European Halloween

It’s fairly obvious that Halloween in the UK is not like Halloween in the US. The October holiday is a multi-million dollar business in the states and is celebrated in our usual loud and brash manner. I will always remember walking around the Fenway area in Boston on the 31st last year, the amount of people, the amount of costumes…simply put, it was fantastic madness.

The UK, on the other hand, isn’t as enthusiastic. First of all, the holiday has Celtic origins and the English didn’t always have the best relationship with the Celtics. Second of all, they already have a fall festival, Guy Fawkes Day, to help them let off steam. And third, they aren’t nearly as commercialistic so the candy companies don’t push the holiday as much. All of it adds up to a Halloween that is considerably lackluster compared to the American counterpart.

As an American, it’s certainly strange to see noticeably less enthusiasm around dressing up, getting scared, and carving pumpkins. Interest is there, and it’s apparently bigger than it was, but still I’s annoyingly small. To make up for that fact, us Americans (i.e. my friends and I) decided we had to do something. Going out was eventually rejected, as everything cost £15 or more. Plus, we didn’t really have costumes (there was no obnoxious marketing to remind us). So alternative options had to be explored.

I was going to hang out and watch movies and bake a cake with a group of friends, but my roommate convinced me to go on a ghost tour with her. I literally bought the last ticket.

“It’s a sign,” my roommate exclaimed.

The tour started at the Tower of London and ended at St. Paul’s Cathedral, taking us on a twisting path through the City. You see, the financial heart of London is contained within one square mile they call the City (of London). I’ve walked the area during the day, and it’s usually bustling with men and women in suits speed walking through this glass, stone, and concrete maze.

Deserted Cock Lane (see below). © Violet Acevedo
Deserted Cock Lane (see below). © Violet Acevedo

But it was Saturday and around 9 o’clock at night when we were there. There were a few people about, some ghouls and witches and tourists on their way to a party of a hotel. But quite often we were on our own, strolling through the streets in our little group, trying to keep up with our tour guide. Our footsteps echoed off the old and modern buildings. Sometimes the streetlights would flicker from red and green and back with only the occasional taxi passing through. An interesting place to be on Halloween.

Because we covered such a large area, we spent more time walking than we did listening to stories about London’s hauntings. I didn’t mind. It was such an unusual way to see the City:

We lingered at the Tower to discover the saga of King Henry III’s polar bear from its life to its afterlife.

We dwelled at the Monument to the Great Fire of London to try and picture the suicidal men and women falling to their deaths from the top of the monument hundreds of years ago.

We stopped at the Royal Exchange just long enough to hear a tale about a Victorian widow supposedly still begging for spare chain.

We paused at the original sight of the Bedlam mental hospital and listened to gory stories of what they used to do to the patients.

We gathered outside Bunhill Cemetery to learn about the writer William Blake and other spirits who wonder near their graves.

Then near the end, we took a moment to mark the home of Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane, the famous Victorian hoax that garnered attention and attracted believers for decades. The ghost in this story was a trick created by a cash-strapped renter to avoid being evicted but he ended up attracting much more attention from the religious Victorians than he bargained for.

Outside St. Bart (see below) © Violet Acevedo
Outside St. Bartholomew the Great church (see below) © Violet Acevedo

In a way, Fanny’s story was a very fitting addition. From a cynical stand point, this tour was very similar to that hoax. In between stops, we talked to our tour guide. He was a college graduate from Essex and readily admitted that during all the years he’s been conducting the tour, he has never seen a ghost. And you can tell he didn’t really believe. He was just going through the motions for the tourists and the pay check. He kept mentioning his boss, and I couldn’t help but get the feeling that this was all a trick to take tourists money. It made it hard to believe in his stories.

I guess it’s appropriate then that creepiest part of the tour wasn’t ghost related. We had huddled together in the courtyard of St. Bartholomew the Great church to listen to stories about its name sake, the Henry VIII’s statue located inside, and the films shot here. Like most themed tours, fun facts about the city were sprinkled within. So even though ghosts were not the subject of conversation, it was standing there, in that dark and dank courtyard as leaves circled around our ankles and silence drifted in from the deserted street, that I felt a chill run up my spine. But it was a brief feeling and it was gone by the time we reached St. Paul’s.

I’m not going to say that I didn’t have fun. Roaming the relatively empty streets of London’s financial heart, listening to fascinating true-tales, talking to our guide about Halloween in Britain, all made the outing worth the £7.50 I spent. It was a fun way to spend Halloween.  I wasn’t expecting to see any ghosts anyway.

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