UNEXPLAINED

Episode 10: The Space that Lingers

The world of horror is littered with unnerving locations, places that both draw from and have in turn seeped into the public imagination.  Perhaps the most symbolic of them all being the forest, the archetypal liminal space of what Joseph Campbell termed ‘the hero’s journey.’  Not only is the forest dark and mysterious but it is of course profoundly symbolic being as it is a manifestation of our deep unconscious. 

As we venture deeper into the forest, so do we journey deeper into ourselves in our quest to confront our greatest fears before with any luck ultimately emerging, victorious and changed. But for all the creatures and the hidden and unknowable fears we might discover along the way, the forest in a sense remains a space that is our own.  Those fears within, our own to decipher and overcome.   

Far more chilling therefore are the places that when entering we find ourselves crossing a threshold into a world that is very much not our own. Places where no longer are we at the whim of our darkest unconscious but rather, that of somebody else’s…

God forbid you ever find yourself checking into the Bate’s motel as found in Robert Boch’s Psycho.  Or stumbling into the family home of Leatherface so disturbingly depicted in Tobe Hooper’s mesmerizingly deranged Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

What both stories have in common is a location so inextricably linked to the bad guy as to be almost inseparable from them.  There is the sense that even when empty the locations will somehow incubate the things that have happened inside.

Both stories incidentally were partly based on the life of murderer Ed Gein whose proclivity for manufacturing ornaments and furniture from human bone and skin continues to shock the world almost 60 years after the event.

After Gein’s conviction, it was decided that his house should be torn down.  So incapable were the local community from separating the location from the events that had taken place inside there was no other option but to remove it entirely.

A similar theme emerges in many cases of alleged domestic supernatural disturbances, such as those that took place at 30 East Drive in Pontefract, or at number 284 Green Street, in Enfield. In these stories we find the recurring notion that any new resident of the property is merely an invader, occupying a space that isn’t theirs to occupy.

At times it might seem that in some way or another the property has developed a soul all of its own.

For many there is one place in particular that continues to fascinate like no other in the UK. For its combination of mystery, intrigue and atmospheric location you couldn’t concoct a better setting, the name: Boleskine House.

The story of Boleskine House is inseparable from that of its most infamous former resident, Aleister Crowley.  It was a very particular journey that brought Crowley to Boleskine and it begins a short time before midnight on 12th October 1875 with his birth in Royal Leamington Spa, England. 

Crowley, who was christened Edward Alexander, was the first of two children born to Edward and Emily Crowley.  Their second, a baby girl would arrive five years later but would tragically die after only 5 hours of life.  The family was devoutly religious and belonged to a Christian sect known as the Plymouth Brethren.

The sect was renowned for their belief in the literal truth of the bible and their puritanical attitude towards sin and the dangers of temptation.  It was into this deeply rigid and conservative environment that Crowley was brought up, an environment, which many believe, contributed to his utter rejection of all such beliefs in later life.

Owing to his share in the lucrative family brewing business, Crowley’s father Edward had been able to take an early retirement and as such divided most of his time between his family and volunteering as a travelling preacher for the sect.  Despite the socially claustrophobic upbringing and unhappy childhood Crowley was utterly devoted to Edward. 

In March 1887, Crowley was devastated when his father died after a short battle with cancer.  The young Aleister was only 11 years old at the time and the death would prove to be a significant turning point in his life.  Crowley’s sorrow at the loss of his father soon morphed into to anger as Crowley began attacking the very thing that had made his life such a misery, rejecting what he saw as the zealous and authoritarian scourge of Christianity.

In the years that followed it would seem that Crowley had developed a pathological yearning to commit the sins he had so studiously been warned against.  He started to experiment sexually, dabbled with debauchery and took any opportunity to point out what he considered to be the many inconsistencies in the bible to anyone who would listen.

