Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dark and Spooky

I love a good scare, but not too much of one. It's a fine balance. The relentless, unstoppable evil of Japanese horror movies is usually a little too scary for me. I made it through The Ring...barely. (When our phone rang in the middle of the film and Peter whispered in my ear “seven days;” I first had a small panic attack and then considered if that sort of mean joke were grounds for separation.) I have no interest in gore for gore's sake – I don't want to see the Saw movies or Hostel or even any of the Friday the Thirteenth films.

The advice you read over and over again in writing advice books is “Show, don't tell.” I think the rule for scary books or movies should be “Show, but just enough to let the reader's imagination take over.”
My good scares come from films that provide some mildly frightening jump-out-of-your-seat moments and give just enough visual and background to allow my imagination to do most of the work. Poltergeist, The Sixth Sense, and The Others were all good, scary movies for me. (I know The Sixth Sense was mild as a newborn lamb compared to something like The Shining, but it took me about a month before I could go to the bathroom in the middle of the night without getting freaked out by the film's middle of the night bathroom scene.)

For the season that's in it, I declared Sunday an Outing Day and decided that we would go to a place that's reported to be haunted. I'd wanted to spend the night near said haunted place so that we could drive past the place at dark in the hopes of seeing ghosts. But I'd already agreed to take our nieces to a film on Monday afternoon and we didn't want to have a mad dash back to Dublin. I did a web search and couldn't help noticing that most of the haunted places were in Co. Offaly.

I have to confess that I love Co. Offaly. I know, I know – it's not Connemarra or West Cork, but there's just something about it. It's probably because I'm a Midwestern girl and, as a child, I thought Iowa would be the best place in the world to live. I just love great open farms and Offaly's bonus is its rolling hills. Peter finds Offaly pleasant but boring because it lacks dramatic landscape. Although I'd love to live close to the sea, I could settle down in Offaly without much difficulty.

I was thrilled to have an excuse to go to one of my favourite counties. My target destination was Leap Castle, reputedly one of the most haunted castles in Europe. The O'Carrolls, who built the castle, were a bit brutal and wanton in the old murdering department, a sure-fire way to create ghosts bent on revenge. An incarnation of pure evil is meant to inhabit the castle, the Creepy Castle site claims: “It was, however, lower down in the castle that 'It' was seen - an elemental force of evil with the head of a sheep and the stench of death.” (I can't imagine that given all the creatures in the world, an elemental force of evil would decide to take the head of a sheep, but maybe I don't know enough about evil.)

Of all the stories of bad things that happened at the castle, the killing of 50 Scottish mercenaries by their Irish employer to avoid having to pay them is the one that captures my imagination most. Probably because the last person you should want to turn into the ghost would be a mercenary. Don't believe me? Just listen to “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”

It took us about two hours, but we got to Roscrea and set off to find the castle. We promptly got semi-lost, meaning we knew where we were(ish) but didn't know where the castle was. We sorted ourselves out up in Kinnity and then drove back down on the right road. There were no brown visit-here signs on the signposts around town, which was both odd and not odd because Irish signage is often not what you need it to be.

We were driving for about fifteen minutes when Peter started to voice doubts about the castle's existence and to speculate that it had been spirited away by the ghosts for a Halloween celebration. As we crested a hill, a glimpse of the castle appeared on the horizon, partially obscured by trees. It seemed we were on the right track after all. After five more minutes, we drove up to a great stone wall with rusty metal entry gates. But no signs, no visitor information. My handy Lonely Planet book informed me that castle tours were run from 10-6 each day and cost 6 euro, but we couldn't see any confirmation of that on the gates. We drove past the gates, looking for corroboration, but found none.

We circled back to the gates and drove through, Peter making the clanging-shut-behind-us noise that I was imagining in my head. The road down to the castle was narrow, rutted, and on the steepish side. Trees along the edge of the road gave glimpses of the castle, but we didn't see it in its entirety until we emerged onto the flat ground in front of it.

The castle was immense, foreboding, and not in the best of shape. One wing was just an empty shell, with tall trees poking out of the top of it. A flock of crows inhabited the tree branches, looking every bit as ominous as the grey skies. It was immediately apparent that the castle was now a private residence and restoration works were going on. Building equipment littered the ground and a black and white dog darted out of a dog house near the front door. We decided to make a hasty retreat, the car labouring up the hill in a way that made me hope if we ever were chased by ghosts, we'd be in something with a more powerful engine.

