A weird and wild Halloween

Roe deer buck (Capreolus capreolus) Bertie Gregory/2020VISION

Dr Cath Price unravels some of the natural explanations for supernatural happenings, which may feature an animal or two!

The Banshee (from the Irish Bean Sidhe, Scots Gaelic Ban Sith, “woman of the fairies”)  is a  supernatural being in Celtic folklore whose mournful “keening,” or wailing screaming or lamentation at night was believed to foretell the death of a member of the family of the person who heard the spirit.

There are several wild creatures whose night-time calls can make the hair on your neck stand up though, without resorting to fairies.

(c) Into the Wild

Barn owls are probably first choice as natural banshees. A fleeting glimpse of a white form with dark eyes in a flat face, combined with the alarm call, described in Collins Bird Guide as ‘a shrill, hoarse, rather spooky squeal’ or the territorial call, ‘a drawn out rattling or gargling shriek ... often repeated’, combined with a superstitious mindset, would be enough to scare the pants off the most stalwart.

Roe buck

Roe deer buck (Capreolus capreolus) Bertie Gregory/2020VISION

Other scary night-time noises include the high-pitched cry of the female roe deer during the rut (July/August) which scared the pants off me thinking  some poor soul was being done to death outside my tent one night on a camping trip in Austria.

Or there’s the ‘loud, wailing shriek or scream’ of a vixen in the mating season (midwinter).

Take your pick – there are plenty of banshees out there!

Will o wisp

Will-o’-the-Wisp is a ghostly light which is thought to lure travellers to their deaths in bogs and marshes. There are also Ghost Candles or Corpse Candles which appear in churchyards. These supernatural lights have a robust folklore attached.

One version from Shropshire refers to Will Smith, a wicked blacksmith who is given a second chance by Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, but leads such a bad life that he ends up being doomed to wander the earth. The Devil provides him with a single burning coal with which to warm himself, which he then uses to lure foolish travellers into the marshes.

Modern science has debunked poor Will though, discovering that these lights are just natural phenomena – bioluminescence caused by the oxidisation of phosphine, diphosphane and methane produces by organic decay. Where’s the romance in that?!

The Wild Hunt, Yell Hounds or Wisht Hounds . Various European mythologies hold versions of this one. All include a leader of the hunt, Herne the Hunter or King Arthur being the main suspects in English tales, Arawn, King of Annwn (the otherworld) in the Welsh ones.

The hounds are portrayed as white with red ears, seem to be largely nocturnal and their purpose is either to hunt down wrong-doers or to escort the souls of the dead to the otherworld.

Geese

(c) Danny Green/2020VISION

It was believed, needless to say, that hearing the hunt foretold the death of the hearer. In most versions, the appearance of the hunt is restricted to autumn and winter, which narrows down the true identity of the hounds. Migrating geese fly by night, and the members of the skein keep in contact with each other by constantly calling, a yelping, clamouring noise which sounds rather like hounds when many geese are calling together.

Wouldn’t it would be a shame to explain away all the rich layers of folklore and mythology though? 

Dressing up at Hallowe’en was originally to prevent the spirits recognising you and following you home, while singing and story-telling would entertain them and send them back to the otherworld happy. Where’s the fun in being followed home by barn owls, or making migrating geese happy? And you never know....

Cath Price bird feeder

Dr Cath Price

Shropshire Wildlife Trust