For as long as there have been roads, lone travellers on the highways have encountered GHOSTS. Tales abound, of ghostly highwaymen and cowled monks, phantom soldiers and white ladies; even spectral animals and vehicles. Every culture preserves accounts of fearful meetings at lonely spots in the dead of night with a variety of supernatural entities, which vanish as suddenly as they have appeared, leaving behind shocked and frightened victims. Crossroads, in particular, were feared in the past as the haunts of ghosts, witches and evil spirits; in Britain, they served as the burial places for executed murderers and suicides, whose confused spirits, it was hoped, would be unable to find their way home. Add to this centuries of accident, murder, and intrigue, and it is little wonder that our roads have achieved such a reputation for being haunted.
Such stories, of course, are seldom taken seriously today. While, culturally, everyone today knows something about ghosts, the conditioned tendency in the modern scientific world is one of denial: to dismiss them along with Old Wives’ Tales and other rural superstitions as a vestige of the same unreasoned fears and beliefs of our forebears.
And so it is with a much greater sense of shock and bewilderment that modern travellers find themselves confronted by the same cast of supernatural characters that populate our histories and our folklore. In some cases, these events are more than fleeting glimpses of something unusual and therefore open to all kinds of interpretation, but compelling ones that allow little room for witnesses to doubt their experience - as, for instance, where the ‘ghost’ appears to be a real flesh-and-blood person that steps out to collide sickeningly with the front of their vehicle; and, where the police investigating have heard it all before...
Ghosts were about the last thing on Keith Scales’ mind as he started down White Hill. It was 6.45a.m. on 6 January 2000.
Mr Scales, a 53-year-old coach driver, had no idea that the lonely backwater road that for two years had served as a shortcut to his place of work in the village of Wye, in Kent (England), was reputed to be haunted. Nor would he have thought much of it if he had. Little could he know that this morning he was but moments away from an experience that would forever alter his opinion on matters paranormal.
As he rounded a bend about halfway down the hill, he was shocked to find a woman standing in the middle of the road. The front of his car struck her, and she rolled over the bonnet and fell out of sight.
‘Shaking like a leaf’, he jumped out to see if she was injured, but he could not find her. He searched round about, even climbing the high bank on one side of the road to see if she had been thrown up there. But there was no trace of the woman.
When he arrived at work he phoned the police. Two officers accompanied him back to the scene, but a search of the area and nearby woods yielded nothing (the only evidence of a possible accident being a broken wing mirror that was found afterward).
However, Keith insisted that the accident had happened. He described the woman as blonde, aged between 30 and 35, and wearing a long dark coat. "I definitely hit her. I felt the thump on the front of my motor. She didn’t try to get out of my way but just looked at me and smiled as I hit her."1
If Keith Scales was unfamiliar with White Hill’s ghost before his encounter, others evidently were not. Stories about ghosts on White Hill had circulated for years amongst the area’s residents. A passenger on his coach informed him later that the same thing had happened to her. But it was Keith’s colleagues who suggested a possible ‘cause’ for the haunting - the purported murder of a woman by her husband at the spot ‘eight to ten years ago’.
At time of writing, this event cannot be confirmed as historical fact. Even so, its mention so readily after the incident serves to illustrate the very human need to find a logical ‘cause’ for events that otherwise defy rational understanding - even if it relies on notions held world-wide of a connection between sudden or violent death and hauntings. Unfortunately, in many cases of ghost-seeing rarely can a sound ‘cause’ be identified. More often, in their place, we find similar ‘tidy’ explanatory anecdotes that satisfy our need for rational order, but offer little in the way of proper understanding.
But most damning of all for the traditional ghost-as-spirit-of-the-dead explanation here is that, far from being unique, Keith Scales’ experience stands as simply the latest reported incident involving a very specific kind of ‘ghost’ - one that the world over exhibits the same disturbing - virtually identical - pattern of behaviour. However it is termed - spectral jaywalker, non-existent road accident - the pattern and the outcome is always the same: a figure rushes into, or waits, or appears suddenly in the path of a vehicle. Unable to avoid a collision, the appalled driver gets out only to find no trace of a body. More often than not, the police are called, who find no evidence of an accident, including no damage to the vehicle (Keith Scales’ case being a possible exception).
