In the dead of night on Halloween, people living close to the route of the Manx Electric Railway could hear the screech and grind of the tram as it made its way alongside the lower levels of the coastal hills. Those with sense and experience turned in their beds and pulled the covers tightly over themselves. No scheduled tram ever ran so late at this time of year. The sound was unmistakable; metal on metal, the crackling of electricity, straining breaks and the rhythmic pounding of wheel on track. Heard at an incalculable distance but able to pierce through the strong late autumn winds. Mingling with the creaking and straining of branches shedding leaves as the dark steadfast trees prepared for the coming winter. In the background the waves of the Irish Sea crashed against the rocks below. The natural noise of a normal Manx Autumn, with rolling mists and fast moving low clouds sweeping over cliffs, through valleys and into deep cut glens. Accompanied now by something entirely unnatural. At every stop on the tram's route came the shrill squeal of it's hooter. Echoing around the mist bound countryside alternatively sounding like the cry of an abandoned soul and a threatening screech. A bone chilling noise which seemed to convey a clear message 'board this tram if you dare'.
Halloween is a Celtic festival held on 31 October and is the celebration of the original Celtic New Year. In the Isle of Man Halloween is known as 'Hop-tu-Naa'. This end of summer celebration, linked to the harvest festival of Samhainn (Sauin in Manx Gaelic) is celebrated in the Celtic Nations. Entirely pagan in origin this Halloween festival has now spread around the world, particularly the 'New World' aided by Celtic emigration. It is a time of superstition, marking the end of the summer and the beginning of the long dark, cold winter. It is also when the world of the living and the dead are seen to be at their closest. The veil between the two can be thin and at times transparent.
It is no surprise to Manx people that the worlds of life and the death cross over on Halloween. Their tradition of fire and burning turnip lanterns on this night is aimed to drive away those spirits from the other world that could do harm, whilst at the same time paying homage to those who had passed to the ‘other side’. It is a festival based on the tradition, experience and legend of centuries, disregarded by the sceptical and the foolish, sometimes to their cost.
October 31st. Neil, Ian, Moira and Fiona had worked hard in preparation for the night ahead. Along with others they had arranged a party down on the beach known as 'Cornaa' to celebrate Halloween. Hollowing out turnips, preparing food, arranging the music and buying drink and flame torches for the night ahead. It was a time of year they loved. The ancient festival of Hop tu Naa felt like no other celebration. The four friends had decided to meet at Moira's house close to the village of ‘Glen Mona’ which was the nearest to the beach. They all lived within a ten mile radius of each other, with Neil having the furthest to travel. He lived in Laxey a small town along the coast south from Cornaa.
Aged sixteen and against his parents' wishes Neil had left school and now worked in Laxey Woollen Mill. It had been a source of continued tension between him and his mother and father. He had always been very independently minded and the rules and regulations associated with school life was something he could not wait to escape. Working also gave him the opportunity to be able, at some point, to leave home. He craved not having to justify his actions to his parents. Neil did not dislike them and sometimes he felt pangs of guilt about the frequent arguments that seemed to erupt from nowhere when he was at home. He knew that he often caused these arguments by over reacting to even the simplest things that they said. Meant well by them but seen as interference by him.
Ian, Moira and Fiona had all stayed on at school and had their final exams looming next year. They and Neil had been very close for years and this friendship had endured despite his departure. In one sense his going had surprised them; he had always been the smartest of the four. In another it fitted with the strong independent streak that made his character so attractive to them. A certain aloof, quiet determination combined with good looks that gave him an enigmatic air. Ian in particular liked having Neil as a close friend who was now working. It presented him with a tangible link to adulthood which his continued attendance at school seemed to prevent him from achieving.
All had gone according to plan and by seven pm a number of people had already arrived at Cornaa Beach. It was a crisp, cold night, with the light mist that rolled down from the hills nearly meeting one that was creeping in from the sea and which clung in thin wisps to the ground. The effect was startling; a vapour canopy over a hazy carpet which reflected the light from the newly lit torches and bonfires from above and below. The mood was good and as always the four took on their given role of hosts for the night. People brought food to bake and grill and the usual mixture of beer, cider and wine all added to a rise in spirits and excitement.
Music spilled out and as the night progressed the crowd had grown to about fifty. Some huddled in groups by the two bonfires chatting and laughing, others were dancing nearby. Moira and Fiona were collecting the food and drink brought in by new arrivals and organising everything on portable tables. Neil had appointed himself barman, which was really just making sure that the booze tables were constantly stocked up. Ian was busy helping to bake potatoes, grilling steaks, sausages or whatever contributions came in. There were dozens of hollowed out turnip lanterns around the place. The four only occasionally got together during the early part of the night, but as things became less frenetic they gravitated toward each other and let everyone help themselves.
