The nights are darkening and October is definitely the time to sit round a fire and tell ghost stories. I’m not sure I believe in ghosts if I’m honest. However, I’m not sure I don’t believe in them either.
I could tell you the story of waking up with a start in the middle of the night to find a concerned blonde woman with a 1940’s hair-do peering into my face. She promptly disappeared. Maybe it was something to do with a brain in half-dream, half-wake state.
I could tell you the story of the lanky man in a black polo-neck jumper perched on a gravestone in Lewes churchyard. Caught out the corner of my eye, he turned out not to be there. Perhaps a case of an overactive imagination in the shadows.
And maybe a scientific phenomenon involving liquid, surfaces and gravity could explain a glass tumbler slowly moving of its own volition down a draining board in the kitchen of an old house, reputably haunted, that I once stayed in.
All fully explainable but I still remain easily suggestible and easily spooked, uncomfortable in places linked with supposed supernatural happenings. Regardless of my belief or non-belief in ghosts, I have always been interested in ghost folk lore and my home town is one deathly-chilled mess of stories. While I’ve been waiting for my next project to begin, I’ve spent some fun time researching and creating a small map of Ghostly Brighton.
We do have some brilliantly gruesome stories here. There’s Thomas Kypper the sadistic hangman, plying his trade in 17th century Hangleton, the site of Brighton’s gibbets and gallows. He’s glimpsed down Hangleton Way and Old Shoreham Road, matted and greasy, head covered with a hangman’s cowl and trailing a noose. In his life, he loved to give his victims a slow death but met his own on the gallows himself, convicted of three murders.
There’s John Robinson, an 18th century adventurer who had his eyes burnt out by a hot iron in a foreign rebellion. He’s said to wander the Old Steine, a grassy area in Brighton enclosed by busy roads, and if seen, has empty eye sockets sickeningly crawling with maggots.
There’s the ghost of Jemmy Botting, another hangman who used to visit the pubs on Boyce’s Street in the 19th century. He’d lost both his legs and was so unpopular in his time that no-one helped him when he fell from his wheelchair and subsequently died. On cold Winter nights, you can sometimes hear the slow squeak of that same chair as he wheels his ghostly way up the road.
And then there are numerous forlorn nuns, white ladies and lost child spirits alongside the more mundane stories of disembodied footsteps, of strange smells or the poltergeist toilets of Brighton Corn Exchange that flush of their own accord (while you’re sitting on them…).
There were too many wandering souls to add to the map I created which is hand drawn and lettered in pen and ink. The design was inspired by old gravestones and the wreathes, curlicues and lettering of ‘death stationery’ – the elaborate invitations to funerals of centuries past.
It’s true that humanity from the beginning has tried to make sense of death, especially when difficult times force the skin between life and the afterlife to stretch too close to the knucklebones. We should celebrate our rich hoard of ghost stories; telling them is always cathartic – the shiver of fear followed by the warm realisation that it’s just an old tale is somehow comforting. But they also allow us to remember our frail corporeality, make us wonder if there is more than our physical realm than we care to acknowledge and question what becomes of us once our bodies have had their day.
And whether I believe or don’t believe in ghosts, I still won’t be making my way at midnight through St Nicholas Church graveyard any time soon.