• 17 Feb - 23 Feb, 2018
  • Shahed Sadullah
  • London Eye

You would not have thought that many people in Britain believe in ghosts and demons. Well, you would be wrong. The beliefs surface especially around Halloween, observed on the October31 and what is known as ‘All Souls Day’ which used to be commemorated two days later on November 2. The American inspired ‘Halloween’ has now become the much more observed and commercially popular occasion, marked mainly by kids knocking at your door in the evening and asking for a ‘trick or treat’ and you have to give them some chocolates and sweets before sending them on their way to the next house. But the occasion does have to do with the souls of the dead, and ever so often they remind the living that everything is not quite as straightforward as giving kids a few sweets.

Around last Halloween, newspapers came out with a list of British roads known to be frequented by ‘ghosts’ so that drivers may be forewarned and take alternative roads. It needs to be clarified here that one of the favourite ways by which British ghosts spook people is to appear on lonely roads and then to appear right in front of the car before jumping off in the other direction, opposite from the way they appeared.

One of the roads mentioned in the list is Blue Bell road in Chatham, Kent, just about 25 miles down the road from Swanley, from my little town in Kent. The story goes back in 1965, when a bride was being driven along this road to her wedding when there was an accident and she passed away. Since then, a woman in a wedding dress has been seen to jump in front of cars just at the last moment, giving the driver no time to avert an accident. When drivers, believing they have hit her, stop and get out of the car, the vision disappears and they see that they have not hit anything. The road goes through a lonely area through deep woods and there is little by way of alternative routing except to climb a tree and wait for dawn, hoping that the ghost does not pursue you there.

But there was one particular supernatural figure, more a ghoul than a ghost, who did not limit himself to any particular road. The story goes back to the 19th century, and this one became famous enough to even feature in The Times. He was known as Spring-heeled Jack or Leaping Jack, and his modus operandi was to appear on the side of the road, then suddenly spring up in front and quickly disappear on the other side with a huge bounding leap. He made his first appearance around 1837 in south London when he is said to have jumped in front of a horse drawn carriage causing it to crash before jumping over a nine feet wall and disappearing into the dark, making a strange high pitched burbling sound as he bounded away.

In those days London was always dark and if it was not for electricity, it still would be.

In the next couple of years Leaping Jack fairly terrorised Londoners in a way that Daesh could not even dream of doing. There were many reported sightings of him and witnesses described him as having red luminescent eyes, claw-like metallic fingers and breathing fire with a heavy smell of phosphorus. By 1838, Leaping Jack had become such a terror that people decided to approach the Lord Mayor of London. The Mayor then mentioned the menace in a speech which was reported the following morning in The Times.

Shortly after this, there were two incidents in which two young girls were attacked. Both, though very badly shaken, lived to describe their attacker as being very tall, dressed in a cloak with metallic claw-like fingers, red shiny eyes and breathing fire. Matters came to such a head that one person was actually caught and tried for being Leaping Jack, but thankfully escaped when it was proved that he was quite incapable of breathing fire. By the time the poor chap got out of court, he could hardly breathe at all, never mind fire.

Sightings of this ghoul continued even into the early 1900s but then Leaping Jack disappeared from the scene and people thought that he had decided to call it a day, having had his fun. Not quite. A few years ago, in 2012, a family were returning late at night in a taxi to their home near Crawley, close to Gatwick Airport, after celebrating Valentine’s Day in London. Suddenly a man was spotted by the roadside and the family were surprised to see someone on foot at that time on a deserted road. It certainly was not usual. As their car approached, he suddenly leapt from the road, on to the bonnet of the car and then leapt away on the other side, exactly as Leaping Jack used to do almost two centuries ago! Quite understandably, they were left speechless and terrified. The incident, as far as it is known, was not reported to the Lord Mayor whose response may have been very different from that of his predecessor in 1838.

So will Leaping Jack make another appearance?

Who knows. •