A Brain Bank Halloween horror: A weakness of the mind

The term ‘haunting’ is generally applied to cases involving recurrent phenomena, of a supposedly paranormal nature, that are associated with particular places. Approaches to understanding hauntings can be divided into two categories: those that attempt to explain the manifestations ‘naturalistically’ (e.g. non-paranormal explanations), and those that employ paranormal concepts such as telepathy or the laying down of a ‘psychic trace’. – Peter A. McCue (2002)

“You know it’s all a load of b******s, just tricks of the mind….that’s why ghosts only come out at night,” I splurged as we sped along the A6. Miranda just laughed.

It was the weekend after Halloween and as a ‘bit of fun’ we had decided to drive across to Bakewell, enjoy the scenery, have a bite to eat, then, at twilight, wander down to the infamous ‘Shady Lane’. The Lane is said to be narrow and heavily wooded in parts; from all accounts a pretty creepy place to visit at any time of the day. However, according to legends the real horror comes at twilight. It is said that a procession of 12 headless men walk this lane in the failing light carrying an empty coffin. Apparently, if you are unlucky enough to catching a glimpse of these grisly coffin bearers it represents an omen of your imminent death.

I shuffled uncomfortably in my seat. Planning the trip had seemed like a bit of a laugh, something a bit different, a bit ‘hands on’ to do for Halloween and being scientists we knew it was all rubbish…didn’t we. However, I still couldn’t shake the feeling of unease.

As the bleak November countryside rushed past the window I turned to Miranda and, trying to add a sarcastic inflection to my voice, asked, “Do you think we’ll see anything?”. “I guess it depends if it’s our time or not,” she replied with a giggle, then after a pause added, “you’re not getting nervous are you?”.

“About what?” I replied, “The scary headless ghosts? Ha, there are enough real things to worry about without adding ghosts and goblins to the list. You know I have a presentation to give on Monday, now that’s scary”. She smiled and I turned back to the window.

The truth was however, that even though my logical brain knew that there was no real evidence behind the stories, just tall tales and folklore, I couldn’t shake the nagging doubt of the ‘what-if’s. That and, being a neuroscientist, I knew how amazingly deceptive the mind can be. Apparently most ghostly sightings and paranormal experiences can be explained away by tricks of the mind; states of heightened fear, tiredness, low light, even the obscure phenomena of ‘infrasound‘ can all trick us into experiencing things which just aren’t there. Yes I’d been researching it; but, despite my scepticism, after reading numerous ‘eye-witness accounts’ of experiences on Shady Lane my mind was primed for something paranormal.

It was about twelve o’clock when we eventually pulled into a small local car park. The clouds, which had been threatening a downpour since the start of our journey, finally made good on their threat and as we stepped out of the car the heavens opened. Pulling our hoods tight, we rushed for the nearest restaurant, fish and chips, no complaints there. I felt myself relax slightly as the familiar sounds and smells of the restaurant washed over me. After all, what reason did I have to be tense, this was just a normal day.

File:John Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare.JPG“Have you ever seen a ghost?” Miranda asked as we sat down.

“No,” I replied, “I tend to have a good relationship with the paranormal, I leave it alone and it leaves me. But actually,” I ventured, “…I do get sleep paralysis! Since I know what it is, it doesn’t scare me but I read that it’s responsible for a fair number of apparent ghost sightings”. Intrigued, Miranda leant in, “I’ve never heard of it before…..what is it?” she asked.

I decided to opt for a simple explanation, “It’s kinda the opposite of sleep walking. It’s when your mind wakes up, but your body stays paralysed. You feel like you’re awake, but you’re still mentally in a more suggestive ‘dreamy’ state. Since you can’t move or open your eyes your mind can play tricks….I often hear footsteps and sometimes feel like there’s someone or something in the room, often it feels like something is sitting on top of me”.

“Like a perverted ghost,” Miranda joked.

“Yeah, something like that,” I replied, “It’s relatively common, and can be explained scientifically, but before people knew what it was many thought they were experiencing a ghostly presence holding them down. It’s spooky stuff if you don’t know what you’re dealing with!”. Miranda looked genuinely concerned, “It sounds horrible,” she muttered.

“Yeah, but I guess it’s just an example of how complicated our minds are,” I said, “We’re all exposed to some pretty strange ideas in life, like ghosts and boogy men. I guess there are times, when you’re tired, or feeling scared, that your mind can wander; you know, create things which aren’t really there from its own imagination or fears… like your own internal horror movie ”.

I paused for a minute. The conversation had shifted and I wondered whom I was trying to convince with my rant. Perhaps, if I can recognise the reality behind these nocturnal horrors, I had no reason to be scared of Shady Lane? The logic is no different…“Are you ready to order?” chimed the waitress, snapping me back to reality with a jolt. Miranda glanced over, obviously noticing me jump at the unexpected intrusion. “You sure you’re OK?” she quizzed.

“Yeah, I’m fine, just got side-tracked” I smiled, and we ordered our meals.

As the day drew on the rain subsided and we decided to explore the town. Wandering round the shops we discussed more of our own personal ghostly experiences, debunking myths as we went, until eventually I started to wonder what I was so concerned about. Ghosts and ghouls are all in the mind; as long as you’re strong and can control your own fears you have nothing to worry about. With the acquisition of this new personal bravado I began to feel better prepared for our evening’s escapades.