The most famous such ‘road ghost’ case is also to be found in Kent, just 40 kilometres to the west of White Hill. In 1992, an uncannily similar encounter2 took place here. Shortly before midnight on 8 November, while on his way home, Ian Sharpe, a 54-year-old coach driver from Maidstone, ran over a young woman near the Aylesford turn-off of the A229 at Blue Bell Hill, Chatham.
Mr Sharpe was horrified when the woman, whom he first spotted a little way ahead in the outer lane of the dual-carriageway, ran into the path of his car, where she turned at the last moment to lock eyes with his own as she fell beneath the bonnet.
"I honestly thought I had killed her," he said. "You can't imagine how it felt. I was so scared to look underneath, but I knelt down and looked straight through - there was nothing there."3 Like Keith Scales, Ian searched the area around the car, but found nothing. Driving on into Maidstone, he told police that he had run over a woman on Blue Bell Hill but could not find the body. But the police’s own search yielded no trace of the woman, and no sign of damage to Ian’s car, reinforcing opinion that he couldn’t have encountered a real person. But, he maintained, he hadn’t been 'seeing things'. The girl had seemed perfectly real. He described her as 20-25, with shoulder-length hair, and wearing a light-coloured coat. “She had a roundish face; and big eyes...her eyes...she had gorgeous eyes.4
But things were not to end there. On 22 November - exactly two weeks later (to within the hour) it happened all over again, when Christopher Dawkins, 19, reported an experience that closely mirrored Ian Sharpe's - except that it had occurred 1.5 kilometres further up the Hill (north), in Blue Bell Hill village. Mr Dawkins was just passing the Robin Hood Lane junction in the village when, suddenly, a woman ran out from between a row of parked cars.
"She ran in front of the car. She stopped and looked at me. There was no expression on her face,” he said. "Then I hit her and it was as if the ground moved apart and she went under the car."5
Immediately following the impact, Dawkins followed the by-now familiar pattern. Unable to find the woman, and too afraid to look beneath the car in case the woman’s body was trapped there, he telephoned his father, who, on arrival, called the police (who were likewise as impressed with the integrity of the witness as they had been with Ian Sharpe) searched the area but could find no trace of the woman, and no damage to the car. Their conclusion, once again: that the incident would have to be put down to "you know what" - the ghost.
The press - as in 1974, when a similar incident befell a 35-year-old man - quickly linked the encounters with Blue Bell Hill’s existing stories of a hitch-hiking ghost, and its supposed cause - a fatal car crash of 19 November 1965, which claimed the lives of three young women, one a bride-to-be. However, as impressive as the proximity of incidents is appears to be in evidential terms (one that also fulfils a tradition of ghostly behaviour which states the anniversary of death as the most likely occasion of the ghost's reappearance or re-enactment), there are, in fact, a host of difficulties in relating them to the 1965 tragedy, or any other tragic accident that has occurred at Blue Bell Hill over the years.
But if we step back to look at encounters reported elsewhere, we can begin to see that they bear much more similarity to one another than to any specific cause or persons in each individual case.
Take for example the experience of Shawn and Geri Lape, who in 1978, were driving past Resurrection Cemetery, in Chicago (USA), when a girl dressed in white ran out in front of their car.
"We are lifelong residents of Chicago and we know the legend of Resurrection Mary," said Shawn. "But no-one expects to hit her late one night coming home from their mother-in-law's. I didn't feel anything. There was no bump, no jar. Nothing. It wasn't like we hit a human."6
A more recent account, back in Britain, describes Bill and Faith Cox’s encounter ‘just after 11 p.m.’ in September 1996, as they were driving home to Gloucester. They both screamed as the figure of a girl appeared in front of them. Faith recalled the girl having her hands up as they hit her. “She was about 12 years old with plaits in her hair and ribbons at the end. Her eyes were wide and staring and it looked as if she was about to scream.
“I heard a bang and shouted at Bill, ‘You’ve killed her!’ I was sure we’d driven over her, without a doubt.”
