Ten Terrifying & True
Terror Tales editor, Paul Finch, recounts 10 of the most disturbing true terror anecdotes he's collected during his time as custodian of the much-loved series...
The inspiration behind the Terror Tales series, which, with the publication during October of Terror Tales of the Home Counties, is now 12 books and counting, lies with the remarkable Tales of Terror series, which first appeared from Fontana Books in the 1970s.
I was only a teenager back then, but I was thoroughly entranced by the idea that certain key areas of the country could be picked out by the editors, one per volume, and then thoroughly mined for horror, both of the fictional and factual variety.
Fontana published ten volumes in the series. This included all the ones you’d expect, Welsh Tales of Terror, Irish Tales of Terror, Scottish, London etc. When I commenced my own series in 2011, with Terror Tales of the Lake District, though following a similar format – fictional horror stories interspersed with short anecdotes that also brought us terror unique to that region, but of the non-fictional variety – I was determined to cover the British Isles in closer detail.
Little did I know at the time that this was going to lead me into a whole new world of folklore research. Because while every part of the country I opted to focus on threw up a whole range of exciting authors I could commission amazing new horror fiction from, it also hit me with a wealth of eerie mythology.
At the time, folk-horror was on its way back. Back then, it didn’t enjoy the genre-busting popularity that it currently does, but it was becoming more and more prevalent in dark fiction, especially in the UK.
As I say, we are now 12 volumes into the Terror Tales series. We’ve covered much of the country, but there is still lots left to go, and though we’ve been able to publish some very high-quality original fiction, one of the most popular aspects of the books are the snippets of ‘true terror’ that I place between the stories. Some of these are literally hair-raising, describing supernatural or occult-related events that simply defy explanation.
When the good people at Horrified expressed interest in me writing a piece for them, to mark the publication of Terror Tales of the Home Counties, everyone seemed to be in agreement that a Top 10 terrifying anecdotes selected from the series thus far would be the way to go.
So without further ado, from the Terror Tales books so far published, please enjoy these abridged versions of the ten ‘true terror’ anecdotes that I consider among the most disturbing.
NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APE
(from Terror Tales of Wales)
Carew Castle sits on a rocky bluff on West Wales’s dramatic Pembroke coast.
It is an ominous structure, born of violence. The present castle was completed in the year 1100 to reinforce the Norman occupation, though the site had already seen many battles. It was strengthened during the 12th and 13th centuries, but though it fell into ruin later, it is still regarded as a magnificent piece of period architecture and a money-spinner for local businesses.
It was last inhabited during the late 17th century, and it is this era from which the most gruesome of the castle’s legends comes to us.
The owner then was Sir Roland Rhys, rumoured to have made his fortune as a pirate and famous for his foul temper. When he returned from one of his many trips abroad with a new pet, a Barbary ape, it didn’t delight those who knew him as much as frighten them, especially when they heard the name he had given it: Satan.
The ape (actually a monkey a large mandrill), came to adore its new master and even to reflect his moods. When Sir Roland was content, the ape was content. But when he was angry, it would prowl the gloomy castle, snarling at anyone it encountered. Several servants left, citing terror of the ape as the reason. One said she’d feared she was inches from death.
One particularly stormy night, when Sir Roland learned that his ne’er-do-well son had eloped with the daughter of a Flemish merchant, his fury knew no bounds. When the girl’s father, who was called Horowitz, arrived at Carew Castle, demanding restitution, Sir Roland unleashed the ape upon him. Though Horowitz managed to fight the animal off, he suffered terrible injuries. Even then it pursued him through the castle, and only a brave servant, who enclosed him in a side-chamber, saved his life. The duo then hid in the darkness, listening in disbelief as the deranged duo, the ape and its master, shrieked and roared while searching the castle, Horowitz praying earnestly that Sir Roland and his monster should meet the fate they deserved.
In the morning, Sir Roland was found in an upper room that was completely drenched with his blood. He had been torn limb from limb, but of the ape called Satan, there was no trace.
Even today, no-one knows what happened to the baleful creature. Popular myth tells how at night it still prowls the darkened ruin, hunting down the unwary. Ghost-watch societies also say the ape is present, but as a spirit – they claim to have heard its shrieks and the sound of its clawed feet gambolling along overhead floors that no longer exist.
