where the MIB had roamed.

These experiences, and those of Mrs Owens do not permit us to easily identify the stimulus for them. However, like the case of the North Cave trouserless stranger, the following incident was probably caused by a flesh-and-blood person rather than a ghoul from the Twilight Zone:

It was late at night. A deeply religious 23-year-old headmistress of a private school for girls was marking papers when a man called at her door. She said: He was well dressed, in black, and I thought he had probably come about placing a pupil with me. We began to talk about the school and my aims and methods. There was something about him that drew me out.

Recalling her troubles and anxieties to this quiet stranger cheered her up to such an extent that after he left she believed that he was the Lord Jesus Christ; consequently every time she prayed she visualised the mysterious stranger in her mind’s eye. Some time later she felt that her opinion regarding the identity of the man was confirmed when during a dream she said that her eyes:

were attracted to a place of glory, and there seated upon a throne was the man who had visited me and whom I had been praying to as the Lord Jesus Christ.

If this encounter happened today we might speculate that a young woman would interpret her visitor as a space brother whom she would later see inside a flying saucer in classic contactee fashion.

Just as modern-day ufologists have acknowledged the importance of ‘bedroom visitors’ [7,8] in perpetuating today’s UFO stories, we can make reference to several historical bedroom visitations.

The first, and most intriguing reports of such visitors are mentioned by the vicar of Weston, Yorkshire, Charles Lakeman Tweedale. In a book titled Man’s Survival After Death or the Other Side of Life [9a] he detailed the many bedroom visitations that were seen mainly by his wife at the vicarage. The first occurrence of this type was on the night of 19th December 1907. After being woken by a strong, cold breeze she perceived a shaft of cloudy white light at the foot of their bed which reached to the ceiling and illuminated the bed coverlet. The vicar noted that:

She described the light to me when I awoke as like a column of muslin wrapped in spiritual swathes, with a strong electric light in the midst and shining through it.

The sight of this phenomenon induced her to hide her head under the bedclothes until after a long period of time when she had the courage to look round the room again and discover the sight had vanished.

Approximately half an hour before dawn on the 7th April 1908, Mrs Tweedale woke and saw a light the size of a large orange on or enclosing the brass rail at the foot of the bed. It was positioned on her husband’s side of the bed. Over a period of a minute the light expanded to a height of 3 feet, and the width of a man’s body. Terrified at the sight of this bright light she shook her husband until he awoke. At that instant the light collapsed like a camera bellows and vanished from view. On searching the room the Rev. Tweedale could find nothing to account for the phenomenon.
The most dramatic incident happened at 5.30 am on the 8th November 1908. It began when Mrs Tweedale was woken by a blow delivered to the underneath or top of the bed. Thus alerted she sat up and saw at the foot of the bed:

The figure of a man dressed in black with a calm, grave face, his clenched hand resting upon the brass rail as if he had just struck it. [9b]

This apparition gave off a light which illuminated the room, and not surprisingly Mrs Tweedale quickly woke her husband. As before the phenomenon made its exit when he awoke. She saw the head and then the trunk of the figure resolve themselves into a luminous cloud which floated up to the ceiling and disappeared. But this time the Rev. Tweedale did wake soon enough to see the last part of this act. He claimed that on awakening:

At the bed’s foot was a beautiful cloud of phosphorescent light about four feet in diameter, suspended in the middle of the room. It was close to me, not more than five feet away. Even as my eyes rested upon it, it began to ascend just like a small balloon. With a steady motion it seemed to go straight up and right through the ceiling.

The vision reminds us of the man in black seen on three successive nights in her bedroom by a young woman. Her experience was associated with the 1904-05 Welsh Religious Revival when lights in the sky, a few MIB, and even a black dog were seen. [101


A "Spirit photograph" taken by the Crewe Circle, and the known paranormal hoaxer William Hope. Taken between world war I and II, this picture purportedly shows Reverend Charles L Tweedale, his wife, and the spirit of her deceased father.

Just before the British 1909 phantom airship panic reached its height, Mrs Tweedale on the 15th March 1909 saw the figure of a man standing next to her husband as he slept soundly beside her. On waking him the figure disappeared in a flash of light. After the airship panic on the 22nd June 1909, the Rev. Tweedale reported what looked like a man with a light brighter than a normal lamp in his hand, was seen in the passage of the vicarage at 11 pm.

Yet another apparition was seen when the Tweedales were in London on the night of 2nd June 1912. In their bedroom Mrs Tweedale saw star-like lights and a tall white form. Later, in the night, she told her husband she could see the lights again, and that “there is someone by the side of the bed trying to attract attention”. Looking round he was able to see what he detailed as “a bright, elongated light at the foot of the bed, but no distinct form”.

At other times, most notably on 10th December 1911 in front of seven witnesses, and on 4th October 1917 in front of two witnesses, strange bright lights were seen in the vicar’s study.

As the title of the reverend gentleman’s book suggests, he tended to regard these kinds of manifestations as proof that we can survive after death. In this state our spiritual bodies are able to materialise from a radiance of light into a solid, tangible being, and can return to a small point of light and disappear and disappear to whence they came.

To reinforce this view he mentions several incidents involving other people who saw lights in their bedroom which transformed into figures who had the appearance of dead or unconscious relatives. In two cases he claims that a luminous light was seen hovering over a person at night, who in the morning reported having met (or vividly dreamt of meeting) a dead relative. These were quoted from the Proceedings of the SPR, and from private contacts.

We should also add that not only lights and MIB were seen at the Weston vicarage: a whole variety of events were said to have occurred. Too many to recount here, but an idea of the type of events experienced may be gained from the statement:

…messages, consolations, warnings by the direct voice and unsought; things moving of themselves, marvellous singing and amazing manifestations at the moment of the ‘death’ of a relation of whose sickness we did not even know; sounds of beautiful music, instruments hanging high up on the walls playing by themselves; scores of articles thrown; hands melting in the grip when seized were just some of the things which presented themselves month after month. (11]

Not surprisingly the vicar was not too popular with his parishioners, who were not charmed by the reports of all these strange events, or by the fact that he was a convert to Spiritualism.

Another type of bedroom encounter was experienced by 32-year-old Samuel Flecknoe. He suffered from a paralysis of the legs for four-and-a-half years until the morning of Sunday, 19th January 1913. When he awoke in his Nottingham home: “Something seemed to tell me, ‘get up and walk downstairs’. So I did” [12,13] He walked for several days until the Friday evening, when he collapsed going to bed, though his doctors hoped he might walk again. [14, 15]

The power of belief can also be seen in a couple of stories from France at this period. When a woman went to clean a statue of the Virgin at the old cemetery in Beziers, it came alive. It return for the act of kindness the statue blessed the woman’s handkerchief. When she got home she placed it on the bed of her sick child who had been paralysed for several years; instantly her daughter got out of bed and walked. [16, 17] (Coincidentally, this happened the day before Flecknow arose from his bed).

What was called mystical madness caused the death of a woman during 1909 at St Julien, near Chalon-sur-Saone. After hearing a sermon about Jeanne d’Arc, she locked herself in a disused chapel, doused herself with inflammable spirit, and set fire to herself. Neighbours found her kneeling, praying amid the flames, but even their aid was unable to save her from an agonising death. [18]

Interestingly, the 1913 cases come at a time when another religious revival was said to have erupted in Wales. Miraculous cures were claimed, and an inspired message told an evangelist to hold meetings in Penylont, Radnorshire. [19, 20, 21]

If we make the mistake of lumping these cases together with the phantom airship sightings as a way of ‘proving’ that our contemporary knowledge of the UFO situation is accurate, we become the victims of our own biases. Instead, we prefer to highlight these cases in order to show that making order out of a chaos of disparate stories is very easily done, but is due to factors other than a grand UFO masterplan for manipulating humanity.

A case that could easily be connected with the phantom airship sighting of 1909, occurred on the morning of 22nd June. In a quiet part of Owder Lane, Canton, near Worksop, PC Swain found a young man. He was aged about 18 and was well-dressed. The policeman was unable to get any sense out of this person, whose ‘manner was very

 strange’. At Worksop Police Station he was examined by a doctor; apparently the man had lost his memory. No name or address was found on him and the police could only speculate that he came from the Sheffield or Doncaster region. He was consigned to the local workhouse.
If we accept the UFO manipulation theory, we might propose that this Yorkshire Kaspar Hauser could have been delivered to Earth by a UFO disguised as an airship – who would ever suspect that he was an alien up to no good!

Finally, a young person who did not mind being regarded as an alien was a three year old girl who was found in Willesden, London. She told the police that her name was Venus. When her parents claimed her as their own daughter it was revealed that her name was Mary Brown. [23] It is anticlimactic to discover she was not the Venus responsible for most of the British 1909 and 1913 phantom airship sightings!


1. WATSON, Nigel. ‘Airships and Invaders’, Magonia 3.
2. LOWE, Charles. ‘About German Spies’, Contemporary Review, Jan. 1910, pp.42-56.
3. GROVE, Carl, ‘The Airship Wave of 1909′, FSR, 16, 6.
4. WATSON, Nigel, ‘Are the Ufonauts Fowl Plotters?’, FSR, 28,1.
5. CHEVEAU, Danny, ‘A New MIB Encounter?’, Northern Ufology, 75.
6. Occult Review, March 1918, pp.129-31.
7. ROGERSON, Peter, and RIMMER, John, ‘Visions of the Night’, MUFOB, ns 4.
8. BASTERFIELD, Keith, ‘Strange Awakenings’, MUFOB, ns 13.
9a. TWEEDALE, Rev. Chas. Lakeman, Man’s Survival After Death, or the Other Side of Life (3rd Ed.) Grant Richards, London 1925, pp.235-42. The two earlier editions appeared in October 1909, and January 1920.
9b. See also Sunday Chronicle 30/3/1913.
10. McCLURE, Kevin and Sue, Stars and Rumours of Stars, privately published, pp.25-6.
11. The Wharfedale & Airedale Observer, 4 Apr. 1913, p.7.
12. Bradford Daily Argus, 24 Jan. 1913.
13. Nottingham Daily Express, 24 Jan 1913.
14. Ibid, 27 Jan 1913.
15. Ibid, 28 Jan 1913.
16. Sunday Chronicle, 26 Jan 1913.
17. Bradford Daily Telegraph, 21 Jan. 1913.
18. Louth and North Lincolnshire Advertiser, 29 May 1909.
19. Bradford Daily Argus, 11 Jan. 1913.
20. Ibid, 27 Jan 1913.
21. Nottingham Daily Express, 25 Feb. 1913.
22. Retford, Worksop, Isle of Axholme and Gainsborough News, 25 June 1909.
23. Hull Daily Mail, Hull Packet and East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Courier, 28 May 1909.


Spooklights in Tradition and Folklore.
David Clarke

First published in Magonia 24, November 1980.

…Of purpose to deceive us
And leading us makes us stray
Long winter nights out of the way
And when we stick in mire or clay
He doth with laughter lead us

Drayton’s Nymphidia

Few people today will have heard about the once common phenomenon known generally in the British Isles as ‘Will o’the Wisp’ or ‘Jack o’Lantern’. Prior to the end of the 19th century this rural mystery was a terror familiar to night travellers, especially in the marshy, undrained areas which still remained in many parts of England.

willothewispWill o’the Wisp is known to scientists by its Latin name ignis fatuus – foolish fire – and is variously described as a strong, flame-like light (often first taken for a lantern or the lights of a house in the distance) seen hovering over marshland just after sunset. However, many reliable witnesses have described seeing brilliant Will o’the Wisps dancing over hedgerows, rising high in the air or performing elaborate movements. They often appear to display signs of intelligence – the light is said to recede from an observer who approaches it, or follow him if he retires. This appears to contradict the long-held, but never proven, belief that Will o’the Wisps are caused by the spontaneous ignition of marsh-gas or ‘phosphoretted hydrogen’ in swampy areas.

In 1980 A.A. Mills, a chemist at Leicester University, published a study investigating the possible connections between marsh-gas and Will o’the Wisps. [1] He worked initially on the old premise that the phenomenon was due to ignition of natural gas or methane, perhaps ignited by contamination with phosphine or a higher hydride. Mills experimentally tried to create a Will o’the Wisp in his laboratory by filling a gallon glass bottle with compost, peat, eggs, bone meal and other such ingredients, which were then allowed to incubate at a warm temperature. He collected the ‘marsh gas’ which bubbled off, “but although repulsively odiferous it never displayed the slightest luminosity when allowed to come into contact with air”.

Further, Mills stated that to explain Will o’the Wisp as marsh gas one had to “explain how to achieve natural ignition of an intermittent, disconnected bubble of gas rising through the marsh”. The suggestion that phosphine could provide this natural ignition is a non-starter, as phosphorous is never found in a pure state in nature, and vapour-phase chromatography has failed to detect even parts per million traces of phosphine in marsh gasses analysed in laboratories.

Will o’the Wisp is therefore as much a mystery in our present age as he was to earlier generations. In recent times he appears to have diappeared from the countryside, along with fairies, as marshes have been drained, and as technology has redefined his image for our modern perceptions. We now regard strange lights in the night sky as heralds of extraterrestrial visitors rather than the mischevious sprites, evil spirits and elementals which were once familiar to our ancestors.

In 1855 a writer in Notes and Queries asked if Will o’the Wisp was still to be seen in any parts of the British Isles. He received replies from many correspondents, giving eyewitness acounts of recent sightings. One correspondent replied:

“I have little doubt that the sprite is still to be met with in certain districts of Essex or among the Norfolk Broads… the inquirer might procure a sight of one if he would enquire of some rustic where they most frequently occur. But for this purpose he must know the vernacular name in the district where he lives” [2]

Nearly every country district of the British Isles has its own particular name for Will o’the Wisp and his kind, most of them personalised – Joan the Wad (Devon and Cornwall); William with the little flame (Ireland); Jenny Burntail (Warwickshire; Kitty wi’the Wisp (Northumberland), and countless others. Similar names can be found throughout Europe: irrllchtern, ‘wandering light’ (Germany); feux-follets (France); Fuoco fatuo (Italy); lycktegubbe ‘lantern bearer’ (Sweden) – suggesting a world-wide occurence of similar phenomena. Other names have been given, or related to Will o’the Wisp. Countryfolk and folklorists connect him with Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Friar Rush and other pagan elementals. These traditions are unwittingly continued on bonfire night when children place a candle in a hollowed-out turnip to represent the evil spirit or Jack o’Lantern. [3]

These wandering lights have been known to haunt certain spots for centuries. The folklore of the Scottish Highlands is particularly rich with stories concerning strange lights regarded as omens of death or disaster, and the Gaelic language has several names for them: solus bais, a death light, solus taisg, a spectre light, and teine biorach, “a fire floating in the air like a bird”.

In ‘Ghostlights of the Western Highlands’ [4] R.C. McLagan writes that “there are places which have got their names from the belief that mysterious lights have appeared in their neighbourhood, Thus Creag an T-Soluis, a rock above Cairn near Port Charlotte, has its name from a belief that supernatural lights used to be seen about it. For the same reason another rock down at the shore below Cairn Cottage is called Carraig na Soluis.”

Almost everywhere these lights are regarded as omens of death, particularly in Celtic countries where the ‘corpse candle’ tradition originates. One account describes the candle as a light “seen during the night slowly gliding from the house to the gate of the churchyard and along the church-road, but that by which the funeral processions pass” [5] McLagan notes that:

“In the Isle of Man, on May Eve, many of the inhabitants remain on the hills till sunrise, endeavouring to pry into futurity by observing particular omens. If a bright light were observed to issue, seemingly, from any house in the surrounding valleys, it was considered a certain indication that some member of that family was soon to be married; but if a dim light were seen, moving slowly in the direction of the parish church, it was then deemed equally certain that a funeral would soon pass that way to the churchyard!” [7]

This tradition is similar to that connecting the lights to areas of pre-historic sanctity – burial mounds, stone circles and ancient religious sites’. In Norwegian folklore the little islands off the coast were inhabited by dwarfs, and on festive nights were “lit up with countless blue lights that moved and skipped about without ceasing, borne by the little underground people; and the grave mounds of heroes emitted lamdent flames that guarded the dead and treasure buried with them [4].

