God, I wish we hadn’t changed our Halloween routine last year.
For three years, ever since they have been old enough, we have done the same thing, go trick or treating in the village with some of my daughter’s school friends. Last year we decided to mix it up a little and try a local Halloween attraction. The girls are bit older now, so we thought we could up the scare factor.
We live in Yorkshire, England, and a manor house near us puts on an event each year. There is a spooky forest walk, a haunted maze, pumpkin carving the works. The highlight is the ghost tour, the house has a long and bloody history. Murders, assassinations, and suicides have all taken place there. Actors take you around the house and grounds to bring the macabre events to life. Tickets are expensive and limited, so we were really looking forward to it.
It is pitch black by five-pm at that time of year. It was a bleak, miserable day with driving rain and a biting wind. A small road takes you to the forlorn and uninviting gatehouse, with its carved stone gargoyles and high spiked wrought-iron fence.
A track then leads to the house through a dark and foreboding stretch of woodland, before opening up to provide the first vista of the manor house. A dark sentinel alone on its hill. A grey stone monolith, master of all it surveys from its lonely isolation. It has a haunting beauty, the type that drives men to murder and worse.
Scarecrows had been set up along the side of the track, each pointing the Halloween revelers to their fate, every head a carved and lit lantern of increasingly gruesome intricacy. I will say this now, we have grown blasé to the sight of a Jack-o-lantern, a symbol of candy and fun now. But here, on a bleak Yorkshire hillside, they instilled a primal fear. Their leering faces shifting and alive in their flickering candlelight.
In the short drive through the covering of the woods, the weather had changed dramatically. An eerie stillness had replaced the buffeting winds and, as is so often the case at this time of year, the ground had given up its moisture to form a thick mist that blanketed the earth reaching out with wispy tendrils and beginning to climb the trees and outbuildings.
The children sat in uncharacteristic silence and I wondered if this was a little much for Seven- and five-year-olds, a little much for me even. Still, once we made it to the parking area the mood changed. People were walking about in costume and the area glowed warmly with the light of hundreds of pumpkin lanterns.
We got out and blended straight in. I’m a traditionalist, so it’s a zombie costume every year for me. I say costume, but truly, all I do is cut up whatever clothes my expanding waistline have made too cozy and liberally douse them with fake blood. The girls dressed as a devil / witch, and as Elsa, with dia del muerto-style face paint. My daughters have eclectic tastes and are far too opinionated for their own good; they get it from their mother.
It was worth the steep ticket price. The girls carved pumpkins and the haunted maze was a blast. Everyone loves a hog roast, and there were hot, baked cinnamon apples.
The night was going great and everyone gathered for the ghost walk.
I was skeptical before the event, but I have to say being there, on that foggy Yorkshire night in such a bleak setting, really added to things. The actors were excellent, sometimes these things get hammed up too much, but they really nailed it. The stories were fascinating and gruesome in equal measure; people really can do the most horrific things to each other.
We were out of the house heading towards ‘the hanging cottage’ when my eldest whispered those fateful words that all parents dread on trips out. “Daddy, I need a poo.”
Going back to the house was a non-starter. It was too far, and we would miss the rest of the tour. We quickly headed into a thicket of trees at the side of the track. We could catch up to the group easily enough. We only went in a little way, just enough to get us out of sight of the group.
It was dark and tangled, I used my mobile phone as a torch, its meagre light allowing us to navigate. We finished and cleaned up, wet wipes are a parent’s best friend, and were about to head back to the group when I heard crying.
It was very close, just a little further into the woods. I took my daughter’s hand. “We’d better see what that is, in case someone needs help.”
The noise was easy to follow despite the oppressive overgrowth and we arrived at an arched gateway, part of an old crumbling wall. The gate itself hung crookedly from just one of its three hinges.
It was a small graveyard, presumably for manor house family members back in the day.
The tombstones were ancient, bent crooked as hags at all angles where the earth had moved and subsided over the years. The blanket of fog was so thick it covered our feet as we walked. At the far end, we could see a small figure behind one of the headstones. It was small, plain stone and unmarked, no engraved name to honor its resident corpse.
