The York­shire fish­ing town of Whitby is the lo­ca­tion for a new film based on the haunt­ing, su­per­nat­u­ral sto­ries of Arthur Machen. CAROLYN WAUDBY ex­plores the weird cre­den­tials of the town where St Hilda turned ser­pents to stone and Drac­ula first ar­rived i

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Whitby is the lo­ca­tion for a new film based on the haunt­ing sto­ries of Arthur Machen. CAROLYN WAUDBY ex­plores the weird cre­den­tials of the town where Drac­ula first ar­rived in Eng­land...

T he north­ern fish­ing town of Whitby has in re­cent decades be­come fa­mous – or in­fa­mous – for its Goth Week­ends. Large-scale cul­tural events, held at Hal­lowe’en and Easter, they at­tract thou­sands of vis­i­tors, cel­e­brat­ing gothic and al­ter­na­tive cul­ture through mu­sic, film, and es­pe­cially cos­tume. Fig­ures in top hats, black­Vic­to­rian crino­lines, or sexed-up Ham­mer hor­ror-style vam­pire garb can be seen strolling Whitby’s cob­bled streets or climb­ing the 199 steps to its ru­ined clifftop abbey and church.

Whitby Goth Week­end was founded in 1994, and built on one of the town’s great claims to fame: that Count Drac­ula him­self sailed into the har­bour aboard the

Deme­ter in Bram Stoker’s fa­mous novel of 1897 (see ‘Bram Stoker in Whitby’ on p42). But Whitby’s outré cre­den­tials ex­tend far be­yond the well-known vam­pire and were al­ready es­tab­lished long be­fore Stoker took up lodg­ings and penned his sem­i­nal best­seller. In fact, they stretch back mil­len­nia, to some of the ear­li­est land and sea crea­tures. Add to the mix slaugh­ter, ship­wrecks, and a lu­cra­tiveVic­to­rian in­dus­try as­so­ci­ated with death it­self and Whitby has more than its fair share of weirdness.


Whitby’s coast is Juras­sic. Its cliffs are em­bed­ded with am­monites and the skele­tons of gi­ant marine di­nosaurs, ex­posed to the light and mod­ern eyes for the first time due to the con­stant nib­bling and thrash­ing of North Sea waves on its soft shale and sand­stone.

Equally old and mys­te­ri­ous is jet, for which Whitby has be­come renowned. This type of brown coal – formed from the fos­silised wood of a tree sim­i­lar to the present day Arau­caria or Mon­key Puz­zle, washed into the sea and rivers and crushed by de­tri­tus – has been used as a jewel and tal­is­man for over 4,000 years. The an­cient Greeks and Ro­mans named it Ga­gates, af­ter Gages, a town and river in south-western Turkey. They be­lieved it had both mag­i­cal and cu­ra­tive pow­ers, and could, for ex­am­ple, ward off ser­pents. Jet was, and still is, found washed up on Whitby’s beaches and its res­i­dents be­came skilled in carv­ing and pol­ish­ing it into jewellery. A boom­ing fash­ion in­dus­try was spawned when QueenVic­to­ria adopted it on the death of her con­sort Prince Al­bert (see ‘Jet and Death’ on p40).

Prior to this, Whitby, with its lo­ca­tion on Eng­land’s north-east­ern coast, had be­come a ma­jor port in the bloody and dan­ger­ous trade of whal­ing. In 1753, sev­eral lo­cal mer­chants formed the Whitby Whal­ing Com­pany and set off from the town’s har­bour to Green­land. Be­tween then and 1833 there were 55 whal­ing ships op­er­at­ing out of Whitby, and it is thought that the town’s whal­ing in­dus­try was re­spon­si­ble for the har­vest of over 25,000 seals, 55 po­lar bears and 2,761 whales. Great boiler houses were built along­side the har­bour to ren­der the whale blub­ber into oil. Al­though whal­ing of­fered lo­cal men em­ploy­ment, many boats were lost to an­gry waves or crushed by ice, their crews go­ing down with them.


