Fortean Summer

While most see the months between the spring equinox and summer solstice as a period of peace and prosperity, I have always felt more comfortable in the darker half of the year. Foxes by nature do not hunt well in direct sunlight, nor is there much to be gained by toiling in the heat of the increasingly oppressive British vacation season. In truth this time of year holds nothing of the ripening beauty that others may find in its heat cracked embrace for me. Thankfully the promise of lengthening shadows and cooler nights once the dog days have passed us all by is ever present, as are the monsters who dwell within waiting to strike.

This more humid time of year, while all booze and bees in the United Kingdom, actually has a far spookier side elsewhere in the world. In Japan, for example, there exists the annual Obon Festival. This lunar observance is still ostensibly Buddhist in nature, but has extended into pop culture through various urban and folk legends. Offerings of food are left by gravesides around this time, and lanterns lit to help guide ancestors home. Ghost stories are exchanged by candlelight, the cool shivers of primal fear helping dispel the cloying heat that pervades the night.

A related observance takes place in China. While they tend to be perceived by outsiders as far less spiritual than the Japanese, this is not the case. The Chinese observe a holiday for the dead in a similar way to their East Asian neighbour, extending the celebrations over a full month. Ghost money is burned outside of homes, incense wafts on family altars and red lanterns are hung to honour those who have gone before. It is interesting to note that these offerings are given pragmatically; the dead are considered to be mischievous and downright troublesome if not placated.

While I am happy enough to have been brought up in the Western World, I often lament that we do not share the Asian view of the afterlife. Be it through pragmatism, skepticism or just lack of interest in things unseen, our society has partitioned the bizarre away behind the wood panels of stately homes and tumbledown asylums. This is a misconception that has been cemented in the mind of armchair investigators by the likes of of Most Haunted, and nothing could be farther from the truth. The dead are always with us, after all, and sometimes they demand our attention whether we want to play or not.

Differing origins aside, Halloween could be seen as our own Obon, albeit far less warm. This candy striped and pumpkin carved October holiday is guaranteed to generate public interest in the kind of weird topics that myself and other custodians of the bizarre are known for. Once a year the British and American people, rabbid and panic stricken Christians aside, choose to see the world through a sarcastically Fortean lens. They suspend disbelief just long enough to dress in silly costumes, and in doing so mock the dead out of fear for their own mortality. Gallows humour some would say, but denying the truth is dangerous in any case.

This social ambivalence is partly driven by corporate interests who invest much in the dark carnival that has sprung up around what was once Samhain. Far from building upon the spiritual backbone of the holiday they instead provide an endless string of haunted doll and found footage horror films that gleefully spray fake arterial gore across cinema screens some twenty feet high for all to see. This is how the Western World interfaces with their dead, marketing them as seasonal bogeymen as opposed to a constant fact of everyday life before forgetting about them as Christmas lurches gaudily into view.

No, in the West we do not travel to quietly lay offerings at gravesides on our Obon. Neither do we burn ghost money to earn the continued acceptance of a spirit realm that must be appeased to stop it overlapping with the waking world. The majority of us will dress as zombies and werewolves, witches and vampires, party like drunken fools and limp home in the early hours of November first holding the same ingrained disinterest in the bizzarre that we had before. Perhaps it is the necromancer in me talking, but I find such an attitude as stifling as the hot summer nights which lay between me and the cooling shadows of my beloved Halloween.