How uncanny sounds make ghost tours spookier

Ghost tours exist within the nebulous categorisation of dark tourism, which is characterised as visiting sites of death and catastrophe as a leisure pursuit. As grim as this might sound, ghost tours are consistent across the international stage in making up part of the cultural backdrop we wander past on a daily basis.

A skeleton in a coffin
A skeleton in a coffin at Derby Gaol. Image credit: Lily Gartland

How many of us have gone on a ghost walk as a fun activity to do with friends, perhaps as a seasonal activity you associate with autumn or winter? The walk was probably in a city you know, or a city much like the next, where you have never seen anything you would be tempted to call paranormal or spooky. Yet on a ghost walk there is new appreciation to be found for aspects of the, usually, historic urban landscape which are often otherwise marginalised or described as being a non-specified element of the overall landscape.

It was on UT’s Folkloristics and Applied Heritage Studies master’s course that I finally had the chance to look at how the material and immaterial aspects of the landscape can be manipulated in order to craft a particular perspective. I took the opportunity of the master’s thesis to create a project which paid special attention to often-overlooked sonic aspects of the environment in shaping perception.

Tangible and intangible elements make up the paranormal potential

It is the job of the guides of ghost tours to draw out both tangible and intangible elements of the historic urban landscape and combine them in such a way as to provide the impression of paranormal potential. The tangible heritage incorporated is typically anything deemed to have a mnemonic association to what we culturally find spooky.

The Shambles; a little street in York
The Shambles, a little street in York. By day, Instagram famous, by night, haunted by the memories of the butchers and where they slit the animals’ throats, which caused those very cobblestones to run with blood. Image credit: Lily Gartland

Some examples might include old stone buildings, maybe sites where people were executed, graveyards and shadowy alleyways. Examples of the intangible heritage drawn out of the same landscape could be the narratives attached to the place, story-telling techniques such as pitch and intonation, and local folklore, as well as sounds (imagine an eerie susurrus in a churchyard, or the tolling of bells as you stand on the edge of an old plague pit) and bodily sensations such as the smell of damp stone and the feel of cobblestones underfoot.

How the tangible aspects of the environment are selected, drawn out, and emphasised for use in these tours is therefore determined by the intangible imaginative values in which we decide what is ‘spooky.’ These values are identified by the managers and tour guide and it is up to them to find anchors for these in the available environment in order to create an overall impression of space, resulting in meaning being attached to hidden possibilities in a more flexible arrangement.

The ghost tour is a genre of experience with certain expectations

The success of a ghost tour as a commercialised venture relies on the manager’s ability to deliver upon particular expectations associated with ghost tours and the paranormal, as tourists arrive with preconceptions of what the experience should contain. For this reason, in ghost tours there is a generic questing by managers in the tour content they manifest for tourists.

The ghost tour is a genre of experience in itself and therefore there are certain elements which we understand to be associated with the activity and constitute what are understood to be the qualifying elements of a ghost tour. This results in a manipulation of perception of a space by tour managers, who draw together environmental elements associated by genre.

Imagination blurs the boundaries between the past and the present

The sensory experience, closely related to the psychological experience of the same lived body, is what informs our relationship with the environment. Active imagination therefore holds an intermediate role between matter and immateriality, allowing tangible space to take on new meanings.

The spoken narratives of the ghost tour are often gruesome or shocking, whilst being told in a location which bears some relevance to the time within the narrative. This has the effect of shrinking the spatial and temporal distance between the audience and the event in the narrative which resulted in their current location’s supposed haunting. As the tour reaches back in time and the ghost reaches forward through this contracting tunnel, the boundaries between then and now become blurred, making a haunting feel like a plausible outcome.

Bailgate in the Cathedral Quarter of Lincoln, UK
Bailgate in the Cathedral Quarter of Lincoln, UK, where The Original Lincoln Ghost Walk meets. Image credit: Lily Gartland

While the sites which many ghost tours use often attract our attention as a whole due to their general archaic aesthetic (see image above), it is the exact qualities of the individual elements of these landscapes which ghost tours must draw our attention to in order to create an enchanted atmosphere around their audience which can provide a validating anchor for the narratives.

