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Corpse Candles and the origin of the Jack O Lantern a Halloween Special

Corpse Candle

Corpse Candle



     In Folklore, especially in Europe, a Corpse Candle is described as an eerie ball of dancing blue light that seems to hover lightly over the ground. These balls of light were often seen to be travelling on a specific route, mainly from a cemetery to a dying persons house, and then back again. These lights were often spotted inside graveyards before vanishing into the ground. Local people were really unsettled when this phenomenon occurred as it usually was followed by a death of a local villager. These mysterious orbs also have another name in the county of Essex in England. They are called The Will O The Wisps.They are believed to be the mischievous spirits of still born and un-baptised children lingering between heaven and hell. Many an unwary traveller has been lead a stray by these spirits, never to be heard of again. One of the most active place for corpse candle sightings is the village of Canewdon in Essex. Named after the ancient Saxon word,Canewdon means Hill of the Cana people. This small township is just outside of Rochford Essex which is where I was Born.

220px-Canewdon_sign fig-5                                     The high street of Canewdon in earlier times

     A interesting tidbit is that Canewdon is in fact well known as the village of Witches. Canewdon’s St Nicholas church has many sightings of the corpse lanterns. One such folktale about this church is, if you ran anti clockwise around the church three times on Halloween the devil would appear. Police have sealed this area off on many an All Hallows Night to stop eager trick or treaters willing to give it a go!!! Best be safe then sorry,!! right!! 

St. Nicholas church in Canewdon

St. Nicholas church in Canewdon

Part of the reason for such paranormal activity in and around Canewdon and it’s church is because of its past affiliations with the occult and occult practitioners in the late 1800’s. One such case is about a man called George Pickingill who was born in 1816 and lived until 1909. George was an English farm labourer who worked around town. He was also known by many of the townspeople as a vocational Folk Magician. What is interesting is at the time George Pickingill was a very significant figure in the development of modern paganism and Wicca. He was a modern Magician who reformed the craft, leading at least 9 covens stretching from Hampshire to Norfolk and to the Sussex coast. Being a major player in esoteric circles it was not a surprise to find one of his earlier followers was the notorious Aleister Crowley who was eventually banished from George’s coven for malpractice. It was said that George’s covens were often responsible for the strange and ghostly orbs of light floating above and around the village and church where they preformed their occult rituals. One such sighting of these mysterious corpse candles was by someone in a car driving by the church late at night. The person who wanted to remain anonymous, said It was pitch black on the road and he saw blue hovering lights as he drove by the church. The author claimed the mysterious lights seemed to follow the vehicle for a short distance then stop dead and disappear.

V0025811ETR Witchcraft: witches and devils dancing in a circle. Woodcut, corpse lights

              Many modern theories about Corpse Candles are believed to be caused by small pockets of Methane gases that are produced by de-composing organic matter that is mostly found in and around Marshy areas, bogs and Swamps. A lot of Essex especially in and around Canewdon are made up of bogs and marshland. This land is very similar to the Louisiana Bayou which has over the centuries recorded many sightings of this strange phenomena. A lot of Cajun and Creole people believe very much like the people in Essex, that the corpse lanterns are mostly linked to supernatural activity. It is a common belief that one of the main reasons why the corpse lanterns appear in the bayou is because  like the practice witchcraft in England, voodoo worship is very common and has been practiced in the Louisiana bayou for many centuries.

candle lights

A painting depicting Corpse Candles (will o wisp) traveling through the the marshland.


     Probably one of the most famous folktales about corpse candles is the origin of the [ Ignis Fatuus] which dates back from around 1660. The Ignis Fatuus which in Celtic simply means foolish fire is more commonly known  today as the Jack O Lantern. One version of the many many versions of this old Irish folktale was the Story of Stingy Jack.

Jack tricking the devil to climb the apple tree.

Jack tricking the devil to climb the apple tree.

  Stingy Jack was a shrewd and lazy blacksmith who had supposedly at one time managed to trick and trap Satan. On that particular night as the story goes, Jack was in his local tavern running up a huge bar tab. The owner of the tavern knew how stingy Jack was and wanted him to pay off the outstanding debt before he left. Jack as per usual wasn’t going to give up one little halfpence to the distraught owner.


     Being a natural trickster Jack came up with a plan to get out of his tab with the owner by claiming  to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for his lofty tab. It was said that Jack right then and there offered up his soul to the devil in front of the tavern owner in order to pay for his beer tab. With a poof of smoke and the smell of brimstone, the devil arrived at that instant to claim Jack’s soul. Jack realizing what he had just done formulated a plan to outwit the devil. Jack than asked the asked the devil for one last request before he went to hell. Jack claimed that there was the the sweetest apple growing at the top of a near by apple tree  that he wanted to have before he left the world of the living. 

     Jack took the devil to the apple tree and showed the devil where the apple was. Faking that he could not climb the tree Jack asked if the devil could climb to the top of the tree and get the apple for him.  Once the devil was up in the tree Jack quickly carved a cross in the trunk of the tree with his trusty jackknife trapping the devil up in the tree!! The devil reluctantly agreed to release Jack of the debt in exchange for freedom from the bonds that Jack created. Jack agreed and scratched out the cross thus freeing the devil and getting his tab paid to boot.


     It was many years and adventures later when Stingy Jack finally passed on to the afterlife. Because of all his ill deeds Jack could not pass though the gates of heaven. Being turned away from heaven and left out in the cold world of the twilight, Jack sought out the devil in hell in order to seek refuge. Hearing that Jack was banned from heaven and coming to him on his knees begging, pleased the devil to no end.

      The devil never forgot the trick that Jack played upon him and out of spite the devil laughed at stingy Jack’s misfortune refusing him entrance to his fiery hell. Jack fearing the cold and darkness pleaded even more. Mockingly the devil tossed a bright ember of hellfire to Jack in order to light Jack’s way wherever he went and keep him warm in the twilight world where all souls are said to roam forever when they can’t go to heaven or hell.


Seeing that the ember was too hot to hold, Jack found a old turnip and carved it into a makeshift lantern to hold the hellfire ember which he used guide his way through the netherworld.

A mummified turnip carved as a traditional Irish Jack-o'-Lantern in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland

A mummified turnip carved as a traditional Irish Jack-o’-Lantern in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland

 And to this day it is spoken in whispers that stingy Jack is doomed to roam the world between good and evil with nothing but a lantern which was made from a hollowed out turnip (later a pumpkin), with a hellfire ember burning inside to light the way wherever he went.


Recommended reading on these topics  are

corpse candles and fire coffins   The Corpse Candles and Fire Coffins – Paranormal Parlour by Verla Ventura and Elliot 0’ Donnell,

jabez  Another good read is in an original text from Famous English Folklorist Jabez Allies called Will 0 the Wisp and the Fairies.


  On a creepy end note check out a EVP  video  that was taken at St Nicholas church in  the Daytime. ( EVP stands for Electronic Voice Phenomena)   

  This is kftheadwishing you a Happy Halloween

jack o lantern  

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