The Welsh su­per­nat­u­ral writer and jour­nal­ist Arthur Machen vis­ited the town in Novem­ber 1916 when he was despatched by the Lon­don Evening News to pen fea­tures on life on the Home Front – in par­tic­u­lar to cover the resur­gence of the town’s jet in­dus­try as the grow­ing num­ber of war dead cre­ated an ex­pand­ing mar­ket for funeral jewellery. As a lit­er­ary vis­i­tor, he fol­lowed in the foot­steps not just of Stoker but also Lewis Car­roll.

Car­roll first stayed for a week in 1854 with a group of stu­dents study­ing math­e­mat­ics be­fore at­tend­ing Oxford Univer­sity. In later life, he re­turned sev­eral times with his fam­ily, lodg­ing at what is now La Rosa Ho­tel on the West Cliff – a lo­ca­tion used in the new Machen films. Car­roll was be­witched by the town, and schol­ars are pretty cer­tain it helped fuel his wildly imag­i­na­tive Alice tales.

Machen too was in­stantly struck by Whitby’s unique aura of the strange and su­per­nat­u­ral. Hav­ing ar­rived by train, he stayed at the An­gel Inn, a few hun­dred yards from the sta­tion. From here, he took evening strolls along the town’s cob­bled streets and up and down its steep, nar­row al­ley­ways to the clifftops, where he looked

down on the fish­er­men’s houses with their un­even rows of red roofs.

The wartime black­out meant there was very lit­tle light, and Machen de­scribes a full moon shin­ing on the Abbey walls, the wa­ter and the “rock­ing boats”, mak­ing him feel as if he had en­tered an “an­cient city of en­chant­ment”. Fur­ther on in that same ar­ti­cle of 14 Novem­ber – “Won­der­ful Whitby in the Moon­light” – he writes: “It has been said that when one looks out over the coun­try at night one sees in fact a mediæ­val land­scape; and so I shall al­ways hold that I saw at Whitby that night a mediæ­val city.”

Whitby in­spired him to go be­yond the jour­nal­is­tic as­sign­ment that had brought him there, and to pen a short story – The

Happy Chil­dren. The tale is a mix­ture of fact and fic­tion based on Machen’s stay in the town, which he re­names Ban­wick. Its cen­tral char­ac­ter is, like Machen, a jour­nal­ist from Lon­don who ar­rives in the evening by train. He walks from the sta­tion and de­scribes the scene that greets him: “… when I stood on the quay there was the most amaz­ing con­fu­sion of red-tiled roofs that I have ever seen, and the great grey Nor­man church high on the bare hill above them; and be­low them the boats swing­ing in the sway­ing tide, and the wa­ter burn­ing in the fires of the sun­set. It was the town of a magic dream.”

The Happy Chil­dren, which like most of Machen’s wartime out­put is a mix­ture of ghostly at­mos­phere, re­li­gious mys­ti­cism and sub­tle pro­pa­ganda, takes place on the Feast of the Holy In­no­cents, cel­e­brated on 28 De­cem­ber each year to com­mem­o­rate the chil­dren mas­sa­cred by Herod and tra­di­tion­ally re­garded as the first Chris­tian mar­tyrs. In the re­li­gious cer­e­mony, the chil­dren of a com­mu­nity are gath­ered in their lo­cal church to re­ceive a bless­ing; but in Machen’s tale the chil­dren are out play­ing in the dark streets late into the night, their un­nat­u­ral singing echo­ing along the town’s nar­row al­ley­ways. They are dressed all in white, while some are drip­ping in sea­weed and oth­ers sport hor­rific, bloody wounds as they wind their way up to the steps to the Abbey church. In his ar­ti­cle “In The Foot­steps of Arthur Machen”, 1 Si­mon Clark puts for­ward the idea that Machen’s ‘happy chil­dren’ were ap­pari­tions of the many chil­dren killed when the Lusi­ta­nia was tor­pe­doed by the Ger­mans the year be­fore.


