How the curious case of the Halifax Slasher caused a mass outbreak of hysteria

They call it valley bottom fever and while there is no scientific proof, many of those who live in Calderdale don't need peer-reviewed research to be convinced of its existence. Author Benjamin Myers is one of them.
Outbreaks of mass hysteria like the one in 1930s Halifax have been witnessed acorss the world.Outbreaks of mass hysteria like the one in 1930s Halifax have been witnessed acorss the world.
Outbreaks of mass hysteria like the one in 1930s Halifax have been witnessed acorss the world.

“Honestly, when autumn comes and the nights start drawing in, you can feel the change,” he says of West Yorkshire’s equivalent to seasonal affective disorder. “We live just below Scout Rock and what I didn’t know when we moved in is that our house is pretty much in darkness for six months of the year.

“It can begin to feel quite claustrophobic, but I have now become quite good at overcoming it. I take vitamin D supplements and I try to make sure that I get out of the house every day for a bit of walking or wild swimming.”

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Myers’ own experience of valley bottom fever, which has also been blamed for increased depression rates in the area, was why he chose to set his latest novel in the autumn. These Darkening Days takes as its inspiration a peculiar chapter in Yorkshire’s history when mass hysteria broke out in Halifax.

The week-long scare began in 1938 when two women claimed to have been attacked by a mysterious man with a mallet and “bright buckles on his shoes”. When a third woman went to the police claiming she was also a victim, vigilante groups took to the street and several incident men were wrongly identified as the attacker and beaten up.

“I came across the story a few years ago and thought it would be a great basis for a novel,” says Myers. “I think there is something really interesting about the psychology of vigilantes and the case of the Halifax Slasher is just one of those curious incidents that prove fact is sometimes stranger than fiction.”

That winter, as fears heightened and many of the businesses in the town shut down, Scotland Yard were called into quell the trouble and a week after the first reported attack, the Halifax Courier ran an article which claimed there never was “a half-crazed, wild-eyed man...wandering around, attacking helpless women in dark streets.”

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Myers’ own novel, which is a contemporary retelling of that hysteria, has its own twist and it follows on from The Gallows Pole, which was published earlier this year and which was also based on another real life story.

Back in the 18th century a group of Yorkshire weavers conspired to boost their income with a little light forgery. Unsurprisingly, events spiralled out of control and the Cragg Vale Coiners, as they came to be known, almost brought the Bank of England to its knees. The Gallows Pole won rave reviews and Myers has recently sold the television rights.

“Of course it’s exciting, but I am trying not to get my hopes up too much as it sill may never see the light of day. Production companies buy the rights to a lot of novels, but only a few make it through the development process. If it does I’d be more than happy for someone else to write the screenplay. It is a very different art to writing a novel, but I’d hope that may be I could be involved as an historical consultant.”

Next up for Myers is a non-fiction book called Under the Rock which is reflection on the landscape the author now calls home and takes its lead from an essay by Mytholmoroyd-born poet Ted Hughes.

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“It’s about hills, valleys, foxes, nettles and badgers,” he says. “But it’s also about the floods of a few years back and how the people responded to that disaster. I guess it is a bit of a love letter to my part of Yorkshire, but after that I promise that whatever I do next won’t be set here, I don’t want to bore anyone.”

These Darkening Days by Benjamin Myers is published by Mayfly Press priced £7.99.