What is it about October? When the balmy days of summer yield to the crisp, colorful days of autumn; when the warm breezes give way to brisk, howling winds; or when the trees come decked out in a riot of oranges and yellows, before they brown and crackle, becoming skeletal remains against ever-changing, moonlit skies?
In ancient pagan tradition, it is the end of the year or Samhain, when the other worlds are closest to ours, and spirits cross between them to revisit loved ones and partake in festivals and celebrations. Halloween, the day or weekend we set aside to carve jack o' lanterns, collect sweet treats, wear costumes, and go to parties, haunted houses, or scary movies, leads to All Souls Day, a religious event (with soul cakes) where we remember those who have left this world for the next.
Maybe this time of year is just a sorely-needed respite before the tumultuous, incessant, and forced jollity of the Christmas season. But whatever it is, October is a time of change.
It's also a time for all the weirdness to come out and play.
As you've probably figured out by now, I love Halloween. I love the pumpkins, apple cider, costumes, books, the movies, trick or treating. I especially love spooky ghost stories. I know that in some places, these tales of terror are actually told at Christmas time. Dickens' A Christmas Carol springs to mind, or the wonderful stories of Robertson Davies' High Spirits. Sure, I love reading ghost stories and seeing the movies, but when it comes to telling tales around a crackling bonfire, when you can tell a real one, that is the most fun of all.
It was the third trimester of my junior year a Ohio Wesleyan, and a group of us were in York, England to participate in an archaeology course at King's College of the University of York, in conjunction with the York Archaeological Trust. We were kindly accommodated at a local bed and breakfast called Lady Anne House in Skeldergate. The place was once a hospital before the owners bought the near wreck and renovated it. That was what little history I knew. These days, it's a six-building luxury complex called Lady Anne Court, part of Middleton Hotels.
One night, about two weeks into our stay, we'd all been out at a local pub, where our English associates regaled us with tall tales, and we tried to put to rest once and for all Oscar Wilde's famous quote from his 1887 story, The Canterville Ghost: "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language."
Unfortunately, they introduced us to mead. This is a powerful drink made from honey, and because the drinking age at the time was under 21, I was glad to partake. It really goes down smoothly, so much so that you can drink quite a lot and never feel a thing -- that is, until you stand up.
Then it hits you like a ton of bricks.
We staggered back to Lady Anne House, and I think I might have fallen into the River Ouse. I remember splashing, getting drenched, and then sloshing back to the bed-and-breakfast, and it hadn't been raining. It was well after midnight when we finally arrived in a loose group of inebriated archaeology interns. The guys went to their room, and my roommates went to ours and collapsed. I was soaked and smelled like river water, so I decided to take a shower. The bathroom was down the hall, and I was exceedingly drunk, so I slowly, carefully made my way.
After a nice, long shower, I dried off and put on my pajamas. I felt much better and was quite ready to get some sleep. Happily, it was Saturday now, so there were no classes or work on the archaeology sites, and I could sleep in.
When I emerged from the shower room, a billow of steam followed me. The hotel was quiet and the hall lights were dimmed so it seemed like twilight. My room was back at the end of the long hall, so I cautiously and quietly started back.
About halfway down the hall, I thought I saw something to the side, close to the wall. When I looked more closely, I saw a woman standing there and staring at me. She was dressed in what would have been casual clothes in the late 17th Century. I was still so tipsy, and I just figured she was coming from some sort of costume party.
I started to walk past her, and suddenly the hall was freezing cold. My arms were covered with goosebumps, and the hairs on the back of my neck started to tingle. When I looked at the woman again, I could see the door to the utility closet actually appear through her.
It was at this point, I assumed she was not really there. I was obviously still suffering ill effects of the mead overdose, and that was all. I shut my eyes and walked down the hall very quickly. My heart was racing, and despite the intense cold, I was sweating. The wet ends of my hair felt like ice cubes against my back. I tried to scream, but all that came out of my mouth was an anemic squeak.
I scurried to the safety of my room and my bed. My two roommates were sound asleep as I hopped in and pulled up the covers. I started to get warm again and was drifting off, when the intense cold washed over me once more.
I peeked over the blanket and there she was, moving around the room, looking at each of us. She turned to look at me, smiled, and patted the end of my bed, touching my left foot. It felt cool and yet very comforting, that touch. Like a fresh breeze against my skin.
Then she was gone as quickly as she had come, fading out like a shadow hit with moonlight.
I did not sleep that night, and the next day I finally calmed down enough to tell my roommates what I'd seen. One of the others confessed that she'd seen something too, but had put it down to overactive imagination.
During our last week at Lady Anne's House, we kept a watch for her, but she didn't return to the hall or the rooms. I could swear, however, when we moved out to take up residence at the Trust's quarters for those of us staying on for the summer dig, I remember looking back at our room window that overlooked the front of the house.
I'm almost certain I saw her, looking out the window and watching us, still in her 17th Century dress, and waving to me as we left. When I looked back one more time, she was gone.
Years later, I discovered that York, England has the reputation for being the most haunted city in Europe. There have been more than 500 alleged ghost sightings in all areas of the city. Underneath York is evidence of continuous occupation since the Stone Age. It was known as Eboracum during Roman times, Jorvik by the Vikings, and eventually York during Medieval times and thereafter. It's a treasure trove of history, so it would be entirely logical that ghosts would live there. Sightings happen all over the city.
I've never tried to find out who this particular ghost was -- if she was a ghost at all. Even today, it would probably be hard for me to describe her features. I mean, if you gave me a book on fashions from the 17th Century, I'd probably nail the dress she was in, but that's all.
Maybe she was a dream, or vision, or something in between.
Of course, I wasn't the only one to see her, right?
Who knows? Perhaps in another world, we'll meet again, and she can tell me her story...
How about you? Do you have any interesting ghost stories to tell?