Crowley had the sense that he was searching for something but it wasn’t until he arrived at Cambridge University that the pieces began to shift in to place.  At some point, Crowley had become interested in the occult, in particular the study of ritual magic, an enthusiasm that was piqued after he read A.E. Waite’s The Book of Black Magic and Pacts.  An acute interest in alchemy brought him into contact with British Chemist and Occultist George Cecil Jones who in turn introduced Crowley to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. 

The order had been established in 1888 and was led by the charismatic Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. Some of you may remember that it was to Mathers that the Alpha et Omega group had stayed faithful.  The same group to which Netta Fornario had belonged before her death in mysterious circumstances in 1928 as explored in Episode one.

After graduation and with the luxury of his family’s brewing dynasty inheritance, Crowley was able to untether himself from the usual constraints life. As such he was free to throw himself into his new and burgeoning obsession of ritual magick. 

A year after leaving Cambridge, Crowley had moved into a luxury London flat in Chancery Lane and hired fellow Golden Dawn member, Allan Bennett, to become his personal magical tutor.  It was Bennett who formally introduced Crowley to ceremonial magic and the ritual use of drugs but most importantly to the rituals of the Goetia, the practice of invoking what are commonly known as angels and demons.  In particular the Ars Goetia as found in the opening section of the 17th century grimoire, the Lesser Key of Solomon.  A grimoire being another term for a book of spells.

Mathers was impressed by Crowley’s dedication and rapid rise through the various grades of the Golden Dawn and the two became close friends. But Crowley was growing increasingly frustrated with the movement.  His frustration was in part due to the reticence that some of the more established members had about Crowley’s membership. In what was quite a rarity for the time, Crowley was openly bisexual, a state of affairs that many members sadly found uncomfortable.

But what irked Crowley more than anything was what he considered to be the inherent phoniness of the group. Peopled as it was by many esteemed intellects of the day such as W.B. Yeats and Bram Stoker, Crowley felt that they were merely playing at magic and treated the organisation as a glorified salon.

In what would later become a feature of Crowley’s life, he wanted more, to go further than anyone had gone before.

In 1898, Mathers introduced Crowley to a strange and mystical text called the The Secret Book of Abramelin Magic.  The book, which is said to date back to the 15th century, recounts the story of an Egyptian Kabbalistic magician known as Abramelin the mage and his pupil Abraham of Worms. 

As the story goes, Abraham ‘found the mage living in the desert outside Arachi, an Egyptian town near the River Nile.’ After agreeing to "serve and fear" the Lord, and to "live and die in His most Holy Law" Abraham was instructed by Abramelin in the "Divine Science" and "True Magic" embedded within the two manuscripts, which he was to follow and give only to those whom he knew well and trusted.  And now it was in the hands of Aleister Crowley.

Crucially the book describes an elaborate ritual known as the Abramelin operation designed to conjure up the magician’s guardian angel.  It became clear to Crowley that this was the next step he must take in his path to complete enlightenment.  It is a path that many believe to have led to fatal consequences.

Not wanting to leave anything to chance, the well-heeled Crowley embarked on a lengthy undertaking to find the ideal location for the operation.

As Crowley later wrote:

The house must be in more or less secluded situation. There should be a door opening to the north from the room of which you make your oratory. Outside this door, you construct a terrace covered with fine river sand. This ends in a "lodge" where the spirits may congregate. It would appear the simplest thing in the world for a man with forty thousand pounds, who is ready to spend every penny of it on the achievement of his purpose, to find a suitable house in a very few weeks.         

However, after a year of searching, Crowley had failed to find the perfect location.  That was until he found himself travelling into the Highlands of Scotland, along the haunting shores of the majestic Loch Ness.  A short time later Crowley arrived at a small gravesite by the side of the road overlooking the loch.  There, perched a short distance up the hill overlooking the graveyard, he saw it for the first time, the house that would forever become synonymous with his name: Boleskine.

The single floored mansion, located on the Eastern shore of Loch Ness, was built in the late 18th century by a Colonel Archibald Fraser. 