A BIZARRE AND TERRIBLE EVENT
(from Terror Tales of the Cotswolds)
A macabre tale comes to us from the village of Besford in Wychavon, Worcestershire. It concerns a certain Church Farm, located in a region of woodland now called Dog Kennel Place.
In times past, the occupants of Church Farm were charged with kenneling the various packs of foxhounds belonging to the local lord of the manor. On an unspecified date sometime in the 1750s, the kennelman and his wife were woken in the middle of the night by a frantic baying from the kennels. It was an uproar such as they had never heard; something had disturbed the dogs badly and was continuing to do so because there was no let-up in the furore.
Eventually, the kennelman decided to investigate, but his wife was frightened and begged him to stay indoors. The kennelman insisted that he had his duty. Though still in his nightshirt, he put on his boots, loaded a blunderbuss and ventured outside, locking the cottage door behind him. His wife remained indoors, listening intently. The dogs continued to bark and howl madly, and then there was a detonation – the blunderbuss had been discharged. However, the kennelman did not return and his wife was so frozen with fear that it was only at first light, long after the hounds had fallen quiet, that she was able to pluck up the courage to go out and look for him.
She made a terrifying discovery: her husband’s two legs, both apparently torn from his body, though still wearing his boots. There was no sign of any other part of him.
The event caused a local sensation. Numerous theories abounded. Perhaps the kennelman had been murdered by a band of wandering rogues, but if so, why would they take away his head, torso and arms, and why not assault the cottage once it was undefended? Perhaps he had been attacked by some fierce animal which might have escaped from a local circus, maybe a bear or tiger? But no such escapes had been reported at the time. Perhaps he had been killed by his own hounds? Had they failed to recognise him in his nightshirt, and thought him an intruder? This explanation was also dismissed – the dogs were still in their kennels and the kennelman’s remains were outside. In any case, even in the extremely unlikely event that his own dogs had mauled and partly eaten him, there would have been recognisable leftovers.
There was brief excitement in 1930 when the skeleton of a man without legs was found buried in close vicinity to Church Farm. This might have provided an explanation, but then other similarly mutilated skeletons were also found and identified as Civil War casualties.
To this date, the strange and brutal death is unexplained. As an epilogue, the kennelman’s ghost is said to wander around the old farm buildings at night, his spurs jingling in the darkness.
THE BIG GREY MAN
(from Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands)
“I was returning to the summit in the mist when I began to think I heard something else than merely my own footsteps. I heard a ‘crunch’, and then another ‘crunch’ as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own. I listened and heard it again but could see nothing in the mist. I was seized with terror and took to my heels.”
So spoke Professor Norman Collie in 1925, describing an experience he had near the summit of Scotland’s second-highest mountain, Ben Macdui, in 1891. It is an account many climbers today will be familiar with because the unknown beast of Ben Macdui is still one of the most mysterious and terrifying beings in British mountaineering mythology.
Ben Macdui itself contributes in no small way to the aura of very genuine fear this oft-told tale creates. Standing 4,295 feet above sea-level on the southern edge of the Cairngorms, it is a remote and lonely fixture, and stories that its high slopes and passes are home to an enormous, aggressive biped have been told for generations.
The creature was certainly known about in ancient times when its old Gaelic name was ‘Am Fear Liath Mor’ (literally ‘Big Grey Man’). In the late 18th century, the great Scottish author, James Hogg, described a blood-chilling encounter with what he estimated was a 30-foot-tall giant, whose close details were hidden in frozen vapour. In 1903, renowned mountaineer, Henry Kellas, reported something very similar. In 1943, climber Alex Twenion claimed that he shot three times at a colossal shape in the fog as it lurched menacingly towards him. In 1945, a former mountain rescuer, Peter Densham – a man very experienced in the Cairngorms – told friends how he’d fled the mountain in terror when a massive, two-legged figure chased after him.
All witnesses describe a burly, “crudely-made” humanoid form, somewhere between 12 and 20 feet tall, which is either grey in colour, or covered in short grey fur. Its face has variously been described as “malign”, “inhuman”, “apelike”, or weirder still, “non-existent”.
