Tuesday 31 October 2006

Things that go bump in the night

I blame The Dick Van Dyke Show. Or possibly Bewitched. At any rate, I’m sure that it was one of those wholesome, 1960s, American family comedies that introduced us to the dreaded transatlantic concept of ‘trick or treating’.

In my childhood we just used to wander round the Fairways estate in a disconsolate sort of way, holding turnip lanterns. I realise now that this must have been an authentic folk custom because we met the crucial test that Thomas Hardy set to identify genuine West Country morris dancers from Victorian revivalists: we exuded misery as we went about it.

It wasn’t seen as a fund-raising opportunity. That was reserved for ‘Penny for the Guy’. What a contrast with 2006, when 31 October brings you the annual convenience of being mugged on your own doorstep.

All over the country tonight, terrified pensioners will be huddled behind their sofas with the lights off, pretending to be out, while the bolder spirits will be lurking behind their own front doors with Army surplus flame-throwers poking out through their letter boxes, preparing to cackle in an appropriately maniacal way as they yell ‘How’s that for a trick, kid?’

The supernatural itself will, as usual, not be much in evidence. In 50-odd years, I’ve only had three encounters that seemed to defy rational explanation, only one of which could be deemed vaguely scary. So the occult comes pretty low down my league table of terrors, well below Gordon Brown, Osama bin Laden, teenagers and dentistry.

Shortly after I moved to my current home, I pulled over on a narrow road to allow an old man to pass with his horse and cart. Only when I looked up after completing the manoeuvre, he wasn’t and never had been there.

A couple of years later, shortly after my mother died, my then partner and I were walking our dog when he ran off, wagging his tail furiously, and gave an effusive greeting to someone or something that neither of us could see. My mother loved that dog. Who else could it have been? And, yes, he has done a number of other mad things over the succeeding 14 years, but he’s never pulled another stunt even vaguely like that.

More recently, I was sleeping soundly in an Oxford college when I was rudely awoken by the bedside lamp apparently being hurled at me. It was 2 a.m. on an uncomfortably clammy midsummer night, yet the room was as cold as a walk-in freezer. Having dined well, I didn’t spend too long thinking about this, but pulled the covers over my head and went back to sleep. The following day, I discovered that it was but the latest in a long series of similar incidents reported over many years, often at precisely the same time of night. Though mercifully less dramatic than some of them, which tended to involve doors being opened unexpectedly by disembodied hands.

All these things had been reported by intelligent people who had probably drunk more than is good for them. Maybe that explains it. All I know is that, although I have been back to that college for other dinners, I’ve always spent the night in an hotel.

According to a TV documentary last week, some of us will never have the opportunity to walk the earth again on Hallowe’en, because we shall never die. Just hang on until 2029, presumably pass some hugely divisive test of suitability, and your brain will be downloaded to a computer so that you can think great thoughts or play snap for all eternity. At least until some passing cleaner pulls your plug out. Listening to the wide-eyed scientists who are so looking forward to this – the sort of men whose idea of work is controlling rats by putting electrodes in their brains – it is hard not to agree strongly with Evelyn Waugh’s dictum: all fates are worse than death.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

No comments: