Irish-American Witchcraft: When Fairies Do the Haunting

Irish-American Witchcraft: When Fairies Do the Haunting December 4, 2017

This time of year, as we move from Samhain to the Winter Solstice, tends to be a time when people are more aware of spirits and ghosts. Our minds seem to naturally be more open to the idea of the dead lingering around us when the external world is in a stage of rest, death, and resetting. It’s always interested me though that whenever there’s an uptick in paranormal activity, be it this time of year or any other, people seem to default to assuming its human ghosts doing the haunting when in reality the world includes a wide range of possibilities.

‘Kelpie’ Thomas Millie Dow 1895, public domain.
‘Kelpie’ Thomas Millie Dow 1895, public domain.

Hauntings aren’t always ghosts and I’ve seen a lot of people aggravate a situation by assuming they are, when what’s actually going on is fairies.  What works for a ghost, both in contacting one and in dealing with one that’s being problematic, not only doesn’t work if what you are dealing with is a fairy but can actually make the situation much worse. I’ve also been really entertained watching some of those ghost hunting tv shows and seeing what seems to me to clearly be fairy activity labeled and treated as either ghosts or demons.

There are, of course, no limit to the places you may have a fairy encounters, and it could be argued that many people will be more likely to have these experiences, and be more open to them, in wild or natural settings. I wouldn’t encourage people to try to take on or drive out fairies on the fairies’ own turf (no pun intended) so in situations where you are running across fairies in the outside world and you can simply leave the area, that’s what I suggest doing. What I want to talk about here are other times you might encounter them, where walking away may not be an easy option or where they are meeting us on neutral ground or even in human places. So let’s take a quick look at some signs of fairy presence, common places we can run across fairies being mistaken for ghosts, and then we’ll discuss what not do, and what to do.

Signs of Fairies

Believe it or not it’s not uncommon for me to have people contact me asking for help deciding whether the activity they have is ghostly, demonic, or Otherworldly. I’ll be clear here that ‘demonic’ is not my forte and any activity that seems to fall into that range I suggest people find a specialist. I will say that most of what I have seen on tv shows and the like that the hosts label demonic I would say is fairy activity, keeping in mind that I use the term fairies as a generic which encompasses an array of kinds of beings. Obviously I can’t diagnose what exactly is going on without being there myself but based on how people describe a situation I can usually get an idea and suggest the likelihood of what’s going on*.

Basically ghostly activity tends to include things like temperature drops, moved items, electronics being messed with – i.e. turned on or off, batteries drained, distortion, signal loss – shadow figures or partial apparitions, or sometimes audible communication. Fairies, when they are around, can physically take objects (removing the item entirely from the place), may appear as movement in the peripheral, can cause odd dreams, create fairy rings, or tangle people’s hair while they sleep. Both types of beings can throw things, break things, may appear with distinctive smells, and can cause different emotions including happiness or fear, and may physically touch people. In my experience in these contexts when ghosts are interacting with us they are trying to get our attention; when fairies are interacting with us they are either being mischievous or malicious.

When people start telling me about experiences that involve items being stolen, individual humans in a group being singled out for abuse, inexplicable bruising, inexplicable tangles in hair, or food being ruined I tend to lean towards thinking it may be fairy activity. Obviously we’re focusing here on the more negative end of things, in this context, and I don’t mean to imply there aren’t positive signs as well but if the Good Neighbours around you are happy with you then you don’t really need to worry about it. If on the other hand they are causing issues, then you need to be aware of the specific indicators that separate them from ghosts. 

an abandoned psychiatric hospital in the process of being torn down image copyright M Daimler 2015
an abandoned psychiatric hospital in the process of being torn down
image copyright M Daimler 2015

Abandoned buildings

If I had to guess I’d say the most common place that people today run across fairies who they mistake for human ghosts would probably be abandoned or unoccupied buildings. These can be either public buildings or homes, as long as they’ve been empty (in my experience) for at least 6 months. We find this in folklore where the ruins of buildings gained a reputation for becoming the abode of Otherworldly beings but this isn’t exclusive to places that are hundreds of years old and long abandoned. Where I live there’s an old, abandoned section of an amusement park for example that now has a reputation for being a malevolent location belonging to the fairies. It’s always best to be cautious when entering or going near abandoned buildings particularly those that have truly started to be reclaimed by nature. I have found that when a house has lost its roof but the walls are still standing there will often be some very intense energy around, particularly if the hearth and chimney are still standing.