The Happy Chil­dren is one of six Machen tales filmed for the first time by Ju­lian But­ler and Univer­sity of Brad­ford aca­demic Mark Goodall. 2 While Whitby it­self was the ob­vi­ous choice for the film­ing of The

Happy Chil­dren, Goodall de­cided it would be equally per­fect for the other Arthur Machen sto­ries he has adapted for the screen – The Cosy Room, The White Pow­der, The Rit­ual, The

Bow­men and Mid­sum­mer – a pack­age that pays homage to the port­man­teau films of the 1970s un­der the over­all ti­tle of Holy Ter­rors (it­self taken from a col­lec­tion of Machen tales pub­lished just be­fore the au­thor’s death in 1947).

Goodall chose th­ese sto­ries for their “mys­te­ri­ous at­mos­phere that would trans­late well into film”. Apart from a BBC pro­duc­tion of The Shin­ing Pyra­mid, he be­lieves there have been no small screen ver­sions of Machen’s writ­ings – un­like the nu­mer­ous tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tions of M R James’s ghost sto­ries, of which Goodall was a big fan. “The at­mos­phere was re­ally strong. They would film them in ru­ral lo­ca­tions and des­o­late land­scapes. It wasn’t an ur­ban form of ter­ror, it was re­ally gen­teel,” he ex­plains. “They wouldn’t show a lot. They used sug­ges­tion to cre­ate at­mos­phere and they stayed in your head longer.”

The Holy Ter­rors films are all shot in black and white, bar Mid­sum­mer, which Goodall says “seemed to re­quire the colour and mood of a sum­mer night”.

Film­ing took place at La Rosa Ho­tel and other ac­tual Whitby lo­ca­tions such as the Black Horse pub and the White Horse and Grif­fin Ho­tel and Restau­rant. The lat­ter two premises stand on cob­bled Church Street, which leads to the Abbey Steps. Both build­ings are said to be haunted, and the White Horse and Grif­fin boasts Charles Dick­ens among its il­lus­tri­ous for­mer guests.

The fact that Whitby hasn’t changed much over time en­hances its strange char­ac­ter­is­tics, Goodall be­lieves. “You do feel as if you’re go­ing back to a dif­fer­ent age.”


A Whitby res­i­dent of 10 years, Mark Goodall be­lieves part of the town’s pal­pa­ble feel of the su­per­nat­u­ral arises from the fact it has re­tained much of its tra­di­tional rit­u­als and folklore. “Some as­pects of folklore are strange and dis­turb­ing when you look back at them,” he ob­serves.

The town mu­seum dis­plays one of the few re­main­ing ex­am­ples of a Hand of Glory – the sev­ered right hand of a hanged crim­i­nal used as a tal­is­man. 3 Whitby’s Hand of Glory was found be­hind the lin­tel of a door in a cot­tage in Castle­ton, in the parish of Danby, North York­shire. It was ac­cepted that the hand, which had been metic­u­lously ‘pre­pared’, was a tal­is­man which could guar­an­tee the suc­cess of bur­glars. Ac­cord­ing to a pam­phlet writ­ten by Ce­cilia Hunter and Paul Pear­son, the last recorded in­stance of this sort of charm be­ing used for a break-in

was 1850 at Bays­dale Abbey. The power of the hand was said to come from the fact it had been rit­u­ally pre­pared and had been cut from the limb of a man hang­ing from the gib­bet. In North York­shire, the crim­i­nal had to be a hanged mur­derer, but lesser crim­i­nals were deemed ac­cept­able in other parts of the coun­try. A gib­bet once stood on the moors above Castle­ton and could be the prove­nance of the Whitby hand.

Then there is the mediæ­val cus­tom of the an­nual build­ing of the ‘Penny Hedge’, be­lieved to date back to 1159. 4 It takes place on the Eve of As­cen­sion each year at a small, muddy beach known as Boyes Staith on the east side of Whitby har­bour. It is said to stem from an in­ci­dent in which three no­ble­men chased and killed a boar in front of the al­tar of a her­mit in his cell. When the her­mit protested, he was badly in­jured and later died in the Abbey hos­pi­tal. He for­gave the hunts­men, but the Ab­bot’s court brought them to trial and found them guilty on two charges.