A fascinating account of this kind appeared in the popular science magazine English Mechanic during 1919. This described how a correspondent, T. Sington, saw “strange lights… no doubt will o’the wisps” while walking with a friend in the dead of night near the ancient and spectacular Castlerigg Stone Circle near Keswick in the Lake District:

“When we were at a point near which the track branches off to the Druidical circle, we all at once saw a rapidly moving light as bright as the acetylene lamp of a bicycle, and we instinctively stepped to the road boundary wall to make way for it, but nothing came, As a matter of fact the light travelled at right angles to the road, say 20 feet above our level, possibly 200 yards or so away. It was a white light, and having crossed the road it suddenly diappeared. Whether it went out or passed behind an obstruction it is impossible to say, as I have not yet had an opportunity of again visiting the place during daylight. There is certainly no crossroads there. We then saw a number of lights possibly a third of a mile away, directly in the direction of the Druidical circle, but of course much fainter, no doubt due to distance, moving backwards and forwards horizontally; we stood watching them for a long time, and then only left as it was so late at the hotel people might think we were lost on the mountain (Helvellyn).

“Whilst we were watching a remarkable incident happened – one of the lights, and only one, came straight to the spot where we were standing; at first very faint, as it approached the light increased in intensity. When it came quite near I was in no doubt whether I should stoop below the boundary wall as the light would pass directly over our heads. But when it came close to the wall it slowed down, stopped, quivered, and slowly went out, as if the matter producing the light had become exhausted. It was globular, white, with a nucleus possibly six feet or so in diameter, and just high enough above ground to pass over our heads”

Mr Sington concluded his fascinating story by stating his suspicion that the ancient builders of the stone circle had selected this particular spot “owing to some local conditions at present unknown… such lights would have attracted the attention of the inhabitants, who would have attached great significance to them, and might then have selected the site as a place of worship or sacrifice.” [9]

In view of recent research at various megalithic sites by members of the Dragon Project [9] Mr Sington’s idea seems to be vindicated. In Folklore (1894), Mr M.J. Walhouse describe a visit to the marvellous megalithic stone-rows at Carnac in Britanny, where he asked a boy who was guiding him about any local popular beliefs attached to the stones:

“It was not easy to understand him, and I could only gather that on certain nights a flame was seen burning on every stone, and on such nights no-one would go near – the stones are there believed to mark burial places.”[10]

Walhouse adds that:

“in the extreme south of India the Shanars, a very numerous caste of devil-worshippers, believe that waste-places, and especially burial grounds, are haunted by demons that assume various shapes, one after another, as often as the eye of the observer turns away, and are often seen gliding over marshy land like flickering lights. They are called in Tamil pey-neruppu, i.e. devil fires. Riding late after dark over a jungly tract near mountains I once saw what the natives averred was a pey-neruppu; it seemed a ball of pale flame, the size of an orange, moving in a fitful wavering way above the bushes and passing out of sight behind trees; its movements resembled the flight of an insect, but I know of none in India that shows any such light; the fireflies there are no larger than fireflies in Italy.” [11]

Another writer in the same publication tells an interesting story of similar lights observed in another part of India, upon which similar legends were attached.

“I was staying on a tea-garden (plantation] near Darjiling last year (1893) and one evening as we were walking around the flower garden our eyes were caught by a light like that of a lantern being carried down the path which leads to the vegetable garden some 200 feet below. My host sent for the Mah1i who came down from his house, and asked him what business anyone had to be going to the vegetable garden at that time? ‘Oh’, said the man, ‘that is one of the chota-admis (i.e, little men); and on being asked to explain, he said that these little men lived underground, and only came out at night. He did not appear to be very clear as to what their occupation was, but they always walk or fly with lanterns. They are about three feet high, and they will never allow anyone to get near them; but if by any chance one was to come upon them unexpectedly, they would quickly disappear, and the person who saw them would become ill and probably die. They are constantly about on dark nights, sometimes as many as twenty or thirty together, but he and all the natives always gave them a wide berth.

“Whilst he was speaking we watched the light, which apparently left the path, and in two or three minutes flew across to another portion of the hill, between which and the vegetable garden was a steep dip which would take an ordinary individual at least half an hour to descend and ascend the other side; then it disappeared, and we saw no more that night, but two or three times afterwards we saw similar lights, sometimes carried along the paths and at others flying across dips in the hills. We made enquiries from the natives, who all told the same tale; but when we asked other planters they could tell us nothing about them. The light was too large and not erratic enough for any firefly that we have seen in that neighbourhood, more like a lantern than anything else we could think of.” [12]

There can be little doubt that there is a real, objective natural phenomenon lurking behind many of these accounts, which appear to be describing luminous shape-shifting blobs which have a mysterious relationship with certain areas and types of terrain. They appear to interact in mysterious ways with human beings, particularly those undergoing intense emotional excitement – as shown by the phenomena accompanying the Welsh Revival of 1905, or are attracted to the electric fields surrounding human beings out in the open. Although they may appear to possess some kind of rudimentary or mischievous intelligence, this is more likely to be an illusion produced by the observer through some process of perception. It is more likely that the energy from which they are formed is affected by external changes in the surrounding environment – geology, variations in the earth’s magnetic field, changes in air density, etc. These may all contribute to giving the impression of intelligent motion.

In 1967 ufologist John Keel had realised that it was the spookllght sightings, what he described as ‘soft objects’, which “represented the real phenomenon.” He described these sightings as of “transparent or translucent objects seemingly capable of altering their size and shape dramatically.” [13] During his investigations in West Virginia Keel actually had the opportunity of watching them from his skywatch position at Gallipolis Ferry. In The Mothman Prophecies [14] he says:

“Each night from three to eight unidentified ‘stars’ appeared, They were always in the same position at the beginning of the evening and a casual observer would automatically conclude they were really just stars. However, on overcast nights these unidentifieds would be the only ‘stars’ in the sky, meaning they were below the clouds. While the rest of the night sky slowly rotated, these phony stars would remain in their fixed positions, sometimes for hours, before they would begin to move. Then they would travel in any direction, up, down, clockwise, etc, they had a number of curious traits. When a plane would fly over they would suddenly dim or go out altogether. As soon as the plane was gone they would flare up again.”

These strange lights are still with us, appearing at various spots throughout the world, and there is little doubt their comings and goings will add to the considerable amount of folklore already in existence. The lights which have been haunting the remote Norwegian valley of Hessdalen since 1981 display remarkable ghost-like characteristics – playing tag with observers, at times appearing to be gaseous and at others solid; sometimes showing up on radar and at others not. A similar kind of phenomenon – this time a brilliant orange ball of light – has been plaguing the Pennine hills of Yorkshire and Lancashire since the 1970′s, particulalry the Rossendale Valley and the area around Skipton and Grassendale. The fact that both these areas are criss-crossed by numerous geological faults can surely be no coincidence, and adds to the considerable evidence now available which appears to indicate that one of the variables which may explain the creation and origin of the lights – fault lines – has now been isolated.

As regards the recent sightings in the Craven district of Yorkshire, local UFO investigator Tony Dodd, a police officer and alleged witness to over 200 sightings, said in 1983:
“There are strange things flying around at night, but where they come from is another thing. They seem to be more prevelant on winter nights. A lot of the ones I have seen have been way below cloud level. This area has a very high percentage of national sightings. I have seen 60 to 80 of these machines in the last ten years… I feel because this is one of the hotspots as far as sightings go, there are bases located in certain places where they go underground.” [15]

Although Mr Dodd may not realise it, he may have given us one of the most important clues to solve this mystery.

Notes and References:

  1. HILLS, A. A. ‘Will o’the Wisp’ in Chemistry in Britain, 16:69, Feb. 1980,
  2. Notes and Queries, April 4th 1891.
  3. Old drawings and woodcuts showing Will o’the Wisp’s consistently depict the light being carried in the outstretched hand of an imp or hobgoblin.
  4. McLAGAN, R. C. ‘Ghostlights of the Western Highlands’ in Folklore, vo1,8 (1897), pp.203-256.
  5. FEILBURG, H. H. ‘Ghostly Lights’ in Folklore, vol, 6 (1895), p.293.
  6. This connection has become apparent to me time after time during research work. The sightings around Burton Dassett, Warwickshire, in 1923-4, described in Spooklights; a British Survey were seemingly centred upon a pre-Norman church and its holy well, This is one of many examples which could be cited.
  7. Train’s Isle of Man, vol. ii, p.118.
  8. SINGTON, T„ ‘A Mystery’ in English Mechanic, Oct, 17, 1919, pp,152-153.
  9. ROBINS, D. Circles of Silence, Souvenir Press, 1985.
  10. WALHOUSE, M. J. ‘Ghostly Lights’ in Folklore, vol, 5 (1894), pp. 293-299.
  11. In McLAGAN, op. cit. there is the story of a prehistoric burial cairn near Ledaig in Scotland called Carn Bhan which has a legend attached to it that seven kings were buried there. A 70-year-old woman resident of the area told McLagan that “there used to be a large light often seen at the Carn Bhan, indeed I think it is not so very long ago since it was seen there, I have often seen it there myself, it was as large as the light of that lamp”.
  12. Folklore, vol, 6, (1895), pp. 245-246.
  13. KEEL, JOHN A. ‘The principles of transmogrification’ in Flying Saucer Review, vo1,15, no.4, (June-July 1968), pp,27-31.
  14. KEEL, JOHN A. The Mothman Prophecies, Dutton, 1975
  15. Craven Herald (Skipton, Yorkshire), July 21, 1983.

Ghost Writers; A Brief Overview. Peter Rogerson

From Magonia 11, 1982


Ghosts are making a belated academic comeback, with officially sponsored volumes by the Folklore Society (1) and the Society for Psychical Research (3), and a detailed social history (2). So I take this opportunity also to review some volumes which fell through my fingers first time round.

That academics and journalists are both fascinated by ghosts is good testimony to their continued presence in our minds. As Finucane shows, ghosts have a pedigree going back to Greek and Roman times, a point also made by W M S Russell in the Folklore Society symposium. Russell suggests that a culture’s perception of its ghosts depends on its funeral customs; people who bury the dead portray concrete ghosts – ‘raw head and bloody bones’. An excellent Icelandic example of this is provided by Hilda Ellis Davidson, in which the revenant comes from the grave to claim person after person to join the legion of ghosts, as in east European vampire legends. This is symbolic of plague and other epidemics claiming victim after victim. Those who burn the dead envisage smoky, hazy spirits who drift across consciousness.

Finucane traces the evolution of the ghost through various stages of Christian theology. In medieval Christianity, ghosts were far from the marginal entities they are today. They were integral parts of society, enforcing its codes, demanding that justice be done, that debts be paid, that remains be buried properly and that harmony prevail among surviving relatives. Fear of ghosts’ wrath enforced proper respect for the helpless aged. Ghosts could give evidence in court. Most importantly, they enforced the correct theological line, with graphic descriptions of purgatory, heaven and hell. Living and dead were part of an organic unity: Church Militant, Church Suffering and Church Triumphant. (R H Bowyer, in (1), p. 190)

The Reformation abolished purgatory and literally damned all ghosts to hell; spectres refusing to stay there were clearly demons. This theological doctrine clashed with traditional belief and posed the awful dilemma: ‘Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned?’ Hamlet’s ghost may well be reinforcing social mores, but in doing so it leads to demonic tragedy.

The religious persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries created a great crop of ghost stories. The trauma of the shattering of the old order created a vast number of ghostly monks; expressions of grief and guilt, and Civil War, tore the nation apart; the ghostly Roundheads and Cavaliers, crimes magnified by the legion of rival pamphleteers, haunted on. History’s wounds were unforgotten and unforgiven, held in thrall by generations of local gossip and tradition. It should be remembered that in the nineteenth century there were still districts where families voted Liberal or Conservative, depending on which side their ancestors had fought in the Civil War.

The Reformation had damned ghosts, partly because it was trying to escape tradition. A society which perceives the world in fairly stable terms might be able to come to terms with its ‘history’ walking around; a society seeing itself in dynamic terms needed to jettison history – it was now necessary to dispose of traditional customs, producing the tensions which also gave rise to increased witch belief. (8)

There were other effects of the Civil War. The farmers and artisans who joined the Parliamentary armies were exposed to the ferment of new ideas, questioning the whole basis of traditional society. Conversely, the gentry and aristocracy, repelled by ‘the mob’, withdrew physically and intellectually to an unprecedented degree. Both sections of society began to reject ghost stories and traditional religion, while the Anglican Church, re-established and protected by penal legislation, looked on in apathy.

In these conditions Puritans like Richard Baxter, who 60 years ago would have considered ghosts as damnable, now began to use them to conduct the campaign against the modern Sadducees. (cf. (9)) Though the intellectual and literate elite may have despised ghosts, the vast majority of their fellow countrymen probably continued to hold traditional beliefs.

These traditional beliefs were taken into the rapidly growing industrial towns by the masses coming in from the country. Finucane does not cover the ideas of the working classes during this period, but some background can be gleaned from studies by Thomas (10) and Hamson (11).

By the mid-nineteenth century the ghost shad receded into a dim figure on the margins of consciousness. The only message that it had to give was the message of survival itself. Ghosts receded from society. From Mackenzie (3) emerges a nice picture of the typical Victorian ghost. The Despard ghost was a widow in black – like the maiden aunt or the widowed sister an embarrassing add-ition to the family.

The anonymous Victorian ghost flitting through the house reflected the breakup of the traditional home held for generations. The Victorian family, drifting from one leased house to another, were strangers in their own residences. The servants often had far more intimate connection with the house than their masters; they were part of the local community and its repository of folk history. As Claire Russell points out in the Folklore Society symposium, ghosts are about the living. In the Victorian period houses tended to become haunted because the local community decided that some fundamental vio-lation of the social mores had occurred.

This could range from anything between murder and leaving the house vacant too long. In many cases, ghosts were the expression of the community’s hostility to new tenants, and the tenants’ alienation from their res-idence. Significantly, many modern haunted houses are council houses or rented properties.

Haunts were not the only ghosts: death-bed apparitions, crisis apparitions, fetches and warnings, testified to the uncertainties of Victorian life – the separation of rel-ations sent abroad to colonial fever spots, the rampant infant mortality. Many of the people who became the centre of crisis apparitions had broken social mores in some way. One suspects that many ‘old and dear friends’ from the colonies who appeared to married women, were lovers sent away in disgrace.

Finucane notes the rigid social distinctions that operated in Victorian psychical research: that the middle classes never lied, that servants were timid and unreliable, and that the ‘peasantry’ were unthinking brutes. This led to some embarrassing situations, as in the case of poor Judge Horby, who found he either had to admit to lying or to sleeping with his wife before they were married.

If the psychical researchers turned their backs on the peasantry and their beliefs, the folklorists put them on pedestals. Romantics, rejecting the industrial revolution, dreamed up a fairytale past of noble peasants in little thatched cottages in a green and pleasant land. Such folklorists as the Dane, Evart Tang Kristensen could take seriously any ghost. These included revolving fiery wheels, or the wagon with three wheels which had the power to paralyse other wagons on the road, like modern UFOs. The folklorists and romantics created a market for Gothic horror stories and gibbering spectres.

The traditional Victorian ghost story reflected a sense of the horror beneath the placid surface of everyday life. They were reminders of the thin veneer of Victorian rationalism. It is hardly surprising that, as Julia Briggs points out, the ghost story as an art form fell when that veneer was wiped away in the trenches.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the heyday of the ‘true’ ghost story lay in the period before the First World War. It is significant that more than half the accounts in Mackenzie’s book refer to the period before the War. If ghosts are products of the human imagination’s response to real or imaginary outrages, then how can they be generated by the truly unimaginable outrage?

The modern ghost may well be more extrovert than his Victorian predecessor. Randy spectres fondling young ladies in council houses are all right in the pages of the Sun or the National Voyeur, but are hardly the right sort of company for the SPR. Modern ghosts are often drained of terror completely. The once-grim messengers are now reduced to competition with space-invader machines as tourist attractions in pubs. No longer even dim messengers of survival, perhaps memories of a lost history.