Bill was reported as shaking as he got out to investigate, only - yes, you’ve guessed it - only to find no trace of the girl and no damage to his car. The police, it turned out, had a file of similar stories.7
So, what’s going on? The traditional interpretation of ghosts in these cases clearly doesn’t work (unless we assume that all victims of violence or tragedy are condemned to repeat ad infinitum the same repetitive action - which seems unfair to say the least). Why, then, this seemingly pointless (other than for its horrific effect) but intentional act by phantoms, of dashing into the paths of passing vehicles? Can we make any sense of it? I believe we can, but to do so we have to return briefly to Blue Bell Hill, and its roots in ‘modern’ folklore.
In its earliest form, before the modern encounters changed its complexion, Blue Bell Hill was a place where it was said motorists could expect to encounter a lone female hitch-hiker late at night - a young woman who, after seeking a lift home from a passing motorist, would vanish from the moving vehicle before reaching her destination. Those conversant with the subject of Urban Legends will recognize the above as a seemingly typical example of one of the most popular of these ‘modern folk tales’ - the Phantom Hitch-Hiker (or, in the USA, the Vanishing Hitchhiker). Folklorists uniformly regard this ubiquitous ‘Friend Of a Friend’ tale as purely fictional, and (due to its reliance on the motor vehicle as an essential device) characteristically modern in character. But, as author Michael Goss has pointed out, such seemingly disparate Road Ghost themes as the Phantom Hitch-Hiker (PHH) and Phantom Road Accident (PRA) cases can often be found in close association (indeed, as I have demonstrated in previous work8, they are but aspects of an essentially uniform pattern of behaviour). Blue Bell Hill, of course, is one example (which, intriguingly, has its own witness-supported hitch-hiker accounts); ‘Resurrection Mary’ is another. These and others suggest there may perhaps be more to the hitch-hiker accounts also than might otherwise be supposed.
Moreover, far from being in pattern a modern phenomenon, the PHH (and its associated suicidal simulation) story or motif can be reliably traced back in the historical records and folklore of various countries to at least Medieval times, where we find a plethora of similar tales of terrifying night encounters on the highways with a range of supernatural characters.
In his Of Ghostes and Spirites walking by Night (1572), from which Michael Goss quotes in his excellent study of the phenomenon9, Lewes Lavater (1527-1586), the Swiss Protestant theologian, makes mention of these "walking spirits" that habitually stop the way of men in their travels, with the intention of leading them out of their way and of causing "great fear".10 Goss adds that Lavater described those most prone to such experiences were 'carters' - unquestionably the equivalent of modern motorists.
Similarly, in his summary of findings regarding the elemental spirits that were said to bedevil Scottish farmers, the Reverend (and Professor) Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle (Perth), in his The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies (1691), mentions that it is during their travels from place to place that men are likely to have 'terrible encounters' with them, 'even on the great highways'.11
Comparable items are recounted in P.C. Jacob's Curiosites Infernales12, which itself refers to the earlier work of Corneil Van Kempen, who claimed that around the year 830 elemental creatures were often seen in the northern part of the Netherlands. These 'Dames Blanches' (White Ladies) were said to live in caves, and would attack people who travelled at night.
Van Kempen's 'White Ladies' are obviously comparable to the girl-in-white seen in so many cases, whose deliberate habit of running or standing in the way of vehicles could be interpreted as an 'attack' on the motorist. Similarly, the Phantom Hitch-Hiker, by stopping vehicles for a lift, especially in the evolved versions where the motorist continues on to a given address, clearly 'leads men out of their way' (as might a subsequent trip to the police station to report the incident).
Branching further out into folklore, we find this same White Lady character in many guises - for example, in the Banshee (from ‘bean sidhe’ - the 'woman of the fairies') of Irish folklore; the Rusalka, a water spirit of Slavic lore said to be the spirit of a dead female; and in the Sirens of Greek mythology - femmes fatales all who either portend or actually lead men to their deaths.
