The Laughing Jack-o’-Lantern

The Laughing Jack-o'-Lantern

The Laughing Jack-o’-Lantern


“I am not at all sure,” writes Mr. W. R. Tomlinson, “that some Dorsetshire people do not regard the Will-of-the-Wisp, or Jack-o’-Lantern as they call if, as a being. An old neighbour of mine once said to me: ‘Did you ever see a Jack-o’-Lantern?’ ‘Yes, once, at a distance, as I was travelling outside a coach, near a large tract of swamp,’ I answered. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘one night, when a boy, I was going down a lane alone, in the Isle of Purbeck, when a Jack-o’-Lantern came hopping before me.’ It seems by this, and another case I know of, the Will-of-the-Wisp is at times a sort of illuminated ball, tangible for a moment at least, and not a mere meteor light travelling horizontally. It appears, also, that the boy had already heard a bad character of the thing he saw before him. So he went on to say: ‘I was frightened, and went along keeping one foot in the rut, so as not to be led out of my way. This went on until we came to a gate, where there was a pond on the other side of it. It there hopped through the gate, and tried to entice me to the pond. I was so alarmed that I ran and lost my way. At length I saw a light in a house. I ran there, and one of the family took me across a field and set me on my way home. 1 had to pass a swamp before I got there; and then the Jack-o’-Lantern came hopping before me again. I got home half-dead with fear.’ When my friend had finished his story, his wife chimed in: ‘When a Jack-o’-Lantern gets you into the water, then he sniggers; he laughs, you know; I have heard my father say that scores of times.’ My good neighbours only repeated a world-wide tradition; and neither of them seemed to doubt but that the event occurred by design. There seems to have been method in the movements of this meteor football. Can it be that invisible, intelligent beings, with more ill-will than good, are sometimes able to ‘hag-ride ‘ travellers, by availing themselves of known natural phenomena, and, under certain conditions guiding these natural and well-acknowledged appearances, to lead people astray for their own spite or delectation?

“I am proud to say that it is a Spiritualist to whom I am indebted for my other tale of what was evidently a Will-of-the-Wisp. It is contained in a late number of The Two Worlds, which I regret I am not able to quote from, as I sent it to a friend abroad. The evidence is this: that a lady, well known and very highly respected among our earnest Spiritualist friends in the Midland counties, and a very leading Spiritualist herself, was walking one evening in a field with a lady friend, and saw a round luminous ball before her. She did not know what it was, but was deeply interested at the sight; and scorning to touch it with her foot, she stooped down and touched it with her hand. On her touch, the ball dematerialized. But this courageous act has proved that the ball she saw was, at the moment, physical and tangible, and was probably the ball which the Dorset boy saw, and was probably similar to what many others have seen.”

Borderland April 1897: p. 205

While some spook lights and will-o’-the-wisps seem to act in very deliberate, seemingly aware ways, that characteristic is often downplayed when discussing their eerie movements. This story, however, is frank about the fact that the ephemeral lights were considered to be sentient entities, capable of decision and malice. Yet, I’ve never heard of one that offered insult to injury by laughing or snickering after accomplishing their fell purpose of leading a traveler astray. They are usually reported as silently drifting or rolling and the only noise them make is when they explode—sometimes with deadly results and the smell of sulphur. The Spiritualist lady took her life in her hands by touching that luminous ball.

Any examples of spook lights that make noise? chriswoodyard8 AT

In an utterly irrelevant aside, just because I love the words, here are some other names for the will-o’-the-wisp/Jack-o’-the-Lantern.

Kitty-witch, Jenny Buntail, wandering fire, walking fire, “the fair maid of Ireland,” friar’s lantern, spunkie (Scotland), Kit-of-the-canstick (Wiltshire), the devil’s lontun, (Shropshire) Jemmy Burty (Cambridgeshire), Hobby lantern or Hob-wi’-the-lantern (Suffolk), elf-fire, elf-candle, corpse candle (Welsh canwyll corpt), fetchlight, dead man’s candle.


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.


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