The Celtic Cross and the Human Desire for Darkness

by Isabella Ingram

The Old Portsmouth Road (crossing the Hindhead Commons) (image: National Trust)
In 1786, an anonymous sailor was murdered along the Old Portsmouth Road – an old turnpike route running from London to the Portsmouth Docks, and traversing the Hindhead Commons. The murderers, who had befriended the sailor in a pub in Thursley, later stripped him of his money and cut his throat, before being arrested some hours later at the Sun Inn at Rake. They were hanged – and remained hanging for three years – on Gibbet Hill, Surrey’s second highest point and of close proximity to the sailor’s stone; a gravestone erected to mark the spot of the sailor’s death. The hanging excited fears and superstitions that came to be associated with Gibbet Hill, and subsequently the construction of a Celtic Cross was funded by Sir William Erle – a lawyer, judge and politician – in 1851, to expel these notions.

Today, both the Celtic Cross and the Sailor’s Stone are situated in The Devil’s Punch Bowl, a popular National Trust property, and serve as tourist attractions along “The Gibbet Hill Walk”. The National Trust website invites its visitors to “find the spot on Gibbet Hill where three villainous highwaymen met their end”, and reach the Celtic cross, beside which a sign now dramatically reads, “criminals were hanged on the gibbet and their bodies left to swing in clanking irons until they rotted”.

It’s a gloomy story of murder and the viciousness of crime and punishment. When I went to see the Celtic cross, a small family was sharing a picnic about three or four metres from its foot. Their focus was, of course, on the incredible view ahead rather than the dark, Dickensian structure behind. But it still seemed odd – to me, at least, after reading the sign – that the site of a hanging had, just over two hundred years later, become a picnic spot. The image of the family and the cross seemed to indicate something about the modern, western world’s touristic nature, and its reaction to suffering in any form, be it historic or contemporary.

Why are human beings fascinated by the morbid? In an article entitled “Morbid Curiosities” by Eric G. Campbell from Psychology Today, it is suggested that the human fixation with “macabre occurrences” derives from a desire to recognize our own fortune: “At that moment, I understood the terrible wisdom of suffering…Affliction can reveal what is most sacred in our lives, essential to our joy. Water, Emily Dickinson writes, is ‘taught by thirst’.”

It seemed a convincing argument, at first. There was something that rung true – even if it did expose the essential selfishness of human beings – in Campbell’s example of a traffic jam formed by driver’s trying to peer at a roadside car accident. His conclusion, therefore, suggests that the drivers enjoy the sensation of recognizing that they are not the injured, and perhaps reminding themselves to behave more carefully for the remainder of their journey. Campbell’s argument, furthermore, aligns with the principle of psychological egoism – the idea that human beings always act out of self-interest, and that the concept of “empathy” derives entirely from the evolutionary need to stay within a pack to increase one’s chances of survival.

Of all things, it was my brother’s interests in such shows as Born To Kill – detailing the lives and crimes of serial killers – that seemed to illuminate holes in Campbell’s argument. Did he really watch these because it brought him happiness – or, perhaps, relief – to recognize that he himself had not been murdered? What about fiction? Is the popularity of violent, scary, gruesome or disturbing literature and film generated by such a feeling? And if so, why are they not universally popular? Horror, for example, has never been a favourite genre of mine.

An article from The New York Times uses the example of roller coasters and amusement parks to illustrate the reason why human beings enjoy fear. It suggests that “the craving of thrills may be hard-wired into those who thrive on the level of primitive brain activity that physical danger stimulates”. Whilst I would never dismiss the opportunity to call my brother’s brain “primitive”, I’m not sure watching a television programme – irrespective of the content – can ever be referred to as “physical danger”. The article did, however, suggest that any medium capable of “stimulating” a sense of “danger” can provide a “kind of exhilaration” that is particularly appealing to a specific “personality type” – one that seeks “variety, novelty, intensity and risk”.

According the article, “heightened concentration is a play, too”. Scary activities – be they roller coasters or a TV show on murder – are particularly effective in “blank[ing] out everything”, which “temporarily relieves you from all conflicts”. Paradoxically, therefore, it is a focus on the unsettling that we use to distract us from the disturbing.

The bearing of any of these suggestions is questionable, and the true answer to why human beings are drawn to darkness, in whatever form, is still very much in debate. But, for all its strangeness, there is perhaps a moral importance to society’s fixation with death and the morbid – at least in the case of the Celtic cross, anyway. It does not necessarily have to indicate something sordid about human nature. After all, would a self-deceived society, which swept away all traces of suffering both past and present, and instead existed in a state of imposed blindness and an immovable focus on the positive, be equally, if not more morally bankrupt? Human beings have to recognise past failings in order to improve and craft a safer society. And yet, there is a clear distinction between an educative recognition and an entertainment-driven, touristic interest in the morbid. One that we sometimes fail to recognise, or choose to ignore.