© Mike Alsford Photography

Hell-Tor film festival bringing the horrors of Dartmoor to Exeter

Karen Chapman
Karen Chapman
© Mike Alsford Photography

A new festival celebrating Dartmoor’s rich history of ghosts, ghouls and witchcraft is taking place at Exeter Phoenix this month.

The inaugural Hell-Tor film festival will present a weekend of Gothic horror, with films, talks and readings inspired by the folklore of the moor. Famous names from TV and film will be among the guests, including Sherlock and League of Gentlemen star Mark Gatiss, who will be in discussion with film historian and author of ‘English Gothic’, Jonathan Rigby, about ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.

Dominic Brunt, who is best known as Paddy Kirk in the TV series Emmerdale, will show and discuss his series of horror films and then discuss his love of the genre in a live Q & A. Devon folklore expert Mark Norman, author of Black Dog Folklore, will give a lecture on Demon Hounds, while his author wife Tracey Norman will present a talk on witchcraft.

Five features and a handful of shorts will be shown over the two-day event, including the 1987 classic Hellraiser, preceded by a talk with actor Nicholas Vince, who played the teeth-chattering Cenobite in the film.

Festival co-director Ashley Thorpe will screen his multi-award-winning animated film, Borley Rectory, starring Reece Shearsmith and which is being released on Blu Ray this October. The Exeter-based filmmaker has been celebrating the region’s heritage since 2007 via animated short films, such as The Hairy Hands, and radio plays which have been performed throughout the world and have received accolades in Entertainment Weekly and the Wall Street Journal.

Ashley said: “Dartmoor is a land of a thousand ghost stories, with a unique place in British horror literature and film. Other parts of the world have created events to celebrate local history and folklore and we wanted to create something unique here. Dartmoor and its myths have long been an obsession of mine. I have been surrounded by those tales and their tellers for as long as I can remember.

‘The ghosts, myths and legends of Devon seeped into my personal mythology from an early age and they have influenced most of my work. I wondered why Devon has never had a dedicated festival that celebrated both the tales themselves but also the genre that seemed to have been baptised in their blood.”

He added: “Our aim is to celebrate the region’s legacy and explore its history of folklore and witchcraft. ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is a text that has forever secured Dartmoor’s reputation in the world’s imagination as a landscape beset with beasts and phantoms. The time has come to celebrate it. Hell-Tor is a mixture of classic horror features, shorts, lectures and opportunities to hear renowned genre directors, authors and actors talk openly of their own love of the genre and the region’s legacy. It’s time for horror to come home.”

A live 1940s-style reading of Ashley’s radio play The Demon Huntsman relates the tale of the real-life inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Hugo Baskerville, Lord Cabell, whose tomb in Buckfastleigh remains a source of ghoulish fascination to this day.

Ken Russell’s 1986 film Gothic – starring Borley Rectory narrator Julian Sands – is a fictionalised retelling of the Shelleys’ visit to Lord Byron in Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, and the competition to write a horror story, which ultimately led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein. At the screening, screenwriter and novelist Stephen Volk, best known for the BBC1 series Ghostwatch, will discuss the film on stage with the director’s wife Lisi Russell .

The festival opens on Saturday, 9th November with a lecture by Exeter University’s Gothic expert Dr Corinna Wagner at Exeter Phoenix, followed by a special presentation by Anna Howorth of Usborne Publishing, celebrating the much loved ‘All About Ghosts’ from the ‘World of the Unknown’ series of the late 1970s.

Hell-Tor film festival, which runs over the 9th and 10th November at Exeter’s Phoenix arts centre, will conclude with a Sunday night party held at the nearby Cavern Club. Visit www.exeterphoenix.org.uk to find out more information about all the events and to book tickets.

In conjunction with the Hell-Tor Film Festival, co-director Ashley Thorpe has shared his guide to Dartmoor’s five most haunted spots.
The ‘Hairy Hands’ road

Between Postbridge and the Two Bridges lies a stretch of road famed for one of Dartmoor’s strangest apparitions. Since the early 20th Century, travellers on this road have reported a pair of hairy, calloused hands appearing suddenly and gripping the steering wheel of their vehicles, forcibly driving them off the road. In June 1921 Dr Helby, the medical officer for Dartmoor prison, was travelling the road in his motorbike and side-car with his two children, when he mysteriously lost control and crashed. The doctor died but his children survived to tell the tale. Following a second crash – this time an Army Captain – in August 1921, The Daily Mail picked up on the story and published an account, ‘The Unseen Hands’ in October 1921 and the story became national news. Attacks are still reported to this day and not all sightings are confined to vehicles…

The Watching Place

Marked by an ancient cross, ‘The Watching Place’ was once the site of a gibbet and some believe that its name derives from the practice wherein relatives watched over the corpse to protect it from witches, who harvested the dead for their rituals. It was also the favourite spot for a local highwayman known as John Fall, who used to leap out upon his victims in a kind of ‘Spring Heel Jack’ fashion. The Watching Place is also said to be haunted by a monk-like figure who stands as if in mourning by the signpost. In a recent encounter a driver, seeing a downcast figure stood by the sign, slowed to offer him a lift and shelter from the storm but upon calling out to the figure it raised its cowled head and fixed the driver with a terrifying eyeless stare before disappearing.
The ghost of Lady Howard at Okehampton Castle

“My ladye hath a sable coach,
And horses two and four;
My ladye hath a black blood-hound
That runneth on before.
My ladye’s coach hath nodding plumes,
The driver hath no head;
My ladye is an ashen white,
As one that long is dead.”

