Beyond Halloween: Being spooked, German style
Soon the gates will open to the realms of darkness, for ghosts and demons to wander the world and scare the living daylights out of ordinary people – by ringing doorbells and yelling “Trick Or Treat!”. God help you if you have nothing to feed these hungry souls, although in 2020 you might actually get away with it, as trick or treating would fall victim to covid lockdowns.
The spirit of Halloween as a spooky holiday with scary decorations and lots of pranks will prevail, I am sure. Here in England and in many other places – like in Ireland, where the tradition has its roots, believed to be pagan lore as a thanksgiving festival of Celtic tribes. Modern historians have poured cold water on this idea, though. Too little actual evidence supports the claim, and it seems Halloween has its roots in Christianity, as the night before the highly important holiday of “All Hallows”.
From Ireland it made its way to the US, where settlers added the pumpkin to the old legend and invented the ideo of children going from house to house. By coming back to Ireland and the UK, and spreading out through Europe, ly example of the great side effects of globalisation.
How Halloween came to Germany
Not everybody shares this opinion. In Germany, many older people dislike the imported Halloween celebrations and refuse to partake in trick or treating. They point out that there are genuine German traditions – like the famous holiday of St Martin – where kids already go around to collect sweets. They also refer to the original introduction of Halloween in Germany as a highly corporate ploy: When in the early 90s the famous German carnival was cancelled due to the first Gulf War (yes, that was a topic so highly political that Germans actually didn’t want to get drunk and party), the lobby organisation of the German toy industry pushed Halloween with a huge campaign as a new reason to dress up and party. They were successful – although the American holiday never created the same amount of costume sales as the original carnival, it has been a very profitable venture ever since.
Ironically, bringing in this new trend also revived old traditions. In South Germany, Austria and Switzerland, children rediscovered the “Rübengeistern” – a term that’s difficult to translate straight, but roughly means “being ghostly using roots”. Instead of pumpkins, roots like the Mangold wurzel where hollowed out and decorated with carved-in spooky faces. Just like the Halloween pumpkin, a candle is then placed inside. Children don’t usually go from house to house to ask for sweets, but they place these decorated roots in gardens or windows and receive a little treat as a reward for putting in this effort.
The feeling of being scared in that enjoyable, entertaining way we are all looking for when watching horror movies is very human. Germans call it "Grusel". Germany is rich in myths and fairytales that can make your blood freeze. It’s not even hard to find them: Just read Grimm’s Fairytales. Some of them are indeed nightmarish!
The night of the dancing witches
This is not just a myth, since you can really see the witches dance in the night of April 30th to May 1st – if you are brave enough to travel to the Harz mountain range at Walpurgis night and climb up the “Brocken” (also called Blocksberg, like Bibi Blocksberg, a lovely witch in popular children’s stories). Since the 17th century, witches meet on this highest peak of Northern Germany and worship the devil.
Or maybe, in modern times, they just meet to have some good old fun.
The proper tradition is described in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic drama “Faust”, and it included witches flying on their broomsticks from yet another important witch location in Thale to the “Hexensabbat” (the witches’ sabbat) on the Brocken. They are in a rush, since the last witch to arrive will become part of the satanic feast of this night.
The Harz mountains are rich in witch heritage and their notorious meeting places, so it should be easy to meet some supernatural, dangerous magic women all around the year. Dedicated “witches stairs” (Hexentreppe) can be found in the city of Braunlage, leading to a stone circle that will be crowded with ghosts and witches on Walpurgis night as well. In conclusion: Be aware when traveling this part of Germany. You might catch a curse or two.
“Never met a ghost”
It’s not just the Harz where supernatural occurences are common. Traveling the Taunus mountains further South in Germany, I once met the caretaker of castle Königstein, close to Frankfurt. I asked him whether he had ever seen a ghost in the old and quite spooky castle he looked after. He assured me that he had never met any, “not in all of the 400 years I have been living here myself.”
If you, like him, do NOT want to encounter the undead, stay clear of the Town Hall in Bremen and especially the otherwise lovely restaurant in its cellar. There, in a corner of the biggest room, you’ll see an alcove that has been closed off with brickwork. In it, an unlucky carpenter named Barthold lost a game of dice against the devil and died a gruesome death. Nobody dared to touch his dead body, so the landlord of the restaurant simply left it where it was and built a new wall between the alcove and the rest of the guest room.