“Hello, are you okay?” I asked.
The figure turned, it was a little girl, about my daughter’s age. Her costume was excellent, old fashioned clothes, from the 1960s maybe. But it was the makeup that made it. Her skin was marble-white, her eyes ringed in black, and blood-red tear streaks ran down her cheeks. Across her throat an incredibly realistic slash with just the right amount of fake blood trickling from it.
She didn’t reply.
“Are your mummy or daddy here?” I asked again.
Nothing, she just looked down at the floor. I noticed she had on one of the wrist bands we all received on the way in. It had a space for writing a parent’s phone number on for just such an occasion.
“What’s your name little one?”
Still no reply.
“Can I look at your wristband please sweetheart, see if I can call your parents?”
She held up her arm, her skin was icy to touch when I held it to see the number clearly. Poor thing, I took off my jacket and draped it around her whilst I dialed. It was a landline number which worried me. The parents would have to be at home to take the call which would be impossible if they were here for the night.
The phone rang three times then
“Hello” croaked an old-sounding voice, a grandfather perhaps? The line was crackly and poor, reception not great in this remote location.
“Hi, can I just check I’ve dialed the correct number please, is this 01936 416428?” I wanted to make sure I was talking to the right person before giving out details of a lost child.
“Hello, can you speak up?” he asked. He sounded so old, not what I was expecting at all.
I repeated myself slowly and this time he confirmed I had called the right number.
“I’ve found a little girl who is lost. This was the number on her wristband. Are you missing your daughter or granddaughter?” I said.
“I don’t have a daughter, I don’t have any children” he replied.
“She’s about six or seven, all dressed for Halloween. Vintage 60’s clothes, and a slashed neck.”
There was a long pause, I thought he hadn’t heard me, and I was about to repeat myself when he started to speak.
“I didn’t…. It was an acci…. I never meant it to be like that, to happen that way.”
“Sir, is this your child?”
“She looked so perfect, I wanted her to be mine, but then she struggled. How did you know it was me? All those years, how did you find me now?”
I stood in stunned silence, my mind was reeling. I wasn’t sure what was happening, what I was hearing.
Suddenly, from behind us in the clearing the evocative hoot of an Owl and a flapping of wings. I turned, momentarily distracted, when I turned back the girl was gone.
My coat lay draped over the gravestone. Written on the previously unmarked stone in fresh blood was the name Sally Turnbull.
In my shock, it took a moment to register that the phone had gone dead.
I spent a panicked few minutes looking for the little girl, eventually conceding defeat. I took a photo of the gravestone before scooping my daughter onto my shoulders and running back to find the main group. Every time I tried to redial the man’s number the phone gave an engaged tone, as though the phone were off the hook.
The evening was drawing to a close anyway, so it wasn’t long before I was telling my wife about the incident in the car. My wife googled the name Sally Turnbull; she found an article from a few years ago in the local paper talking about the tragic and unsolved case of six-year-old Sally who went missing in 1967.
We agreed we should call the police, hoping that somehow, this was all some elaborate Halloween prank. They didn’t come out until the next morning, Halloween is a busy night for the police. They took a statement and I saw the annoyed look on their face when I pulled up the photo of the gravestone on my phone and it was unmarked stone. There was no name written on there.
They asked my daughter what happened and that didn’t help. She told them that she and daddy had been in the woods, so she could go to the toilet, but that she couldn’t hear the crying that I could. She said she didn’t see a little girl in the private cemetery, just daddy looking at a gravestone before putting his jacket on it.
The police gave me a lecture about wasting police time, but I insisted they took down the number I had dialed and agreed to follow up on it. I thought they were humoring me until three weeks later when I got a call from the office who had visited us. She said that they identified the number I had dialed as belonging to Mr. Brian Carter a retired widower who lived a couple of villages away. The police went to his house as a routine follow up, but after getting no response and based on an overpowering smell coming from the small cottage forced entry.
Brian was found hanging in his lounge. Next to him, still beeping, the phone, its receiver on the floor. He had written two words on a pad “I’m sorry” and police had timed his death as within an hour of the phone call I made to him on that Halloween night.
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