It is not clear what exactly brought Crowley to Boleskine though the filmmaker and Crowley aficionado Kenneth Anger has pointed out that he may have been drawn to the name and its similarity to Baal the Canaan god of gods.  Later remodelled as the Lord of the Flies in the Old Testament.  Baal is represented by the symbol of the Bull, the word Bole from Boleskine being an ancient Scottish form of the same animal – it is unlikely the connection would have been lost on the erudite Crowley.

Others believe however that Crowley had in some way been preternaturally drawn to the house.  It was said that a medieval church had once stood on the same site.  One morning, with the congregation inside, the church mysteriously caught fire.  As the congregation rushed to escape they found themselves inexplicably trapped inside.  Unable to escape, they perished as the church burnt steadily to the ground.  Had something of the event remained?  Something that Crowley was eager to tap into?

It is also said that the graveyard itself was once a meeting point of witches.  Reports of a tunnel leading from the house to the gravesite, which some claim to have been used by Crowley to conduct his own nighttime rituals, remain unsubstantiated.

So convinced was Crowley of the house’s suitability that in August 1899 he paid more than twice its value to secure the property.  A short time later, he relocated his possessions and began preparing for the great operation.

It is important at this point to draw the distinction between what many see as Crowley’s unhealthy obsession with Black Magic and Satanism and what in reality it was that Crowley hoped to achieve.

Whether there is a truth to it or not, Crowley’s intention and the sole purpose of the ritual, was to seek knowledge and conversation with his own personal Guardian Angel. It is by all accounts a ritual to invoke positive change, a force for good but there was one glaringly large catch: 

In order to do this, Crowley would have to invoke and then bring under his control the 12 Kings of Hell. 

Before beginning the ritual, which required him to start in Easter, Crowley spent the intervening months entertaining guests and readying the property in preparation for the ceremony. The final stage was to cover the outdoor terrace in fine river sand.  The reason was simple. It was so Crowley could see the feet marks of the spirits and demons he was about to invoke. 

The ritual was to last 6 months and required the utmost conviction.  It would require him to live of nothing but bread and water and to wake regularly at 3am to begin the invocations. Chastity had to be observed at all times, and complete abstinence was paramount.  For the free spirited Crowley that in itself would have proved a tall order.

However, as the winter snow of 1899 began to thaw, and with it passed the season of death, new life was bursting forth throughout the surrounding hills.  Spring had finally arrived and Crowley’s dedication had not faltered, the time had come to begin the ritual.

Crowley began by preparing the talismans essential for the ritual.  The talismans, which can be found at the back of The Book of Abramelin, are a set of magic word squares required to bring the 12 kings of hell into order. Crowley had moved to the brightest room in the house to best complete the task.  The room, located at the front of the house overlooked the terrace and down to the dark and still Loch Ness beyond. 

Crowley cut the squares from the material velum and as a bright sun flooded the room with light he began to inscribe the squares with Indian ink when something strange happened.  Despite the clear skies, the room began to darken until it had been almost entirely extinguished.  It was to become a feature of the ritual.  From this point on Crowley was required to flood the room with artificial light from a large array of candles to keep the room alight, even during the brightest times of day.

With everything in order Crowley embarked on his six-month odyssey.  Almost immediately he received confirmation that he was on the right path.  As he began to chant in the room, even with all its artificial light, it again began to darken while all around the lodge and terrace became peopled with shadowy shapes.  Or as Crowley writes:

‘The demons and evil forces had congregated round me so thickly that they were shutting off the light.’

A number of friends had declined to visit Crowley believing he was going too far, meddling with things he couldn’t understand let alone control.  The Grimoire itself begins with a warning not to attempt any of the magic contained within… 

Only a few weeks into the operation, already there were ominous stirrings.

One acquaintance named Rosher lasted only two weeks before terror forced him to flee. Crowley coming down to breakfast one day only to be informed that Rosher had taken the first boat to Inverness that morning.

At one point, Crowley returned to Boleskine one afternoon to find a Catholic Priest waiting for him in his study.  The priest informed him that the day before his lodge keeper, who had not touched alcohol for twenty years had come home raving drunk and attempted to murder his wife and children.

