A Ghost-Ridden Realm

The very word ghost conjures up a shadowy, vaporous figure and calls to mind any number of places such a phantom might choose to haunt: graveyards on moonless nights, misty moors, fog-shrouded castles perched high on craggy hills. Such places seem to hold closely guarded secrets of the past and are endowed with an atmosphere of sorrow and forboding.

To be sure, not all reported phantom encounters occur in such disquieting locations. But tales of ghosts that favor mysterious sites are the most enduring. And just as enthralling as their dramatic habitats are the ways in which the spirits are said to announce their presence. Many people recounting ghostly visits describe a drop in the surrounding temperature just before the ghost appears, or a thickening of the atmosphere - as if, according to one observer, "the room seemed to get very full of people". Others tell of hearing voices or footsteps where no one is present, seeing strange lights, or smelling distinctive odors, such as tobacco.

Photographer Simon Marsden did not experience any of these sensations as a child growing up in two allegedly haunted houses in the English countryside. But he did become fascinated with ghosts. In 1974 he decided to chronicle in pictures some of the thousands of phantoms said to inhabit the British Isles, reputedly the most haunted region in the world. Marsden spent twelve years visiting and photographing almost 1,500 sites. Here I tell you about five of them.

The wraiths of Wilion Castle
Looming above the landscape of southeastern Ireland, only firescarred walls remain of once-stately Wilton Castle. Until it was ravaged by flames in the early 1920s, this rambling structure was home to generations of the Alcock family, prominent in the region since the early seventeenth century. If local legends are to be believed, a fair number of ghosts are now harbored within the castle walls.

One story recounts strange lights that are sometimes seen in the remnants of a castle tower where an old woman, a one-time actress, died in a fire. Another tale has it that every year on the anniversary of his death, the shade of Harry Alcock, who died in 1840, is seen driving slowly away from the castle in a ghostly carriage. Crowds once gathered in anticipation of the event, and a local shoemaker claimed to have spoken with the phantom.

The strangest tale, however, is that of neighbor Archibald Jacob, who served as a magistrate and captained a local militia company at the time of the rebellion against Britain in 1798. Jacob flogged and tortured many people in the parish. While returning home from a ball at Wilton Castle one evening in 1836, he was killed by a fall from his horse. For years afterward, his ghost was said to haunt both the scene of his death and the castle. On one occasion, a Catholic priest was summoned to the castle to conduct an exorcism. When he made the sign of the cross, the ghost of Archibald Jacob allegedly appeared in the fireplace, then disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Reaching out from a watery grave
Since earliest times, spirits have often been associated with water, whether a ock-fanged coast, a tumultuous river, or an idyllic pool. Some of them are said to be the ghosts of people who have drowned, and these spirits allegedly entice other hapless victims to join them in their watery bowers. In Devon, England, at Lydford Gorge, there exists a dark pool of water fed by a twenty-foot cascade; known as Kitty's Steps, this cataract is said to contain such a seductive spirit.

The story holds that an old woman named Kitty was returning home from market one day many years ago. Rather than follow the main road, Kitty led her horse down a shortcut through a ravine. The narrow pathway took the woman close by the waterfall, where she had played as a child. Recent heavy rain may have made the path slippery, or, as some believe, a spirit may have beckoned to Kitty from the pool. In any event, Kitty never reached home and was presumed drowned. her horse was found quietly grazing on the riverbank; a red kerchief that she had worn around her head was discovered near the pool. Since then, Kitty's apparition has been reported standing near the waterfall, her kerchiefed head bowed, staring into the water.

In 1968, the pool - or, some say, the water spirit, claimed another victim. A young soldier who was hurrying back to his camp also used the shortcut through the ravine; he was missing for several weeks before his body was found floating on the water's surface below Kitty's Steps.