Theories abound. An optical illusion is one possible explanation: mountain mist, refracting sunlight, rapidly altering perspectives and so on. However, other theorists dismiss this, pointing to the very solid, very real nature of the phenomenon. One question raised is could the Big Grey Man be a relict woodwose, a mysterious hominid rumoured to have lived in the very wild parts of Britain during the Middle Ages? The reasons why this must be nonsense are almost as many as those given for why the North American Bigfoot must be nonsense, and yet the reported sightings continue on the desolate slopes and icy ridges of Ben Macdui.
FROM THE LADY DOWNS
(from Terror Tales of Cornwall)
There is much to interest antiquarians in the far west of Cornwall. Archaeologists and prehistorians abound on the picturesque Lady Downs, where a range of Bronze Age artefacts have been uncovered over the years. And yet the Lady Downs also provide the backdrop to one of the eeriest and yet more well-attested tales of human/faerie interaction in modern times.
The whole of southwest England was long known as ‘the Summer Land’, largely in reflection of its benign climate. There is a magical aura here, which at one time was easy to attribute to the presence of mysterious beings, and indeed Cornish legend mentions all kinds of little folk, mainly in those areas where there are barrows, ring-forts and dolmens – like the Lady Downs.
In the late 18th century, a certain young woman, Cherry of Zennor, was found wandering on the Downs in a dazed state, with her left eye ‘curious’: changed in colour and unable to swivel. She had apparently gone missing several weeks earlier while looking for work.
Though in a confused state, the girl told an astonishing story. She claimed that she was on the Lady Downs, where at a remote crossroads, she met a handsome gentleman dressed as a country squire. He told her that he was a recently-made widower who was in need of a nanny for his son. When the girl agreed to accompany him, he led her along a series of moorland paths and down through a network of deep valleys and gullies, until they reached a place where no sunshine penetrated. Here, there was a beautiful house surrounded by handsome gardens.
The boy she was introduced to was quiet and polite, and minding him was easy, though one important duty of the new nanny’s was to anoint his eyes each morning with a mysterious salve, which his father insisted she must never use on herself. Each day, the widower and his son would disappear from the house. The girl thus became bored and inquisitive. One particularly tedious afternoon, unable to resist temptation, she applied a dab of the salve to her own left eye. Immediately, the eye began to burn. She ran outside to a nearby pool to wash, only to realise that she could see bizarre things: hybrid creatures dancing, men and women who had melded their own features into those of animals and insects. Among these horrors, she spotted her master and his son. The girl fainted, and in the morning, her master – human again – led her away from his home by complex paths, leaving her dazed and alone on the Lady Downs.
The girl’s family searched but could find no route leading down to a sunless valley. However, Cherry maintained to the end of her days that these things had happened, and was often found wandering the Lady Downs, calling her former employer in a hopeless, despairing voice.
HOTEL OF HORROR
(from Terror Tales of the Seaside)
The Haunted House of Horror, a low-budget British horror film of 1969, was notable for several reasons: firstly because it was an early example of the ‘slasher flick’, secondly because it was explicitly gory for its era, but mainly because it was filmed at one of the most haunted locations in the UK, the Birkdale Palace Hotel in Southport, on the Merseyside coast.
The Birkdale Palace, which was demolished shortly after filming, boasted a grim history and was associated with mysterious and brutal deaths throughout the 103 years of its existence.
It was constructed in 1866 in what was then a burgeoning holiday resort for the well-to-do, and the hotel was much in keeping with this: an ornate, luxurious building, boasting over 75 plush bedrooms. However, from the beginning, it was dogged by unfortunate incidents.
On the day of its completion, the architect was so distraught to find that it had been built the wrong way around, facing inland instead of out to sea, that he threw himself down the lift-shaft. Other grisly events followed, two young girls committing suicide in the hotel, and in 1961, the corpse of a six-year-old child found under one of the beds after she had been murdered there.
There was also a rash of paranormal activity. Every kind of disembodied voice was heard in the Birkdale Palace: groans, laughter, screams, shouts, children crying. Poltergeist activity was also reported: doors and windows opening and closing, objects flying through the air. Perhaps most frightening, though, are those incidents connected to the lift. Guests reported feeling an eerie presence inside it, especially if the lift jammed between floors, as it sometimes did, and its lights unaccountably dimmed. But perhaps the most spectacular event of all occurred in 1969 when a demolition team was dismantling the hotel. Even minus power, the lift, which weighed four tons, began to move up and down the shaft under its own power. Checks were made to see if anyone was fooling around with the winching system, but nobody was. The demolition team were quoted widely in the local press at the time, convinced they’d experienced the supernatural.