The poltergeist is the truly contemporary ghost, in its element in the age of the vandal. The poltergeist becomes a symbol of the shattering of society’s rules, the voice of the voiceless. The horror of contemporary fiction is now the super polt, heavy with fantasies of omnipotent destructive power. The quiet, old-fashioned ghost, like the spectre of little Johnny Minty, as described by Mackenzie, weeping endlessly for his mother, may pull at our heart-strings; the polts, evoked by Gauld and Cornell (4) or Rogo (6) can still give us the horrors. The emotion evoked by an attack by a poltergeist is the same as that of an attack by burglars or vandals, one of violation. It is this sense of violation of the home as a bastion against the forces of the wilderness outside, the overthrow of the safe rational world of everyday reason and common sense.

It must be said that the pre-poltergeist worlds of many of the victims do not seem especially safe or rational. The family discussed by Playfair (5) were already under the attention of social workers, and other polt families have had pretty severe problems. It is hardly surprising that both ‘normal’ and ‘paranormal’ trickery take place together; they are perhaps different means of expressing the same crisis.

Gauld and Cornell also describe place-centred polts, places which seem to be hostile. The old term ‘boggart’ seems aptly to describe this centre which generates confused multiform hallucinations and strange noises. Once again, is it not to the neighbours and the local community that we should look for reasons why a place becomes labelled ‘off-limits’? The only ‘message’ here seems to be: ‘Fear, fear’; ‘Get out’; ‘Boggart off!’

Ghosts are on the retreat, their role as dispensers of justice replaced by a modern police, their power to communicate across distances replaced by the telephone and television. Perhaps they have now faded forever beyond the reach of psychical researchers; soon the vandals will drive the polts away. Yet if their disappearance marks the end of our capacity for outrage, then we are in deep trouble. Maybe the ghosts of Belsen, of Hiroshima and of Kampuchea should
 howl and gibber and cry out for vengeance.


1. ELLIS-DAVIDSON, Hilda R and RUSSELL, W M S (Editors), The Folklore of Ghosts. Cambridge, D S Brewer, for the Folklore Society, 1981.
2. FINUCANE, R C, Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts. London, Junction Books, 1982.
3. MACKENZIE, Andrew, Hauntings and Apparitions. London, Heinemann, for the Society for Psychical Research, 1982.
4. GAULD, Alan and CORNELL, A O, Poltergeists. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul,1979. E9.95
5. PLAYFAIR, Guy Lyon, This House is Haunted: An Enfield Poltergeist. London, Souvenir Press, 1979. E6.95.
6. ROGO, D Scott, The Poltergeist Experience. Penguin, 1979.
7. RHINE, Louisa, The Invisible Picture – A Studuy of Psychic Experiences
8. MACFARLANE, Alan. Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964
9. WALKER, D. P. The Decline of Hell, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964
10. THOMAS, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. Penguin, 1973
11. HAMSON, J.F.C. The Second Coming; Popular Millenarianism 1780-1856. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
12. BRIGGS, Julia. Night Visitors; the Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story. Faber, 1977


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Jumpers and the Killer Monk of Beachy Head. Michael Goss

From Magonia 55, March 1996

Go to the N19 district of London, ask someone the whereabouts of Suicides’ Bridge. Unless that person is a stranger like yourself, the chances are heavily in favour of your being directed there right away. No painful brow-furrowing or other symptoms of urgent memory-searching, no doubt or vagueness; the answer will be with you in an instant.

Everyone in this part of North London seems to know that the metal-railed bridge carrying Hornsey Lane over the Al between Archway and Highgate is … Suicides’ Bridge. Look down from it into the vertically sided chasm below: you have the prospect of a long, straight drop onto a ceaselessly busy road and you will be inclined to agree that anyone who made the jump would be committing suicide. If the fall didn’t kill them, the traffic surely must… But perhaps you will be told the story I have heard on three occasions (and from three different people) concerning an unsuccessful jumper whom neither fall nor traffic accounted for. He plummeted onto the Al and lived. Lived on a permanent cripple, for he landed on his feet so that his legs were crushed and shortened concertina-fashion by the impact. It may be true, for all I know. More certainly the people who tell the story talk as if it was – and with a sort of macabre pride.

Suicides’ Bridge is remarkable chiefly because it is a high place with a sheer drop which an unusually high number of people in and around N19 are alleged to have selected as their point of exit from this world. Asking why so many have chosen this place and not somewhere else may seem redundant. It shares with other suicide venues dealt with in this article certain features that a suicidal person might regard as practical recommendations. Besides offering the aforementioned sheer drop to near-certain oblivion, it is accessible; you can get there easily – just walk onto it and once on you will find little or nothing (and probably nobody) to stop you from jumping off.

And once word gets around that a particular place is associated with an unusually high suicide rate – once this has passed into popular credence and perhaps, as in N19, into popular parlance, so that place will be colloquially known as Suicide Bridge, Pool, Leap or whatever – the likelihood is increased that would-be suicides will accept it in exactly these terms. Some will try to make use of its advertised facilities, thereby reinforcing the image. Given time and repetition of events, a species of suggestion might operate to which even persons uncursed by thoughts of self-destruction might succumb. Somebody finding him- or herself at this place might suddenly become oppressed by its associations – might spontaneously and without premeditation jump to their deaths.


Look down from it into the vertically sided chasm below: you have the prospect of a long, straight drop onto a ceaselessly busy road and you will be inclined to agree that anyone who made the jump would be committing suicide

 Yet apparently it takes more than being in a high place with a sheer drop to endow a place with the nominal, popular title of being a Suicide venue. Dr Jacqueline Simpson, current President of the Folklore Society, tells me that in Worthing there are three very similar multi-storey car parks. One of these has been favoured by potential (or actual) suicides, logging by her guess perhaps a dozen over a twenty-year period; the other two, despite being to all intents and appearances just as suitable for that purpose, have no comparable record (either no suicides whatsoever, or at most just a few). [1] Similarly, I recall that at one time Waterloo Bridge stood out from all competitors spanning the Thames. If you wanted to jump off a London bridge, you went to Waterloo. Again: why?

“Why did he do it? He had everything to live for…” If suicide is an act from which we attempt to distance ourselves – as we do, not always but frequently; if we profess ourselves unable to understand why a particular person killed him- or herself; and if we mutter sadly that the reason is lost in that individual’s private self, then the mystery is magnifies when we see so many people committing suicide, at different times but in the same place. What looks in individual cases like a private psychological mystery may now appear a general, metaphysical one. So we may begin to speculate that there could be Something about those places that encourages – no, forces – folk to commit suicide.

Our forefathers would have understood this. They would have been able to attach a name to the entity who urges humankind to self-destruction; wasn’t it known that suicide could only come from the prompting and tempting of the Devil? That certainty declines alongside the decline of belief in a quasi-material Satan. One of the great ironies about Spiritualism’s rise in the 19th century was a revivification or refinement of the old belief that suicide was a product of external, disembodied influence, a phenomenon that occurred at the instigation of demonic spirits, savage revenge-bound ghosts and elemental forms which might or might not hold some relationship to the other, more tractable varieties.

“I have … touched on the power of suggestion by Elementals, who, when being the spirits of those who have committed suicide or have been murderers or particularly evil-livers, seek to lure to destruction anyone who comes under their malign influence”

wrote Jessie Adelaide Middleton. [2] Hers was a personal approach, but not untypical of what many Spiritualists believed. And suppose these murderous spirits, or something like them, haunted certain high and lonely places, mesmerising the susceptible – and perhaps the less susceptible, likewise – into acts of self termination! Wouldn’t this explain the way so many suicides seem to “cluster” at particular, notorious locations?

One of the finest exponents of this idea was Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1965), author of more than thirty books of ghost stories. That total, by the way, ignores almost as many pieces of outright fiction and historical studies; it relates purely to what he claimed were true ghost stories. A goodly number of these starred a familiar hero, an endangered but undaunted investigator who rolled up his sleeves and took on the most malevolent phantoms imaginable in hand-to-hand combat. This sterling figure was none other than Elliott O’Donnell.

Vengeful, malevolent phantoms were an Elliott O’Donnell speciality and he had a particularly fine line in terrible elemental spirits who haunted pools, streams and crags, luring the unsuspecting to their doom. It is possible that he owed this preoccupation to an episode during his Dublin undergraduate days when, according to him, he was throttled by a homicidal phantom (not for the last time, either; O’Donnell seems to have suffered more than most ghost-hunters from spirits with a capacity for GBH). It is still more likely he copped it from the literary trend popularised by William Hope Hodgson in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (1913) or Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, two elementally challenged occultist detectives whom O’Donnell appears to have been determined to act in real life. [3]

There is the chief and obvious difference between O’Donnell and Carnacki or John Silence: he was real, they weren’t. His first-person testimonies may have been as fictional as theirs – one hopes! – but they were no less amazing. And there is some magic about O’Donnell’s writing that has made people want to take him at face value.

I don’t dwell upon Elliott O’Donnell for the pleasure of contemplating his fascinating larger-than-life persona, nor yet for the fun of calling him a wonderful liar, which isn’t an appropriate term to use when you are dealing with one who valiantly extended the great tradition of the Victorian First-Person-Attested Ghost Story well past its sell-by date. In my case, it would be crass ingratitude to write of him like that; I can’t forget that at the age of fifteen I thought his Trees of Ghostly

Dread the best book ever written. My motive is that for some time I suspected him to be the originator of a story which typifies the way that recurrent suicides are blamed upon occult influences: the Killer Monk of Beachy Head.

Jutting into the Channel near Eastbourne, Sussex, Beachy Head is a high place and one with a terrible reputation for suicides. The first time I ever saw it – as a child and in the misty distance – my parents solemnly informed me it was “the place people jump off to commit suicide”. That conditioned my feelings towards Beachy Head for ever more. It was only a matter of weeks ago when researching this article that I realised that I had never questioned this scenario. That Beachy Head had an unhealthily high suicide rate I didn’t and couldn’t doubt – but was it really as high as everyone seemed to pretend?

So I rang Eastbourne Police and asked – hesitantly: was it true that Beachy Head had or has a larger-than-usual number of suicides? The person at the other end plainly thought she was dealing with a fool. “Yes. A look in the newspapers will tell you that.” Not having the leisure to do so in any meaningful depth, I will quote some figures given by a journalist writing in 1976. According to him, Beachy Head averaged ten deaths a year, of which six would be ‘clear cases of suicide’; accidental falls, according to the same source, ‘are rare’, making the former figure a cautious under-estimate. [4]


 Jutting into the Channel near Eastbourne, Sussex, Beachy Head is a high place and one with a terrible reputation for suicides. The first time I ever saw it – as a child and in the misty distance – my parents solemnly informed me it was “the place people jump off to commit suicide

Rising to some six hundred feet at its tallest, Beachy Head might need nothing else to recommend it to would-be suicides. Notwithstanding, the large number has been tentatively blamed on the vengeful spirit of a monk left homeless when his monastery was sacked by Henry VIII’s officers. Hunted down mercilessly, shackled and hurled from the cliff, he is now supposed to haunt the Head, malevolently enticing susceptible victims to leap to their deaths.

Just when the Killer Monk stepped forward to provide a supernatural explanation for the Head’s deadly consistency is hard to establish. He does not appear to figure in any of the great Victorian or Edwardian collections of “true ghost stories” and, as I said before, at one time I suspected him to be another of Elliott O’Donnell’s productions, carrying as he does that writer’s trademark by being a merciless, malevolent spirit who seeks awful revenge upon the living. The truth is, though, that the only reference to Beachy Head I have found in O’Donnell appears at the start of chapter XXXIII in Haunted Britain (Rider, 1948). This doesn’t deal with any malevolent monks but (c/o an account published ‘some years before the last war’ by the Sunday Chronicle) with a filmy-white female figure seen by four people in the act of precipitating itself from the cliff edge. ‘A remarkable feature in many of the Beachy Head tragedies, and one that has never been satisfactorily explained, is that when the bodies of suicides have been found, the left shoe has been missing,’ concludes O’Donnell. As far as I am aware, no other investigator picked up that detail. It could be the key to everything.

Had Elliott O’Donnell a better tale than this to tell, he would surely have told it. Had he known anything of the Killer Monk in 1948, he would surely have been on his case. Still, we are talking about an author of too many titles (and of too many ephemerally published ones) for most researchers to hunt down. I would not be totally surprised to learn that the Killer Monk managed to creep into one or two of them; as it is, I can only repeat I have found no sign of him and have to conclude therefore that he came from somewhere else.. .probably.

Significantly, though, at least two accounts from now-defunct popular magazines point to an episode that may have promoted the “Killer Monk” image. [5] I have not found this story elsewhere, but knowing how such magazines routinely go to previously published accounts for their material I suspect there exists a much longer version which theirs helped to “feed back” into wider circulation. For certain, the Killer Monk incident enabled these writers to dramatise the fierce and fatal image that Beachy Head evokes for press and public alike.

The story dealt with the climax of an exorcism on Beachy Head in 1953, an event attended by one hundred people who gathered beneath wooden crosses and then illumination provided by the flashing of the lighthouse below. The real drama came when medium Ray de Vekey cried out that he “saw” a “bearded man … with a flowing robe with a cowl, like a monk … He is calling us a lot of fools .. Fools, I will sweep you over!”

Mr de Vekey began to struggle towards the cliff edge and had to be restrained from going over it. Later he would allege that he had been pulled or lured to this certain destruction by an ‘elderly monk with black markings on his habit and his arms and legs in irons’. His consolation was a sure feeling that the evil influence had been driven from the place. Tragically and bathetically, just three weeks later the headland claimed yet another victim.

This incident alone offered to give useful form and substance to the as yet ill-defined and unnamed Horror of Beachy Head. The Monk was a comprehensible personification of evil; he assigned cause to a series of separate acts of self-murder which, inevitably, might otherwise have been self-contained mysteries. The legend’s internal logic showed that the putative Monk had a terrible motive for his actions; through him, the victims had a motive for theirs. It all made sense.

And yet he does not appear to have succeeded in establishing himself as a popular sort of folk-demon. By this I mean that the Killer Monk of Beachy Head never became a widely circulating story. Being unable to find more on it than I have used to write the foregone summary, I asked Jacqueline Simpson whether she had heard this or any other legend of the kind concerning Beachy Head. As a keen and informed student of Sussex folklore (not to mention being authoress of The Folklore of Sussex, Batsford 1973) she seemed well placed to comment, the more so as she resides about fifteen miles westward along the coast from the monk-haunted head-land. 

Dr Simpson replied that she had heard no legends of any kind of ghost haunting Beachy Head – was unaware of any published reference to such – and added that none of the people to whom she had passed on my enquiry had heard of it, these including an enthusiastic collector of Sussex lore and books as well as a man with a long-standing investigative interest in the paranormal events of that county. Even allowing for the possibility that earlier folklore writers may have shunned placing so unsavoury a subject as suicide before their readers, she was inclined to regard the Killer Monk as a quite recent phenomenon, a quite-recently invented story and most likely no older than the de Vekey seance. The possibility that he was essentially invented by Ray de Vekey escaped neither Dr Simpson nor myself.

The Killer Monk of Beachy Head has all the indications of being a modern legend, then, but he cashes in on two antique motifs. The story is one of many exploiting the dramatic possibilities of the Dissolution with its cast of dispossessed monks and abbots. This epic drama has been a resource of folk-narrative for centuries; the Dissolution can be invoked as background for tales of tragedy and violence or more specifically as the rationale for a haunting. Most of all, it explores the belief that the injury and insult inflicted on the Church and its followers at this time would be sternly, strongly avenged. Usually this takes the form of a curse on those who usurp Church property; the new owners of the alienated abbey are prostrated by financial ruin, their children die in tragic accidents, the family line is extinguished etc. But here the revenge is more direct and a lot more physical.

In summary: the Killer Monk of Beachy Head is a modern legend whose precise source is unknown to this writer, but one which, on the evidence assembled here, was most likely a promotion of journalists around 1953. This nightmare-figure professes to explain the Head’s proven bad record of suicides, constituting itself around popular awareness that the place has such a record and the suspicion that it is sufficiently abnormal to require an abnormal explanation. In structure, it utilises a motif which is traditional (the curse of the Dissolution) but also literary – the latter by reference to concepts found in O’Donnell and most notably those relating to the immaterial existence of violent “elementals” whose sole pleasure lies in the destruction of humans. Ultimately, the Monk does not explain Beachy Head’s record, but testifies to the old credo that suicide is so aberrant an action that it must come about as a result of external and supernatural influences.

