Lurking in the Dark

Celtic immigrants from Europe arriving in the New World brought many of their ways with them. Along with a love of music, storytelling and strong hearts, they brought something darker – their belief in ghosts. 

I grew up forty years ago next to the Canadian-Irish farm community of Johnville in Carlton County, New Brunswick, where scary tales were told whenever neighbours gathered to share work or socialize. 

Like most rural places, Johnville had its share of hants, which is an expression used by many older residents for a ghost or spook. My father claimed that a section of Carlow Road had a ghost. Known as the Deignan Turn, it was said that a lone traveller had been killed and buried right on the turn of the road in the late 1860s. For years after, a large circle of red soil would appear in late summer where the murder was said to have taken place. 

Even stranger, was the patch of soft, silky grass that grew up and turned blond!

The dark red stain with the blond “hair” was a regular sight and, for anyone passing in the gathering gloom of a country evening, quite unsettling.

Despite being graded, the stained ground remained and the unusual spot continued to appear every year. Lifelong resident Joe McGraoty once told me he would not drive through the Deignan Turn after it was freshly graded. “No sir” he said. “If it was the end of times I would not!”

Today, the turn has been straightened and filled in. Perhaps the red stain and its silky hair are finally at rest.

Another much-discussed ghostly form was the-will-o’-the-wisp, a spectral mist that pursued one of my relatives. My Great Uncle Robert was a veteran of the Great War who feared little. But he always said he was “mostes scared ever” while tramping home from hunting along the O’Brien Brook. Dark was falling, so he decided to spend the night under the stars.

He was looking around for wood to build a campfire when a column of thin smoke arose in front of him. The formless shape hung in the still evening air and then began to drift towards him.

Great Uncle Robert said he was “frozen and couldn’t draw no air” but, as the apparition drew closer, he found his feet and took off for home. As he retreated, the mist kept pace with him although he ran as fast as he could. Finally, as he reached a hilltop, he looked back and watched the will-o’-the-wisp disappear into the ground. He refused to ever return to the spot and cautioned the family to steer clear as well.

Telling a ghost story in the past had a whole list of rules to follow. No one asked for a ghost tale. Instead, it was often the teller who announced they would recount one. In the lumber camps, no ghost story was told after midnight and never on Sunday. Some people closed all the windows and doors before a ghost story was told, while others claimed none could be told during Lent. Many of these rituals are long gone, and today we all enjoy a delicious freight on a stormy night.

One tale said that a fellow from Johnville who liked to play cards a little too much was walking home from a Sunday evening game when he noticed a light flickering on the dark road ahead. Getting closer, he saw an oil lamp sitting on a velvet card table with two ghostly hands spread around it.

Suddenly, several cards flipped over all by themselves and he was pleased to see a winning hand. Then, more of the cards began to turn, and a cloven hoof slowly walked into the circle of light. At once, the gambler realized he was playing against the Devil and could never win. Frightened senseless, he ran for his life as the lamp went out and a voice said “Another time”. He never touched a single deck again.

The most famous ghost story in Carlton County is of the haunting of Keenan Bridge. According to legend, a woman disappeared one dark night on her way home and was never seen again. Years later, a body was discovered by workmen repairing the bridge’s foundations. A second discovery of a human skull in the bridge frame led folks to believe they’d found the missing woman and, shortly after, the lonely bridge spirit appeared.

Drivers crossing the bridge over the Monquart Stream would suddenly find a headless escort beside them who disappeared when they reached the other side. My Uncle Allen often recounted his own experience on the haunted bridge with his motorcycle. He claimed he stopped one night and waited to see the ghost. When nothing happened he tried to start the motorcycle. When it failed to fire up he pushed it off the bridge and tried again to start it. The bike started fine.

Uncle Allen went back onto the bridge and stopped and again the bike would not start. He rolled it off the bridge, and darned if it started. According to Uncle Al, he tried this experiment a couple more times until he felt it might be smart to get going as the bike would only fire off the bridge. Uncle Al said that as he drove away he saw a figure in his rear view mirror standing on the bridge – minus its head!

In our modern world we discount many of our Celtic ancestors’ myths and superstitions as foolish folklore. Our eyes are clouded and we refuse to see what might walk this earth. But perhaps, just at dusk, go for walk sometime along an abandoned field or a dark wood and close your eyes and open your mind to what might be lurking in the dark….

Story by Cary Rideout

Reprinted from the Fall 2012 edition of Celtic Life International Magazine