On a dark Friday night at the end of October, under the glow of an almost full moon, we set out on a Halloween mission via country bus; through the suburban sprawl of England's dilapidated high streets, seeking the dark woods and old traditions that lie beyond the hills.
Passing charity shops, coffee chains and Chinese takeaways, the bus's bells chimed to let its passengers know we had arrived at the 'Church', 'Rugby Club' and the 'Post Office'; the wagon having reached its final destination where we would have to continue our journey on foot.
Through industrial estates with neon signs bedraggled with ivy and barbed wire,via fast food franchises reminiscent of rural America, we trudged past the flashing banners of corporate hell, climbing over cold, grey mottled railings through a tunnel down a pot-holed lane; a realm guarded by a teenager in a Hi-Vis jacket, pointing to a path leading to a West Country farm where we'd heard tales of a Halloween Spectacular.
We soon came upon vast fields strewn with pumpkins, strange orange orbs peppering the muddy plains, basking in the moonlight and the synthetic beams of light emanating from a fun-fair in the adjacent paddock, a large plastic arrow, emblazoned with 'Fear' pointing in its direction.
An alien landscape, music drifting through the valley like a dream and all hidden behind a roundabout, supermarket and the lurid melancholy of a drive-thru.
With piles of gourds illuminated by fairy-lights, we had reached the pumpkin market, serenaded by a local folk band playing a fiddle version of 'Jolene' and children running riot in corpse-paint and bat wings. A fever dream on a farm just outside of Bristol.
Wielding a wheelbarrow passed the dodgems, we ambled through the patches, on a surreal, psychedelic quest to find a pumpkin to take home, in order to carve a face into its pulpy yellow flesh. In this moment, I asked myself, why am I here?
The tradition of carving a ‘Jack-o’-Lantern’ out of a pumpkin was brought over to the United States by Celtic immigrants, with a ghostly white turnip originally being the candle’s host instead of the giant orange gourd we come to recognize as the symbol of Halloween today.
After a plentiful autumn harvest, faces were carved into root vegetables to ward off the evil spirits thought to gather on October 31st. The namesake of the lantern we know today has its roots in an 18th century Irish folktale, of a drunkard stuck between heaven and hell, the devil himself providing Jack with an ember of coal to light his turnip lamp, destined to wander purgatory for an eternity.
A 'Ghost Turnip' from the 1900's on display at a museum in Ireland.
It’s also a tale sometimes used to explain the phenomenon of ‘ignis fatuus’, the flickering lights often seen dancing over bog, marsh or grave, also believed to be fairies or will-o'-the-wisps, ghostly creatures thought to lead weary travelers to their doom.
Painters of the Romantic period were so drawn to the ethereal nature of such nocturnes, many sought to capture the atmosphere of these mythologies with oil, seen here in the work of masters from Europe in the 19th Century.
'Dancing Fairies' 1866 - August Malmström
'Will-o'-the-wisp and Snake ' c. 19th Century - Hermann Hendrich
Nature’s truth is in fact just as magical, with the flammable, phosphorous gases of decomposing organic matter causing bioluminescence, its sparks often preferring the moist ground of swampland.
So as All Hallow’s Eve approaches we look to the pagan tales and ancient rituals surrounding Samhain, the time of the year when winter begins and the veil between the living and the dead is thought to be at its thinnest.
At a time when the world is full of horror, it could seem strange to seek comfort in the supernatural, escaping into eeriness and the unknown. Perhaps it is the mystery of a different world rather than the reality of our own that makes another so alluring.
Darkness is often portrayed as an evil entity, the absence of light a terrifying prospect indeed, shadows bending to become the shape of whatever it is we are most frightened of. Though to end with a Shirley Jackson quote that I find inspiring,
"To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls."
So, whatever it is that scares you, may the flickering flame light your way, be that inside a root vegetable in October, or the spirit within, for eternity.