We can call him a bit of a failure, too. Melodramatic as he is, the Killer Monk does not appear to have penetrated Sussex folklore, oral or printed, to any appreciably deep level. I would have little excuse for writing about him were it not for the way he fits into a pattern which traces a narrative trend in the visualisation of suicide.

The Killer Monk is a symbolic expression of what we would like to blame suicide upon. Like the old-time Satan, he is supposed to be an immaterial enemy who operates on a mental level, tempting victims to jump off a high place. But he is also a Maniac figure, a disembodied version of what can be found in more contemporary legends which also offer to solve the mystery of why certain places are contaminated by so many suicides. The London Underground, which according to a BBC documentary suffers a couple of reported suicides each week, [6] has or had its own Platform Maniac whose dark doings I described back in the May 1985 issue of Magonia and more recently in Folklore Frontiers. [7] The Platform Maniac is not depicted as a ghost or disembodied entity – far from it: he is made all the more horrible for being human (and utterly, psychotically insane). Yet in practical terms he is as insubstantial as a phantom. Even his penchant for shoving victims to their doom beneath oncoming trains is in full conformity with the muscular activities of the ghosts and “elementals” that O’Donnell wrote about. From traditional ghost to modern urban maniac is but a short … step. (I nearly wrote “jump” there.)

Then I am reminded of The Golden Gate Murders, a 1979 movie which has been shown several times on British television. Set around San Francisco’s most famous feature (which no one needs reminding is also infamous as one of the world’s most popular sites for suicide attempts) the film stars Susannah York as a nun who teams up with a detective to investigate the death of a priest. Like many before him, he is thought to have ended his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge; the nun insists that not even the most depressed Catholic priest would commit the deadly sin of suicide. In its unassuming way, the plot explores our reluctance to believe that anyone could do such a thing, even if we don’t regard suicide as a deadly sin in the heroine’s strict Catholic terms. it also airs our suspicion that when a particular place becomes notorious for the numbers who do so, what looks like self-murder is in fact murder by Entity or Entities Unknown.

Susannah York was right, as it turned out. I hope I’ll spoil the pleasure of nobody who has yet to see the film if I give away that the priest did not jump off the Golden Gate Bridge: like all too many of those who went before him, he was pulled or pushed off. And by a veritable urban maniac who resides in the secret; steely recesses of the great structure.

The suicidal were once thought victims of the Devil’s temptation. Your modern Maniac is no psychologist and doesn’t bother with enticement, suggestion, mesmerism or anything like that. He simply grabs hold and pushes.


1. Personal communication (9 September 1995) from Dr Jacqueline Simpson, whom I would like to thank for information and comments on which I have drawn in this article. On the anomaly of why one of these car parks should be so distinguished Dr Simpson has no theory, although she notices that the fact it is opposite the offices of the local paper might influence the choice of someone wishing to exit with a certain amount of publicity.  

2. Jessie Adelaide Middleton, The White Ghost Book (Cassell 1916). The remark is made in context of (or advertisement for) the existence of similar suicide-ghost stories in her other books.

3. Richard Dalby’s ‘Elliott O’Donnell’ in Book and Magazine Collector 22 (December 1985), pages 38-43, offers an excellent short introduction to the life of the man who was, despite formidable competition from the likes of Harry Price, Britain’s best-known ghost-hunter. Best of all, it gives what the writer claims is a complete bibliography of O’Donnell’s work – a canon of such vast extent as to deter the hope of ever finding, let alone reading, all of it.

4. Anthony David (see note following)

5. Anthony Davis. ‘Curse of Beachy Head’, Titbits, 29 January-4 February 1976; Paul Grant, ‘Is Beachy Head Haunted by a Killer Monk?’, Weekend (no date, but some time in 1975). Any discrepancy in my version is likely to have occurred as a result of combining these two accounts.

6. I quote this figure – which I hope is an average – from a BBC documentary of the London Underground which was shown on 17 May 1989. The interviewee spoke of the investigation of these suicide reports as “a messy job but someone’s got to do it”.

7. Michael Goss, ‘The Maniac on the Platform‘, Magonia 19 (May 1985), pages 3-6 and 22; ‘September 1994: the news isn’t very good‘, Folklore Frontiers 23 (October 1994), pages 3-6. The latter was inspired by a report in The Guardian (13 September 1994, page 3) of a belligerent and plainly deranged man’s attempt to push a woman under a train at London Bridge station. For a more free-ranging study of legendary assailants, see my The Halifax Slasher and Other ‘Urban Maniac’ Tales’, a paper originally delivered at the Perspectives on Contemporary Legend Conference, Sheffield, 1988 and subsequently published with revisions in A Nest of Vipers. Perspectives an Contemporary Legend Vol. 5, edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith (Sheffield Academic Press 1990), pages 89-111.





And the Dog Began to Howl. Peter Rogerson

 From Magonia 27, September 1987 

The other day a young man came into my office, seeking the history of his house: who had lived in it and especially who might have died. Was it just curiosity? No, There was ‘something wrong’ with the house, where the baby would not sleep and the dog had begun to howl. Maybe, he thought, it was haunted.

The same day a woman came in trying to discover what occupied the land where her house now stood before it was built. She gave no reason, but on previous occasions this type of query has been stimulated by fears of hauntings. At least once a month someone comes to me with this type of enquiry.

These incidents are from my experience as a local history librarian in a northern town. It is apparent to me that there exist many unreported ‘haunted houses’, and that a powerful factor in this is a fear of the unofficial ‘off-campus’ history of the house. A history of the organic round of birth, procreation and, especially, death, which is perceived by the house’s current occupier as being oppressive, palpable and threatening. In some senses the house, ‘the home’, is an extension of the individual’s body or personality; hence the trauma induced by burglaries. Similarly the house is seen as having been imprinted, one might almost say contaminated, by the previous occupants. The house has borne witness to their most intimate moments.To the new occupant – the ‘incomer’ – the haunted house has a ‘history’ or a ‘reputation’ in a personal, almost sexual, way. The house is not a ‘virgin’. It has been violated by the presence of other human activity, which may afflict and infect the incomer. The sorts of questions which are asked about the haunted house’s previous owners or tenants are the sorts of questions one might ask about one’s partner’s previous sexual partners.

The main terror inspired by these previous occupants is that they are dead, gone, finished; that they are not continuing the organic round elsewhere. They have become part of history, their lives cannot be experienced, only inferred.

One of the cornerstones of sceptical historical philosophy is that historical events cannot be directly known about; all we have access to are the written and structural documents left by past generations, from which history may be ‘reconstructed’. [1] This history vbecomes the formal history, the ‘campus history’, the history taught in schools, the network of kings and dates. Perhaps also a rather mare intimate history reconstructed from diaries, wills, reports, enquiries and the press.

But there is another history, the oral history of folk memory, ballads, songs, stories learned at mothers knee, passed on across generations – ‘off-campus’ history. Unlike the documents of campus history, this still has a power over the living, it can still be experienced. It is a kind of folklore, often at dramatic odds with the documentary history. It is a history which is a present reality, shaping the lives and experiences of its hearers. The ‘history’ of haunted houses, is very much an ‘off-campus, peoples’ history, a folklore of what should be true rather than documentary truth.

At the heart and core of much ghostlore is a belief that certain events taking place in a space or territory forever render that space an inappropriate location for the mundane activities of life. The events remove it from the realm of secular to sacred space.

The Herald of Free Enterprise - It belongs to history and too its victims all else are intruders

It now belongs to history, and to its victims all else are intruders.

To take an example: most people (this writer among them) would consider it highly inappropriate for the salvaged Channel Ferry The Herald of Free Enterprise ever to be used to carry passengers again. Its only morally coherent fate would be for it to be taken into deep. deep waters and scuttled. An analysis of the reasons for this feeling is difficult because a-rational, but would clearly centre on the sense of the Herald’s place as a catastrophic scar on the memories of the living. It now, like Abraham Lincoln, belongs to history, and to its victims all else are intruders.

Here then is another step towards the social history of the haunted house. In popular imagination it is a place where an event has happened which closes the life of the house and consecrates it to a particularmoment of history. This is principally because the community now sees that place as a monument to that event. Even if no documentary ‘campus’ history attaches itself to the building, the sense of moral coherence demands that such history be supplied. Having been consecrated to history, the price to be paid for its violation is for the violator to directly experience history.

Hence the sign of the haunted house is its invisible parallel life wherein history is recapitulated. [2] Furthermore this history is experienced often as wilderness/chaos. This equation between history and wilderness operates because of the pervasive power that history has on us – the lives of all readers of Magonia are conditioned by the fact that, e.g., the Allies won World War II and not the Axis. History is an irreducible fait accompli: a brute, unchanging fact of nature. It has immense power over us, but we have no power at all over it.That is not all, as Gould and Cornell point out. [3] In ‘real’ cases it is difficult to separate out poltergeists and hauntings. Note that in parapsychological folklore poltergeists are associated with the ‘awakening’ of the sexual energies of adolescents, hauntings with events taking place after death. Poltergeist disturbances are thus connected with the emergence of potentialities to create life (before the beginning), hauntings are connected with the fading away of what was once a life (after the end).

Polts and haunts thus mark the alpha and omega of the organic round; together they form a symbol for the creation and destruction of life. Sexuality, procreation, birth and death belong to the wilderness and they are barely contained within the structures of society. The shattering of the family home and property represents the incapacity of the family to tame the raw energies of creation and destruction.

Ghosts, haunts and polts then are the signs of the liminal zones between being and not being: the history of the haunted house is the history of repetitions of this organic round, or its dramatic severance. Amongst the commonest motifs is that of the friendly or, hostile house. The house appears to accept or reject the incomer, and the incomers sense of ease or unease is projected onto the house, aided and abetted by subtle clues from neighbours.

The theme of hostile houses suggests a confusion between people and places: the disturbed house is a metaphor for disturbed family dynamics. For example, one of Mackenzie’s female correspondents reported that her childhood had been made unhappy by a ‘hostile presence’ in her house, centred on a bedroom which made her “pale and thin unlike all the other children”, and which made her reluctant to return home from school. [4] These are typical symptoms of a victim of child abuse. This lady’s mother refused to discuss the incidents, saying her own childhood had been made unhappy by the psychic delvings of her mother.

In another case a woman claimed that a hostile presence nearly caused the breakup of her marriage: her husband laughing at her fears caused her to panic and fall down stairs on more than one occasion – giving hints of suppressed violence.

In a case from Birmingham in 1955, a poltergeist was blamed for the death of a month-old baby. Raps and whisperings were heard in the house, and a four-year-old child saw a ‘dog’ sitting on the baby’s face. [7,8]

At present no detailed studies exist which look at the haunted house from the ‘new parapsychological’ perspective. Osborne’s study of The Woman in Brown’ [5], or Fodor on ‘Ash Manor’ [6] being exceptions. Each such incident may be pregnant with meaning, for the experient, even the story may be selected because it deals with the incomer’s problems.

In the case of ‘The Woman in Brown’, the appearance of ‘the woman’ to the central percipient when a telephone rang, was traced through a network of past traumatic experiences, both real and fantisised, involving sudden death and blankets. In the Ash Manor case, the incidents revolved round a couple’s sexual conflicts.

In such cases ‘dead things which will not lie down’ from the percipient’s personal history, become connected with or projected onto the dynamic of the off-campus history of the territory where the events take place. The ‘objectivity’ and collective nature of such incidents derives from a collective fantasy producing traumas with much drama, the ‘ghost story’ of a property, may, on closer reflection, show some correspondence to the personal concerns of the living. Such stories often involve violation of profound taboos, domestic murder, suicide, infanticide and forbidden passions.

It is difficult to say of course, how many alleged poltergeists are covers for domestic violence. This break-down of traditional family mores leads to a reversal of the home and family as a bastion against the forces of outer chaos. The haunted house is transformed into a wild anti-home, a place to flee from in fear, instead of run to for security. The majority of haunted houses are not the property of the occupiers. The traditional Victorian haunted house was the short-lease house, where the servants come with the property. The archetypal modern haunted house is the council house. Such houses literally ‘belong to someone else’. They are perhaps more ‘used’, have more off-campus history than other, more settled, houses. There is a greater likelihood of a failure of bonding between the occupant and the house.

I have previously argued that the idea of the changeling arose as a mechanism to rationalise child abuse and the failure of parental bonding. The parents’ feelings of hatred, aggression and alienation are projected onto the child itself, turning it into a hostile alien presence. May not a similar mechanism exist for houses: the incomer’s sense of alienation from the house or community, and their failure to experience the house as ‘home sweet home’ are projected onto the house, now regarded. like the changeling child, as a hostile, threatening presence.It is also possible that a sizeable proportion of haunted houses are ‘first time’ homes, wherein young couples are experiencing the strains of marriage and adult responsibilities, and where the home is a source of worry rather than idealised domestic bliss. The problems of the ‘home’, in the sense of family life, becomes projected on the physical structure of the house. Alienation from the home becomes experience of the house as alien. 

The mediums and exorcists who visit such houses know what their clients want and need: a good costume melodrama, full of fire and passion and suffering, which like a TV soap, tells the audience “You think you’ve cot problems…!” Such stories contain stock situations which inform the community of expected norms.

There is a school of sociologists which argues that society needs criminals and deviants to denounce, in order to demonstrate its rules and solidify the community in upholding them. The haunted house is a marking-stone of the violation of community taboos, a scapegoat in brick and stone for all the dark and unworthy secrets of the community. Do the incomers then take upon themselves the traumas of the whole commuity? Do they become involuntary sin eaters?


  1.  MEILAND, Jack W. Scepticism and historical knowledge (Random House studies in philosophy) Random House, 1965.
  2.  The noises groans and bangings reported in haunted houses are remarkably reminiscent of those of a charivari or rough riding, In this traditional ritual the members of the community whose norms had been violated would parade outside the offender’s house banging pots, making groans and other noises, throwing pebbles at the windows, indeed generally behaving just like poltergeists, to make life unpleasane. The incomer had violated the taboo against entering space reserved for hauntings, Indeed, traditional lore connects hauntings with the violation of specific taboos, such as building houses over graveyards, playing with Ouija boards or dancing on graves, all of which violate the sanctity and separateness of history and the ancestors.
  3.  GAULD, Alan and CORNELL, A. D.  Poltergeists Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  4.  MACKENZIE, Andrew.  Seen and Unseen: Study of Presences, Apparitions and Other Paranormal Phenomena. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1987.
  5.  OSBORNE, Edward, ‘The ‘Woman in Brown; an investigation of an apparition’, Journal of the SPR vol. xxxv, no, 655 (Nov-Dec, 1949), pp, 123-53.
  6.  FODOR, Nandor. The Haunted Mind: A Psychoanalyst Looks at the Supernatural, Helix Press, 1959.
  7.  MOSS, Peter. Ghosts Over Britain. Sphere 1979.
  8.  BRADDOCK, Joseph. Haunted Houses 1956 

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Nightmares, Sex and Abductions. Manfred Cassirer

From Magonia 31, November 1989


Demonologists of the Renaissance – generally much less enlightened or humane than one would have expected – subtly distinguish the male incubus from his female counterpart (succubus). The former derives etymologically from Incubate (‘to lie down’), while the latter is a derivation of succubare (‘to lie under’).

The advantage of using the term ‘nightmare is that it is so familiar. It is however misleading in this context since it implies sleep, when in fact the experiences under discussion are always stated to involve full consciousness of one’s surroundings, e.g. of a light shining through a door in one of my cases. In Hufford’s words: “The victims are awake and … hear and see and feel odd-sounding things” [2]

Confusion has been created by Freudian interpretations arbitrarily forced on the data. Hufford, evidently ill at ease in this Procrustean bed, has cleared the air by explaining there are “at least three types of nocturnal experiences: a variety of dreams [of the REM-type], sexual encounters with ‘supernaturals’ … and attacks of the Old Hag type without any obvious sexuality.” [2] It is the latter which are akin to and ‘readily assimilated to witchcraft beliefs’.

