Seeing Hallowe’en decorations still around from last Wednesday reminded me of the ghost stories from childhood days. They were always set in deserted houses on dark nights; floorboards creaked and curtains billowed in the wind. The hero of the story always went into the house when you knew he would have been much safer going home to his mum for his tea. If it was a heroine, she would always be dressed in some daft outfit, completely inappropriate for climbing through briars and searching darkened, empty buildings. The stiletto heels would either go through the rotten boards on the landing floor, or cause the heroine to stumble and fall as she sought to escape the shadowy looming menace. It was hard to take seriously heroines who went to haunted houses in red cocktail dresses.
There was no harm in the stories. They were never violent and I was always brought up to believe that the living were much more dangerous than the dead would ever be. What the stories did, though, was to suggest that certain places and certain people might be scary.
At the end of our road lived a lady called “Maggie”, now long dead. Her house stood set back from the road in a garden that was filled with briars. It was close by to other houses, but it was also very isolated, the overgrown gardens creating a strong physical barrier against the world around. I have no reason in the world to believe that Maggie was anything other than a kind and sweet old lady, but the ghost stories created an aura of mystery around the house, it was a place to quicken your stride as you went by, especially in the dark.
I wonder about Maggie, and all the other people like her who are in the shadows of our memories. It would be hard to imagine a house like it today, partly because the property prices would have made it attractive to sell and buy a nice little bungalow by th sea, and partly because, for all the faults of my generation, I think we would try harder to stop such isolation. However critical we might be of the state we’re in, most of the time social services will call to try to make sure people are safe and well; meals on wheels will try to make sure that people are fed; community health care will try to make sure that no-one is left lying sick. Neighbours will tend to intervene, even when they are not wanted.
Things are far from perfect and things still go wrong, but ghostly houses are few and far between now, and heroes in dark suits, and heroines in high heels, can happily remain in cartoon strips.