Paranormal investigators visited the Birkdale Palace many times, both while it was in use and afterwards, but were never able to provide easy explanations. One group, normally known for their scepticism, openly stated that they believed the hotel to be filled with restless spirits.
Today, the only part of the structure remaining is The Fishermen’s Rest pub, which was once the hotel’s Coach House bar. This too is allegedly haunted, though the sole apparition sighted here is that of a little girl sitting alone in a corner. The rest of the grand hotel is no more now than a strange and distant memory.
BUTCHERY IN BLEEDING-HEART YARD
(from Terror Tales of London)
Throughout the history of London, there have been murders and massacres of every description. A good number of these terrible events were judicial in origin; there were burnings, boilings, beheadings, hangings, drawings and quarterings, and even drownings when villainous buccaneers were shackled along the mossy bricks of Pirate Dock to await the high tide. Then there was the more common-garden type of atrocity – the rippings, stranglings, poisonings, shootings and bludgeonings, as perpetrated by madmen and maniacs.
However, in the late 16th-century one truly appalling attack was launched upon an eminent citizen of London, which astounded the metropolis for all kinds of reasons.
Elizabethan England was the heyday of the social climber. One such pair was Sir William Hatton and his wife, Lady Elizabeth, a handsome young couple whose ambition to join the elite far outstripped their actual talents. Nevertheless, William Hatton eventually achieved high office, serving Elizabeth I as Chancellor of England, in return for which she granted him a vast property in Holborn called Ely Place. The Hattons renamed it Hatton Garden and constructed an impressive manse there, Hatton House, from where they entertained regularly and lavishly.
But it wasn’t long before odd rumours were circulating. Lady Hatton, it was whispered, had won their fortune through a pact with the Devil. The Hattons laughed these stories off, but then, one day, in 1596, they held a masked ball at their home, which the great and good of London attended, though, mysteriously, the Queen herself stayed away, having been advised by court astrologist, John Dee, not to go. At around midnight, Lady Hatton was reportedly distressed by the arrival of a guest wearing a black hood and robe. Not long afterwards, she was seen leaving the premises with this hooded figure, heading out into a paved enclosure called Bleeding-Heart Yard. A few minutes later, other guests went out and were aghast to find her horrifically murdered, her skull smashed, her limbs severed, her throat cut repeatedly, her heart torn out.
Her killer was never apprehended, though new gossip now held that Lady Hatton, having obtained earthly wealth, had been attempting to wriggle out of her demonic bargain.
For years afterwards, witches and warlocks were said to have assembled in Bleeding-Heart yard as if visiting a shrine. There was also a belated sequel in the 1820s, when a strange, ragged woman approached Hatton House, spat on a good luck charm mounted over the door and cursed the occupants, saying that she could “do no harm while it remained to protect them”.
THE HORROR AT THE GATEHOUSE
(from Terror Tales of Northwest England)
A very frightening ghost story comes to us from central Lancashire, dated to the mid-1970s. It is not widely told by the land-owners concerned for fear they would lose staff, for which reason no names or specific places shall be mentioned, but the estate covers 20,000 acres near Preston, its centrepiece a magnificent 18th-century hall now fully restored and modernised.
Despite its age, there was no history of disturbance there until 1976. That summer, part of the estate was being cleared of overgrowth, for which purpose many students had been hired, most of them sleeping free of charge in the numerous lodgings dotted across the enormous property. One such was a solitary 17th-century tower known simply as the Gatehouse. It comprised a single door downstairs, a single spiral stair, and a single bedroom at the top, and was considered an idyllic location for a billet. The first person to sleep there was a student from Hong Kong. At first, he slept in the Gatehouse contentedly. But one week in, early in the morning, the estate manager was woken by a hysterical man at the door of his cottage. It was the Asian student, in a wretched state: white-faced, sweating, his pyjamas literally soiled.