A penance was laid upon them and their heirs. At sun­rise on As­cen­sion Eve they were to cut stakes with a knife and carry them on their backs to the town at low tide. Then they were or­dered to set them at the edge of the wa­ter so that they could with­stand three tides. If they or their de­scen­dants re­fused, they would sur­ren­der their land to the ab­bot. The hedge has never fallen and con­tin­ues to be built to­day to re­sist the strong­est tides.

And for Goodall it is the sea that is per­haps the most en­dur­ing and per­haps the most mag­i­cal as­pect of the old fish­ing town. “The North Sea is very un­com­pro­mis­ing. The

Happy Chil­dren be­gins and ends with the sea. The cam­era­man just filmed it and I thought it was great.”


Holy Ter­rors was launched at the Na­tional Science and Me­dia Mu­seum, Brad­ford and has screened at a num­ber of film fes­ti­vals. There will also be a screen­ing of the films in Sh­effield dur­ing Oc­to­ber as part of the Off The Shelf Fes­ti­val, with an in­tro­duc­tion by Mark Goodall and Dave Clarke. For fur­ther in­for­ma­tion and de­tails of fu­ture screen­ings visit: face­book.com/HolyTer­rorsFilm/. A DVD, with a fac­sim­ile of The Town of a Magic Dream book­let edited by Richard Dalby, can be pur­chased from holyter­rors@bt­in­ter­net.com.


1 In The Town of A Magic Dream: Arthur Machen in Whitby pub­lished by Mark Valen­tine in 1987.

2 See Ce­cilia M Hunter & Paul D Pear­son, ‘The Hand of Glory: The Story of a Thieves Tal­is­man’, Whitby Ar­chives Lo­cal His­tory Se­ries 17; Whitby Lit­er­ary and Philo­soph­i­cal So­ci­ety, ‘The Hand of Glory’, Mu­seum and Li­brary Re­search Pa­per No 1. 3 See Homer Sykes, Once A Year: Some Tra­di­tional Bri­tish Cus­toms, Gor­don Fraser, Lon­don, 1977. REF­ER­ENCES He­len and Katy Muller, Whitby Jet, Shire Pub­li­ca­tions, 2013.

Mark Valen­tine, Arthur Machen, Seren, 1995. Richard Dalby ed, The Town of a Magic Dream: Arthur Machen in Whitby, Caer­maen, 1987.

Alan Brooke, Haunted Whitby, The His­tory Press, 2009.


CAROLYN WAUDBY is a jour­nal­ist, lec­turer and poet and a fre­quent vis­i­tor to Whitby. She has a strong in­ter­est in folklore, the su­per­nat­u­ral and travel and has pre­vi­ously con­trib­uted to the Fortean Trav­eller sec­tion.

LEFT: Arthur Machen. FAC­ING PAGE: Vis­i­tors to Whitby Goth Week­end de­scend the 199 steps from the ru­ined clifftop abbey to the town.

ABOVE: An at­mo­spheric view of Whitby in 1890, with the Abbey loom­ing above the har­bour. OP­PO­SITE AND BE­LOW: Stills from the port­man­teau film Holy Ter­rors.

ABOVE LEFT: The an­nual cer­e­mony of plant­ing the Penny Hedge, which dates back over 800 years, seen here be­ing car­ried out in 1935. ABOVE RIGHT: St Hilda, with serpent-like am­monites at her feet: they were tra­di­tion­ally be­lieved to be the snakes she had cast from the cliffs and turned to stone. BE­LOW: Whitby Mu­seum’s Hand of Glory – the sev­ered right hand of a hanged crim­i­nal, pos­si­bly taken from a gib­bet on the moors above Castle­ton.

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