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Monday, September 4, 2023

Wight Magic and the Sandown Ghost Clown

Often in media, ghost activity is presented as occurring in a place where violent deaths or at least trauma has occurred. Other times, cemeteries are thought to be good places for ghost hunting. If one subscribes to the idea that ghosts are the lingering spirit forms of human beings who have passed on, the prevailing belief seems to be that these are the places you should look.

The subject of today's wild speculation on my part isn't really a ghost- or so he said. He was rather vague about what or who he really is- to wit, I'm not so certain "he" is an appropriate pronoun. The entity introduced itself as "All Colours Sam", through the use of a book he would write in and point to, indicating the words for the children to whom he was communicating. I speak of course of Sam, the Sandown Clown.

When Rob Kristofferson of the Our Strange Skies podcast extended the invitation to Stephanie Quick and myself to appear on his show to discuss the case, I was of course happy to jump in. After all, clowns and UFOs are right up my alley. I love ghost stuff as well, although I worry sometimes that I don't spend enough time on that particular weird subject. The thing about the Sandown Clown story, though, is that it isn't exactly a UFO story. The connection to UFOs is mainly through its first - and for decades, only - published version of events in the British UFO Research Association Journal of January/February, 1978. Sam was rescued from obscurity in recent years, as Rob pointed out during the episode about it, due to its exposure through podcasts such as Cryptonaut. Being vaguely familiar with the case, I became resistant to the story. There wasn't much to go on, after all; the story came entirely from a pair of children who were never followed up with. The witnesses were anonymous, anyway. 

A brief version of events could be stated as: a pair of children encounter an otherworldly figure, wearing ragged clothing, with a round head and pointed hat and what appear to be wooden horns protruding from it. He(?) is first seen emerging from below a bridge on a small river at the edge of a golf course; he seems to live in a ramshackle metal hut with odd dimensions to it. His mouth never moves when he speaks. The children (the braver of the two, named Fay) are frightened at first but manage to question the entity. As already mentioned, he identified himself as "All Colours Sam", eventually saying Sam wasn't his real name but one that he liked, and that there were others like him in this world. The children eventually went about their day...
It's a damned strange tale but how much could one really say about it?

As it happens, we got quite a bit of conversation out of it. I was even inspired to go on a quest to close the Clown Portal, with which, one might say, I met with limited success. In the weeks that followed the release of the podcast and my journeys into the hilarious eldritch outskirts of Boston, I kept thinking about Sandown Sam. Having already talked it out on a widely listened to podcast and mentioning it here on the blog, I was again resistant to the idea of discussing it further. I did anyway, privately; and eventually to Steve Berg on his podcast, Hi, Strangeness! I briefly explained the idea there, albeit with a bit of an embarrassing mistake.

One of the only things I knew about the Isle of Wight, prior to learning about Sam, was that it hosted a huge music festival in 1970. Britain's answer to Woodstock, the organizers had produced successful festivals in the two preceding years and hoped to surpass those in the Afton Downs area of the Isle. This is a very interesting time for rock music history- and in the interest of full disclosure, is an era near and dear to my sensibilities musically. The rough, psychedelic free-for-all that led to inventions of all kinds during that time always seemed to be a form of magic in itself. The last half of the 1960s was a very special time for weird and wonderful music to break through, but all things eventually must come to an end. The iconic peace and love promoted through the Woodstock Festival had already been tarnished by late summer of 1970, with the death and disaster of the Altamont Free Concert the previous winter. The Isle of Wight Festival, though not as dark, would live on in its own kind of infamy- symbolizing to some the end of the collective dream of free festivals and collective expression. Seen as profiteers, the future appeared to be looming large in the form of corporate rock and roll- and for those at the festival - by some estimates, 600,000 of them! - were witness to a kind of death throe of the hippy dream.

Another reason the era of 1966 or so into the early 70s appeals to me, and has a lasting appeal more broadly, is the infusion of pagan and occult ideas and themes in everything from lyrics to imagery of the time. There was a lot going on culturally that culminated in what one might call an Occult Revival through these songs and albums. For the curious, who want to learn more about this, I recommend the above pictured book - Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll by Peter Bebergal. Bebergal makes a good case for the presence of occult ideas of all kinds being a sustaining creative force, driving rock and roll from its beginnings on through the decades. For the era we're concerning ourselves with, examples of said occult and pagan influences include The Beatles' interest in Transcendental Meditation, the popularity of the works of J. R. R. Tolkein making wizards and elves cool again, the rise of several schools of Wicca and Witchcraft as we know it today, and Anton LaVey's brand of Satanism making a splash in California. This led me to wonder if perhaps the energy of a concert could leave a psychical imprint in the way that it is presumed a battlefield does? Further, supposing Sam was "like a ghost"- but not quite - perhaps the clownish rogue was something of a nature spirit, unintentionally conjured from what was, in effect, a mass ritual? Finally, the role of psychedelics must not be discounted here, as LSD and other drugs were prevalent at the Isle of Wight Festival, and in many ways it was a tumultuous few days. I wondered if, perhaps, someone's bad trip had materialized and gotten stranded, left to wander the Isle for a few years before meeting Fay and her friend one spring day. Thus began my idea of Sam as a Psychedelic Psychical Emanation, conjured during the festival and "colouring", as it were, some resident nature spirit unwittingly conjured by the event.