A skull and crow at the window of Derby Gaol
A skull and crow at the window of Derby Gaol are archetypal images associated with the Gothic. Image credit: Lily Gartland

For example, on the Derby Gaol Friar Gate tour in the UK, Vernon Gate Prison is revealed not simply to be a grand stone façade to the office buildings behind, but it also contains the haunted drop room, from which prisoners would step onto scaffolding very shortly before being publicly hanged. In Lincoln, the tour guide draws participants’ eyes to the legion of gargoyles which adorn the cathedral and make appearances all over the old Cathedral Quarter, as ‘proof’ of the longstanding need to ward off the evil spirits in the area.

The behaviour exhibited by tour participants is often indicative of a suspension of disbelief, which they bring readily to these leisure activities, and the tourists begin to interpret their surroundings through a psychological engagement with space, created by a lens of memory, symbols, and archetypal images.

The mode of perception and what is there to be perceived is therefore ideally suited to the historic urban landscape, as this contains the greatest density in an accessible area of what is understood to have spooky connotations, thanks to Western European media (Think Dracula, and common media tropes such as the cruel headmaster, ghosts of unfortunate children, plague victims and mad aristocracy). The types of behaviours and interactions the historic urban landscape enables can be meaningfully associated with the macabre.

Cold evening air and layered shadows take on a different depth

By very deliberately combining the pertinent tangible and intangible elements and drawing them to the fore of the landscape in which they are embedded for tour participants to experience, environmental elements which were part of a passive backdrop take on a new significance, such as the ring of boots on cobbles, the susurrus in the trees, the chiming of church bells across a graveyard, as well as every formerly innocuous bump, bang, or whisper.

By this process, the stone in which the plague-infected city of Derby would leave money for supplies is suddenly known for what it is, and not a random protrusion from a litter-strewn pavement opposite a laundrette. The oral story from the guide makes it a focus for the eye and imagination, inciting the group to consider the horrible history of the spot they are currently touching, which led to the grim demise of the stones’ previous visitors and its inevitable haunting. It makes the brown leaves which swirl around its visitors ankles, the cold evening air, and layered shadows take on a different depth.

Similarly, on the Derby Gaol Friar Gate Ghost Walk (Derby, UK), the guide drew on spatial arrangement as a source of validation for the ghostly narratives he surrounded tour participants with, such as the width of Vernon Gate street being on account of needing to accommodate the large crowds which would turn out to see a hanging. It is the culminating effects of the tours’ manipulation of the environmental factors and the guides’ own narrative and presentational devices which result in the primed state of the participants’ imagination, making it all the more likely they will perceive that which is by definition immaterial: a ghost.

Natural and staged sounds add to the eeriness of the event

These tour guides also weave the more fleeting environmental elements into their tours. Sound is constantly present in informing us of activity in our environment, yet is often rendered to a position secondary to the ocular, and certainly the historic urban landscape is typically valued as an aesthetic artefact. But sounds are often woven in to great effect.

The group attempting to catch an 'orb'
The group attempting to catch an ‘orb’ on The Lincoln Ghost Walk, on the steps haunted by a monk. Image credit: Lily Gartland

These might be part of a deliberate staging, such as the clinking of heavy chains and banging of doors at Derby Gaol, and even the cries of a jumper-outer who managed to pull screams from the unsuspecting group, story-telling devices like a creepy, high-pitched sing-song voice, discordant with what the voice is conveying, or those beyond immediate control, such as the background rumble of traffic or the wailing of a baby within a group.

The sounds which do not belong within the time-space of the tour and which are too intrusive to be ignored are often played for laughs, used to joke about the local residents. Many, however, like the rustle of leaves and lapping of water, only serve to add texture to the eeriness of the event.

My MA project was therefore embodied by The Ghostlore Podcast in order to centre the elements of these tours which are often overlooked or laden behind images of the visual experience in the memory of tour-goers.

By forcing the experience to filter through audio recordings of ghost tours, it becomes more apparent that there are a multitude of small elements contributing to the overall impression of space, and we have the sonic nested system of knowledge in the environment to thank for conveying these far more effectively than we typically credit them. The podcast, by providing audio of ghost tours to listeners, demonstrates more clearly the role of the imagination, as listeners engage with an experience they cannot see or feel, yet in the mind’s eye is textured and full of the impression the tour guides work so hard to give.

As an interesting exercise, next time you’re out (wearing a mask), try closing your eyes and ‘see’ what you can identify and what images these sounds conjure in your mind’s eye.

This entry was posted in Humanities, Research, Studies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.