You don’t believe this? Visit at your own risk. Legend has it that Barthold sometimes knocks on the wall. Maybe, if you listen carefully, he will tell you his story?
Just a little bit North of Bremen, on the islands of Sylt and Amrum, you might meet a Gonger – the souls of murdered or drowned seamen visit the islands, as do blasphemists of long gone times who were buried in the holy grounds of cemeteries that would not accept them on the long term. No honourable Gonger would hurt you, though – they would leave nothing but fear and wet saltwater trails on the floor.
Same goes for the sailors on the ghost ship of Emden. Their vessel sank in a merciless storm, already in line of sight of the harbour. The harbour master, however, held a grudge against the captain and, despite his own son being on board, denied any help. In stormy nights, the eerie silhouette of the ship can be seen, and you might hear its dying sailors screem for help … in vain.
In other places, you might be eaten alive by werwolves (Ludwigslust), lured into forests you can never leave again (Cottbus) or drowned in lakes by beautiful maidens (Jena). Be aware around noon in Lübbenau – die “Mittagsfrau” (mid day woman) likes to cut off heads and leave them for innocent passersby to find. Don’t get drunk in Aachen, the Bakhauv might end up riding on your shoulders and causing you a terrible headache the next day. Personally, as a survivor of many a drunken night in the beautiful West German town that once was Charlemaigne’s capital, I can bear witness to the power of the Bakhauv. What else might have caused me headache and nausea the day after?
A friendlier ghost is the Klabautermann, a poltergeist traveling on ships and causing noise and disruption. He is, however, not malignant. All he does is highlight, not cause, damage to ships, so sailors have traditionally welcomed his visits on board.
A traveller’s guide
Whether you want to actually hunt for ghosts or try to avoid them by all means, here are a few hints for travellers in Germany:
The Hubertus Chapel in Ebersberg Forest South of Munich is notorious for being haunted. A young woman died close to it in a car accident in the early 90s of the last century, together with her three children. Believing locals, she can’t let go. Drivers passing the chapel tell of seeing a female hitchhiker who, once taken in, will suddenly disappear after preaching to drive slowly. Those who don’t pick her up and dare to speed in the area, might see her suddenly disappearing on their backseat, grabbing for the steering wheel, causing horrible accidents. Just a myth? The local police disagrees. Statistics show a heightened number of deadly accidents in the area. So if you want to risk a look at the chapel, drive slowly and concentrate on the road if you value your life … or at least your vehicle.
On the Pfaueninsel (the peacock Island) in Berlin, dark forces rule. They were called up by Johann Kunckel, born in 1630, who is said to run a laboratory on the island, making gold for his local ruler. The alchemist’s venture, meant to make a nobleman rich, instead brought upon the devil. Johann died in a huge explosion and since then has been seen haunting his island, a black figure with glowing red eyes and full of anger.
An old hospital, the Beelitz-Heilstätten, are to be avoided by all means. The buildings are old, beautiful, derelict and dangerous. Erected in 1902 as a hospital for Tuberculosis sufferers, they saw death and suffering already before they were turned into military hospitals during both World Wars and in the years after until 1994.
From 1989 to 1991, serial killer Wolfgang Schmidt (the pink giant), a former police officer, murdered six persons, among them a woman and her new born child. 2008, an erotic photographer used the now empty buildings for photo shoots with beautiful models, all of whom he murdered right afterwards. A place to visit for ghost hunters, who tell of sudden drops in temperature, screams and desperate whispers, banging doors and loss of light.
An endless source of tears and tragedy
Researching ghost stories, I found literally hundreds of these tales. A Scottish girl died in the ruins of Burg Lahneck, a derelict castle close to the city of Koblenz, when a staircase collapsed under her. She survived this event, but died of hunger and thirst in the days after, leaving desperate messages scratched in the wooden floorboards of the tower she was on. A student in the city of Bochum haunts the libraries of the university after dying while writing his PhD thesis. Witnesses think he still tries to finish his academic work which won’t let him rest in peace. Victims of sexual assault in war times haunt forests in East Germany, luring in men to punish them for the horrors they experienced when they were still alive.
All of these tales have one thing in common: They are rooted in some more or less believable (or even true) core, however bizarre or far fetched it might be. An endless stream of historic tragedies, showing why spooky stories are so very intriguing to most of us; as a way of coping with the horrors and fears of the real world.