As Old Hag attacks have attracted less attention than, say, nightmares, I shall start by summarising a typical example. It is of additional interest in incorporating elements suggestive of UFOs and the paranormal in general.

It commenced with the sighting of “a light across the Bay” in Canada. ‘John’, the experient, regards this episode with ill-deserved contempt and practically dismisses it as of no importance. His account meanwhile contains “all four of the primary Old Hag features”, including awareness of being awake, immobility with some possible sensation of pressure, and normal perception of the surroundings. Paranormal footsteps (standard features of haunted houses) are incorporated; a self-luminous figure glows in the dark.

Historically by 1100, Christian dogma concerning the gross double-act of demonic molestation and assault was “solidly established as an article of learned faith throughout Western Europe”‘. Oddly enough, recent study has established a similar syndrome on a more solidly investigated foundation as still flourishing in Newfoundland and elsewhere. Alleged violations of the human body by obscure and sinister entities is said to be all the rage, even if unconnected with black magic rituals. However:

“The precise distinctions which were made … between voluptuous sleep-related experiences and attacks of the Old Hag type are difficult to determine.”

As recorded by Cotton Mather [7], paralysis and fear were are induced through spectral visitation to one Richard Coman, the occult agency working through a New England sorceress being blamed. the attack was nocturnal, the subject – as in some poltergeist cases – was thrown out of bed, or almost so. It is an above average example of ‘spectral evidence’ brought before the courts.According to Persona (1328-1421) an unusual incubus-like creature flourished in Germany in the house of a certain “renowned knight”, attracted by his beautiful sister. Numerous as the creature’s accomplishments were, they did not include visibility, but the hands “slender and soft” were much in evidence, and it is a fact that ‘spirit hands’, detached from the body and often of a pleasant appearance, are amply attested in the mediumistic literature.

If we can believe Guazzo, females enslaved by the power of darkness were rewarded with an incubus in the form of a “rank goat” – an animal then most unjustly despised. Caietano, who wrote on witchcraft [4] knew of “a woman in love whom the devil anointed naked, promising that he would take her to her lover”. In an unconscious state she imagined that she was with him, but it was only a delusion.

According to Johann Meyfarth (1635) not only hundreds of women, but (he regretfully admits) even men, confessed to having had sex with demons. This however was dismissed as an illusion by no less a scholar than Thummius on account of the anatomical shortcomings of the spirits. Basically a fallen angel, Satan is incorporeal, but can shape a body for himself from a corpse. Having done so he is free to copulate, but first he must collect the semen. Brooding in the solitude of their cells, the undefiled godly brethren gave vent to their limited imagination, in which one is none too pleasantly reminded of abduction scenarios and rape by semi-human monsters described by Hopkins and Strieber, whether of heaven or earth [10].

At one time dismissed by Mother Church as salacious dreams, this sort of thing came to be taken deadly seriously, but by the time of Louis XV it was considered a huge joke. Incubi and the like were now considered as at best figments of the imagination, leading the way to the ultimate disinterpretation of the phenomenon as such. Still it could serve a useful purpose as a convenient alibi:

“To conceal sin, a woman, a girl, a nun in name only, a debauchee, who affects the appearance of virtue, will palm off her lover for an incubus spirit which haunts her.” [7]

As a cloak for concupiscence it served Bishop Sylvanus, whose physical form was assumed by a certain Sister’s incubus, undeterred apparently by the still distant prospects of the jibes of the Elizabethan Regina Scot and, no doubt, of other unsung more contemporary puritanical sceptics.

In a similar vein is Sinistrari’s moral tale about the religious who locked herself in after dinner. An inquisitive Sister bored a hole through the wall of her cell, when all was revealed: an all-too-earthly lover was masquerading as a spirit from the deep. On the other hand was it a genuine specimen notorious, it is said, for singing “the most dirty songs” (no examples being given) in which his modest virgin victim refused to join?

For once there is a happy ending, for the girl’s prayers and tears drove away the Evil One, and thus Margaret of Cortona was left in peace. When it comes to the question of the sex act, there is a marked lack of consensus of learned opinion among prelates, who had not as yet learned to confine their attention to matters political. Some had felt confident to assert that it gratified the demons themselves, but this is not the considered opinion of Thomas Aquinas, a man of superior authority in all matters relating to witchcraft and demonology.

“Heretofore… Incubus was fain to ravish women against their will”. However, after what seems a rather arbitrary watershed in 1400 there was an unexplained change so that now: “Witches consent willingly to their desire”

A similar unresolved dilemma relates to the victims of lewd demonic attention: at times it would be presented as almost rapturous, but at others the very reverse, and Scot quotes Nider to the effect that: “Heretofore… Incubus was fain to ravish women against their will”. However, after what seems a rather arbitrary watershed in 1400 there was an unexplained change so that now: “Witches consent willingly to their desire” [8]

If Nider was right – and his authority is perhaps too great to be successfully challenged – and morals were no longer what they were before that critical date, it may seem strange that there are nowadays once more so many reported cases of forced intercourse with the demons. Meanwhile, Nider gains support from stories such as that of the seventeenth century girl who, pursued by a fiendish spirit “seemed almost afraid of being delivered from the devil.” [7] Worse is to come – a nubile German witch was so depraved that she actually summoned her incubus!

What then of the offered pleasures of the Striatum or Witches’ Sabbath, those secret nocturnal gatherings promising prospects of every indulgence of the flesh? Retrospectively they seem very inviting from almost every point of view. Exceptionally, Petrus Valderma in 1617 depicts the participants sitting at “tables served… with the most delicious dishes and exquisite wines”, for those who were not too particular since the very waiters were demons – an experience to which some of us have occasionally been subjected. As if to soften the blow of the sinister catering service,

the refreshments were followed by alluring “sound of the most charming music” (no suggestive ditties here) and, the lights having been put out, the ample gratification of one’s every desire. [3]. But Valderma tactfully omits to mention that this “marvellous food” (as it is described elsewhere) could really consist of sickening bits of grass and worms as in the case of the fairy banquets laid on for abductees. [9] The Devil being allergic to the cleansing properties of salt, the goodies were habitually serve unseasoned.The long catalogue of crimes attributed to witches includes ligatures to cause impotence at weddings and other occasions. Christian Stridtbeckh, in his Van den Hexen (1723) describes five different ways of achieving this for the over-curious, some apparently too indelicate to narrate. [3], so that for once I can spare your blushes. However, lest you should think that theology is a dry-as-dust affair, I shall quote the eminent divine Adam Tenner who in 1617 published his illuminating Tractatus Theologicus dealing with, amongst other matter, the deadly perversions of witchcraft and similar associated enormities.

Tanner “calls attention to the assemblies held of both sexes, sometimes by day and sometime by night, in which every kind of sexual excess occurs. These may be called true schools of the Devil and seminaries of witches of both sexes, all the more injurious that no-one disapproves of or attaches blame to them. Recently, when a Jesuit happened upon one of these gatherings and reproved it, he scarcely escaped without bodily injury and when another sought to abolish them he Was told that they were the ancient customs of the land” [4]

The phenomenology of the paranormal has an uncanny way of adapting to new developments in culture and philosophy, and of fooling us in the process. Those who study the data of folklore, psychical research and ufology in isolation deprive themselves effectively of all hope of obtaining any profound measure of understanding of the underlying causes of these strange anomalies. None is more obscure and inscrutable than the Incubus/Succubus syndrome, and – in the update of the day – the Old Hag survival, taken with the more unpalatable aspects of the so-called UFO abductions, which retain all the vitality, as well as the mystery, of ancient occult lore.

A recent, and less extreme, example is what happened to Elsa, a young Englishwoman. Some years back she was living in a London hostel. One night in 1973 she awoke to find a girl “pacing up and down”. A light was shining through the door of the hall, but Elsa was very scared, especially when the figure lifted the cover of her bed to get in. In her written report Elsa says:

“I then saw the body bearing down on me and at the same time my head crashed back on the pillow very quickly as if it had been pushed. I heard a loud cracking sound as my head hit the pillow and I was unconscious.”Similar cases are numerous, and Scott Rogo cites a recent one of psychological orientation stressing the ‘sexual influence’ exerted on a middle-aged man by a nocturnal apparition in which Rogo detects overtones of feelings of guilt and

MacKenzie has just published something that happened to the late Dr Dewsbury, under the general heading ‘Something Under the Bed’ [5]: at three o’clock in the morning this psychiatrist and SPR council member had also encountered a ‘bedroom invader’ when he was “violently roused by the mattress being pushed from underneath as if by someone under the bed”.You may say that paranormal interference with beds is old hat; if so I shall be the last to argue with you. As usual, there was nothing to account for the disturbance, any more than for the rocking motion complained of to Hubbard, or in what Professor Kittredge has christened the ‘bedclothes trick’, in which the covers are pulled off the unwary sleeper, whether by goblins or by marginally more respectable poltergeists.

Andrew MacKenzie, once more, discusses the phenomenon of ‘a stranger in the bed’, so graphically described by my friend Elsa. This time the location is the French capital. Mrs Bourget and her husband were staying in a Paris hotel in 1962. Suddenly she woke to the “impression of being between two persons”. She became oppressed by a sensation of evil, which she stoutly refused to dismiss as a nightmare. Mrs Hellstroem of the Swedish Society for Psychical Research fared no better when two successive nocturnal phantoms invaded the privacy of a large double-bed.It may well be argued that prejudice too hastily dismisses ancient records as the worthless superstitions of credulous folk engulfed in an age of unreason in which man’s critical faculties were as yet insufficiently evolved; the more so when in one form or an other the beliefs reflected by them have survived in basic substance the shock of intel-lectual revision of cultural change, and modern obsession with technological advances.

An exceptionally knowledgeable writer has recently suggested that acceptance of UFO reports may be as baseless as those of witchcraft. Before this conclusion becomes part of accepted fact, one must consolidate the

validity of statements on the lines that the whole black magic syndrome can be adequately explained away as “a plausible fantasy created by the Church … and accepted by the common people”, it being in actual fact nothing more than “a combination of social and psychological forces” [9, p 376].

Wearied with the rehearsal of so many lecheries most horrible and very filthy and fabulous actions and passions … together with spirit Incubus, I will end

Fashions change, and not only in clothes, though the emperor’s are perennial. At one time it was assumed with confidence that the Reformation had done away with ghosts and apparitions. Few people nowadays think of disarranged beds as pointing towards the mischievous activities of goblins, since goblins are rightly unpopular at the moment. At the same time, it is not considered absurd in certain quarters to envisage the existence of entities hailing from ever-expanding distances of outer space that fly about in preposterous machines for the purpose of impregnating us for reasons best known to themselves. They are no longer the Biblical ‘giants’ of old, but equally implausible specimens of an assumed advanced state of more fashionable science.

Meanwhile, let us admit that we are indeed faced with mysteries in many ways beyond our powers of comprehension, but on which psychology, and its more recent parameter’ parasychology, can throw much light. It is in the direction of their arcane castramentation that we must look for enlightenment, For the present though, being (like Squire Scot) “wearied with the rehearsal of so many lecheries most horrible and very filthy and fabulous actions and passions… together with spirit Incubus, I will end”.


  1. HOPKINS, Budd, Missing Time, Marek, N, Y,, 1981.
  2. KITTREDGE, G. L, Witchcraft in Old and New England Harvard, 1928.
  3. LEA, H, L, Materials Toward a History of (3 Vols) Witchcraft, Yoseloff, N, Y,, 1951.
  4. STRIEBER, W. Communion: A True Story, Arrow, 1988.


The Phantom Hitch-Hiker on Public Transport. Michael Goss

From Magonia 22, May 1986magonia-22


Hitch-Hiker legends are still handled according to the model promoted by Richard K. Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey, whose California Folklore Quarterly paper not only brought the wide distribution of this itinerant road ghost to the attention of other collectors, but also brought it to heel – in the sense that the four main versions of the legend defined by them provided a workable means of classifying each fresh example as it occurred [1]. (For readers new to the game, these variants were: 

    • Version A – the Hitch-Hiker identified as the spirit of a deceased road accident victim who haunts the scene of her demise and usually on the anniversary of that terminal event;
    • Version B – the Hitch-Hiker, who may well be an old woman or a nun, vanishes after uttering some sort of prophecy;
    • Version C – another deceased girl, often encountered at a dance or bar, who borrows some article of clothing from the ‘witness’ which he later retrieves from her grave;
    • Version D – the Hitch-Hiker is a deity, e.g. the Hawaiian goddess Pele.

The popularity and logicality of this classification scheme doesn’t prevent researchers from realigning material to demonstrate other common patterns or submotifs, however. As just hinted, a new or newish category looks at the way in which the Hitch-Hiker eschews the normal privately-owned vehicle and boards a public one – a bus or taxi.

Unless ghosts are endowed with either a spiritual indemnity from fare paying or a spectral season ticket, these excursions on public transport seem to imply that, technically speaking, the beings concerned are not true hitch-hikers. The whole point of thumbing a ride, as many would agree, is that you aren’t going to pay for it; whereas these ghost appear quite willing (again, technically speaking) to conform to custom by handing over their cash. In practise, as we are about to discover, they frequently find ways to avoid this expense – ways that would leave human free-riders dumb with envy, if not with disbelief. Additionally, folklorists perceive too many points of uniformity between these yarns and the more typical Hitch-Hikers to allow the motif to set up as an independent story. Rather, the Phantom Hitch-Hiker on Public Transport is a variant form and moreover one which could have been predicted. the virility, relevance and continued popularity of the tale as a whole depends on its ability to update certain details, one technique of which is to portray the Hitch-Hiker travelling by means of the most common (and credible) kind of transport pertaining to the age and culture against which the story is set. Hence, the bus or taxi is a perfectly legitimate ploy.

I was reminded of this thanks to a cutting from the Sunday Express of 16th February 1986 (p.2) forwarded to me by Bob Rickard of Fortean Times. Now the Sunday Express has a decided fondness for the Hitch-Hiker, chronicling his or her latest stopping-off points wheresoever on the globe they may occur; in the space of just seven weeks in 1979, for example, it gave us two near-classic specimens: the adventure of Roy Fulton outside Dunstable being upstaged by motorcycle cop Mahmood Ali’s confrontation with the vengeful spirit of the beautiful Nessera Begum at Peshawar, Pakistan. Contin-uing its tradition of picking up more Hitch-Hikers than are dreamed of by the average foaflorist (or motorist), the Express now had this little gem to unleash on its readers:


Taiper: A Taiwan bus company near Tainan, 200 miles south of Taipei, has been forced to cancel the evening run to an isolated village because of a ghost. Passing through tall, shadowy, sugarcane fields, the driver picked up a young girl passenger, but by the time the bus journey ended the girl had vanished. The company’s other frightened drivers insisted a Taoist priest exorcise the haunted vehicle before it was used again.

Connoisseurs of the Phantom will relish this latest addition to the canon. Not only because it is always pleasant to be able to mark up a new locale among the already diverse settings registered for the story, but because it has certain elements which, without being absolutely unique, help it to escape the overall stereotyping that usually accompanies the Hitch-Hiker narrative. The careful, slightly artificial scene-setting – ‘an isolated village… tall, shadowy sugar cane fields’ – creates a sort of ‘Orientalised Gothic’ effect which subsumes claustrophobia and menace; unlike most Hitch-Hiker venues in, say, the United States or Britain, the incidents is placed away from crowded civilisation in the night-time haunts of all imagin-able kinds of inhuman forces and beings. Malaysian stories are also rich in ‘wilderness’ settings; a lonely strip of road through dense forest is the most likely place for a driver to be thumbed down by a Hitch-Hiker.. .and she may easily turn out to be a langsuyar or vampire spirit. The final note about the Taoist exorcism is another nice orientalizing touch.

