In Episode One of The Ghostlore Podcast we take you along on The Original Ghost Walk of York. This episode focuses on the style of delivery from the tour guide and how he influences our perception of space, drawing on attributes of the physical landscape, the darker histories of which often go overlooked, affording the tour an insight into the city centre’s historic reputation, which is quite the inverse of its current quaint presentation. As discussed in the podcast, nothing better exemplified this sense of the curtain being draw aside on the picturesque York better than when we were guided to the highly Instagrammable Shambles. The Shambles, shown in fig.1., is a narrow, cobbled street in the historic city centre of York, and as stated by the guide in the podcast, is home to shops which play to a touristic rather than domestic demographic.
This is a popular site for tourists to visit as it is an excellent and aesthetically pleasing example of medieval English architecture and is also very close to the gothic York Minster, also aesthetically and culturally alluring. The guide derides the modern perception of this street based on its quaint aesthetic value, brimming with tea rooms, its Harry Potter and traditional fudge shop, saying that today it is the complete opposite of what it was for hundreds of years, from its inception, right up until the 1960s. He states that it used to be just over 40 butchers’ shops, each with a makeshift abertois round the back. The guide went on to use his impressive knack for filling a sentence with adjectives without it getting in the way of the story (again, check out the podcast episode!), describing how the cobbles would have run with blood, full of body parts, offal, bluebottles, and the resulting stink and stench against the backdrop of animals screaming as their throats were slit. The language he used strongly juxtaposed his choice of words for how York is perceived today, stating in a discordantly sweet voice that “York is not all lutes and flutes and Christmas markets” but in actual fact it “has a very dark heart.” The guide’s continual comparisons between York-then and York-now was brought to a confluence as he went on to explain that Shambles is a modern variation of an Anglo-Saxon word, meaning tables of flesh.
This use of historical fact acting as proof of the guide’s assertions is also a common device throughout all of the tours, as these pieces of hard fact act as anchors which stabilise the enchanted register of the tour and the participants’ suspension of disbelief. Acting as proof without motive, this reveal of the true meaning of the street name demonstrated an immediate example of how the places of the past, far from being lost in the mists of time, are still surrounding us and are under our feet harbouring secret past purposes we aren’t even aware of. This of course makes the present-day iteration of The Shambles feel all the more superficial and perverse as we come to be aware of how this pretty street photographed so many times, for most of its life ran with blood and was host to so much unpleasantness.
Through this address, we can confront a sentiment which often rose to the surface on each of the tours explored this series, which is that what we see today is a very recent invention which has been superficially painted over the ‘real’ place, the foundations of which are steeped in over a thousand years of death, brutality and unpleasantness, and the space we currently occupy was truly shaped by actions and values which we do not see and could not stomach today. This is reflective of the feeling that as we move further from the original, which happens over time, authenticity decreases and the truth devolves under the forces of heritagisation, resulting in a place which is no longer functioning but performing a staged authenticity. This does result in a feeling that the ghost tours are therefore a qualified source of information, as they deal in the past and have a lucrative incentive to do so. More than one of the tours followed in this series named themselves the ‘original.’ There is authority in authenticity, suggesting that they know more and by being the ‘original’, there is the potential to claim an ownership of knowledge and legacy which would be deemed dubious in those more recently arrived.
We may speculate that because it is the original, typically equated with oldest, it helps people feel closer to the past, as the ghost tours each work to give people a sense that they are placed in the past, standing on the very stones upon which someone was executed, for example, and helping the past to reach forwards, such as by suggesting the resulting ghost occupies that same space today. In this first episode of the podcast, we do however address the implied hypocrisy of such ghost tours, which comes from suggesting that they are an authoritative source of the truth which others have buried; that they draw aside this present-day mask of pleasantness to reveal the true nature of the place. We remind ourselves and listeners that there is a commercial incentive for them to conjure the ghosts, and that their presentation is therefore no more trustworthy or less of a staged authenticity than that of the day-time history guides. The use of the pop culture references this ghost tour guide drew upon is also a good example of how the past comes to bear on those in the present through suspended disbelief, as there exists a template of the spooky, our gothic expectations are shaped by the media which allows for there to be a rapid transaction in meaning from our surroundings, including the tangible and intangible attributes, in how they translate into something with fear or ghoulish potential. He frequently ran media references together from the horror genre, dropping names such as Peter Quint from The Turning of the Screw and Christopher Lee and Bram Stoker. By meeting expectations in this way, the continuation of suspended disbelief is aided as it minimises the need for a questioning mind which might have to wonder at what was to happen next or in what way they were supposed to interpret something. The guide suggested that we might want to seek the ghost of Dick Turpin, infamous highwayman executed in York, at the condemned cell where he was held, rather than in the graveyard.
