Haunted Peaks and Plains

David Clarke. Supernatural Peak District. Robert Hale, 2000.

Katy Jordan. The Haunted Landscape: Folklore, Ghosts and Legends of Wiltshire. Ex Libris Press, 2000.

Recent Internet discussions about the role of experience and tradition in the dissemination of supernatural narratives, makes these two studies of folklore at the opposite ends of England, timely. Folklorist, historian, journalist and ufologist David Clarke explores the line between folklore and modern day paranormal studies. The book is essentially a compilation of contemporary supernatural memorates set in the context of the local folklore.

Described by Daniel Defoe in 1725 as a "waste and howling wilderness", and John Aikin in 1795 as "a region of black barren heights and long extended moors ... being destitute of most of the romantic beauties of other mountainous country", the Peak District is today a National Park and a place where the urban trippers can go for a weekend break. It represents the wild abandoned wilderness on the edge of the inhabited world, and its variegated folklore reflects this. What emerges from this book is a folklore which, both in traditional narrative and memorised personal experience, lies beyond conventional categories, and in which the very ancient lies alongside the very modern.

The memorates and folklore collected here included haunted houses, road ghosts, alien big cats, phantom dogs, phantom buildings, phantom aircraft, cursed heads and taboo propeller blades, flying triangles and ghost lights flickering inside cars. Some of the stories here, such as the Stocksbridge bypass ghosts, and the Howden Moor incident will be familiar to Magonia readers, others less so. What emerges from Clarke's account is that these various experiences really cannot be categorised into little boxes marked psychical research, ufology or cryptozoology. In a sense they are almost the residue left, which psychical researchers, cryptozoologists and ufologists don't want because they do little to prove the existence of life after death, the presence of paws-and-pelts animals, or nuts-and-bolts spaceships. They are a protean whole, merging into each other, and into experiences so bizarre that no one could characterise them. The story of the `giant slug' crossing the road is one such.

Though the continuing popularity of ghost stories, and UFO tales was expected, what is less so is the survival, or is it resurrection, of ideas of taboo and curses, the belief that taking into one's possession, or wrongly using, a wide variety of objects, including Celtic (or pseudo-Celtic) heads, a West African fetish, or the propeller from a crashed aircraft can bring supernatural vengeance down on one in the form of 'runs of bad luck'. Clearly some very archaic beliefs live on beneath the thin veneer of modernity. Faced with this sort of material the old dispute between personal experience and cultural source as origins of the stories is moot, the two are not diametric opposites, rather they fit totally together, experience and tradition constantly impact, reinforce and modify each other. Traditions tell us how to interpret ambiguous stimuli, and the experiences thus generate weight and alter the tradition.

As fashions change the same experience generates new explanations: a woman in an allegedly haunted cottage has episodes of sleep paralysis and detects strange smells in the house, this is evidence for ghosts; a woman in Israel, noted in a book by Barry Chamish, reports the same thing, that is evidence for alien abduction. We can never be certain as to where tradition ends and 'real' experience begins.

Folklorist Clarence Daniel relates how a Methodist minister told him he was saved from being attacked by 'two unsavoury characters' by the sudden appearance of a black dog, which when the minister patted it, his hand went through and it disappeared. This is in fact a folk story at least two hundred years old, which one might call 'the travellers supernatural guardian'. Sometimes the guardian is another human figure, sometimes a dog. On a recent TV programme about angels, the tale was set with a human guardian and in Eastern Europe. The protagonist is usually a minister or other religious figure and there are generally two 'unsavoury characters'. In some versions one of the characters confesses years later on his death bed, that they would have attacked the minister if it were not for the presence of the companion.

Nor should we assume that the older material was any less dependent on the mass media than modern UFO stories; we will never know how many 'ancient tales' told by granny, were ones that her granny had read in the book given as a school prize in her youth. Can we be sure that the practitioners of 'old Celtic traditions' didn't learn the tradition from someone who had read about them in a copy of The Golden Bough borrowed from the library in the 1920's?

Katy Jordan's study of Wiltshire folk lore is in some ways more scholarly and traditional, both in the approach, with extensive notes and a greater concentration on the actual process, and style of narration. It is also more traditional in the choice of subject matter, with only a brief section on big cats to accommodate the twentieth century. So we have the legends of saints of battlefields and the church added on. But when we come down to the `ghost lore' we find some interesting parallels with Clarke's material: the black dogs, the phantom Roman soldiers, the haunted houses.

Jordan remains puzzled like Clarke by the production of apparently sincere first hand experiences which nevertheless have many of the features of traditional stories. She suggests that the legends grow outwards from an experiential core, acquiring traditional motifs as they do so. Does this happen as the story spreads beyond the teller, or do narrative formulae and cultural traditions influence our memories and perhaps our perceptions themselves? Jordan seems unsure on this point.

Her attempts at `explanations' of the experiences boil down to a list compiled by the very superstitious Ian Wilson, and are themselves essentially pieces of folk tradition, some very old, others late nineteenth or early twentieth century. These are not empirically based 'scientific theories'. but varying traditions of belief and disbelief. Thus the primary traditions of belief in 'unquiet spirits needing prayer' and disbelief in 'rats in the wainscoting and the like' date from pre-Reformation and early Reformation times respectively. Beliefs about place memories are late 19th on early 20th century, based on analogies with the camera and gramophone recording, ideas about poltergeists and the sexual energies of adolescents derive from the popular Freudianism of the 1920's and 1930's.

Though there are similarities there are also differences; Jordan's ghosts are rather closer to the SPR ideal than Clarke's: quieter, more domesticated, footsteps padding around cottages at night for example. More the revenant than the protean night-boggart. Does this reflect differences in landscape, cultural tradition, media influences, age of respondents or what? Perhaps the supernatural lore of the Peak is more concerned with landscape, metaphors for the `otherness' of wild nature, whereas that of Wiltshire is more concerned with memory, and 'off campus history'. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, originally published in Magonia 74, April 2001.
 

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