Lightning flashes across a stormy sky above the dark forest. The wind lashes the branches of trees into your face, clawing your skin like the talons of some unseen creature. At your feet gnarled taproots burst out from the forest floor like the buttresses of a vast cathedral, riven from the earth by the servants of a cruel god.
Silence. The wind dies as suddenly as a snapped neck on a gallows: the forest around you becomes as quiet as a tomb.
That’s when you see her, a pale form illuminated in the sickly light of the waning moon, face as sharp as a scalpel blade. With a hideous screech, she lurches towards you with inhuman speed. You have no time to run, only to scream…
Whhhoooooooooooooo!!! Spooky stuff; even if I do say so myself, but there is something about trees and forests that makes them a focus for many ghost tales the world over. Possible reasons are myriad, but perhaps the most compelling is that being in a forest awakens something primal in us, reminding us that we were once prey and could very easily be back on the menu again. Because trees seem to reach deep into the ground as well as spreading out into the air they are often seen as the foundation on which the world is built, acting as a conduit between the land of the dead beneath the earth and the land of the spirits up above. To the ancient Norse the great ash Yggdrasil, the world tree, spanned the cosmos from the underworld to the home of the gods. Similar concepts are found elsewhere, such as the Mayan yax imix che; a great ceiba tree whose roots were in Xibalba, home to the lords of death. Spirits could often move along these pathways, venturing out into the world of the living. In the age before streets and signs, unusual trees became distinctive landmarks, often picking up local legends. All human cultures love a good ghost story, so invariably big trees and forests became the focus of a couple of their own. Examples come from all across the world, such as the tree that stands on Hangman’s Hill in Epping Forest, Essex. Legend has it that the tree was used for hanging highwaymen and other vagabonds until one day three innocent men met their end there. To this day it is said that the spirits of those three hanged men still inhabit the area and ghostly apparitions have been seen at night and eerie wailing heard. Many believe that if you park your car at the bottom of the slope then it will start to mysteriously roll uphill, as though pulled by the ghostly hangman’s rope…
Sometimes whole species picked reputations for their malevolence. In English folklore for example both the elm and willow had sinister personalities, with elms waiting for people to walk underneath before deliberately dropping their branches, whilst willows would uproot themselves and stalk unwary travellers who ventured out too late! So if you are out this evening for Halloween then you’d best beware, for not only are there ghoulies, ghosties and long legged beasties roaming the land tonight, but that tree in your back garden has just been waiting until your back is turned.