When you think of Christmas, what comes to mind? Outlandish jumpers, reindeer, tinsel and turkeys stuffed to the brim – much like the people eating them.
But according to Jonathan Fost, even the most saccarinely sweet festive image contains a darkness that would make it perfect for a ghost story.
‘It is a case of taking something that has the usual elements of safety – warm, twinkling lights for example – and focusing on the shadows they cast.
‘Then put something in the shadows, and that place of safety is no longer safe any more. Any place or any thing can be scary if you focus on the dark side – even Father Christmas. Put aside the Coca-Cola image we have of him in red and there are many sources of the character – the green man of Pagan tradition, to the Norse God Odin, who rode around the world giving presents.
‘Light produces darkness, and in those shadows the imagination runs wild.’
Jonathan, 45, is the founder of Dark Encounters. Having started in 2005, the company is coming up for its 10th anniversary.
He says: ‘I used to work with an advertising agency that dealt with a lot of the tourist attractions in Portsmouth and we used to talk about ideas to capture new audiences. One of the markets that had never been monopolised was out-of-hours activities.
‘You have got these magnificent buildings with a magnificent history but no one is visiting it after 5pm. That was where the idea of doing tours by twilight or torchlight all originated.
‘York and Edinburgh are the two renowned places with a very thriving ghost walk industry but it hadn’t spread on to the south coast. Portsmouth is full of old heritage sites so it was a perfect place to do it, places such as Southsea Castle and Spice Island, which is even older.’
Now Dark Encounters offers a variety of spooky experiences after-hours, including paranormal investigations, ghost walks with stories, bus tours, zombie encounters and murder mysteries.
Jonathan’s background is in science, having gained a undergraudate and masters degree in the field.
He says: ‘I am actually a scientist, so my research into the paranormal is scientific.
‘It is a passive look at any activity that might occur to see if the same phenomena repeat themselves on different nights. It is not about bringing in mediums, it is about lending credibility to the idea of ghosts.’
He describes the four fundamentals of paranormal activity: the acoustic, the optical, the environmental – changes of temperature – and the kinetic, unexplained movements.
When asked what his scariest experience has been, Jonathan is hard-pressed to choose just one, but instead describes a recurring sensation that he gets when working.
‘We call ourselves open sceptics, but I have seen enough interesting things that even the scientist in me is pushed aside. For example, at the end of the night I will have to lock up the gates at the front of the tunnel into Southsea Castle, as I have done before many times.
‘It is late at night and the electronic lights around the entrance have gone on to a dimmer setting – it is very dark, and my hands are getting very cold as I lock the gate. I stare forwards into the blackness and this voice in my head says “something is coming, something is coming”, but I still haven’t finished locking the door.
‘The fear builds and builds as my numb hands fumble with the lock, and then once I am finally done all I can think is walk away and do not turn around.
‘It is completely irrational, yet the feeling remains.’
Their latest event was a tour of Southsea Castle last Friday night, where ghost stories were told by the actors dotted around the site, infused with a Christmas theme. So what is the appeal of telling ghost stories at Christmas time?
Jonathan says: ‘It is all to do with the fact that we are now trapped in the darkest months of the year. Our ancestors would have naturally fallen into the seasonal pattern of waking up with the sunrise and settling in at five or whenever the sun went down. They ended up having nothing to do but telling stories in candlelight. Storms are blowing outside, shadows are everywhere – it is the ideal atmosphere to inspire dark and scary thoughts.
‘You then move into the Victorian period, and due to industrialisation the novelty of leisure time arose and ghost stories were told as a form of entertainment.
‘With the popularity of the Gothic genre in literature also occuring around this time, it is an interesting counterpoint to their tradition of lights and festivities, particularly of celebrating Christmas.’
Jonathan cites A Christmas Carol by Dickens as an example from the time, but notes that this tradition of blending the festive and the dark has continued today with The Grinch.
‘He is the perfect antidote to Christmas, a reminder that you can have too much of a nice thing,’ says Jonathan. So what should people expect from a ghost tour? ‘Someone who did a tour summed it up perfectly. They said they laughed a little, learned a little and screamed a lot.’
‘Hopefully our customers will learn something about the castle whilst being scared. Everyone loves being scared, it is an addictive drug. We do always get a lot of regulars: they will do one tour, and then another location. It is a different night out.’
Rory Kennard, 24, from Southsea, works at the Music Room in Commercial Road by day. But by night, he gives people a fright as part of Dark Encounters, which he has been a part of for two years.