In many of these tales we find the character of the beautiful young woman interchangeable with the darker persona of crone or hag. In some tales, the two are clearly aspects of the same character: the hag visibly transforms into beautiful maiden.13 One of the fascinating aspects of the case at Blue Bell Hill are the witness accounts, particularly those of January 1993, which - while every bit as strong as those involving the ghost-girl, - describe frightening encounters with a wizened old woman or hag in place of the familiar ghost-girl14. Suffice to say that, if we are to accept these as true events, their inclusion in the Blue Bell Hill series conclusively alters the complexion of this case, and many others.
It is important to remember that ghosts themselves have emerged from the pool of folklore to gain some respectability through the associations we make between them and the spirits of the dead. The sightings of our exampled ghosts have plainly been interpreted in this light. However, in viewing them as such we are frequently at a loss to explain their apparently nonsensical behaviour, such as throwing themselves beneath the wheels of passing vehicles, and so on - not the behaviour we might expect of surviving human personalities.
What, then, we appear to be confronted with in these cases is a whole body of folklore that continues to plays in real-life situations - something with a root much deeper than the Phantom Jaywalker/Hitch-Hiker motif that largely describes its character and form.
The overriding question, of course, is whether these encounters represent a real phenomenon which came to be passed down as folklore, or a vividly portrayed fiction that is by some means unconsciously projected by the witness into a real situation. Whichever the case (the question receives detailed examination in the manuscript), the fact of the matter is that the encounters as a whole make any kind of sense only when viewed within the context of folklore, in particular the subset of supernatural assault traditions.
It was noted much earlier that the primary objective of all the behavioural types at Blue Bell Hill (but particularly the latter) - and indeed, elsewhere - appears to be to quite simply to scare the living daylights out of motorists. What is the motive, if any?
In March 1992, several reports came out of the village of Castledawson (Northern Ireland) of sightings of the Tamnadeese Ghost” - a woman with long flowing blonde hair who screamed wildly as she walked out of the centre of a roundabout outside the village. One man had been alarmed to see her appear in front of him on the roundabout in chains; he was not sure if he had struck her. Another witness, Harriet Hudson, swerved to avoid the woman as she appeared abruptly from the right into the path of her car, her arms waving wildly and staggering as if drunk.15
The sightings of the Tamnadeese Ghost (banshee?) were said to have coincided with the completion of the new Castledawson by-pass. It had been supposed therefore that the construction must have disturbed an old grave site.16
However, it is the construction itself that I feel is instrumental in triggering these events. This correlation with road construction is one that is supported in many, if not all, such road ghost cases. The sightings at Blue Bell Hill in 1992/3 coincided with construction works on a new motorway junction at the foot of the Hill. And we can look to other road-building schemes haunted by similar events (Stocksbridge, Yorkshire (UK), 1987; Newbury, Berkshire (UK), 1996).
An important characteristic of the folk characters we see reflected in the reported encounters is their connection with Nature. In many cases they literally are nature spirits - spirits of place (genius loci) - inhabitants and guardians of the environment. Blue Bell Hill’s ‘hag’, for instance, quite clearly reflects such an arch-spirit - the Cailleach of Celtic lore (or Hekate, the Dark Goddess of Greek tradition, amongst others); while the young female figures, like the last example - so often interpreted as ghosts - can be traced all the way back, through European fairylore, to the nymphs - the young, beautiful nature spirits of classical mythology.
And it is from this perspective at least that the modern encounters begin to make some sense. Is it so surprising that the disrespectful disturbance of the environment by modern road-building and other construction schemes should be met by protests from these personifications of the natural world?
What has gone unanswered is why we should see seemingly objective manifestations and what it is that dictates that they obey such consistent form and behaviour. I leave you here with the thought that we should perhaps look inwardly, to our own (conceivably, collective) psyche, to Jung's concept of the anima or animus - the personification of the (male/female) unconscious17,which presents itself to us in our dreams in the same archetypal guise as the elemental spirits that inhabit our folklore, and on occasion, it seems, our roads.
Could it be that, by their actions, these messengers of the unconscious are actually bringing to our attention our own consciously unrecognized displeasure at the rape of the environment?
Notes & References
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