I took an early morning walk with Sam, a few weeks ago, and found myself marveling at the dew covered spider webs hanging from the gorse bushes that cover our part of the moor. If there is mist – and there is almost always some morning mist in Dartmoor – and if the sun is just so in the sky, the bushes on the hillside glisten and sparkle like an Elton John cape from the ‘70’s. But now that the end of October is near and we officially enter the winter months, making staying indoors much more tempting, I’ve noticed that many of these spiders have moved inside with us. They are huge, hairy and probably slightly terrifying to many, and most likely none other than Tegenaria domestica and Tegenaria gigantea. That’s house spiders to you and me and they are here in time for Halloween.
Shortly after setting up camp inside the house, these spiders are seen busily scuttling across the room, climbing walls, and weaving some seriously impressive webs in the corners. Naturally, before friends or family come to visit, we make an effort to neaten the house and remove the webs, but now that Halloween is upon us, I’ve been letting the spiders carry on with their silken decorations to create a spookier feel to the place. Besides, they work hard to build their intricate traps and, given the number of projects we are facing, I can appreciate that need to enjoy a sense of accomplishment.
Autumn, with its cooler air and changing colours, always fills me with memories of apple bobbing, pumpkin carving and, of course, Halloween adventures. Halloween is a once a year opportunity to dress up in scary clothing, hang up paper bats and skeleton decorations on the walls and ceilings, cover the front door with fake spider webs, carve pumpkins and eat vast quantities of mini-chocolate bars. Who doesn’t enjoy that?
Just because we live in a national park, whose history is riddled with numerous stories of ghosts roaming the moors, and what with Wistmans Woods – supposedly the most haunted place in Dartmoor – just a short walk away, and potential prisoner escapes from the jail just around the corner, doesn’t mean we are guaranteed Halloween success. I recall, as a child, that spine-tingling sensation as my friends and I gathered the courage to make our way up a long drive to a dimly lit house with the sounds of ghouls blasting from the stereo speakers. Dressed in our Superman, Princess Leia, Ghost, Hobo, Clown or Frankenstein outfits, we would steel ourselves, pillowcases in hand (selected to hold more candy) our hearts racing waiting for the door to creak open before we screamed, “Trick or Treat!” But here in Dartmoor, we are some distance up a track and every kid knows you can’t maximize candy collection when houses are far apart.
So if Halloween won’t come to us, maybe we need to go to it. In looking for the local Halloween events – certainly, there must be a haunted house to visit or a 5K Zombie Run For Your Life – I stumbled upon what may be the scariest of all events on the National Park Authority web site: Ranger Ralph is leading a Ghosties, Goblins and Ghoulies walk for the whole family with “spooky stories and traditional Halloween fun.” Among the numerous downsides to this event is that “fancy dress” (that’s costume for the non-UK reader) is optional. Honestly, where’s the fun in that?
Every October marked the beginning of my costume planning. We had a box in the attic full of dress up costumes and previous years Halloween outfits, but I always wanted something new. I would beg and beg until my parents took me to the shops to see the latest selection of Halloween gear. I longed for the magical outfit designed to help me bag a big cache of treats from the neighbourhood suppliers. I carefully considered the season’s latest in plastic masks and polyester capes with glee while my mother carefully examined my costume choice for quality, pouring over its cheap snaps and weak seams and reviewing the small print label assurances that the material was indeed flame retardant. As Halloween approached and the weather turned colder, my mother would insist that I wear a winter coat OVER my outfit. As every child knows, it is not possible to ward off evil spirits and ghouls when that specially chosen costume’s super powers is covered with a coat, nor is it easy to paw through the candy selection while wearing mittens. My mother and I could never see eye to eye on this.
It is disappointing to accept, but I don’t think we are going to get any trick or treaters this year. All the same, I’ve purchased candy, as I will not be caught short-handed should the bell ring. And imagine if our doorbell did ring! How would any brave soul — or undead being — feel if we didn’t have a bowl full of mini chocolate bars to offer as treats? Halloween is not just about trick or treaters, it is the very night when those lost souls without a pulse haunt the land and magic is at its strongest! Imagine how chuffed a passing coven of witches might feel upon trick or treating for a bite size Baby Ruth Bar before heading off to celebrate the night of the dead at one of the ancient moorland stone circles. When we were kids, soap on the windows or toilet paper in the trees were the sorts of shenanigans inflicted on those pretending not to be home because they didn’t have any treats to distribute. But this sort of mischief is nothing compared to the collective powers of witches who can turn someone into a toad or standing stone should they feel the urge. Without a treat to offer, I’m certain we don’t have a chance at deflecting their hatched spells.
Luckily, Ranger Ralph is not the only game in town. Each year a group of paranormal enthusiasts gather to exorcise the two hundred year old ghost of Kitty Jay who, as a young barmaid at a local pub, was seduced and left pregnant by a young farmers son, who subsequently disowned her. In her anguish, she committed suicide therefore preventing her body from being buried in consecrated ground. Instead, as was custom then, she was buried at a crossroads with a stake through her heart. This last act was done to stop the Devil taking her soul and also to confuse her spirit so that it could not find its way back to haunt the living. It is believed that her soul still wanders restlessly on Dartmoor. Really, who needs paper bats and skeletons when this sort of stuff is on offer?
This part of the world is filled with places that just cry out to go and visit to celebrate All Souls Night. I’m oddly drawn to some of the spookier places with names like Bleak House, Bloody Pool, Coffin Wood, or best of all, Scary Tor. There are lots of places with Devil or Pixie in their names that could keep us busy for some time were we to visit them all. I want to get into the spirit, as it were, of this holiday, so we may just set out on a walk along the Lych Way, also known as the Way of the Dead. It was along this track that the corpses were carried for burial at Lydford and as luck would have it, it is just a short walk north of our house.
More than likely, we’ll stay home and carve our pumpkin, open a bottle of wine, don our masks and wait for that knock at the door. Anticipation is often the scariest part. I wonder who’ll come to your door?