If the idea of a music festival as an occult working or pagan mass conjuring sounds paranoid and crazy to the reader, I suggest listening to tunes like this one from Black Widow- a band (pictured above) who built their stage show around Satanic themes, and medieval ideas about witchery culled from the pages of The Malleus Maleficarum. Black Widow was playing the main stage at the festival, and the linked song "Come to the Sabbat", with its chanting refrain, is largely what inspired this whole idea. You see, when I talked to Steve Berg I said that the lyrics were "Come, come, come to the Sabbat, Come to the Sabbat, Satan SAM"- which of course drew a direct line to the ghostly entity of all colours. This, however, was an example of a mondegreen - something misheard which changes the overall meaning of, in this case, a song. What the band is actually chanting is "Satan's THERE". Regardless, the song, and the band's generally vibe, illustrate the potential for a call back to the ancient days of mass ritual and observation. A recent archaeological discovery gives some idea of how large-scale events like this may have mirrored ancient gatherings, with "Sabbats" or certain seasonal observations being important to survival, and tribal unity. It's worth mentioning that the Sandown Sam encounter occurred near Beltane, one of the more important pagan sabbats. Beltane traditions through the ages include bonfires, animal sacrifice, dancing around the Maypole, and visiting holy wells. 

While I had embarrassingly been mistaken, something I try not to be too often, about the lyrics to "Come to the Sabbat", my other example of the use of the name Sam in 60s psych rock still stood- the song "Lucifer Sam" by Pink Floyd, which appeared on their debut album Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Floyd was not playing at the Isle of Wight that year, but members of the band were there, occasionally working behind the scenes to manage sound. The album name alone, for the debut effort centered on the songs and dreams of lead singer / guitarist Syd Barrett is a reference to Pan, the Greek nature deity. More specifically, it's a reference to a chapter of The Wind in the Willows, a 1908 children's book by Kenneth Grahame. Barrett's overall approach to his psychedelic songcraft, as Bebergal notes in his above-mentioned book, is equal parts childlike wonder and nostalgia for the safety of youth, coupled with futurism and mind-expanding visions of distant worlds. The dichotomy here, with its internal push and pull, resulted in great art- but also perhaps played a part in Syd's undoing. He left the band, as the story went for ages, having lost his mind and having been terrified of fame. Of course, the story is more complicated than that, as are all things- and, getting back to "Lucifer Sam" as an example - it turns out Syd wrote the song about a cat named Lucifer. While this is a bit silly and perhaps undermines my point, it's also a synchronicity because as I attempt to type this a cat named Lucy - short for "Lucypurr" - is repeatedly attempting to add her own thoughts by walking across the keyboard.

My Murder Muffin Lucy

While Pink Floyd did not play at the 1970 Festival, acts that did appear onstage dabbled in the same vaguely occult waters. Donovan was there, with songs such as "Season of the Witch" and his ballad about Atlantis. The Lizard King, Jim Morrison, also appeared with The Doors. Several of the acts were also witnesses to UFO events- Jimi Hendrix, who passed away not long after his performance at the festival, had allegedly been rescued by UFOnauts after his band's vehicle was stranded in the snows of a New York winter. According to his bandmate from the time, (and the story as told to me by the Reverend StarDoG, via Lemmy Kilmister telling him...) Hendrix seemed to be in telepathic contact with the UFO occupant who managed to warm up the car and release it from the icy hold the snowdrifts had on it. The Moody Blues were also in attendance, and also had an encounter with a flying saucer in the 60s:

Meanwhile, outside of the main stage there existed "Canvas City", tents set up for entertainment that was indeed free, unlike the fenced in area of Afton Down. On the Canvas City stage underground bands like Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies were experimenting with noise, lights, and dance in a full on sensory assault and undoubtedly, blowing minds. The space rock invented by Hawkwind seemed to fuse the paganesque ritual of the festival with outer space themes, in perhaps a more tongue-in-cheek but also more deliberate way than did Syd Barrett. Though the band would be less commercially successful than some of the others at the festival, their influence and underground following has persisted for decades.

In a failing attempt to cover these ideas briefly, the writer would at this time like to sum up the confluence of elements comprising the festival - there is joy and music and dancing, but also discord and division; mind-altering drugs and other sensory effects; the presence of experiencers, and also the pageantry and ritual presentation - even if only for show - of pagan and occult ideas. Now, finally, we come back around to ghosts and burial sites.