Already it would seem that the ritual, despite being a very personal pursuit, was provoking forces beyond Crowley’s control.

Although it may not have been going well for those around him, the ritual seemed to be working for Crowley. But all that was about to change.

Barely two months in Crowley received a letter from Samuel Mathers requesting Crowley’s immediate assistance.  In Crowley’s absence the Order of the Golden Dawn had fractured into two opposing schools of thought, with Mathers believing he was in great danger of being usurped.

Despite only being partway through the ritual, Crowley compelled to offer his assistance.  Immediately he packed his bags and headed straight to London, and with that the magic ritual was broken.

It had been Crowley’s intention to return and complete the spell but with one thing leading to another, in the summer of 1900 Crowley instead moved to Mexico, the ritual remained incomplete.

As Kenneth Anger noted, ‘if you invoke spirits to help you or teach you there is something that has to be done afterward, they must be banished.

But Crowley never did that.

It is said that soon after a dark cloud appeared over the house that failed to disperse for many months. Locals refused to go by the house, instead preferring to travel the entire circumference of the Loch rather than pass it.

As for Crowley, there are some who believe that failure to complete the ritual left him dangerously open to demonic possession, that the 12 Kings of Hell may well have somehow found their way inside him, using him for their own purpose.  Some consider what later became of Crowley to be directly linked to this moment.

And for those that came to Boleskine after Crowley it is hard to resist the temptation to think that some strange gateway had indeed been opened that has never since been closed.

Some time after 1913 the property came into the possession of Major Edward Grant.  Not a lot is known about Grant’s period of ownership except that one morning while his housekeeper Anna MacLaren had been working in the garden the family dog had come running up to her playing with something in its mouth.  It looked like some kind of bone but knowing there was nothing of that sort in the house Mrs MacLaren grabbed it from the dog and threw it away.

A short time later, Anna called in on the Major only to make a horrific discovery.  There, slumped in front of a large bedroom mirror, was the body of Major Grant lying next to a recently discharged shotgun.  His head had been completely removed by the blast.  The dog had indeed been chewing on a bone; it was a piece of Mr Grant’s skull.

In 1970, the house was bought by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.  Page had for a long time been fascinated by the occult and in particular the life of Aleister Crowley.  However, due to his rigorous touring schedule and other commitments Page rarely visited the house and had invited his friend Malcolm Dent to look after the property in his absence.  Dent and his family moved into the property soon after and it wasn’t long before they realised something in the house wasn’t quite right.

Despite Boleskine’s reputation, Dent was a confirmed sceptic and had little time for what he considered to be nothing but superstitious nonsense.  But all that was about to change.

Before long Dent and his family became plagued by a series of inexplicable noises moving throughout the house.  Doors would slam mysteriously all thorough the nigh and carpets and rugs would be mischievously pulled up.

Another regular occurrence was that the doors would suddenly spring open as if someone was running through them, even on calm days.

Dent recalled sitting in bed late at night, when something outside the room began snuffling under the door.  It sounded at first like a dog before growing in intensity, becoming louder and louder.  He snapped on the light only for the noise to become even more intense as the door began to rattle violently.  He had the sudden feeling that a huge and evil creature was trying to get in.   Then as quickly as it had begun, it stopped.

Was this one of the 12 Kings of Hell that Crowley had failed to banish, or something else that had entered through a strange gateway he had failed to close?  Dent later discovered that the room he was in at the time had been the same room that Crowley conducted his ritual.

In 1991 the house was sold again to a Ronald and Annette MacGillivray who stayed in the property event free for almost 10 years.  Following the death of Ronald in 2002 the house was again put up for sale and was later bought by a Dutch family who also reported nothing unusual in all their time staying at the house.  The demons it would seem had finally taken leave.  Or had they?

In December 2015, the owner’s daughter and partner arrived at Boleskine House intent on staying for the Christmas Holidays.  Shortly after 1pm on Wednesday 23rd, the couple had left the house to get some much-needed supplies for the days ahead.

