Did you think "Ghostbusters" was just a silly movie or did you think some of it might possibly have happened? Well, certainly not the giant marshmallow man, but possibly the ghost in the library? Could there be ghosts, spirits, hobgoblins, witches, fairies and demons of all kinds roaming about?
Do you believe they are, in fact, out there? If there are any such things, then Wednesday evening, October 31, is the one time they should appear, whether you believe in them or not.
Halloween, or All Hallows Eve as it was known in medieval times, is a celebration descended from the Celtic festival of Samhain observed in ancient Britain at the end of summer. Also the eve of the new year in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times, the date of October 31 was connected with the return of herds from pasture and the time when laws and tenures were renewed.
Legend had it that the souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day, and it became a time to placate the supernatural powers of nature uncomprehended by these early people. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Halloween was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked.
American custom has reduced Halloween to a night of so-called "trick or treating" with small children going from house to house dressed in costume requesting treats or threatening tricks. The treat, generally candy, is most often given, and the trick rarely played.
But what of these ancient rites and practices? Does our living in a sophisticated and modern world with most of the functions of nature explained cause us to ignore the powers of the supernatural? As we hand out candy to hordes of imitation ghouls traisping about the neighborhood on All Hallows Eve, do we miss the genuine souls or the dead as they quietly, or sometimes noisily, revisit their earthly homes?
Local hauntings and ghosts Stories of haunted houses and of specific ghosts have long been a part of popular folklore and persist to this day. Experts believe that the Mt. Washington Valley has been inhabited by man for at least 10,000 years, giving the area a long history from which to find its specters.
Spirits that remain in this world to haunt a house or roam a neighborhood are believed to be the tortured souls of people who either suffered an early, unexpected, or violent death. Norman Gauthier of Manchester, New Hamsphire, a self-proclaimed "spirit hunter" who researches hauntings throughout New England, believes that a person who dies and doesn't accept or understand it, may continue to do the same things he did when he was alive. "The cases of chairs rocking by themselves in some houses are examples of how this could manifest itself," he said.
Old houses are often the best places to start when looking for a good ghost story. Many homes of the original settlers of this Valley are still standing and currently inhabited by both the living and those who have not quite passed on. The Fryeburg Women's Library keeps a scrapbook detailing the houses on the Fryeburg Main Street that unequivocably states that the oldest house in town has a ghost. The identity of the ghost has never been revealed, but the fact that some rooms in the house are from the original home built in the village, that an ell is the remains of the first tavern in town, and that the woodshed, which is now a family room, was the first schoolhouse, gives the structure quite a background of inhabitants who might want to stay around their old haunt.
Former residents of the home, Dr. and Mrs. Frosh, and their daughter, Sue, were reported to have heard recurring thumping footsteps and unexplained loud crashes. On several occasions, they watched their two dogs follow sounds with the turning of their heads and growling all the time. To top it off, the house was built on land believed to be an old Indian burial ground. That might be one house to avoid on Halloween, even if they're giving out imported Swiss chocolate.
Most of the ghosts reported in the area appear to be harmless, although a bit noisy and definitely not aware of the energy crisis. Leaving lights on and doors open is one of their major traits.
Betsy Mehaffey, who is almost convinced of the presence of a ghost in her home in Intervale, thought for years it was her teenage sons who kept crashing about upstairs, turning on lights at all hours of the night. When her children had grown up and moved away from home, she was forced to consider that it might be another phenomenon besides teenage rambunctiousness causing the disruptions.
Her husband, Charlie, an engineer by trade, admits that there have been some strange happenings, but is realistic enough to consider that they may be from "natural" causes. "I always look for some explanation for the things that happened," Charlie said. "This house is over 200 years old and was put together with pegs rather than nails like a modern house. One of the reasons it has lasted so long is that it can shift over time."
Nevertheless, the Mehaffey's so-called ghost has been around for quite a while and has acquired a reputation. "It wasn't long after we moved in before the postman asked us if we had noticed anything different about the house."
The spirit is supposedly that of a woman, Lizzie Eastman, who died after a long illness at a young age more than 100 years ago. The ghost's most active time was when the family first moved up from New York 15 years ago. "I never even thought about ghosts before that," said Betsy. "I just thought we were getting the real New England treatment, ghost and all."
Another ghost who is content to share his old residence with the present day owners is that of Major Asa Jackson, who received his rank as a member of the New Hampshire militia. In 1860, he built the house in Madison that he now supposedly haunts. Major Jackson and many other members of the Jackson family are buried not far from their old homestead in a small family plot.
Although Ken Turner, the current owner of "the Major's house" as it is known, professes to not believe in ghosts, he does admit that there have been lots of odd things that have happened around the house. "It must not be a malevolent spirit because it has never bothered me," he said, "but you can often hear something go clomping up and down the stairs, and doors have been found open and lights on. Once, I watched my two dogs and a cat react to something, jumping up on the bed, growling with their hair on end, as they followed it around the room."
In addition to the Major, who obviously didn't want to leave his house, Ken has heard stories of the ghost of an Indian who was forcibly drowned in a dam near his house. "A babysitter for the family who owned this house before me reported she saw a disembodied head in the back window a couple of years before I bought the place," he said, "but I've never seen anything like that."
Do you believe in ghosts? Admitting to seeing or believing in ghosts is something that not many people who want to be considered sane are ready to do. Documenting tales is even more difficult. By their very nature, spirits have to be elusive apparitions dangling between this world and the next. People who have had the opportunity to observe or live with a ghost often keep their stories to themselves for fear of ridicule. Conversely, some ghost-sighters tell their strange tale, yet insist throughout the telling that there must be some rational explanation behind it.
Not knowing all the laws of nature, ancient and medieval man had not hesitation to attribute every incomprehensible occurence to some long-dead uncle or murdered enemy. Elaborate rituals were practiced to placate these spirits, help them in their transition from the land of the living to the afterworld, and to prevent them from haunting the living.
Except for the attention of a few netherworld believers, the spirits, ghosts, and ghoulies, who once commanded homage from mere peasants to great kings, are no longer receiving any respect from the living. Whole cultures and pagan religions were once based on keeping the spirits happy, yet we sit secure in our knowledge that if there really were ghosts, someone would be able to prove it.
When you venture out on All Hallows Eve, just ask yourself one question as you look up at the starts and feel a shadow move over the moon ...could they possibly have been right?
Postscript: Note that this was written long before Google, hence the reference to the practically forgotten Encyclopedia Britannica.