Holidays in a Haunted Country
When you love escaping from reality into horror, it is somewhat irritating when the tables are turned. You’re trapped and scared, it is time to plan a dark holiday. Tamar Newton explores the options...
January is normally noted for being a particularly dark and depressing time of year when you look back soberly (preferably into a roaring fire in a dark grandiose Victorian library) over your mistakes and transgressions over the last year, the things left unsaid, the things undone and think hard on how to improve yourself.
This year it’s all mutated killer invisible viruses flying around, the government, all structures and familiar things are crumbling into a dystopian void, you’re just trying to stay alive and nobody cares that you’re planning to be vegan on a Monday.
Hearing somebody cough dryly behind you in Wilkinson’s is more chilling than the head-spinning scene in The Exorcist and you have not left your immediate postcode in months.
You are starting to hate your immediate postcode.
If you love horror films and books, you love quasi-terror, the relief of the unreal, the knowledge of special effects and carefully written words to induce terror, the willing suspension of disbelief. But now, the real terror exists outside the page. In this ghastly hyperreality, you are a cypher with no programmed escape route, you are living in fear, in a time with daily death counts, zig-zagging graphs of death, football league table scoring style of how many dead in your area today, the relief when it slides down, the sudden terror at a soaring spike you can’t quite understand or comprehend but you know it is not good. Then the carefully spoken governmental warnings about moving, touching, seeing loved ones in case you kill them too. No horror film or book can touch this existential dread when you hear a cough in the night now and it’s real. Reality is the new horror.
It has ever been thus, though; albeit in not the same media lens we see it in now.
I have been researching and writing a book about graveyards and a year spent uncovering the old moss buried inscriptions of graves sinking into soft rich graveyard earth shows that this generation is not the only one to have suffered from insidious sweeping diseases. Influenza, the Plague, dysentery and other illnesses have always been common mundane killers until relatively recently. Childbirth was a main cause of mortality for females and it was commonplace for several children to be given the same family name in the unhappy but resigned eventuality of one of the named children dying.
Maybe we thought we were lucky, a western generation with the main wars behind us, gleaming towers in the cities showing our advanced civilisation, and our clinical white hospitals, beacons of a new future. Sci-fi today, not tomorrow.
Then Sci-fi and the diseased past collided with Covid 19.
And this is why you are stuck in your immediate postcode.
The graves I researched became more alive, old historic illnesses more vivid before I felt a vague unknown sympathy for the woman who had buried eight children, and a relief I did not live in such a time. Now, sometimes in the middle of the night, I hear a harsh bark from my child coughing in his sleep and there is a primal fear I did not feel before 2020 – that this is it, despite the hospitals, despite not living in penury, that I can still be Got At.
I felt that my obsessive research into graves and deaths didn’t quite fit with the fake smiles, fake clapping and fake bravado of 2020. So many people dying quiet unpleasant unknown deaths and I am grubbing around looking at old gravestones. 2020 will be the year of unremarked deaths of wonderful people, no gravestone, no funeral, no wake, just a flurry of old dust in an empty crematorium, a few scattered mourners in masks – again more of a terrifying image than the darkest of writers or filmmakers most sensational imaginings.
Killer zombies? Bring on the jolly painted clowns!
I think we all need a holiday…
Disneyland will not work.
We need somewhere really terrifying. Or at least as terrifying as the Covid Disneyland. But not quite as terrifying as the immediate future.
Let’s all have a look at what we can do next summer (hopefully)…
We love haunted, we love hauntology, we fear for the future and we want a holiday.
The Skirrid Mountain Inn, Monmouthshire, Wales
This pub, with rooms in Monmouthshire, is said to have been the place of justice and execution by the condemning and hanging within of some one hundred and eighty poor souls and the markings from the hangman’s rope are allegedly still to be seen over the stairwell. Obviously, there are meant to be ghosts as well and Yvette Fielding once shrieked in a weird blue light during an episode of Most Haunted. Bowls of milk are left outside to placate wayward brownies.
The inn dates back to at least the 17th-century and is positioned in such a beautifully remote part of the world that it will take a while for the Covid zombie army to travel to. I would like to think that the olde-style ghosts at the inn will confront them and have a good old fashioned battle against good (old ghosts) and evil (new Covid zombies) with the old ghosts of yore finally vanquishing them with a little final help from the resident brownie. Ideally, the last remaining zombie needs to slip to death in the brownie’s milk.
Food for thought – I would like to think that the one hundred and eighty hanged people returning as ghosts would actually hold fire against the zombies but to be fair there might be some simmering inner resentment against humanity so one would need to ensure they didn’t side with the zombies. That really is the last thing we need right now. Not quite sure how as yet but bear it in mind. More saucers of milk?
Reference to actual film/book (0/10)
Folklore and legend (10/10)
Chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse (8/10)
Ellangowan Hotel, Creetown, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
I’m being particularly good to you now. Not only is this hotel the site of the filming of The Wicker Man’s particularly salacious scene with Britt Ekland dry-humping a wall, but it is also for sale for just under two hundred grand. This gets you a lot of pub and a big house as well in an utterly beautiful part of the world. You can still visit the nearby site where the actual Wickerman from the film was burned (his stumps, sadly, now stolen)
The lovely town of Kirkcudbright is nearby where much of the film was shot along with Anwoth graveyard a few miles away, which again features heavily in the film, with several close-ups of the ancient momento mori graves; the grinning skulls a harbinger of what is to come for to the hapless Sgt. Howie. According to the estate agents, Channel Four are keen to use the hotel in a future Four in A Bed show so you might want to start brushing up your ‘scrambled egg and smiling through gritted teeth’ skills.