He said that he had been in bed when he’d heard hoof-beats approaching the tower. A second later, ferocious equine shrieks sounded below his window, accompanied by a pounding on the downstairs door, which duly crashed inward. The next thing, he heard hooves ascending the spiral stair before his bedroom door was also broken down and an immense grunting something forced its way into the darkened room. Terrified, he climbed from the window, before running across the estate barefoot. On examination, his pyjamas were full of thorns, his feet badly cut.
The manager gathered some farm-hands, and they went to the Gatehouse, where they found the front door not only intact but still closed and locked. The same applied to the bedroom door. There was nothing out of the ordinary, though the window was wide open.
The student, adamant that he’d been telling the truth, left the following day.
The Gatehouse was closed, but now more students were arriving and extra bed-space needed. So estate staff reopened the building and one week later, just after midnight, the new occupant, a Londoner, also woke the estate manager screaming, having fled his lodging. He too was filthy and shivering, his feet bloodied. He told the same tale: equine shrieks, hooves on the stairs, a huge ‘something’ that entered his bedroom. But again as before, there was no damage when the place was checked.
This time the Gatehouse was closed permanently. No further incidents were reported, and no explanation has ever been offered. It remains a singular mystery.
THE NAPHILL DEATH OMEN
(from Terror Tales of the Home Counties)
Naphill is a typically bucolic Buckinghamshire village in the shadow of the Chiltern Hills. Yet it once was associated with a bizarre but recurring death omen. In 1910, a local woman collated a number of such occurrences from the later 19th-century and compiled them in book form. Four stand out as especially weird, and yet all are verifiable as relating to deaths that are traceable in the historical record. The first one concerns a farmer’s son, who in 1885 complained to his family that he’d suffered a nightmare in which he’d turned his own shotgun around, and despite resisting, blasted himself in the chest. Dismissing this as anxiety, his father bade him forget it, but before the week was out the farmer’s son was indeed dead, having accidentally shot himself.
It would be possible to write this off as sad a coincidence, but the next incident is harder to explain. One evening, a young village girl returned home to Naphill, distressed. She said that, on the lane, she’d spied a diminutive figure skipping along the wall parallel to her. The figure, she said, was a doll, a living doll, dressed in silk and satin, that it was moving stiffly but jerkily, and that, when challenged, it ran along the wall to her mother’s gate, where it vanished from sight. The girl’s mother waved the tale away as nonsense, but the following day died expectedly.
A short time later, the omen took another different form. A Naphill resident known as Alf was in his kitchen one night when he heard feet clump up the path to the back door. The latch then lifted as if whoever it was intended to enter unbidden. Annoyed, Alf yanked the door open, but there was nobody outside. The following night, the same thing happened again, the feet this time running at the back door. There was no impact, but again the latch was lifted. Alf opened the door, and again found no one there. The following day, however, Alf’s grandfather died.
The fourth occasion is the eeriest. A different villager was walking home one night when he became concerned that he was being watched. Agitated, he quickened his pace but was amazed when some other person he hadn’t heard approach fell into stride alongside him. When he saw that this stranger was a mere shadow-form, minus human features, he was terrified and ran the rest of the way, only for the shadow to run alongside him. On reaching his home, the villager veered away to the outhouse, but the shadow went into the main house. The villager summoned a friend and they dashed to the main building together, wherein an old man was about to commit suicide. They talked him around, thus taking heed of the death omen in time to prevent a tragedy.
Folklorists are bewildered by these tales, but find interest in the village’s proximity to Grimm’s Ditch, an Iron Age earthwork once strongly associated with the Viking god, Odin.
THE TORTURED SOULS OF LORD’S RAKE
(from Terror Tales of the Lake District)
Climbing folk will be familiar with Lord’s Rake, one of the most popular routes to the summit of England’s second-highest mountain, Sca Fell Crag. In essence, it is a high-walled, scree-filled gully, very steep, running laterally across the Crag from an exposed ridge called the Mickledore.
It is not a particularly difficult climb by Lake District standards, but daunting in terms of its eerie atmosphere. Even hardened fell-bashers have spoken of the ‘watching silence’ when up there alone, and sometimes the strange visual and auditory effects created when the cloud is low. Those chancing it on these occasions often find themselves completely blinded.