A huge black dog runs before a horse-drawn carriage made of bones, driven by a headless coachman. A dark lady rides within this cursed coach each night in search of repentance. The nightly 16-mile journey from Fitzford House to Okehampton Castle is taken for a single tormented purpose: to pluck a single blade of grass from the castle grounds and then return to Fitzford House to lay it upon a granite stone. When the castle mound is finally free of grass, Lady Mary Howard will be free to rest. Though the truth of Lady Howard’s life was one of adversity and a local hatred of her father’s exploits, her troubled life was skewed into legend. It is still believed that should the phantom coach stop outside any house, then a family member is sure to die…as is anyone for whom the coach stops upon the road.

The grave of Kitty Jay

Suicides were often punishable by withholding normal burial rites. Refused burial within sanctified ground, ‘the damned’ would often be buried at a crossroads. Nestled at the intersection of a road and a moorland miners’ track lies a small grave with a tragic story. An orphan at birth from the Wolborough poor house, Mary Jay was sent to Canna Farm near Manaton. After receiving the attentions of the farmer’s son, she fell pregnant and was thrown out in disgrace, betrayed and abandoned. She was subsequently found hanging within one of the barns. Interred at the crossroads, it wasn’t long before apparitions were seen – a dark figure wrapped in heavy cloaks kneeling, head bowed, face buried in its hands.

There is much speculation as to who this figure is, whether it be Jay herself, the one responsible for driving her from the farm or indeed the farmer’s son cursed to kneel nightly before the grave of his betrayed lover and unborn child as penance. Regardless, fresh flowers and offerings are still found there daily…

Lord Cabell’s tomb

Sat upon a rock overlooking Buckfast Abbey is the burnt-out shell of what was once the Holy Trinity Church. It had been the parish church of Buckfastleigh for 800 years until it was destroyed by fire in 1992, rumour is by Satanists, drawn to the churchyard by a sepulchre with a fearsome reputation as the resting place of Squire Richard Cabell, believed to be the inspiration for the wicked Hugo Baskerville.

The sepulchre’s heavy door and metal bars suggest that upon the Squire’s death in July 1677, the villagers were trying to contain something. Described as a ‘monstrously evil man’ with a sadistic passion for hunting, he was rumoured to have sold his soul to the Devil. When he was interred it was said that demonic spectral hounds gathered, howling around the sepulchre to take him out hunting again upon the moor.
Was the sepulchre built to contain the evil or merely to protect the Cabell’s family from grave robbers flocking to a remote secluded churchyard? To this day, children can be found daring each other to run around his tomb and put their fingers through the bars to see if Cabell – or the devil – will bite their fingers. Perhaps most chilling is that beneath the church are a system of caves that contain a bizarre natural formation, a fused stalagmite and stalactite that resemble a devilish figure in 17th Century fashion. It lies directly beneath Lord Cabell’s tomb…


TRACEY NORMAN is currently enjoying success with her first stage play WITCH, a historical drama based on original English witch trial transcripts, which premiered in 2016 and has been performed continuously ever since. In 2017, Tracey’s Lovecraftian short story Dark Words was accepted in Fairy Tales and Folklore Reimagined, an anthology of short stories and poetry from Between The Lines Publishing, Minnesota. She has also written ‘Sammy’s Saturday Job’, a story about a dragon for young children (2016) and published ‘The Septillion of Hheserakh’, a collection of fictional creation myths and legends with a strong Norse flavour, in 2018.

Tracey writes a regular folklore column for The Moorlander and is the researcher for The Folklore Podcast, run by her husband Mark. Tracey is an active member of the Exeter Authors Association, an authors’ network providing support to writers and promoting a love of books and reading, and one of the voices behind Devon-based indie audio production house and theatre company Circle of Spears Productions. She lives near the edge of a forest in
mid-Devon with her husband Mark, her daughter, an insane hamster and a feline trip hazard.

STEPHEN VOLK is best known as creator of the controversial BBC1 “Hallowe’en hoax” Ghostwatch, a landmark of horror drama, and the multi-award-winning ITV drama series Afterlife, starring Andrew Lincoln and Lesley Sharp.

Also for ITV he adapted Midwinter of the Spirit as a mini-series starring Anna Maxwell Martin, while his feature film credits include The Awakening (2011) starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West, and Gothic, which starred Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley. He has published three short story collections; Dark Corners, Monsters in the Heart and The Parts We Play, as well as The Dark Masters Trilogy – three stories featuring Peter Cushing, Alfred Hitchcock and Dennis Wheatley respectively. He is presently
writing a new TV adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde.

MARK NORMAN is a folklore author and researcher, a council member of The Folklore Society and columnist for The Moorlander.
He is also the creator and host of The Folklore Podcast, an internationally listened to podcast which has enjoyed approaching 3/4 million downloads since it was launched in 2015 and which remains within the top 10% of podcasts in its genre. Mark holds the UK’s largest archive of traditions, reports and eyewitness accounts relating to apparitions of phantom Black Dogs and his book ‘Black Dog Folklore’, published by Troy Books in 2015, is the only full-length study on the subject by an individual author. Aside from Black Dogs, his main areas of interest are in traditional beliefs, superstitions and customs. He has just completed a book on folklore and rural craft for The History Press, which will be published in Spring 2020.

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