There is a holiday cottage available directly opposite the aforementioned old graveyard if you don’t want to spend a few hundred grand on a crumbling hotel, where I once had a lentil soup and a portion of chips and wished I could afford to buy a piece of cinematic history. Creetown is locally known as Creepytown for a reason though. The reviews on Tripadvisor for the Ellangowan Hotel are also good for a read. In shock news, reviewer ‘Dark Cthulhu’ liked the fact he was placed in ‘Willow’s Room’ – no orgasmic thrusting at the walls was mentioned but the room was ‘clean and comfortable.’ and the title was ‘Perfect for Wicker Man Fans’. ‘Kevin D’, however, has shown a picture of his fork to demonstrate how small the chicken nuggets were and, thus, I suspect not driven by pagan rituals, folk-horror and bloodthirsty soil, more by decent sized pieces of breaded poultry.
Reference to actual film/book (10/10)
Folklore and Legend (10/10)
Chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse (8/10) The locals seem the type who wouldn’t put up with any nonsense.
Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad!, Kent
The year is 2021, you are walking pensively along a deserted beach and, looking down, happen to see something half-buried in the sand. ‘Hello!’, you mutter to yourself in your refined academic brogue. ‘What is this?’
For god’s sake, please do not blow it unless you want to see some rather worrying ironing.
The setting of the story is rather ambiguous. The name Burnstow said allegedly by M.R. James himself to refer to Felixstowe. However, the film adaptation of 1968 is filmed on the Norfolk coast, near Waxham and the 2010 adaptation in and around Kingsgate Bay and Botany Bay, both in The Isle of Thanet, Kent. Should you wish to go to Thanet, as a brief aside from conjuring up malevolent entities, then you could look up some of the ghosts that the splendidly named and attired GHOST (Ghost Hunting Organisation Surrounding Thanet) have allegedly encountered.
Should you wish instead to stay true to the original setting, then Felixstowe has a true ‘jumping the shark’ example of the paranormal with Landguard Fort supposably one of the most haunted sites in the country, a claim up there with ‘oldest pub’ as one seen so frequently as to cause more than slight scepticism.
And we don’t want that when we’re going on a haunted holiday in the broken ruins of a once-proud nation!
Landguard Fort has existed since the early 1600s and soldiers stationed there have reported seeing a musketeer marching along a rampart. He is said to be seen when Britain is in great danger but there has not been a flurry of recent sightings so I imagine all is well and there is nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
As they say frequently on Home Shopping Channels – ‘And that’s not all!’ There is also said to be the ghost of a Portuguese woman who committed suicide by jumping from the rampart when her husband was put to death by firing squad in 1757 as a result of trying to prove her innocence in the matter of a stolen handkerchief. And that’s not all! As a break from the pestilence sweeping the nation, you can try and find the ghost of a Georgian man who died of a terrible pestilence, alone and locked in the bastion to stop him from infecting the others. This will hopefully not give the current government any cunning plans.
And that’s not all! The ghost of a gin-soaked garrison who was responsible for the deaths by alcohol poisoning of four of his soldiers when allowing them to drink the gin forcibly removed from an unfortunate smuggler? Check. The spirit of Victorian artilleryman who likes to mess about with Airfix model places in the gift shop? Check. A First World War Soldier who died tragically at the scene now haunting the bathroom? Check. A ghostly team of phantom horses pulling a carriage through a drawbridge that no longer exists? Of course, there is.
Now have a fantastic holiday and remember what I said about that whistle.
Reference to actual film/book (6/10)
Folklore and legend (10/10)
Chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse (8/10) Though it depends what side the ghosts take. They seem a decent bunch, so…
Oh, Borley. I admit to feeling a ludicrous sense of fangirl over-excitement when many years ago I finally managed to go there and see the ACTUAL sign stating ‘Borley’ as I approached the village. I was expecting the car to immediately start rocking from side-to-side under the onslaught of ghostly malevolent hands. Sadly, all I saw was a neat little village, a quiet church not being attacked by demonic forces at all, and some grass where the actual Borley might have been. Readers, this could be you!
The story of Borley Rectory is an all-singing all-dancing story of everything excitingly evil ever. There is writing on walls, phantom coaches, parcels found in cupboards containing human skulls, poltergeists, spirit messages, the ghosts of sexually active nuns bricked up alive, affairs, untamed female sexuality, evil ghosts, violent ghosts, attacks on churches from beyond the grave, famous ghost-hunters, attempted exorcisms, controversies regarding fakery, bones found in cellars, and, finally, all-consuming fire.
And, of course, a veritable cascade of schlock horror films and books about the occurrences there, most of note being Harry Price’s writings about his alleged experiences.
To visit Borley is to see the ghosts of ghosts; nothing tangible, just a sense of what supposedly occurred in this quiet, upmarket little village. Maybe you will see someone like yourself, someone very much like yourself, wandering around trying to engage the locals on the topic, reading the parish notes in the church noticeboard in the hope that some violent, ugly scrawlings might suddenly dash across them, or kneeling on the neatly trimmed grass to read gravestone inscriptions. Yes, kneeling, but where your knees should be digging into grass is an absence, a blurring – a blurring because your legs have not touched the earth, they’ve, they’ve…and they turn up and look at you and they smile and the face is yours, the smile getting brighter and brighter and wider and wider, and it is taking over their, your whole face, the grinning the terrible grinning of a skull, and, dear god, the eyes, the eyes, sockets but still somehow staring at you, and you step back but feel something, something touching you…
Yeah, that would be great.
You’d have more luck purchasing a nice, homemade but surprisingly expensive chutney.
Reference to actual film or book (10/10)
Folklore and legend (10/10)
Chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse (3/10). Quite a number of septuagenarian occupy the village, and good travel links for Covid zombies.
Happy holidays, everybody!
And remember what I said about that whistle.
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