The guide contrasted this with language pertaining to local chain hotels Ibis and Travelodge, etc., suggesting that Dick Turpin might actually run us down on his big black horse on our way back to our rooms. This guide effectively demonstrated that there is power in the template of the ghost tour, the genre which allows for a collective understanding to share an interpretation of an experience, and it is this buy-in when following it that then lends power to subverting expectations as well by undermining it. For instance, by contrasting a description of this very menacing, ghostly figure of Dick Turpin which such florescent words as Travelodge and Ibis, and labelling a graveyard as a cliqued place to go looking for a ghost as a means to imply greater integrity on this tour, despite later being led to the graveyard of St. Mary’s in Coppergate. It was here, at the gates of the churchyard that the genre of the ghost tour and the expectations of the gothic in tow, truly demonstrated the power of the ghost tour template. At Saint Mary’s church, the tour guide incited us all to make our best squeaky hinge sounds, and there ensued a tremendously uniform high pitch squealing from everyone. This was much like earlier in the tour (and in the podcast), when the guide also had everyone make their best and most horrible laugh, where there was notable uniformity as well. We, as hosts of the podcast, discussed how remarkable it was that seemingly by simply signing up for a ghost tour, people’s expectations were primed to receive and participate in what each understood to be the expected behaviours. Despite it being very unusual behaviour to make such sounds, and in public, the guide with no persuasion had everyone participate in these moments of active participation.
We also discussed how effective these moments of activity were at folding everyone on the tour into a shared atmosphere which could therefore only be accessed by those with access to this shared store of symbols and motifs. Furthermore, sound as an attribute of a noun, which is usually interpreted as a visual element, brings with it fear as well if we can’t establish what the thing making the sound is, and in the city, every sense is barraged. The visual cues afforded us by the aged surroundings interpreted through the genre of ghost tour, under the influence of the narratives provided by the guide, induces the mind to make the connection quickly to a paranormal threat. We touch on the relationship between history and heritage, and how authenticity is used in the process of commodifying history to create a haunted heritage complete with locally famous haunting events. The massacre of Clifford’s Tower lead a to discussion on authenticity of the identity of place (e.g. not all lutes, flutes and Christmas markets), but also on the ethical implications of dark tourism. Clifford’s Tower is the site which the guide promised the tour would reach its crescendo, yet the tale was told slowly and simply. It is the site where in the 12th Century, the Jewish population of York, barricaded themselves against the hate and violence of the other local people. Choosing not to let their lives be taken on their attackers’ terms, they committed mass suicide. The guide states that this story is too tragic to be made entertainment of.
This and the gravity of the tale lent immediate legitimacy to the narrative, as well as demonstrating how such a ghost tour guide might manoeuvrer within the genre of his practice. Later, in an interview with the guide, he told me that this tale was included as it was as it would be disrespectful to leave it out, yet also disrespectful to play it for entertainment. Dark tourism, the practice of visiting sites of death and human suffering as a leisure activity, does carry heavy ethical questions as to the morality of its practice. Ghost tours, as a subcategory of dark tourism, are not exempt from the same level of scrutiny, yet they often draw on famous figures, such as Dick Turpin, which have been in the public eye for some time. The guide’s careful treatment of this tale, despite not alluding to particular ghosts, was met with interested and trusting ears. His further encouragement to go home and research the event independently again spoke to his confidence and respect for the dead, gaining him greater trust from the tour group with a greater sense of integrity and reliability, which may have influenced the reception his later narratives on the tour received. Not only is this another prime example of how each tour leaned heavily on the history of the locale to create site-specific meaning, it is a good reminder not to confuse process with product, as a ghost tour does not equal a same experience, as the act of transmission does not equate to the same content despite there being a thematic uniformity. The tours are a good example of how transmission has been adapted in order to help the tales withstand the test of time, and likewise, their commercial viability.
The ability to present a staged authenticity of place therefore largely hinges on the story-telling ability which enables the guide to mysticise and then demystify the surroundings. The authority present in the authenticity in the tour guides and operators also comes from the fact that they are then able to pledge the ghosts’ presence, whilst the ghost stories being disseminated by the same groups, even if they have in fact been recently evolved, helps keep the tales stable, garnering more trust from the public consumers because the tale feels established. In the case of the massacre of Clifford’s Tower in particular, not only does the guides encouragement to research the event tell of his own confidence in us finding the truth of what he says, the hostile reaction of locals to him relaying this story acts to confirm its status as a true local tale also.
To visit the tour website, click the link here : https://www.theoriginalghostwalkofyork.co.uk