Terence Blacker: There's more to ghosts than just Hallowe'en trickery

The house was old, stately and creakily beautiful. No one had lived there for some time. One night, I was awoken by a sound...
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The Independent Online

It has never been the intention of this column to strike alarm, or even stark terror, into the heart of readers. When it comes to matters "beyond our ken" - heaven, hell, angels, fairies, elves and so forth - the attitude has always been one of solid, both-feet-on-the-ground scepticism.

At no time of the year is it more important that fact not flightiness be our watchword than at Hallowe'en. Like Mother's Day, the occasion might once have meant something, but now celebrates little more than the capacity of humans for spending ridiculous amounts of money on fake, sub-Hollywood silliness.

And yet, my children, and yet...

Matters beyond our ken, I regret to report, do exist. I know this because (please don't be afraid) I have myself encountered a visitor from the spirit world. Although the meeting took place over a matter of minutes and a long time ago, it seemed at the time that it would never end. Since that night, I have never been quite as relaxed as I once was when it comes to joking about the inexplicable.

The house was old, stately and creakily beautiful. It was situated deep in the countryside of County Fermanagh. No one had lived there for some time but, one summer during the 1960s, my family borrowed it for the summer holidays.

Its facilities were rudimentary. The only source of electricity, for example, was a generator situated in the cellar. When all of us were in bed, someone - an adult, of course - would descend into the dark, damp basement of the house, switch off the generator, then return upstairs with the help of a candle or a torch.

One night, when the house was in utter darkness, I was awoken by a sound. It was a breath - a human breath, only louder. The noise it made was of a long, low exhalation, lasting perhaps 30 seconds. There would be silence for a minute or two. Then the breath, which seemed to come from someone standing at the foot of my bed, would start again.

Lying there, listening, I discovered the full meaning of the phrase "frozen with fear". Even if there had been a light, I would have been as incapable of switching it on as I was of making a sound. How long did they continue, those long, sad sighs in the darkness? Half an hour perhaps, or even less. They were there long enough for me to consider logical explanations - my brother playing a trick on me? an owl outside the window? - before rejecting them.

The pauses between each breath became more prolonged, and eventually the silence of the night returned.

I was unable to sleep until the early hours of the morning and came down to breakfast late. In the kitchen, my brother and a friend who had been staying with us were discussing the strange sound that each of them had heard at the end of their beds during the night. Yet the three of us were sleeping in different parts of the house. It was all rather strange.

Over the rest of the summer, we would refer nervously to our invisible night visitor but we never encountered it again.

My mother, on the other hand, did. After we had returned to school in England, she had remained in the house alone to pack up. The autumn weather was calm and windless but, after she had switched off the generator on her last night, she had been walking through the hall when a sudden gust out of nowhere had lifted a rug over her face and her head. From that moment on, my mother believed in ghosts.

A couple of years later, my parents enquired as to what had happened to the old house. Shortly after we had stayed there, they were told, its owners had, without explanation, had it razed to the ground.

So, laugh this Hallowe'en season, my children. Scare each other silly with your games. But if the room should suddenly become cold, or you have a sense that you have company, do not be entirely light-hearted. The breath might be there, waiting to haunt you as it has haunted me.

Miles Kington is away