Your Home

It’s less common in my experience for a person living in a house to suddenly have an issue with paranormal phenomena that is actually the Other Crowd but it does sometimes happen. What I have seen more often is someone moving into a new house or one that’s been empty on the market for a while and then finding the house already has occupants.  Once a building has been open and empty for at least half a year then Other beings can and sometimes will move in. When humans then move in as well it can cause problems. There are also some circumstances where you may live in a place without issue until something changes that either aggravates the existing fey in that location or upsets the status quo. Once that equilibrium is lost they can start to express their unhappiness in ways that will be clear to the human inhabitants.

Public Spaces

Some public spaces are just pass throughs, as much for the spirits as for humans, but others aren’t.  Where this matters for our current discussion is for people who might encounter fairies either at workplaces, hotels/motels, or possibly public transportation. Generally speaking I might surmise that it’s less likely for a person to notice if they do have such an encounter because they simply won’t be paying attention. However it is entirely possible to run across fairies while you are outside your home and in an otherwise human-inhabited area. I’d point to gremlins as one, less than positive, example of a type of fairy that may be encountered both in the workplace or on public transport. I’ve also had several experiences with fey who attach themselves to or live in hotels and larger public spaces along those lines. These fairies tend to consider these places or items in these places as their own, and this can be a source of conflict with humans.

swamps are a good place to find spirits, image copyright M Daimler 2017
swamps are a good place to find spirits, image copyright M Daimler 2017

Do’s and Don’ts

Or, more accurately ‘don’ts and do’s’. Unlike the way many people approach hauntings you need to treat fairies differently.  what follows is a general guideline, and it should be understood that there are exceptions to these rules, especially for people with more experience, but these are good guidelines to follow based on my experience. I would also strongly suggest if you do think you have an unhappy fairy situation going on that you try to find someone with experience to help you. So, if you think you are dealing with fairies:


– don’t yell at them or insult them.  While this can be helpful with ghosts it’s a really bad idea to do this with the Fey. If it is fairies you will almost certainly aggravate the situation

– don’t challenge them. I’ve seen several situations get nasty when people tried to establish dominance over the spirits they thought were there by challenging them directly. This will not end well if you are dealing with fairies.

– don’t expect sage, palo santo, or other popular cleansing methods to do anything. In my experience the Fair Folk are not bothered by or effected by fumigating with these types of plants. It won’t anger them but it won’t make them leave either, so please don’t count on that to help you.

– don’t wave around a holy book or call on generic Gods. This is a bit of a grey area as in some circumstances they will respond to the invocation of specific Gods, however I emphasize specific. Calling on Gods may also temporarily calm the situation only to have it get worse again later.

– do consider leaving them alone. In many cases what is causing the conflict and the activity may be rooted in human activity that is upsetting the local spirits including the Fey folk. Often times the best and easiest way to solve this is to simply leave them alone and stop doing whatever is annoying them.


– do bribe them. Bribery in my experience doesn’t work with ghosts but it should be your first go to with fairies. I recommend milk or cream to start, although butter also works.

– do talk to them in a polite and civil manner. I touched on this above by saying don’t yell at or insult them, but it goes beyond that, because i’s important to try hard to be polite as well. With fairies you get respect by showing respect, and sometimes simply asking them to stop will do the trick.

– do go all out if banishing is needed. Here’s the thing about fairies, if it comes to forcing them out you have to go full on with it. There’s no making a threat you won’t follow through on and trust me they’ll know how serious you are. You can bluff a ghost, you can’t bluff a fairy.

– do ward with iron, salt, and rowan if you need to. There’s no one size fits all to drive out fairies or keep them out, so when in doubt I recommend a combination of iron, salt, and rowan. Burning mugwort is also a method found in folklore.

It can be difficult even with experience to differentiate between ghosts and fairies when you have supernatural phenomena going on, but it is important to know what you are dealing before you decide how to handle it.  If you treat a fairy like you would a ghost the odds are you will make the situation worse instead of better. And with the Other Crowd ‘worse’ is not a matter of degrees but of exponentials. By going in with an open mind and considering the possibility that it may be ghosts or it may be something Else, I believe you have a better chance of a good outcome.

*obviously the first step is to eliminate all the other possibilities, including animals, humans, and technology. Only once you’ve ruled out any earthly explanation do you want to look at supernatural possibilities.

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