But the very fact that the ghost has created work for Taoist exorcists is a clue to the fact that the Hitch-Hiker has taken on a fresh role: it is now an agent of localised hysteria. Formerly its impact was confined to one person, namely the motorist-hero who stops for the girl at the

roadside. The shock element, the hero’s realisation that she is no girl at all but a supernatural being, may be implicit in these more typical stories – we would naturally expect the hero to be ‘shaken up’, even if the narrator omits to inform us of as much – or overt, as when we hear that he took to his bed soon afterwards with a high fever, went insane, died… or all three. (A common fate for victims in Beardsley and Hankey’s Version C tales, incidentally, and virtually inescapable if you meet a lang-suyar.) But that is the personal fate of a single person; the Hitch-Hiker presents no threat to the community en masse. The Taiwanese case is one of several recent stories to depart from this comfortable ethos. Here we read of a fear that severs a [vital?] communications link between Tainan and the ‘isolated village’ once night descends: a situation which conjures forth Jim Corbett’s remarks about the siege-mentality that grip-ped Indian jungle settlements when a man-eating tiger was on the prowl.

The malevolent, disruptive influence of the ghost seems to me a fairly modern or novel feature of Hitch-Hiker stories. It has surfaced a few times in European examples, usually taking the form of some statement suggesting that a species of localised hysteria is rife, corroborated by allegations that motorists have been panicked into acts of dangerous driving. At Griefnau, Germany in 1973, a police chief was said to have imposed a ban (and £200 fine) on spreading the story of an ominous old lady in black – one of the prophecy-and-vanish school – who made one witness almost swerve into an approaching vehicle and terrified parents into keeping their children off the road regardless of whether it was night or day. Better still, the young male Hitch-Hiker whose prophetic powers were limited to an announcement of the Second Coming allegedly inspired drivers at Ekenassjon, southern Sweden to “speed down the road without stopping for traffic signals, police said. Or they go miles out of their way to avoid what they call the ghost’s favourite cross-roads for hitching a lift”. (Guardian 31 October 1980, but papers from the USA to Japan carried the same story, presumably as a Hallowe’en filler). It will be intriguing to see if this submotif of Hitch-Hiker Menaces Community – always a remote community, notice: – undergoes any further development.

The Taiwanese Hitch-Hiker’s trend towards public transport cannot be seen as a totally modernist or modernizing piece of innovation. In their original 1942 paper Beardsley and Hankey give an undated version from Du Quoin, Illinois where two lads bringing a bus from one town to another through a rain-storm stop to pick up a girl in white; she vanishes routinely after letting slip her address which they subsequently visit (also routinely) to learn that she has been killed in a car-crash four years previous. (In fact the bus is about the only original feature in this yarn). More ingenious is the tale sent to me by Paul Screeton in response to my appeal for Hitch-Hiker material a few years back [2].

The girl-ghost flagged down a United bus driven by a Mr Weatherall at a place called Pittington End near Haswell Plough, Co. Durham, requesting to be dropped at Sherburn Hill and apologising for the fact that she’d no money to pay her fare. Mr Weatherall reasoned that the young lady had been “put out” of a car (by a frustrated boyfriend?) and took pity on her penniless plight – a charitable act ill-repaid, when he found the passenger had vacated the moving bus. Not surprisingly the terrified man was glad when other people got on shortly afterwards. It’s interesting to read that although the witness claimed to have heard a story about a girl who had died in a tragic accident in this area, the police could not confirm the rumour… nor for that matter, had they previously heard anything about this Phantom Hitch-Hiker.

Another ghostly passenger who travels free of charge is an old lady dressed in a dark grey cloak: an apparition seemingly less place-bound than the average spectre, according  to Jack Hallam’s description of her activities [3]. Perhaps bored with her perambulations around the ruins of Oxney Court overlooking St Margaret’s Bay near Dover, she has been known to venture out onto the Deal road where she was once picked up by a double-decker. In a novel variant upon the mundane techniques of fare-evasion, she went upstairs and vanished before the conductor could collect her money. But in the next specimen the phantom spurns such paltry behaviour; she vanishes, of course, but not before handing over her fare which (as Steve Moore pondered when passing the relevant clipping on to me) may disappoint tourists. This short item is from Singapore’s Straits Times of 22nd May 1956 and another example of Hiker Hysteria. Malay women in Kampong Mahmudiah and Jalan Mariamah (Johore Bahru) are supposed to have cultivated the habit of locking their doors every evening at 7 p.m. for fear of a supposed ghost, a very beautiful female who used strong perfume. She was seen (and very likely smelled) boarding a bus from the town centre, buying a ticket, taking a seat… but somewhere near the Malay graveyard en route for Kampong Mahmudiah she disappeared. Eastern stories are highly prone to mentioning graveyards as Hitch-Hiker embarkation or disembarkation points – a rather theatrical element which is meant to arouse the readers’/listeners’ sense of unease and prepare him for the supernatural denoument – and generally assigned to the ‘C’ variants of Beardsley and Hankey. Police spokesmen, whom folklorists regard as ‘authority figures’ invoked to inject a specious credibility into urban legends are apparently available in Eastern climes also, but the quoted comments which end the article make it plain that there was no official cognisance of these disturbances. The reference to a perfumed, vanishing spectre brings to mind a Malaysian case testified to by Weekend reader Cedric Davidson-Acres, who claimed to have encountered his silent, frangipani-scented and needless to add disappearing Hitch-Hiker amidst the forested roads to Kedah Bridge [4].

But when the Phantom Hitch-Hiker travels by public transport, it is more usually by taxi. Ignoring citations of taxi drivers duped by Gary (Indiana’s) celebrated Cline Avenue Ghost [5], early cases include Beardsley and Hankey’s two prophetic nuns-in-cabs (Case 18: Chicago 1941; Case 19: San Francisco 1942), both of whom were ‘identified’ when dropped at their respective convents; in the SF version the driver identifies his erstwhile passenger from a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary (“After the sister explained the identity of the statue, he went to the police-station to check his sanity”. Where else would you go to check your sanity?).

The same folklorists’ Example 33 offers an undated Washington variant in which a deceased woman travels home by taxi every anniversary of her death – leaving her bereaved husband to answer the driver’s ring at the doorbell, relate the harrowing story… and pay the fare as well. in 1941 Haruo Aoki heard a similar tale from a Guntaku Cab Company employee, the scene this time being the Korean city of Kunsan [6]. The driver has to pick up a cashless girl at the municipal crematorium – hmm: suspicious in itself – and takes her to a (named) hardware store, into which she goes on the understanding that she will reappear shortly with the fare for her trip. “Because Mr Shimo had kept a store at the same locality for many years and was a respected citizen, the driver waited outside without any misgivings”. . . until his patience frays at the girl’s failure to come back. On knocking at the door the hero suffers the doom of a typical Version C witness: there is a sob-story from the bereaved mother and the identification of the absconded fare from a picture of the deceased upon the wall. Oh yes, and the driver dies (of shock?) not long afterwards.

The inference is that the Kunsan story was an American import to Korea and this may also account for the ‘Nightwalker of Nago’, another taxi hailing Hitch-Hiker represented in a spate of cabbie stories from around Neha, Okinawa in the early 1960s [7]. The Nightwalker, a woman in her twenties, with close-cropped hair and black slacks, always appeared on a mountain road between the US Marines’ Camp Schwab and the fishing village of Nago, to which she asked to be taken. According to several taxi-drivers (who are, for once, named) she said nothing else before vanishing in the approved mysterious manner. As such it is one of those oddly truncated Hitch-Hiker stories in which the phantom simply appears and then disappears – a purposeless procedure which is anathema to her folklore relatives, who value their identity enough to give drivers sufficient clues like addresses for them to discover it in due course. There is no indication of her motive beyond that: no connection with a tragic accident, no identification-data and, unfortunately, no hint that the researcher tried to challenge the assumption that the tale was more than another piece of relocated folklore.

On a more comic level is another Malaysian example courtesy of Steve Moore and Bob Rickard yet again [8]. Before the scented ghost of Johore Bahru had time to leave footprints (or tyre-marks) a 64-year-old ‘driver’ named Lam Huat of Kuala Kangsar was entering into a financial transaction of a very unfruitful kind with a lovely young woman who wanted to be taken to a spot near the – wait for it. – Hokkien cemetery, to which end she hoped to hire his trishaw; an ethnic equivalent of the taxis we have been considering. Lam, who’d been sitting on the kerb wishing he had just a few cents for a cup of tea, didn’t think it odd that the girl weighed so little and when the mile-long journey to the cemetery gate was over he gladly pocketed the two dollar-notes she gave to him. Pedalling back to town scarce able to believe his luck, old Lam examined the cash. Horror of horrors – shades of faerie gold – the two notes were burnt scraps of paper, crumbled ashes: The Straits Times reporter observed that Lam trembled as he displayed them.

Perhaps he should have expected nothing better, since Steve Moore pointed out to me that the burned paper obviously demonstrates that the ghost had paid Lam in ‘spirit money’, or cash burnt at some Eastern funeral rites to make it serviceable for the dead. Even so, it seems a shabby trick to play on an elderly trishaw-man, who could hardly offer the charred bits of paper in payment for his cup of tea.

A great part of the Hitch-Hiker’s charm is the way in which each reworking of the story is told in a charmingly artless way which suggests that nothing like it has ever been spoken nor heard anywhere, anytime before. Let’s close with a ‘Report from the Readers’ contribution in Fate, December 1983, which possesses this endearing quality. The Fate reader was Swarnakamal Bhattacharyya of Parangas, West Bengal and the narrative which he found in a local paper dated 21 April for the preceding year is my first clue that the Phantom Hitch-Hiker has thumbed a ride as far as India.

The Hiker – this time a tall, robust man in khaki uniform – was wont to hail a taxi after midnight and occupy the back seat, from whence he whispered to the driver, “Nothing to fear”. Which was extremely debatable, since the moment that the taxi slowed to round a bend near the Calcutta Racecourse the man at the wheel would notice the backdoor opening “and the phantom would slip out and disappear” (Why? He could have vanished just as easily and more spectacularly from where he was. Why did he need to alight before doing it? Oh, never mind).Detectives [sic] didn’t wax enthusiastic when they received the first report of the kind; it was only when ‘two or three’ other taxi-drivers complained of identical-sounding misadventures that they took to the trail and for lack of clues among the living ‘shifted their attention to the land of the dead’. It was recalled by ‘an old experienced officer’ that an Inspector of Armed Police had been killed on the spot where the ghost was reported to wait for a lift and, wonder of wonders, his description tallied with that reassuring cab-hailer.At this juncture the writer refers to the Hindu tradition that the souls of accident fatalities ‘suffer terribly in the other world and the detective recommended the performance of religious rites to ensure the salvation of the afflicted soul’. Would that our police…

So far Swarnakamal Bhattacharyya had done a good job in telling a quite conventional Hitch-Hiker story with a sprinkling of improvisations – the driver’s observation of the cab door opening is unusual, although there is something like it in one of the Uniondale, South Africa tales. But his conclusion showed a nice disregard for folklore tenets, where hitch-Hiker victims are traditionally anonymous and not available for further comment: he flourished a named person who had well and truly met the apparition and was prepared to talk about it. Or rather, he nearly succeeded in doing so

In reality, taxi-driver Ali of Behala, Calcutta could only presume or assume that the figure he’d seen at the haunted spot in 1975 was the Hitch-Hiker everyone was talking about in 1982. It did not attempt to stop his cab and for all we know he may not have been any kind of phantom whatsoever. Still, he had been asked if he’d ever seen one ‘on this or any other road’ and… well, the Figure was the best he could do by way of a positive answer.

No man is a hero to his valet, nor most likely to his wife – especially when he starts rambling on about road-ghosts he has met. Ali’s spouse responded to his confidences with a rebuke and a critical query as to whether he’d been drinking. “‘Believe me”, vouched the man who almost picked up a phantom Hitch-Hiker. “I had not touched a drop – but without saying a word, she poured cold water on my head”‘.Serve him right. Phantom Hitch-Hikers should be seen and not heard – unless you are a folklorist, when the reverse applies. Or something like that.

References for the Curious:

  • 1. BEARDSLEY & HANKEY, ‘The Vanishing Hitch-Hiker’, California Folklore Quarterly 1:4 (October 1942) pp. 303 ff.
  • 2. SCREETON, Paul. ‘Tales of Phantom hitch-hikers’ The Mail (Hartlepool) 31 Oct. 80.
  • 3. HALLAM, Jack, The Ghost Tour, London, 1977.
  • 4. ‘Mystery of the Beautiful Hitch-Hiker’ Weekend, 29 Nov. 1978.
  • 5. GEORGE, Philip Brandt, ‘The Ghost of Cline Avenue’, Indiana Folklore V:1 (1972), pp. 56 ff.
  • 7. HARUO AOKI, ‘A Hitchhiking Ghost in Korea’, Western Folklore, XIII (1954), pp. 280 7. ‘The Phantom Hitchhiker of Okinawa’, Fate, July 1961.
  • 8 ‘Old Lam felt for the cash and shivered – he’d carried a ghost’, Straits Times (Singapore) 2 May 1956. [They don't run titles like that in our papers, do they?]

To buy Mick Goss’s book on the phantom hitch-hiker click here: Evidence for Phantom Hitch-hikers


The Phantom Ship and the UFO. Peter Rogerson

From Magonia New Series 1, 1976

Note to Archive publication: This is one of my very earliest pieces for MUFOB, much of the material had been collected, and the basic idea thought of in the early 1970s, before the article was written up, probably in the late Spring of 1974. It is a piece of old fashioned romantic folklore, reflecting its mainly antique sources.


Since this article was written, I have discovered that a syndicated article or articles about phantom ships, probably based on the old sources used in this article, was published in US newspapers during the 1897 airship epidemic, and clearly this directly influenced tales such as Merkel. Alas I do not have the reference to hand. 


Among the archetypal themes of folklore which has had a moulding influence on the UFO myth, is that of the ‘Ship of Souls’ the phantom ship, which sails in the clouds, and ferries the dead to the western paradise

The tradition of this aerial ship existed throughout Europe until the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and either arose spontaneously or was carried by European immigrants to North America. There are reasons to believe that the idea is of very great antiquity. It has provided the basis for the legend of the “Flying Dutchman”, and certainly many features of the myth are to be found in the 1897 airship reports. In Britain phantom ship legends were especially common in Cornwall. As late as the eighteenth century phantom ships were said to have been sailing in the clouds above Porthcurro Harbour. (1) In the coastal area of Yorkshire “the clouds at even[tide] sometimes take on the form of a ship, and the people call it Noah’s Ark, and observe if it points Humber-ways as a weather prognostic” (1). In 1743 at Porbio near Holyhead a farmer saw this aerial ship; it resembled a packet ship and was sailing in the clouds .(2,3). The aerial ship was inhabited, as witness this American story:

“A strange story comes from the Bay of Fundy, that ships have boon seen in the air … Mr Barrow stated that they were said to be seen at New Mines near Mr Ratchford’s, by a girl about sunrise. The girl cried out, and two men who were in the house came out and saw them. There were about fifteen ships, and a man forward with his hand stretched out. They made the eastward. They were so near that people saw their sides and ports.” (4, quoted in 5)

Strange stories were told of this aerial crew. It was said that they were drowned by the air, as a human sailor was drowned by the sea. Irish legends told of persons at worship who saw an aerial ship, whose anchor became caught in the church. When a sailor was sent down to free it, he was soon gasping for air like a drowning sailor, so that the anchor had to be cut and he was taken on board again (6). Gervaise of Tilbury (7) told a similar tale set in England (1). What is especially interesting to note is that a like incident set in Merkel, Texas appeared in the Houston Post of April 28 1897 (Rogerson Catalogue, Case 45), The sailor was even described complete with a blue sailors’ suit, a remarkable example of folkloric survival. One of the fullest accounts of the “cloud ship” was that related by Archbishop Agobard of Lyons (8), Vallee quotes Agobard as follows (9):

“We have however heard of many men plunged in such great stupidity, sunk in such depths of folly as to believe that there is a certain region, which they call Magonia, whence ships sail in the clouds, in order to carry back to that region those fruits of the earth which are destroyed by hail and tempests; the sailors paying rewards to the storm wizards and themselves receiving corn and other produce. Out of the number of those (who) believe those things possible, I saw several exhibiting in a certain concourse of people four persons in bonds – three men and a woman like they had said had fallen from those same ships, and they had brought, them before the assembled multitude to be stoned. But truth prevailed.”