After 10:30pm most people had assembled in a large group between the two bonfires built close to the sea. The mist from the hills had grown thicker but still hung some fifteen feet from the ground. The night was still, with no rain and the surf lapped onto the shingle shore rolling the stones back and forwards creating a gentle rhythmic grating accompaniment to the random crackling of burning wood. As midnight drew ever closer people took turns telling ghost stories. There was a lot of laughter and teasing, but as always on the Isle of Man there was a serious undertone to these tales. It was in the Manx psyche never to totally dismiss tales of the supernatural on an island that had never completely broken from old pagan beliefs. The tradition of the living and the dead being as one on this magical night lurked in everyone's mind. The leaping flames from the bonfires barely pierced the dark autumn night creating flickering shadows against the surrounding mist. People drew closer to the fires seeking collective protection from whatever ghostly presences might linger just outside the circle of light. A shield from the unseen spirits drawn by a memory of warmth that they could no longer feel.
By 1am people began to drift away from the party. The fires were dying down and the flickering candles in the lanterns were allowed to burn themselves out. Tables were folded; rubbish gathered and put in a safe corner of the bay to collect later in the day. Neil, Ian, Moira and Fiona were the last to leave the beach and by this time the mist had thickened and fallen to meet the ground. As they walked the light from their torches barely penetrated the swirling mist. They decided to follow the track that led up from the beach to nearby 'Ballaglass Glen', a route they knew well. They then walked up a steep narrow road that passed close to the ancient burial site of 'Cashtal yn Ard'. Moira lived close by and she and Fiona split off to go to her house. Another successful Halloween and the friends bade each other a happy and satisfied farewell whilst Neil and Ian continued to walk on. They reached the tram line which offered a short cut towards Ian’s home from where Neil intended to carry on walking towards Laxey.
They picked their way along the track which provided an easy route to follow through the concentrating mist. It was then that they heard it. Metal on metal, the rhythmic click click of tram on track. At first it sounded far off with the thick fog distorting the noise, making it difficult to tell whether it was coming from ahead or behind. Then slowly but surely it drew closer and they could feel a vibration running through the track. Above the electric cable that powered the trams began to hum with an unseen energy. It was coming from behind them.
'What a piece of luck', Neil said. 'It can only be going towards Laxey.'
'I can’t understand this' Ian replied, 'what the hell is a tram doing running along here at this time. You know I’ve heard bad things said by some of the old people about a strange tram going along here on Halloween night.'
Neil laughed at his friend and grabbed him playfully by the neck. 'What is it a tram full of Halloween witches getting a lift home? Whatever happened to bloody broomsticks?'
Ian shook himself free, a little embarrassed. Nevertheless he had a strange feeling and he shivered, feeling the thick damp mist penetrating his bones for the first time tonight. 'Look Neil, it's less than half a mile before we reach the lane that leads to my house. Stay over.'
'It's alright for you schoolboy 'Neil scoffed 'I've got to be up first thing for work tomorrow. Who cares why there's a tram tonight, if it’s going my way I’m on it.'
The noise got ever closer, the tremor of the track and the buzz of the electric cable suggested it was coming fast. They strained to see anything but then a single tram headlight began to emerge through the swirling mist. Neil stood close to the track and began waving his torch in a desperate attempt to get the tram to stop. There was a screech from the tram’s hooter which echoed around the hidden countryside. It made both Neil and Ian jump back from the side of the track. Just for a few seconds they thought the tram had failed to see or had ignored them. Then the breaks began to bite and the friction sparks sprayed like a firework as the tram wheels skidded to a halt along the damp track. The machine stood some fifty yards further down the track. The headlight from the tram presenting a circle of swirling mist ahead.
'Why aren't there any lights on inside the tram', said Ian, half to himself but close to Neil's ear and where's the driver and conductor?'
'Who cares, got to go. I'll catch up with you tomorrow', Neil shouted as he raced along the trackside toward the idling machine.
'Look Neil there's something wrong here, don’t get on it', Ian's anxious voice tailed after his friend.
A final wave and Neil had jumped on to the steps and into the single carriage. Immediately the tram moved off and the last Ian saw was the bulky Victorian machine disappearing into the mist. Then he heard it the screech of the hooter again. Was it his imagination, but was this accompanied by a human scream. 'Neil', Ian desperately shouted but he heard the rhythmic sound of the tram softly disappearing into the distance.
Neil was never seen again after that night. For weeks search parties were organised and scoured the countryside between Cornaa Beach and Laxey. Police had interviewed Moira, Fiona and Ian several times always asking if there was something they had not told them about that Halloween night. The biggest mystery surrounded Ian's story of the tram that Neil had boarded. No tram had been running that night they had told him, but the old people knew better. This was the Ghost Tram (Manx language-Tram Scanjoon); it's journey starts and ends in the dark 'Otherworld' of the dead.
© 2012 Alastair Kneale