Throughout the U.K. there are ancient earthworks and mounds, and the Afton Downs area of the Isle of Wight (which is today mostly a golf course, I think...) had several barrows, or burial places, around it. Essentially, the festival was sort of taking place in an ancient graveyard. The barrows had been disturbed in the preceding decades, with artifacts moved to the Carisbrooke Castle Museum, in the middle of the island. Not being an archaeologist myself, or even very well versed in English history, my speculation becomes wilder beyond this point- but I'm led to understand that the Isle of Wight managed to fight off conversion to Christianity much longer than the rest of the British Isles- making it to about 800 A.D. The spirits then, of the island and the supernatural forces extant there may have enjoyed more recognition for longer, and a more recent (relatively speaking) history of coexistence with nature in its many forms. There are efforts currently from local folklorists to re-enchant the island, and reacquaint people with the spooky forces around- including a fog that transports people through time!

So if Sandown Sam was a Psychical Psychedelic Emanation, conjured through magic and produced as thought form from a bad trip only to coalesce with local spirits, be they of the dead or of nature- what would such a poor spirit do? I would think such a situation would be very disorienting for this Frankenstein's monster of a ghostly clown. The directive during his conjuring though- "Come to the Sabbath" - and heck, maybe he misheard it like I did and named himself Sam! - may have driven him to wander the Isle, in search of a Holy Well to visit on Beltane.

Just such a well allegedly existed just north of Sandown, in a now lost town called Wolverton. The area is currently called Centurion's Copse, "copse" meaning wooded area. "Centurion" seems to indicate a Roman influence, but, as it happens synchronistically enough, its a mondegreen! "Centurion" was, according to some, a distorted version of SAINT Urian's. The legend goes that a holy well existed at a church called Saint Urian's, around which the village of Wolverton bustled prior to the 14th century when it was demolished by invading French forces. The story goes that a mysterious merchant used to frequent the town, and although no one knew where he lived it was thought he had a habitation somewhere in the nearby cliffs. No one in the village ever had success following him as he left. When questioned, he imparted a prophecy - the holy well at Saint Urian's must be protected at all costs. One day, a sinister and unknown man would enter the village and poison the well, and that would be the end of Wolverton. The villagers were thus warned to stop such a thing from happening at any cost.

Eventually, the prophecy seemed to come to pass- a shadowy figure in gray robes entered the town with some unknown plant, and visited the well. The villagers threw sharp stones at him and killed him, a drop of his blood falling into the well as he fell for the last time. Unfortunately, the interloper turned out to be a holy man on a pilgrimage to bless the well, and the evil of his murder sealed the fate of the town. A villager called Tom followed the merchant out of town following the tragedy, and this time the peculiar man allowed it, even inviting Tom into the cave wherein he dwelt. The cave was well decorated, and phantom music played inside despite the absence of musicians. The cave opened up to a bafflingly large hall, where portraits of the villagers lined the walls, each with a red cross painted on their foreheads. Inexplicably a vast feast appeared on the table, and Tom was invited to eat. Those familiar with fairy lore will recognize these motifs, and Tom became suspicious after no words of grace were spoken and declined the food. When he returned to the village, he found it had been demolished by the invaders and everyone had been killed.

It's said that Tom lived out the rest of his days as a hermit, in the same cave where the impish old merchant had lived- only now, there was no phantom music or extravagant decorations. He lived out his days in quiet contemplation and reverence, or so the story goes- and the only remaining part of town, the "centurion" of Saint Urian's church, was moved to a nearby village. The well itself had been demolished, and to this day the copse is taken back by nature- although, it is said, "nightingales never sing" there.

On an enchanted island with a long and storied history, filled with folklore and fogs threatening to whisk one away to "somewhen"- which, in the modern age, has become something of a holiday destination, replete with golf courses and shops, one might expect the permutations of otherworldly entities to only grow stranger. Ancient sites, distorted names and narratives winding their way down through the ages like the echoes of a deafening Hawkwind set inside of a tent culminate in a new mythology, perhaps- and if past traumas can imprint the landscape, why not rock festivals? Perhaps Sam was a ghost, only ghosts are much less straightforward than television leads us to believe. The similarity between his metal hut and the devilish merchant's cave, with the TARDIS-like "bigger on the inside" warping of dimensions, is worth noting. Sandown and Afton Downs are on opposite ends of the island, but one wonders how much that even matters. Since none of these weird things has ever been definitively explained, the wildest of wild speculations may well bear the closest resemblance to the truth, whatever that is.

The truth is a mottled affair, a patchwork of stories and names we apply to Things. Sometimes these names are misheard, or change over time. Sometimes epiphanies happen under the influence of psychedelics that will never be considered by the straight-laced folks who consider it to be just madness- and sometimes, madness itself is exceptionally insightful. The truth comes in All Colours, and for the discerning weirdo who enjoys tinkering with these modern myths, the best that can be done is to choose the colour that suits them.

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