The specter that stalks Creech Hill
Creech Hill, near Bruton in Somerset, England, was once the site of an ancient Romano-Celtic temple where, in the late eighteenth century, amateur archaelogists uncovered two crossed skeletons, though to be those of a Norman and a Saxon. Apparently the scene of brutal confrontations long ago, the area is also said to have a long history of hauntings. A number of people traveling at night over the hill or near it have reported the sounds of heavy footsteps and strange laughter, and some have told seeing a black ghostly shape.

One night, it is said, a farmer returning from a nearby market stumbled upon a figure lying by the road at the foot of Creech Hill. Suddenly the figure rose to a commanding height and let out a bone-chilling shriek. The terrified farmer fled for home, with the dark specter close on his heels. When he burst through his front door and collapsed across the threshold, his stunned wife caught a glimpse of a long black figure bounding away in the direction of Creech Hill, laughing crazily.

In yet another account of the Creech Hill phantom, a man, armed with a lantern and a stout hazel stick, ventured across the hill one night to keep an urgent appointment. Halfway through the his journey, he encountered a deadly coldness, and then something tall and black rose up from the ground before him. Startled, the man struck out at the hideous shape, but the stick passed right through it; he tried to flee but found himself rooted to the spot. Peals of maniacal laughter deafened the traveler as he swung wildly at his tormentor again and again. Not until the first light of dawn appeared did the apparition vanish, leaving its victim free to move once more.

A phantom with a deadly drink
One of the earliest ghosts reported in the British Isles is said to haunt and ancient burial mound at the Manor of Rillaton, located on a moor in Cornwall. The ghost, apparently a Druid priest dressed in a long flowing robe, would approach passersby and mutely offer them a drink of a magic brew.

According to one account, a local nobleman encountered the phantom late one night while riding across the moor after a day of hunting. As he passed the mound, the figure of a frail old man with a vacant stare and pallid complexion walked toward him, clutching a golden cup. Silently he extended the vessel as if to offer a drink. The nobleman hesitated at first, feeling an inexplicable chill envelop him, but he gave it to his thirst and drained the cup.

Or so he thought. When the nobleman lowered the cup, some liquid remained. Again he drank deeply. And again the liquid reappeared. Enraged by what he saw as the mysterious figure's trickery, the nobleman flung the liquid into the stranger's face and dropped the cup at his feet. Still the robed figure remained silent, a strange, sardonic smile crossing his face. At that, the nobleman spurred his horse and rode for home, deeply concerned over what his meeting with the ghostly stranger might portend. A few days later, both the nobleman and his horse were discovered dead at the bottom of a nearby ravine.

Years later, in 1837, when archaeologists began excavating the burial mound at the Manor of Rillaton, they made an intriguing discovery: A skeleton was unearthed, and beside it lay a golden cup.

The restless souls of Whitby Abbey
If the legends are true, the majestic ruins of Whitby Abbey in northern Yorkshire, England, are alive with ghosts. First established in A.D. 657 on a cliff overlooking the sea, the abbey was destroyed by the Vikings some two hundred years later, then rebuilt upon the same site by the conquering Normans in 1067. The founder of the original abbey, Saint Hilda, never left, it is said: Her ghost, wrapped in a shroud, frequently appears in one of the abbey's highest windows.

Saint Hilda may also be responsible for another apparition reportedly seen at the abbey. She became well known during her tenure as abbess for ridding the district of snakes. She would drive the snakes to the cliff's edge and decapitate them with the whip. Since then, a great hearselike coach, guided by a headless driver and pulled by four headless horses, has been seen racing along the cliff near the abbey, then plunging over the edge and into the sea.

Perhaps the most troubled ghost of all those said to inhabit the abbey ruins is that of Constance de Beverley, a young nun who broke her sacred vows for the love of a brave but false knight named Marmion. As punishement for her misdeeds, she was bricked up alive in a dungeon in Whitby Abbey. Her ghost as allegedly been seen on the winding stairway leading from the dungeon, cowering and begging release.