It wasn’t long before the light began to wane and I soon found myself taken from the comfort of the busy shopping centre back to the car. The lane was a few miles outside Bakewell close to the village of Little Longstone. Our plan was to park up at The Packhorse Inn, a local pub in the village, then walk the rest of the journey to the lane, returning after dark for a well-deserved drink.

By the time we arrived at the pub the rain had started again, not a downpour this time, but rather a homogeneous haze, the kind of rain which manages to get you wet within minutes no matter how hard you try to avoid it. “Picked a great day for it,” I groaned.

“Well, it is November in the Peaks, what do you expect?” replied Miranda, then adding quietly, “You know if you’d rather stay here, have a drink and some food – I don’t mind”. For the first time that day I sensed a wavering in her resolve. Miranda was by far the most sensible and down-to-earth of my friends, to recognise the shudder of anxiety in her voice was particularly unusual. I’m not sure why, but something about her uncertainty spurred me on, giving me confidence… now I was the brave one!

“Ha, we can’t leave without even seeing the lane, Matt said we would chicken out, you don’t want to prove him right do you? He’ll never let us live it down,” I replied, grabbing my waterproofs from the boot of the car. “Lets do this!”

Ahead over two fields, then turn left on the Monsal Trail. Just before the railway bridge turn left up the steps then, at the top, turn right over the bridge.

We followed the directions I printed from the internet and soon found ourselves standing at the opening to the Lane. The ground was loose under our feet and a combination of the rain and waning light made it hard to see too far ahead. Miranda turned to me, “So you’re sure about this? You have been a bit off today you know”. I glanced back at her, trying to conceal the pleasure I suddenly felt over her uncertainly, “Don’t be silly,” I said with a cheeky grin, “I’m fine, lets go”.

Overcome with a sudden childish sense of accomplishment and mastery over my fears I began to run down the path. “Catch me if you can, slow coach,” I shouted as I sped around a bend.

Giggling to myself over how silly and unwarranted my earlier fears had been I slowed to catch my breath. The path was particularly narrow at this point and overhung by an unusually thick canopy considering the time of year, bloomin’ global warming. I squinted ahead through the gathering gloom, it looked as if further along another path joined the lane. Most likely the entrance to Thornbridge Hall. I glanced back to see if Miranda had caught up with me. I could just make out something moving in the distance, perhaps a flash of pink, could it be her coat? I was about to shout to her when something drew my attention, halting the words before they left my mouth. A shuffle, definitely the sound of movement coming from towards the turning. I spun around to try and glimpse the cause of the noise, but the path ahead looked deserted. Then it came again, the crunch of wet leaves underfoot, under a number of feet. My bravado all but gone, I felt my heart begin to race. If I could just get back to Miranda, get her attention, I’d be OK. But my legs wouldn’t move and my voice wouldn’t come. Cemented to the spot I stared helplessly ahead. Then they came, hazy at first and obscured by the rain, but certainly there. They were people, a group of them, moving slowly down the lane. I couldn’t see their faces, perhaps they were wearing hoods – or were they just headless? I felt faint.

Just as the last of my strength drained away and I felt the sudden pressure on my knees as I slid to the floor something else moved. Faster and smaller than the figures it appeared from between them, rushing towards me. Closing my eyes in panic I quietly prepared for the end.

Warm and wet, something landed on my chest, breathing heavily against my face and…licking… “Toby….Toby….what are you doing? Leave her alone,” a man shouted. “Are you all right luv’?”. I opened my eyes. There standing in front of me was a group of ramblers, with their hoods pulled tight against the rain and a large chocolate Labrador staring happily at me and panting. The dog’s owner looked concerned and offered me his hand. “I’m so sorry, Toby can be such a handful, he just loves people, but he doesn’t know his own strength”. My mind raced as I tried to make sense of what just happened. I reached for his hand and soon found myself lifted back to my feet. Miranda, having just caught up to me put her hand on my shoulder. “What on earth happened? Are you OK?”.

“I’m really sorry,” interrupted a young woman wearing a purple rain coat, perhaps the wife of the man who helped me up. “It’s our dog Toby, he got excited and knocked her over”. Sensing Miranda was about to jump to my defence I finally found my voice. “I’m fine really, no damage done, I have dogs too, so it’s no problem”. The woman smiled at me, “It’s getting late you know, where are you both heading?”.

“Back to the Packhorse Inn, in Little Longstone,” interrupted Miranda before I had time to speak.

“Ah so are we,” the woman replied. “How about we go together?”. Miranda caught my eye and I nodded feebly.

“It’s not like you to be floored by a dog,” she whispered as we started back towards the Inn.

“I’ll tell you all about it over a drink,” I muttered hoarsely and continued on ahead.

It had taken some time, but as we walked out of Shady Lane I began to piece the experience together in my mind. Perhaps I was more fallible than I imagined. I sighed, it seems no one is immune to fear. The group were chatting loudly amongst themselves “Did you hear the story about this lane? Apparently it’s haunted!”. “What a load of rubbish, you don’t believe in that kind of stuff do you?”. I turned to join in the conversation, but was interrupted by a sudden overpowering smell of incense, which vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. “Did you just….” I turned to Miranda.

“Did I just what?” she replied.

I shook my head “Oh nothing, nothing, lets just get back”….

Story by: Sarah Werefox

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