‘A lot of people can be a bit giggly at first, but if you get a scream it means you are doing something right as a ghost actor,’ he says. ‘It changes the mood enitrely for everybody.’
When asked what his own scariest encounter has been, Rory is sceptical.
‘I didn’t have a scary encounter myself because I am not a believer, but I have done some fantastic scares with people who haven’t been customers.
‘It was Halloween and I was in the panel room in Wymering Manor, which is reportedly the most haunted room in the house.
‘I was stood in the window in costume, and a young lady walks past in the street outside the house gardens with her friends.
‘She looks up and sees my face, which is slightly lit up, and screams. As far as she is aware it is an old derelict house.
‘There is a commotion outside and I then lock eyes with the girl. For some reason they turned away, and I moved out of the window so that when they look back I’m not there.
‘A car pulled up to pick up the people outside, presumably because they were so scared.
They now genuinely believe that the house is haunted because they saw me there. It was one of my best scares – I love getting the reaction.’
Tony Dart, 53, from Havant – as pictured on the front cover – has been with Dark Encounters for 10 years.
When he isn’t scaring the living daylights out of customers he works in the maths department of Priory School.
‘I think ghost stories appeal to the unknown in all of us that we don’t want to confront,’ he says. ‘It is like you are a child again and you have been abandoned. That is what facing up to your fear does, doesn’t it? It makes us aware of what it is that we need to be strong people.’
‘You have got to be professional – it is an acting job,’ says Tony about being scared himself when he is working. ‘Why should ghosts be there to harm us?’
When asked what the ideal reaction from people is when they go on a ghost walk, Tony has a clear idea.
‘Screaming, crying, wetting themselves, and then to calm down. And that’s just me,’ he jokes. ‘It is supposed to be fun as well as creepy.’
‘Sometimes we do these ghost walks for kids and I love it because they really get into the spirit of things.’
As well as tours of haunted buildings, Dark Encounters also does public ghost walks.
‘You don’t need council permission, but you encounter normal people and they get freaked out . They think you are like that person who was seen around Portsmouth with the clown mask on.
‘We did a haunted bus tour around the city once, and when all these characters got out some people screamed. I had to calm them down and tell them that it is just an act.’
Tony has some advice for the new paranormal explorer.
‘Just stay calm... or die of fright,’ he jokes.
While the actors are busy scaring you witless, sometimes they are having a frightful time themselves. The Dark Encounters team spill the beans on their scariest moment while performing on a ghost tour.
‘The dockyard freaks me out the most. When I first started at Dark Encounters I had to hide in the middle of all of these dummies – they were just so old fashioned and had no defined facial features, which was terrifying.’
Carmen Flynn, 25, Southsea
‘I was doing an all-girls night at the Bursledon Brickworks when someone called my name as I was going up the stairs by myself. It was very clear, and they used my whole name, Francine. It was creepy. I imagine it was the ghost of someone who used to work there.’
Fran Clack, 42, Warsash
‘It was last Halloween and we were at Wymering Manor for the week. I was working with a girl called Sarah at the time, and for the scene she was wearing a white dress. She was right in front of me and I was talking to her, but then I heard a voice behind me and turned around, and Sarah was stood there. When I turned back the other person was gone. I was talking to something else – you can’t start running off and saying you have seen a ghost because you are meant to be the ghost.’ Mike Bailey, 25, Southsea
‘The majority of the time, I am the scariest thing on the walk. But the only thing I can’t explain is The Magistrate ghost who wanders around the Round Tower on Spice Island. When I was working around there my cue was another actor’s walking stick, so I knew if I heard it to jump out and be scary. Sometimes I would hear that tapping and reveal myself, but when I emerged no one was there.’
Kyle Stanford, 27, Southsea
‘It happened in Fort Widley – we had a chair raised about three feet off the ground by itself. The group asked for something to be shown and it lifted up in the air and then crashed down with a bang.’
Alan Toop, 38, Paulsgrove
‘When I was waiting for customers to come past me in Wymering Manor, someone threw a piece of wood from the stairwell above, it almost hit my head. None of the other actors went there... it didn’t just fall, it was thrown.’
Tony Dart, 53, Havant
At a glance
Dark Encounters runs
paranormal investigations, ghost walks with stories, zombie encounters, bus tours and murder mysteries around Hampshire.
Its next event will be zombie encounters at Fort Widley on January 2, and tickets cost £20.
The next ghost tour will take place on Spice Island on January 9 and tickets cost £15.
Visit darkencounters.co.uk for times and to book a place on any of its events, or to contact the team.