This legend, which has entered deeply, into the ufological myth, contains a number of significant themes. The aerial region, Magonia, in the western land of the dead the Isles of the Blessed, the land of the setting sun; it is Atlantis and Hy-Brazil, the mystical land which haunted European culture for millennia, and which provided the psychological drive behind many feats of exploration (10). From this unknown land in the west, ships come on the air. The ships bring the dead who destroy the crops of the living to take to their own realm. The belief that crops destroyed on earth are used as food by the dead are common to most archaic societies. It is the basis of the rite of sacrifice in all cultures. The storms that destroy crops are the dead, who are transfigured into the elemental spirits of the storm.

“… the dead of the ancient Aryans were believed to possess astounding powers. They travelled like the wind, sometimes as the wind. Good winds were the souls of of the good dead, ill winds of the bad dead who raged through the wild sky, jealous, angry, and vengeful.” (1)

The memory of such beliefs can still be traced in the belief that the appearance of the phantom ship is a warning of storm. In the picture of the Flying Dutchman by Gustav Doré these themes are clearly drawn out; the phantom ship with her skeletal crew roars up, borne on the storm, the sailors whom her appearance has doomed are cowering in terror. The victims of the mob mentioned by Agobard were very possibly human sacrifices to the gods of the storm, for it was not just crops that the cloud ships took, but the souls of men also. The ship came to the dying to take their soul to the land beyond the west or to the undersea world of ‘Fiddler’s Green’. When the one whose soul was to be taken was of evil character the event could be awesome indeed, as witness this tale of the death of a Cornish wrecker: (11)

“…his death was, more terrible. still. It was harvest-time and the gentle breeze scarcely stirred the ripe wheat in the fields, while in his lonely cottage the pirate, now an old man, lay at the point of death, with the parson, the doctor and two fisherman as his sole companions. Suddenly a wind arose, whistling round the cottage while from the sea a voice could be heard crying: ‘The time is come but the man isn’t come’ … Then a black ship appeared on the horizon moving steadily towards the shore. As it hove into view it became clear that it had no crew, while hovering directly above it was a curious dark cloud which moved with the ship. Suddenly the cottage of the dying pirate grow dark as if an evil spirit had entered it. Vainly the parson attempted to exorcise it. There came a crash of thunders and as the dying man scroamed ‘The devil is tearing at me with the claws of a hawk’, a stream of lightning shot from the sky and the cottage began to burn. Not even prayers could save the situation and, led by the parson, the sick man’s companions fled from the building, abandoning him him to his Fate.On reaching the churchyard, yet another storm broke and and the coffin was ignited by forked lightening. Then all afire, it was lifted up by a whirlwind and conveyed like a great burning log through the sky to the Wrecker’s Hell”
Standing in the open they witnessed a terrifying sight. The small dark cloud slowly detached itself from the ship and drifted over the land like a hideous jellyfish until it was actually hovering over the cottage of the dying man, It then decended, snatched up his soul, and drifted back to the ship which sailed rapidly out to sea, Returning to the cottage, the visitors discovered the the pirate was dead, his face, transfixed by terror, was awful to look upon, On the day of the funeral, the bearers were surprised to discover that the coffin was almost weightless.

For the good dead, the coming of the ship is a gentle release. It is the boat which takes Arthur to Avalon. In the traditions of some families such beliefs are found in modern times. Take for example this account in Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book (12):

“Lord Archibald Campbell died at Easter 1913 … Mr [Niall] Campbell … told me the ‘Galley’ had appeared on Loch Fyne. When I asked him to explain, what this was, he told no that the ‘Galley’ was a little ship like the one in their [coat of] arms’ and that when the Chief or one near to him was dying it appeared on Loch Fyne with three people on board, one of whom is supposed to be a Saint connected with St Columba. When his father was dying the ‘Galley’ was seen to pass silently up the Loch and to come to land at a particular point. It then passed overland and finally disappeared at the site of a holy place associated with St. Columba and given to the church by the forebears of the Campbells. A great many people saw it on the occasion of his father’s passing, including a ‘foreigner’, that is to say one who was not a Campbell or even a Highlander, but a Saxon. When the ‘Galley’ was soon to pass over the land this man called out “Look at that funny airship”.

Readers of MUFOB will recall that this story appears in our catalogue as R37. Thus we can see this particular account as a bridge between the “phantom ship” and the UFO myths.

A very few of those taken by the phantom ship survive; they find themselves transported to a beautiful land of eternal youth, such as the Irish Tir n’Og. Often the return from this land is by some magical means such as a waterspout. (20).

The taking of souls by the phantom ship is paralleled by the seizure of the living by the dead who ride on the wild storm wind. In Norse mythology this storm wind is the “Wild Hunt” (Wilder Jagd) led by Wotan, who with his pack of demon wolf-dogs pursue the sinner through eternity (11). The unwary are seized by the hunt generally to be lost forever, but occasionally to be deposited, like the victims of the Latin American teleportation, miles from home. In the Scottish islands the host of the dead, the sluagh, is seen in the form of a black cloud which seizes the living (21), also depositing, them far from home. Some writers connect the wild hunt with the UFO. (22).In England the wild hunt is associated with notorious local characters such as Herne the Hunter who are compelled to lead the hunt to expiate their sins on earth. A variant on this theme is the demon black carriage drawn by headless horses, pursued eternally by baying demon hounds. The Flying Dutchman theme is clearly identical with the above; it is an expression of the archetypal theme of eternal unrest caused by the violation of a taboo, the myth of the Wandering Jew. The crime of the captain of the Dutchman was in violating a taboo of the sea, a crime which brought down the Guardian Spirit of the oceans. This figure was perhaps a sea goddess such as appeared to Captain Brown of the Usk and ordered him to return to port (23,24). [See the foot of this posting for further information about the Usk]

As the phantom ship passes there is sometimes the sound of wild carousing. Such jollities were also associated with the l897 airship, as testified by William McGiveron of Pine Lake (R33) among others. Other witnesses of the airship however heard ‘religious songs’ and alleged that the occupants handed out temperance tracts. Those will be the good dead on the boat to heaven, (as in the spiritual ‘Sit down you’re rocking the boat’). This latter point highlights the Christian modifications of the archetype.

If we examine some modern phantom ship reports, we can see the similarities to the UFO more clearly highlighted. Take the following story related by a psychiatrist Glenn Thomasson. (25) Thomasson was on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico in August 1970.

“That night (August 8th)… an hour before sunrise I was sitting on the bow of the boat when a large ship, illuminated clearly by the moonlight, appeared approximately 150 yards directly in front and perpendicular to our boat. It was only later when I thought about it that I realised that there were no running lights visible. After I had spent about ten minutes observing the ship through the captain’s binoculars I noticed the name but could not road it. All I could see was a large ‘I’. the first letter, The rest seemed to be rusted over. Suddenly a man walked to the railing of the ships lifted his arm and waved back and forth in a gesture of greeting. I caught myself just as I was about to yell agreeting in return but thinking of the sleeping crew I waved instead. He lit a cigarette but even in the glow of the match I could not see his face clearly. Then he reached down and picked something up and dropped it into the water. I saw the object shine in the moonlight but could not see what it was.Several minutes later I walked into the cabin to pour a cup of coffee, then returned to the deck, took one look and gasped in astonishment. The ship was gone …”

A few hours later the crew of the fishing vessel picked up a bottle with a message in from a German ship lost in 1943. The letter was yellow with age but the bottle appeared to be quite new. The similarity to UFO reports is striking – the same dream-like quality, the behaviour of the vessel and its occupants, the same equivocal “physical evidence” left.

The phantom ship comes to shore at certain anniversaries:

“In Normandy the phantom boat puts in at All Souls. The watchman of the wharf sees a vessel come within hail at midnight and hastens to cast it a line, but at this same moment the boat disappears and frightful cries are hoard that make the hearer shudder, for they are recognised as the voices of sailors who were shipwrecked that year.” (1)

A story is told of how one night at Dieppe, a ship La Belle Rosalie, which had been missing for many months came in. The people of the town gathered joyously about the ship, which clearly had suffered hard in storms, for her rigging was torn. As the people waited they were struck by the strange behaviour of the crew who were silent, not leaping to the shore as was the custom. Then just as men were about to disembark, a strange mist came from nowhere and obscured the ship. Moments later when this mist had lifted, the ship had disappeared. It was then that the townspeople remembered that it was All Souls, the day when the drowned sailors return, briefly, to their homes. (14)

The same thing happened in New Haven, Connecticut in 1647 (15). Sometimes the occupants of the ship disembark, to take their loved ones to their own land. Such a belief is at the centre of the ‘Ballad of the Devon Lover’, who seduces a human woman, taking her on a phantom ship to the ‘Mountains of Hell’. Sometimes the boat appears as a warning. The dead are jealous of the living, and seek to take them to their own country. Woe betide the mariners who attempt to cone to the aid of the phantom ship. During a wild storm, a ship was seen floundering, so the crew of the vessel which sighted the distress made out in a small boat to attempt rescue. As they reached the spot the phantom disappeared and a great wave came and drowned her would-be rescuers. To even see the Flying Dutchman is an indication of disaster.

To help try the unwary, the phantom ship is a shape-changer. Like the UFO she appears in the guise of the vessels of her day. In April 1927 Kristan Jonasson, a port officer at Reykjavik, saw a strange Faeroes drifter towing a row-boat with two men inside. The drifter had the identity letters FD indicating she was registered in Fuglefjord. Jonasson went out with the pilot and the port doctor to examine the vessel. As they approached it disappeared into a haze. No such ship was known to the Danish authorities. (16)

A notorious shape-changer was the Falkenbergs Ship, which was always accompanied by two small yellow lights. In the latter part of winter 1958 the crew of the British Empress, approaching Nykoping in Sweden, saw two strange yellow lights, like steam masthead lights. First one, then the other, came close to the water, then sank. Nothing was detected on radar. The Falkenbergs Ship was said to be responsible for the death of Andrew Black, the skipper of the Pentland Skerries light. In 1937 Black had seen a white distress light during a heavy storm. He went to investigate, and his fellow crew-members testified, seemed to be drawn into the water by some unseen power. No ship was reported in the area. This power reminds one of the alleged abduction of Rivalino Mafra, (17) or the glamour cast over the Venezuelan youth (R7) This particular story evokes memories of the disappearance of the three keepers from the Flannan Isle light (12), which was on ‘haunted ground’ where the inhabitants of Magonia are said to appear. (18,19)

One report of the phantom ship did get into the UFO literature. This was the report of the two Royal Princes in their book Cruise of the Bacchante. At 0400 hrs, on July 11, 1881, according to the account:”

The Flying Dutchman crossed our bow. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow in the midst of which light, the masts, spars and sails of a brig two hundred yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow. The lookout in the fo’clse reported her as close to the ship, while also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her. So did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the fo’csle: but on arriving there was no vestige or sign of any material ship. The night was clear and the sea calm.Thirteen persons altogether saw her. Two other ships of the squadron, the Tourmaline and the Cleopatra, who were sailing off our starboard bow, asked whether we had seen the strange light.”

This light was felt to be an omen of the death of the lookout. Similar lights in the Western Isles of Scotland are also regarded as omens of forthcoming death. Strange lights in coastal regions are often regarded as phantom ships, burning as they did when destroyed by wreckers like the famous Block Island phantom the Palatine. Some modern accounts of the phantom ship portray it as the Fairy Ship as in this account from the West of Scotland, circa 1910. (18,26)

The encounter took place on the lonely island of Muck off the west of Scotland. The two sons of a local man, Sandy MacDonald, aged about ten and seven, were playing on the beach when they found an unopened tin. As they were trying to open it, they saw a beautiful delicate looking little boy, a stranger to the island, standing beside them. He was dressed all in green. The boy invited then to come and look at his boat, and they saw a tiny vessel floating on the sea a few feet from the shore. A little girl three foot high, and a dog the size of a rat were in the boat, and the girl offered the children some tiny biscuits which they ate. After they inspected the boat, which was beautifully built with everything perfectly arranged the green boy and girl said it was time for than, to leave. They said goodbye to the two boys, and told them, “We will not be coming back here, but others of our race will be coming’

The similarities between the modern UFO and phantom vessel reports, point to their common origin. The folklore of Western Europe testifies to this common origin in the myth of the ‘Ship of Souls’ which takes the dead to the Western nether-world. Such a belief is of very great antiquity and seems to be universal in all cultures. The ship of the dead was identified by the Egyptians as the boat in which the sun-god Ra was propelled across the waters of heaven. The dead were believed to join the sun god in this celestial ship, to be taken to the land of the dead in the region of the setting sun. The sun as the celestial vessel carrying the sky-god is common to many Middle-East cultures (Assyria, Persia, etc.) and may provide the primal archetype of the UFO. (27) At this remote period we can perhaps see that the UFO and phantom ship have common origin as the vessel of the god or gods. The fact that classical and medieval visionary rumours’ have played such a major role in the development of the UFO myth, even to the point of providing a name – Magonia – for the home of such phenomenon certainly backs up this feeling.

Today the mythological structure which gave meaning to the phantom ship has vanished, as has the culture which nourished such a structure, leaving only memories which surface as random anomalies. Such anomalies no longer belong, hence their greut power to disturb. They are intruders from outside history and the world of waking reulity; intruders however which still have great power.


Note from original publication: Since the above was written I have come across the following passage from Jung’s Flying Saucers commenting on one of his patient’s dreams, which involved a vision of the dreamer and another woman standing on the edge of the world looking at a silvery elliptical object peopled by cloaked figures in silvery white:

“The dream then uses the symbol of a disc-like UFO manned by by spirits, a spaceship that comes out of the beyond to the edge of our world in order to fetch the souls of the dead. It is not clear from the vision where the ship comes from, whether from the sun or moon or elsewhere. According to the myth in the Acta Archelai it would be from the waxing moon, which increases in size according to the number of departed souls that are scooped up from the Earth to the Sun, and from there to the Moon in a purified state. The idea that the UFO might be a sort of Charon is certainly one that I have not yet in the literature so far. This is hardly surprising, firstly because ‘classical’ allusions of this sort are a rarity in people with a modern education and secondly because they might lead to some very disagreeable conclusions. The apparent increase in UFO sightings in recent years has caused disquiet in the popular mind, and might easily give rise to the conclusion that, if so many spaceships appear from beyond, a corresponding number of deaths might be expected. We know that such phenomena were interpreted like this in earlier centuries: they were portents of a ‘great dying’, of war and pestilence, like the dark premonitions that underlie our modern fears. One ought not to assume that the great masses are so enlightened that hypotheses of this kind can no longer take root” – Jung, Flying Saucers, a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, p.78. (28)



References in bold italic underlined  are links to Amazon book listings (not necessarily the edition referenced)

  1. Baring-Gould, Rev. Sabine. A Book of Folklore, Methuen, 1913 (my current copy is Praxis Reprint 1993).
  2. Reference to be confirmed
  3. Llewellyn, Alan. The Shell Guide to Wales. Michael Joseph with George Rainbird, 1969
  4. McGivern, Fr James SJ, in Tacoma Town Tribune 21 November 1967, quoted in:
  5. Data-Net 9, 5 (May 1970), p12
  6. Wilkins, Harold T. Flying Saucers on the Attack. Ace Books, 1967 (Originally published as Flying Saucers on the Moon, Peter Owen ,1954, and Flying Saucers on the Attack. Citadel Press, 1954.
  7. Gervase of Tilbury. Otia Imperialia: Recreation for an emperor, edited by S. E. Banks and J. W. Binns. Oxford University Press, 2002 (English Medieval Texts) For Gervase see
  8. Agobard “On hail and thunder” translation at For more on these topics see Ross, Michael. Anchors in a Three Decker World Folklore Annual 1998 at For a critical review of the Magonia story and background information see Brodu, Jean-Louis Magonia: a Re-Evaluation. Fortean Studies 2 (1995) pp 198-215
  9. Vallee, Jacques. Passport to Magonia. Henry Regnery, 1969
  10. Ashe, Geoffrey. Land to the West: St.Brendan’s voyage to America""Collins, 1962
  11. Maple, Eric. The Realm of Ghosts. Pan, 1967
  12. Hunt, Robert. Popular Romances of the West of England. London 1865.
  13. Wood, Charles Lindley, Viscount Halifax. Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book"". Fontana. 1961. First published Geoffrey Bles, 1936.
  14. Bassett, Wilbur. Wander-Ships, Folk Stories of the Sea, with notes upon their origin. Open Court Publishing Company, 1917  (Chapter 3)
  15. Brown, Raymond Lamont. Phantoms, Legends, Customs and Superstitions of the Sea. Patrick Stephens, 1972.
  16. Armstrong, Warren (Warren Armstrong Bennett) Sea Phantoms. Odhams, 1963.
  17. ‘The Brazilian Abduction’ in Flying Saucer Review ,vol. 8, no. 6 p10
  18. Michell, John. Flying Saucer Vision. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1967.
  19. Hopkins, R. Thurston. Cavalcade of Ghosts. Panther, 1963
  20. Baring-Gould, Rev. Sabine. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. Longmans, Green and Co, 1892. 
  21. Campbell, John L and Hall, Trevor. Strange Things. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968
  22. Ledger, Joseph R. Saucers or Ghosts. Flying Saucer Review , no.8, vol. 5 (September-October 1962).
  23. Gaddis, Vincent. Invisible Horizons. Ace 1965
  24. Smith, Susy. World of the Strange. Pyramid Books, 1963.
  25. Thomasson, Glen P. ‘Message from a Phantom Ship. Fate (UK) November 1971
  26. MacGregor, Alisdair. Alpine The Peat Fire Flame. Ettrick Press, 1947
  27. VALLEE, Jacques. ‘Occupant Symbolism in Phoenician Mythology‘. FSR 19, 1.
  28. Jung, Carl . Flying Saucers, a Modern myth of Things Seen in the Sky  Cygnet Books, 1969.

