Long ago, on an eve when the veil between this world and the next was thin and spirits roamed the lands freely, a simple blacksmith named Jack sat at a tavern drinking into the lonely hours of the night. Jack was not a wealthy man, but he always made do with what he had. This night, however, he had drunk himself to excess, and when it came time to settle up, he found himself unable to pay the barkeep what he owed. It was late, and Jack was alone; there was nobody in town that would lend him any money. In a drunken stupor, he panicked. So, when the barkeep had his back turned, Jack knocked him on the head with his mug and quickly ran out the door.
He ran, and he ran. He ran through the fields, and he ran deep into the forest. When he finally stopped to catch his breath, he could hear the sounds of the townsfolk chasing after him. Through the trees into the far distance, the lights of the torches burned angrily. He began to cry. A fog soon surrounded him like a thick blanket, making it almost impossible to see. Where was he to go? He could hear the baying of the hunting dogs chasing after him, getting closer and closer. They would find him soon. Suddenly, standing not far from him in the mist, a hooded figure appeared. The silhouette stood still, staring at him, his wicked face barely visible in the dark.
“You know me?” the ghostly shape asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.
“…..y….y….yes. I do,” Jack replied.
“Your time has come. Your soul. Follow,” the hooded figure motioned to a nearby path lined with dead and twisted branches. In fact, there were no leaves on any of the trees on this path. Nor was there any sound, any light, or any sign of life. The dead path. Jack shivered.
Now, Jack may have only been a simple blacksmith, but he could also be quite smart and tricky when needed. He knew who he was talking to and what the man could do, so he proposed a plan. The apparition would turn into a coin with which Jack would pay the owed amount. Then, with Jack’s debt cleared, the hooded man could change back, making the coin disappear. The townsfolk would then fight each other over who stole it, allowing the hooded man the opportunity to collect several more souls in the process. In exchange, the figure would promise never to take Jack’s soul and leave him be for no less than ten years. A wicked smile crossed the hooded man’s lips, and he agreed.
The figure disappeared before him, and suddenly Jack found himself holding a bright, shiny golden coin worth more than enough to pay his debt. The voices were getting closer now; the dogs had just crossed over into the forest. Jack stared at the coin for a moment before putting it into his wallet and drawing it closed firmly. It took mere seconds before a shrill cry came from the wallet.
“You tricked me!” the voice yelled.
How was he tricked, you ask? Simple. Inside the wallet, next to the coin, sat a silver cross that Jack had picked up from the town that was able to rob the hooded figure of his powers. He was trapped. Free from the ghostly man and shrouded by fog, Jack ran into the night, never to be seen by the townsfolk again.
A short time later, Jack decided to release the soul hungry spirit, reminding him of the bargain they had struck that night. Reluctantly, the hooded man once again agreed to the terms, maintaining that he would leave him be for no less than ten years and that should Jack die, he would not take his soul. Convinced he was safe, Jack removed the coin from his wallet, and with that, it vanished into thin air. From that moment forward, Jack continued to live his life, thieving and tricking people for the remainder of his days
Ten years to the day, Jack died, as all living things must. As it happens, and to no surprise, Jack’s spirit found itself surrounded by a heavy fog, and he came face to face with the hooded man once again; he flashed Jack a wicked grin.
“You know me?” the hooded figure asked again.
“Yes. I do,” Jack replied confidently, knowing his life was spent.
“Your time has come. Your soul. Lost.” he replied back, the grin on his face getting unnaturally wider.
“What do you mean?” Jack asked.
“Your soul. As agreed. Not mine. Your soul. Wicked. Stay.”
Jack panicked as he understood the spirit’s meaning. “Where am I to go? I can’t stay here. How am I to find my way through the dark? We can make a deal.”
“Always lost. Forever trapped. Never rest,” he replied. Not to be deceived again, the hooded figure cackled and tossed Jack a small lump of burning coal before disappearing again.
Ever since that day, Jack’s spirit has wandered aimlessly through the countryside, ever searching for a place to rest. But every autumn, when the days get shorter and the skies get darker, Jack would carve out turnips or pumpkins and put the burning coal inside to make a lantern that would light his way. Legend has it that he carved these lanterns into the face of a man with an unnaturally wide smile as a warning for other spirits to stay away from the one doomed to wander forever.
So next time you see a Jack O’Lantern, don’t be afraid. These are Jack of the Lantern’s warnings to scare off restless spirits. But if its light should go out, when the veil between worlds is thin again, you may find that you have an unwelcome guest, unable to find his way through the dark.