It was time for Plan B. I thumbed through the guidebook and suggested a visit to Birr Castle. It was conveniently located, and had a cool telescope and a science museum. Only the grounds of the castle are open to visitors since the castle itself is said to still be a private residence.

We had an enjoyable time in the science museum, each of us finding something of interest. For Peter, of course, it was a collection of photography things and for me, it was an orrery of the solar system. The idea that all the spinning and rotating and orbiting is going on all the time – it makes me think of a plate spinner and I find it all endlessly fascinating. I was like a small child, pressing the button of the orrery each time the revolutions stopped.

After the museum, we went out on the grounds to look at the telescope and then to find the Waterfall Point. You can check out the map here: the Waterfall Point is marked with a 6. To call the point a waterfall would be to oversell it, but it was a cool rapids, with about a two-foot drop. We stood and watched the water flow, delighted by the occasional fish jumping up the rapid, against the flow of the stream.

The spot where we stood provided space for maybe three people to admire the view. A path wound its way around overgrown bushes, following the stream for maybe ten feet, or at least that was all I could see. With the overgrowth, there was barely enough space to squeeze along the path and one misstep meant wet feet at the very least. I didn't mind having a go though because I had on my wellies. (It is my firm belief that outing days are made inestimably better by the wearing of wellies.)

I crept along the path to its end, which was an extremely overgrown forest. The trees were thick around a clearing and fallen trees gave the place an impression of a timber cave. It was dark (and spooky) in there, so I stayed on path as I took it all in. My attention was immediately drawn to the center of the clearing, where a blue nightgown hung from a tree branch. It was creepy and weird and though my rational mind quickly came up with logical explanations (a Halloween prank, a homeless person's washing line, a new clootie well), my imaginative mind was having a field day (crime scene, ghostly goings-on, weird pagan sacrificial ritual). I looked at the nightgown for a few minutes then scrambled back along the path to tell Peter about my find.

From where he was standing at the Waterfall Point, he could just about make out the shape of the nightgown. His mind is a lot more logical than mine and the scene didn't appear to bother him at all. But it creeped me the heck out. Even though part of me wanted to go back and examine the nightgown more closely, a larger part of me just wanted to go. I was right on the good edge of scared, more intrigued than frightened and I would bet my imagination's stories are way better than whatever the truth may be.

We left Birr Castle shortly thereafter. Even though I didn't get to go inside Leap Castle, I still felt as though my Halloween outing had been perfect.


At 31 October 2006 at 08:56, Blogger Fence said...

I've never really been to Offaly. I keep meaning to spend a few weekends doing the sights in Ireland, but have yet to get around to it.

Heh, the word verification today is: dedmmam ;)

At 31 October 2006 at 15:47, Blogger Shane said...

Luckily for all of us, there's no such thing as ghosts. If any ghosts would like to prove me wrong -- call me and meet me for lunch in broad daylight sometime. They never do that, huh? Not so much.

At 31 October 2006 at 16:21, Blogger Lyss said...

sounds really cool

At 31 October 2006 at 16:52, Blogger John of Dublin said...

Hi Anne, wow that was a long read, but interesting, well done.

I've a true story on my blog today about a weird experience my daughter had as a toddler.

At 31 October 2006 at 20:27, Anonymous Jannie Funster said...

Plate Spinner, I like that image, maybe God himself is one Great Big Plate Spinner In The Sky, keeping everything up and balanced


P.S. I'm going to leave my blue nightgown in the drawer this Halloween night and go for my yellow jammies instead. Spooky

At 1 November 2006 at 19:49, Blogger -Ann said...

Fence - Fitting word verification. :) I imagine there are other sights further up the list that Offaly (and I think having a car would definitely improve one's enjoyment of the county), but I think Offaly is worth a visit. If you're into creepy castles, bog railroads, monastay ruins, of course. (And the Birr Equestrian center also looks prtty nice.)

Shane - Grandma is SO going to haunt you. Like she used to scare us in the basement when we were bad.

Lyss - It was fun alright.

John - Your story was great, I really enjoyed it.

Jannie - Yellow jammies are always a good choice.

At 2 November 2006 at 01:21, Blogger Career Guy said...

This was long enough and travelogue enough to go on Travels with Grandma! Blue nightgown in a tree: if you had gone further you would have seen the Blair Witch stick people.

My favorite scary movie scene happens in "Wait Until Dark". Audrey Hepburn is blind and alone in a darkened apartment, being chased by a knive wielding baddie. Just when you think she might be safe, the refrigerator door opens and the baddie is revealed in its light. Sends you right up out of your seat every time.


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