Haunted by the past

Vampires in London? Angels in Budapest? Cities hold hints that we still believe in the supernatural
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The Independent Online

"People in cities are meant to be objective, rational, above superstition. Modernity was meant to have eliminated things like belief in ghosts. But it simply isn't so," Dr Steve Pile asserts.

"People in cities are meant to be objective, rational, above superstition. Modernity was meant to have eliminated things like belief in ghosts. But it simply isn't so," Dr Steve Pile asserts.

His research in three cities - London, Singapore and New Orleans - has shown they are simply teeming with haunted sites. A catalogue of spooky experiences is recorded in his new book, Real Cities, which has raised eyebrows among some academics who doubt that the supernatural can be the subject of serious academic research.

Dr Pile disagrees. "Geographers for some time have been interested in how people think about and respond to places, and what difference these feelings make to how places get produced. I am particularly interested in the role of fantasy and imagination in the production of places," he says.

His research suggests that ghosts are almost always associated with a particular place, and with some kind of traumatic past event. "In Singapore, quite a lot are associated with the occupation by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945," he said.

"When the Japanese first arrived they rounded up a large number of Chinese men from prominent families, took them to various beaches around Singapore, and shot them. Nowadays young kids go to the beach and stay overnight, and many come back and report seeing Japanese soldiers and feeling themselves being shot."

Ghosts don't just haunt places which are old or spooky. "There are a lot of apparitions in Singapore reported in very new tower blocks. It usually turns out that the tower block was built on the site of an old cemetery."

In London, ghosts often inhabit buildings built on the site of "plague pits", where the bodies of victims of the dreadful 17th century epidemic were buried en masse. "People have seen ghost rats, and ghost flies emerging from the ground and swarming round," said Dr Pile. Titled ghosts are quite common ("aristocrats who have jumped off tall buildings or died in various other horrible ways"), as well as ghosts connected with the wartime Blitz.

In New Orleans, on the other hand, hauntings tend to reflect the influence of the city's French past and its association with slavery. "A ghost called Julie who was the slave-mistress of a French-Creole gentleman appears on the top-floor balcony of 732 Royal Street," said Dr Pile.

"The two were very much in love. One day the gentleman's family called unexpectedly and he asked Julie to go out onto the balcony and wait while he told his family about their love. She was almost naked - in some stories completely naked - and it was a winter's night. She waited and waited but he never came, and eventually she died of cold."

Ghosts are associated with the feeling that "something bad has not gone away", Dr Pile suggests. "On the one hand ghosts are quite reassuring, because they suggest there is an afterlife. On the other hand they are recalling something about the past which is still quite troubling." In the case of Julie "the traumas associated with slavery are being replayed". And while the great fires that swept New Orleans and gave rise to many ghost stories are in the past, New Orleans residents still live with the knowledge that their city is very vulnerable to fire.

"I can't prove it, but I guess every city in the world has ghost stories," Dr Pile says. And not just ghosts. New Orleans and London are apparently riddled with vampires. Budapest, on the other hand, is packed with angels. But do sophisticated city-dwellers really believe the stories they tell?

As part of his research Dr Pile has been on the popular tourist "ghost walks" through London. "There were usually about 10 or 12 people. We would start out very light-hearted, but by about halfway through some people would be really spooked - they would start hearing things and saying, 'What's that shadow?'"

In one well-known experiment conducted by psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, a group of students were taken to different locations in the Edinburgh catacombs. About one-third reported feeling some kind of unusual sensation; and, bizarrely, they were most likely to be in the locations where ghostly happenings had been reported in the past.

"Even where people don't want to believe it, some part of them cannot dismiss the possibility," Dr Pile says. "This may be because we do not really know the truth - to prove that ghosts do not exist is very difficult."

He believes those involved in shaping our cities should take people's leanings towards the supernatural on board. "Part of the point of calling the book Real Cities is that the things I am describing are real, they reveal real issues and the legacies of real events," he says.

"The first concern is that we do not pay enough attention to the irrational. I am not suggesting that we start building creepy basements, but there may be ways in which we can create magical places.

"Secondly, very often ghosts are associated with the sense that something bad happened in the past and we have not quite dealt with it. Perhaps we need to think about ways of memorialising events, or maybe an apology is needed.

"In New Orleans there is this huge legacy of slavery which is not really talked about. Maybe they need to deal with it in a better way. Otherwise the ghosts will just keep coming back."

Dr Steve Pile is an urban and cultural geographer, and helped create Open University courses Understanding Cities and a Living in a Globalised World. 'Real Cities:Modernity, Space and Phantasmagorias of City Life' is published by Sage Publications

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