At approximately 1.40pm a motorist on the A82 road on the opposite side of the loch reported flames and smoke coming from House.  By the time the couple had returned half the building was ablaze with flames rising over 20 ft. into the air.  Multiple crews of fireman battled the blaze until the early hours of the following day.  By the next morning 60 percent of the house had been incinerated, as it remains to this day.  After an extensive investigation the fire was found not to have been started deliberately.  The precise cause of the fire a mystery that remains to this day unexplained.

For more on the story of the greatly misunderstood Aleister Crowley please listen out for Episode 10 Extra where we’ll be delving a little deeper into the beliefs and magick of the man once described as the ‘Wickedest Man in the world…’

As for Boleskine House, whether you care to believe all the stories or not, there will forever remain something compelling about this most beguiling of places. Whether that is because of what we have projected onto it or due to something perhaps a little more unearthly, is anyone’s guess. 

In fact there is something of this in all buildings even ones without such ominous connotations.  We feel it in our fascination with ruined and abandoned places because, although they may be empty it is impossible not to sense something of those that had come before, and perhaps in some way still remain.

I will leave you with a passage from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.  In the novel Pynchon writes of a place known as The Zone, a sort of liminal space metaphorically caught somewhere between life and death.  The novel’s protagonist Slothrop is travelling through the Zone in the aftermath of the Second World War when he finds himself inside an abandoned factory, once a throbbing heart of industry now quiet and stilled:

Though found adrift and haunted, full of signs of recent human tenancy, this is not the legendary ship Marie-Celeste-it isn't bounded so neatly, these tracks underfoot run away fore and aft into all stilled Europe, and our flesh doesn't sweat and pimple here for the domestic mysteries, the attic horror of What Might Have Happened so much as for our knowledge of what likely did happen … it was always easy, in open and lonely places, to be visited by Panic wilderness fear, but these are the urban fantods here, that come to get you when you are lost or isolate inside the way time is passing, when there is no more History, no time-traveling capsule to find your way back to, only the lateness and the absence that fill a great railway shed after the capital has been evacuated, and the goat-god's city cousins wait for you at the edges of the light, playing the tunes they always played, but more audible now, because everything else has gone away or fallen silent…

© Richard MacLean Smith

 

 

Sources

1.    The Wickedest Man In The World, (dir. Rawles, N.), Diverse Productions broadcast on Channel 4 (2002),  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xt9WJy6_XZU

2.    Wilson, C. (1988), The Occult, Grafton Books: UK

3.    Crowley, A. (1969), The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, http://www.thelema.ca, http://www.thelema.ca/156/Confessions/confess.html

4.    MacGregor Mathers, S., L., (comiled by), The Lesser Key of Solomon http://www.hermetics.org, http://www.hermetics.org/pdf/grimoire/goetia.pdf

5.    Crowley, A. (1904), Liber AL Vel Legis – The Book of the Law, http://hermetic.com/legis/ccxx/

6.    Campsie, A. (2015), Jimmy Page and his Black Magic Home, The Scotsman, http://www.scotsman.com/heritage/people-places/jimmy-page-and-his-black-magic-highland-home-1-3975377

7.    Writer unknown (2006), A rock legend and Black arts figured in Malcolm’s life, The Inverness Courier, http://www.inverness-courier.co.uk/Features/Profile/A-rock-legend-and-black-arts-figured-in-Malcolms-life-1327.htm

8.    Writer unknown (2007), House of the Unholy, The Scotsman, http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/music/house-of-the-unholy-1-700265

9.    Mastin, L. (2009), Famous Witches – Abramelin the Mage, witchcraftandwitches.com, http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/witches_abramelin.html

10. Pynchon, T. (200), Gravity’s Rainbow, Vintage Books: UK

11. The Book of Abramelin Wikipedia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Abramelin

12. Aleister Crowley Wikipedia entry,

13.    Writer unknown (2015), Aleister Crowley's Inverness mansion destroyed by fire, The Scotsman, http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/music/aleister-crowley-s-inverness-mansion-destroyed-by-fire-1-3983595