The Mickledore itself has an unearthly aura. On still days, it can be veiled by dense, rolling mist, which has been described as white, grey, black and even green. At times like this, people have spoken of meeting long-dead relatives on the Mickledore, or of sighting phantom figures approaching through the murk – but from a distance, which could only mean they were walking on thin air. But it is up in the Rake itself where these manifestations take a turn for the genuinely disturbing. Several times in the fog, while scrambling up the chute alone, climbers have reported being followed by heavy feet – “elephantine feet”, as one veteran described them. Roaring voices or shrill cries have sounded from on high and sometimes cackling laugher. Of course, there are numerous explanations. The acoustics of Lord’s Rake are a law unto themselves. Voices carry and echo unnaturally. The crack of a falling stone can sound like thunder.
In the Dark Ages, much of what we now call the Lake District was settled by Norsemen. Their myths spoke of trolls, evil spirits of the Earth who during daylight were composed of rock and mud, but at night became horrors of flesh and blood. Many bizarre rock forms were attributed to this malevolent race, and indeed, once in the Rake a brutish face was noticed in the rock wall, though later climbers were unable to locate it. These legends also explained why sheep who had ventured out after dark were supposedly found torn to shreds in remote locations.
One hoary old climber, a leading-edge man of the ’50s and ’60s, doesn’t laugh at such tales. He wished to remain anonymous but wrote: “There’s no obvious reason why the Rake should be haunted. People have died up there, but not in great numbers. The Vikings explained it by saying the cries you heard were trolls calling to one another. They also blamed trolls for unexplained rock-falls, calling them attacks on unwanted intruders. I put these things down to geology myself, but it’s easy enough if you’ve made a solo climb up there to be so oppressed by the blustering wind and the long, deep shadows of the crags to imagine that you’re not quite alone.”
THE BLACK MONK OF PONTEFRACT
(from Terror Tales of Yorkshire)
It is a strangely English tradition that ghosts don’t just walk in big country mansions, but on suburban housing estates too. During the 1970s there were accounts of poltergeists plaguing quiet cul-de-sacs as far apart as Swindon (1973), Newcastle (1975), Dartford (1977) and most famously, Enfield in 1976, when the nation watched agog as children were apparently possessed on live TV.
By the time screenwriter Stephen Volk penned his compelling drama, Ghostwatch, aired by the BBC on Halloween Night 1992 and purporting to be a real-time investigation into a genuine suburban haunting, the nation ought to have been well prepared for spooky events on quiet, tree-lined avenues. But in fact, they were terrified, and the BBC was deluged with complaints. The reality is that it’s been bred into us by centuries of psychological conditioning to look for ghosts in run-down buildings or on old battlefields. Not in the suburbs. Maybe this is why famed occult investigator Colin Wilson described the case of the Black Monk of Pontefract, on the Chequerfield housing estate, Pontefract, in West Yorkshire, as the most frightening of his career.
Pontefract, a pleasant market town, has long enjoyed an enviable standard of living, which made the events of the early 1970s in the Chequerfield home of the Pritchard family, all the more shocking. They included prolonged, destructive poltergeist activity: the family’s eldest daughter was dragged upstairs by unseen hands, which left claw-marks on her, while in one particularly disturbing incident, an attempt to bless the house saw the painting of black inverted crosses on doors and walls. If all this sounds suspiciously similar to the events said to have engulfed the Amityville house on Long Island, New York, also in the 1970s, it’s important to remember that the alleged Amityville Horror occurred well after the Pontefract case. Incidentally, the case of the Black Monk was so named because events reportedly culminated in the manifestation of a robed and hooded figure (another detail similar to the later largely discredited Amityville case).
Wilson was so impressed by the Pontefract incident that it became a key component of his scholarly 1981 study of violent house-hauntings, Poltergeist.
Ironically, given the mundane environment of a modern housing estate, the case of the Black Monk may have its roots in ancient atrocity. The Chequerfield estate is not far from Pontefract Castle, which witnessed the murder by starvation of the deposed Richard II in 1400, and several brutal assaults by Cromwellian troops during the Civil War. The figure of the Black Monk has also been associated with a black-clad ghost said to roam the castle and believed by locals to be the shade of a Cluniac monk who was hanged during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539.
The house is still occupied today, but no disturbances have been reported of late.