Additional works on the Phantom Ship:
Bassett, Fletcher A. Legends and Superstitions of the Sea and Sailors in All Lands and at All Times. Bedford, Clarke and Co. 1885. Can be downloaded here:

Other relevant books:
Goss, Michael and Behe, George.
Lost at Sea: Ghost Ships and Other Sea Mysteries. Prometheus, 1994.
Hadfield, R. L. The Phantom Ship, and other Ghost Stories of the Sea. Geoffrey Bles, 1937.

The Story of the USK

Fife Herald  30 October 1862  p4  


The barque Usk, ofNewport, which leftSwanseafor Caldera in May last, has just returned toNewportsafe and sound, to the great astonishment of every one in port, having turned back atCape Hornwithout completing the voyage. The ship had been 62 days out then, and a hurricane coming on was threatened with total destruction, so that the crew rejoiced to see it put back in the direction of theFalkland Islands, so as to be out of the gale. But Falkland Islands were passed, and the ship still proceeded on her course leaving theCapefar behind. The mate then came aft and asked Captain Mathias where he was taking the ship, and why he neither took her into a place of shelter, nor prosecuted the voyage to Caldera. Captain Mathias told him that “God Almighty had come into his cabin and ordered him to take the ship back to Newport, threatening him that if he took her on her voyage the ship and all her crew should be destroyed.” He added that a mystery hung over the matter which should never be revealed, but that the vision appeared to him on the occasion of the hurricane off Cape Horn, and “such being the will of the Almighty, he should not place himself in opposition to it for the sake of the owner the ship, or anything else.”

The mate remonstrated and offered to take the command, the captain being put ashore, so as to release him from obedience to the command of the Most High, but this course he declined. It cut him to the heart, he said, to take the ship home and perhaps ruin the owners, yet such being the will of God he could not disobey. The mate appealed to the» crew, but they said they saw nothing the matter with the captain, and they therefore thought it was their duty to continue to obey him. Consequently he ceased all “opposition to the captain’s will and the Usk continued her passage home safe and sound from top to bottom, her captain apparently happy and free from all care, and devoting his leisure hours to the conversion” of his crew. Prayers were held every evening at seven, and from that till nine none were allowed to enter his sanctum, the cabin, where no doubt he passed the time in ghostly studies. On arrivingNewporton Tuesday evening last the news, as may be supposed, spread like wildfire, creating a great sensation. The captain waited on the owner, Mr Benyon and repeated his story about the Most High visiting him. Mr Benyon, we are told, highly scandalised, here told Mathias to “blaspheme no more.” and the conversation took a more reasonable turn. Mathias insisting upon his statement, and the owner listening to the tale as the narration of some strange dream. The captain, on Wednesday morning, took away everything belonging to him from the ship. The” above” account is abridged from a narrative said to be taken entirely from the statements of the mate and the captain themselves.

North London News 1 November 1862 p3,  cf London Daily 27 October 1862


The fine barque Usk, built inBristolthree years ego, and owned by Mr Thomas Benyon, Dock-street, leftSwanseafor with coals, towards the end of April last. After being a short time out, Captain Mathias, the master, put backNewport, and the owner had the vessel thoroughly re caulked and remetalled. She proceeded to sea fromNewportMay, and, after a fine passage, reached Falkland Islands, having been 59 days out, andCape Hornin 62 days. Here gale came on, which rapidly increased to hurricane, and threatened the ship every instant with total destruction. She stood beating about to the southward of the Cape, and at length the captain walked aft and ‘up with the wheel,’ telling the men to  wear the ship.’ The mate was then asleep below, and the crew of course judged that the object of this must have been to get out of the hurricane and into smooth water to the eastward of theCape. They soon found that the ship was speeding along in the direction ofFalkland Islands. This also gave satisfaction. But Falkland Islands were passed, and the ship still proceeded her course leaving theCapefor behind. The mate then came aft and asked Captain Mathias where he was taking the ship, and why he neither took her into a place of shelter, nor prosecuted the voyage to Caldera. Captain Mathias told him that’ God Almighty had come into his cabin and ordered him to take the ship back to Newport, threatening him that if he took her on  her voyage the ship and all her crew should be destroyed. He added that mystery hung over the matter which should never be revealed, but that the vision appeared to him on the occasion of hurricane off Cape Horn, and  such being the will of the Almighty, should not place himself in opposition to for  the sake the owner, the ship, anything else.’ This intelligence must have startled the mate, but he remonstrated with captain with some firmness. said, ‘ Consider the serious loss you will cause the owner by pursuing this course.’ And willing any rate to save the owners, he further, and proposed that Captain Mathias should go ashore, leaving him, or putting some -one else board to take command and prosecute the voyage.

This course, he urged, would release the captain from the consequences of disobeying the commands the Most High. Captain Mathias immediately said, ‘ When my command of this ship is taken from me, take a knife and stab me with till I die It  cuts me to the heart to take the ship home, and perhaps ruin the owners, but such being the will of God, cannot disobey it for the sake-of man.’ The mate appealed the crew, but they said they saw nothing the matter with the captain, and they therefore thought it was their duty to continue to obey him. Consequently he ceased all opposition the captain’s will, Mid the Usk continued her passage home safe and sound from top to bottom, her captain apparently happy and free from all care, and devoting his leisure hours to the ‘conversion’ of his crew. Prayers were held every evening at seven, and from »t till nine none were allowed enter his sanctum the cabin, where no doubt passed the time in ghostly studies.Newportand Newport Docks were reached safely on Tuesday evening, and, as maybe supposed, this extraordinary tale was repeated with a thousand exaggerations and additions throughout the town, with the speed wildfire.

Captain Mathias at once proceeded to Mr Benyon’s residence, and reported his arrival to his amazed owner, who became very naturally somewhat excited, when Mathias said, ‘lf you can’t treat me like a gentleman I shall home.’ Mr Benyon replied that he was his employer, and he merely demanded a report of how had acquitted himself the trust he had reposed in him. Mathias then detailed how the Most High had entered his cabin and warned him against prosecuting the voyage, telling him that he was to back straight to Newport, and if not, the ship and the whole of her crew should perish. Mr Benyon, we are told, highly scandalised, here told Mathias ‘ blaspheme no more,’ and the conversation took more reasonable turn, Mathias insisting upon his statement, and the owner listening the tale as the narration of some strange dream, ‘The captain, on Wednesday morning, took away everything belonging to him from the ship. We may add that the foregoing has been taken entirely from the statements of the mate and captain themselves, and may be relied upon as the correct the extraordinary affair.

Westmorland Gazette 22 November 1862


A lengthened inquiry has taken place before the Local Marine Board, at their offices in Bristol, reference to the following charge against Captain Mathias, late master the barque Usk : —That he, on intended voyage from Newport Caldera, Chili, South America, which commenced about the lst of June, 1862, when the vessel arrived off Cape Horn, was guilty of a gross act  of misconduct, without any sufficient cause reason, neglecting omitting further to proceed on the said voyage, and the ship vessel did then navigate back to Newport. Mr Cathcart, solicitor, was in attendance behalf of the owners of the Usk ; and the defendant was likewise present, but without any legal adviser, and though the investigation lasted several hours his demeanour was perfectly cool and collected. Mr Cathcart having stated the case on behalf of the owners.

David Evans, the late chief mate of the Usk, was called and examined at some length, but nothing beyond the facts recently published was elicited. Mr Benyon, ofNewport, owner of the vessel, stated that Captain Mathias had been the master of the for the last three years. He had no authority return without completing the voyage fromSwanseato Caldera. The conduct of the captain had caused the owners considerable loss. This being all the evidence adduced. Captain Mathias was called upon for his defence.

He entered into a lengthened statement relative the position the vessel when he resolved to returnNewport, detailed minutely the particulars of the latitude and longitude, as well as the varying state of the weather. then said :

“I have never seen my glass so low before it was then in going roundCape Horn, either going out or coming home. After breakfast l am  accustomed, having been a professor of religion for seventeen years, to read a  chapter of  the Bible to myself in the cabin, and perform my service to my Creator. After that had transpired one morning. I felt a pressure upon my mind such I had not felt before all my life. First I began to ask myself What does this mean ?” I generally felt light and comfortable in all circumstances that have peculiarly happened during my life. I have been thirty-two years at sea. began inquire myself what it all meant, and said that would go, and make point of prayer of it, and found a still small voice speak to me within me telling return to Newport with the ship. But strove within myself, and in my own soul firmly wrestled against it. The more I strove, the more it resisted me, and found the power be so strong as be irresistible.

“I  remained in a state of great excitement, and no one on  board the ship could help seeing my emotion. No  one knew, indeed, what concerned me; and if the truth spoken by  every person ship, the power must have been felt. I remained till the afternoon, and then began consider what it meant, and what it all was for the still small voice spoke audibly and clearly within me, expecting that I would give my purpose, or He would break me without remedy. Visions have not seen; nothing, no bodily shape has appeared to me. Only mv own feelings have experienced, such as every Christian man would feel. With regard returning home I said within myself, Well, I should like have sign to know for certain that may not be deceived in my heart, deceive my own self in the presence of  my Creator. “That voice spoke again, and told me that the glass should rise It said “I will take my hind off you, and the glass shall rise immediately if you are obedient to  the command given you ”

“I implored the Divine compassion to allow me remain till the Sunday morning daylight, as the storm was terrific. I thought that the vessel would be safer in the trough of the sea than running before-Such storm. I could not sleep nor rest. I have doubt that the mate and the man in the cabin must have seen my countenance, and have known that there was something in the expression of my countenance that was never seen before, and could change will, before so determined to accomplish that voyage, that I had two occasions commenced. I  will leave you to judge what it must change the will of a man in such circumstances. I suffered for eight days. On the 8th day  I felt more easy, and turned the ship, and other person had anything with the changing the ship. The mate never dared to take the responsibility from me and no one has taken charge of the ship, and from that moment gave the command square yards and change her head every one of the men has obeyed my orders, and we had a favourable wind. I detected the hand ofProvidence in this, and when we arrived offLundyIsland, said that the ship would be port that night. Everything came I foretold, and the officers of the ship have seen things in that ship that cannot account for. I can see and account for them. The will of the Lord has been accomplished. But do not think I have seen any form, or vision, or bodily shape of any kind. I have known nothing but the Christian feeling, that still small voice, which spoke audibly.”

The Captain declined calling witnesses, saying that he stood entirely his own responsibility ; and, whatever the law inflicted he was prepared to suffer. Mr Britain, on behalf of the board, announced their decision as follows : That this board do report to the Board Trade as follows:—That Captain Henry Mathias, late master the barque Usk, of Newport, on a voyage that vessel from Newport to Caldera, which voyage commenced on about, the lst day of June last, did, when the Said vessel had arrived off or near Cape Horn, whilst under mental delusion, and without any proper or sufficient cause or reason, instead of proceeding on the said voyage, put the said vessel back, and returned with her to Newport aforesaid ; and that this board considers Captain still labouring under such delusion, and incompetent to take charge act as master of any ship or vessel, and this board doth therefore cancel the certificate of the said Captain Mathias.” Mr Brittan then directed the captain to send his certificate to tie offices of the board, and the proceedings terminated.

Things turn a bit spookier with this story:

Dover Express 23 January 1864  p4


On Saturday dispatch from the British consul at Coquimbo was received by the Secretary of the Board Trade, announcing the destruction by fire of the English barque Usk, while on a voyage fromSwanseato Huasco. Before giving the details of the dispatch, it may be stated that this was the unfortunate ship which put back early last year from Cape Horn England in consequence of the captain seeing, as he alleged, a vision on the ocean which warned him not to proceed any further on the voyage, and that in the event of his persisting, both he and the ship would be sent to perdition. The vessel’s return to Cardiff, after lapse of nearly six months, in good seaworthy condition, naturally astonished the owners, more especially when they heard the curious story which had operated upon the captain’s mind in putting the ship back when she had nearly reached her destination.

A Board of Trade inquiry was instituted into the captain’s conduct. The crew were examined, and they spoke of him being a very careful and sober master, although somewhat eccentric in his manner, and when they found that had put the ship back without any reason for so doing, the chief mate remonstrated with him, and endeavoured to take charge, which the captain resisted placing him in irons. The captain was examined he solemnly declared that after what had appeared to him he could not on ; it was the vision the Lord, and he was bid not to go on.

The result of the inquiry was that his certificate was cancelled. A new master was appointed to the ship, and she sailed second time on the voyage. What happened to her will be gathered from the subjoined document:— 44 British Consulate, Dec. 3, 1803. “Sir, have inform you that the barque Usk, from Swansea to Huasco, took fire on the 16th of November last, and was abandoned the following day in lat. 33 S, long. 10. The vessel sailed from Swansea on the 16th of July, and nothing of importance occurred on the voyage up to 5 a. m. on the 16th of November, when smoke was seen coming out of the hatches, and four tons of blasting powder were taken from the hold and thrown overboard.

At p.m. an explosion took place. The boats were then got out, and at 7 p.m. the ship, being full of smoke fore and aft, was put under easy sail, with her head towards the main land. At p.m. the crew left the ship, and the boats were towed all night. At sa.m. of the 17th flames were seen issuing out of the after hatchway, but in conscience of heavy sea, and the vessel being full of smoke, she could not be boarded. Both boats were then cut adrift, and steered for the mainland. The mate, six seamen and a passenger arrived at this port on the 21st ultimo, having been picked up in the long boat by the Chilian schooner Guayacan the previous day. The master and remainder of the crew reached Caldera on the 24th ult. The sole cause of the fire appears to have been the spontaneous combustion of the coal composing the cargo. am, &c.,

G. A. F. Tait,  Acting Consul. The Secretary Marine Department, Board of Trade, Whitehall

This added much to the folklore of the sea and exaggerated stories circulated.  The ever unreliable Elliott O’ Donnell told the tale in chapter 30 of his Strange Sea Mysteries (Bodley Head 1926), which moves the account from the autumn of 1862 to the spring of 1863,  has imaginary conversations, and now the inner voice had become “…a strange sight at sea. It was a great and beautiful spirit form, which he took to be divine, standing alongside the vessel” issuing a pre-emptory command”

This version is summarised in R I Hadfield’s “The Phantom Ship” also published by Geoffrey Bles in 1937, only now suggesting that the mate had also seen the spirit.

I am sure that I have seen even more exaggerated accounts but can’t lay my hands on them. — Peter Rogerson.