'A Moonlit Evening' (1880) by Atkinson Grimshaw.

Haunted Halloween, where anything might happen

October 31 is a night where it's easy to believe in ghosties and ghoulies and all sorts of strange creatures.

Halloween is one of my favourite nights of the year. That’s perhaps hardly surprising, given that my mother was reading my Edgar Allan Poe stories when I was six, and I was fascinated by any stories I came across that featured ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night.

For this reason, I loved the haunted house which was an annual attraction of the PNE midway. It was run by the CKNW Orphans’ Fund, and is, alas, long since gone. In my memory it is a dim and foreboding place, with strange noises and sounds, and always the sneaking suspicion that someone—or something—not of this world was following close behind; something that would not be there when you turned round (or, more frighteningly, would be there).

Years later, when I first read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, I found that Coleridge had, in 1798, anticipated this feeling when he wrote:

Like one that on a lonesome road

Doth walk in fear and dread,

And having once turn’d round, walks on,

And turns no more his head;

Because he knows a frightful fiend

Doth close behind him tread.

The way through the haunted house snaked past various spooky displays and set-pieces. I don’t remember anyone jumping out at us, and while it was undoubtedly scary, it was all very tame by today’s standards. I was far more frightened at the haunted barn at Desert Hills Ranch in 2015 than I ever was by the CKNW haunted house, and I last went through the latter way back in 1972.

And yet and yet . That haunted house was, for me, a place where anything could happen. It was so far removed from the noise and clatter and glare of the midway, and everyday life, that I might as well have entered Rod Serling’s twilight zone. Every year I looked forward to it; and every year I loved it, for its endless promise of something—else; something not of this world.

On one visit to the PNE with my father and brother, lo these many years ago, we stopped by the CKNW radio booth on the midway. My father—who seemed to know everyone who was anyone in Vancouver—knew Merv Meadows, the broadcaster on duty, and after chatting with him for a bit during an ad break brought me into the booth.

Meadows kindly put me on air and we chatted live for a few moments about the fair. “What was your favourite part?” I remember him asking, and I blurted out “The haunted house!” It was an easy—and very true—answer to give.

Halloween is, to me, a night when—as with the CKNW haunted house—anything can happen; a night when we once more approach that twilight zone where, if you look behind you, you might well see something that causes you to hasten your step and keep your eyes firmly forward. Ghost story writer M.R. James spoke of the “pleasing terror” engendered by reading a good ghost story, but the term applies equally to Halloween night. Pleasant terrors!



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