By Roger Luckhurst
As Lisa Morton notes in her excellent Trick or Treat? A History of Halloween (2013), our annual festival of spooks is a typical result of messy history and cultural confusion. It entered modern English culture as a misunderstanding of the three-day Celtic new year celebration in Ireland, which started at sunset on the 31st of October, to mark summer’s end. British colonizers thought it a worship of blood-thirsty pagan gods. It was managed by fusing it with a network of Christian saints’ days. All Hallows Eve, the night before one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, is meant to be the time when the barrier between this world and the next is at its thinnest and communications between the most likely. The sequence ends on 2nd of November, All Souls’ Day, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. This also happens to be the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Since the 1970s, Halloween has been coloured by American urban myths and the iconography of the modern Gothic. Children are menaced by demented psychos spiking drinks or putting razor blades in the candy. In terms of profit ratios, John Carpenter’s film Halloween (1978) remains one of the most successful films of all time, launching the career of the seemingly unkillable serial slasher Michael Myers, a permanent threat to transgressive teens everywhere. It became obligatory in my suburban childhood in the 70s to have local newspaper reports in early November about traces of witch sabbats found in the nearby woods, our very own Essex version of the Blair Witch Project. In the era of Black Sabbath and The Omen these urban myths were surely repeated everywhere.
The current commercialisation of Halloween — swathes of pumpkin-orange stuff for kids in the supermarket — feels like another stage of domestication. Western cultures are supposed to be increasingly secular, yet beliefs in a world of spirit remain consistently high. The sociologists who spoke of the ‘disenchantment of the world’ never quite understood the kinds of magical thinking that mark out the everyday human grasp of the world. Festival days are temporary moments that allow for these rituals of re-enchantment.
This seems very different from the Victorian fascination with ghost stories — something we tend to associate more with Christmas story-telling than their somewhat cutesy rendition of the Halloween festival. In my research for The Mummy’s Curse, I delved into the history of The Ghost Club, a group of Victorian gentlemen who met to tell each other, in perfect confidence, ‘real’ ghost stories and discuss them as evidential proof of life after death. A Ghost Club had been established in Cambridge in 1855 amongst Trinity scholars, but the London grouping was established on 1 November 1882 by the occultist Alfred Alaric Watts and the respected Spiritualist medium Reverend Stainton Moses, a man who spent decades receiving ‘automatic writing’ from the dearly departed. The Club met for fifty-four years, and although the dates shifted around, it was in the rules that they had to meet on All Souls’ Day, the first day of November.
The Ghost Club was a typical earnest enterprise of concerned and educated men. (They eventually had a Ladies’ Night, but only forty years after starting out.) The ghosts of which they spoke were ephemeral, fugitive things, and the recounting of them was top secret. Nevertheless, the Club bureaucracy took minutes of every single meeting, leaving behind 16 volumes of closely hand-written notes that now reside in the British Museum. Their golden years were dominated by Sir William Crookes, the eminent Victorian chemist who also happened to be a Spiritualist and used his laboratory to measure the ‘psychic force’ of Spiritualist mediums. He insisted on privacy to protect his public reputation. Their members included lawyers, doctors, vice-admirals, prominent colonial officials, and aristocrats: it was a very exclusive club of ‘Brother Ghosts’. Their famous guests included Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Wallis Budge (the famous Keeper of the Egyptian Rooms in the British Museum), and painters like Sir William Richmond. They circulated ghost stories, experiences at séances, and rumours that even Queen Victoria had seen a ghost but that the story had been covered up by the Royal household. The tone of the minutes remains steadfastly serious and never remotely jaunty, very unlike the supernatural ‘club tales’ being written at the same time by Robert Louis Stevenson or Henry James.
The most intriguing member for me remains Thomas Douglas Murray, the society gentleman who was known to have been cursed by a mummy when he purchased a coffin lid of a malignant priestess of Amen-Ra in his youth. He had purchased the lid in Luxor, then promptly shot his own arm off in a hunting accident. The mummy case in London scared the bejeesus out of Madame Blavatsky, the Theosophist, who begged it be given away. Once installed in the British Museum as catalogue number 22542 it allegedly began a career of malicious revenge on spectators who gawped too hard. Murray told his story to the Ghost Club several times in the 1890s.
When Murray died, his place in the Ghost Club was taken by none other than William Butler Yeats. I often think that Yeats’ poem ‘All Souls’ Night’, in which he calls up the ghosts of dead friends one by one, is a secret homage to the Ghost Club and to Douglas Murray. It ends, after all, ‘Wound in mind’s wandering/As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.’
Roger Luckhurst is author of The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy (2012) and the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula, and the Classic Horror Stories of H. P. Lovecraft.
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Image credit: William Crookes. The Popular science monthly, Volume 84, p100. New York, Popular Science Pub. Co., January 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.