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Ghost Stories of York and the Haunting of Empire

A tyipical sight in York: A tour bus offering ghost-themed sightseeing (all photos by the author)

York is famous for its ghost tours and stories of haunting. Yet, such ghost stories also evoke postcolonial theory and legacies of violence.

This post was written on 27 May 2024 by Esme Boore.

The Most Haunted City in the World

After endless days of biting gales and gothic gloom, the city of York finally approaches summer in the marginally warmer month of May. Yet York’s busy streets of shoppers, holiday-makers and buskers continue to melt away into chilling evenings of ghost hunters and mediums. Every night outside York Minster, Mad Alice recounts stories of darkness and bloodthirst to enraptured crowds; meanwhile the Original Ghost Tour sets off from the eerie bank of the Ouse River and the skeletal Ghost Bus makes its creeping rounds through the streets. For in the ‘most haunted city in the World’ tourists’ appetites for all things sinister and haunted are never sated.[1]

York’s reputation for haunting is a massive draw for its tourism industry. Ghost tours number in the dozens and run daily, covering every attraction from stereotyped witches and the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin to the niche and grisly themes of plague children, bloody executions and twisted crimes and punishments.

Meanwhile, local authorities and businesses play into the more whimsical side of the city’s reputation for haunting. On any given day the Shambles is occupied by a two-hour-long queue for the York Ghost Merchants where patrons can obtain a small sculpted ghost figurine from this quaint but expertly marketed Victorian-styled shop. From October to November the council installs ghost tableaus across the city; wire mesh sculptures form spectral figures in parks and along the bank of the Foss River, Dick Turpin and Black Bess lurk in the shade in the Museum Gardens, phantom monks and abbots shimmer in the sun by St Mary’s Abbey ruins and Vikings return from beyond the veil to guard the lawn outside the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall.

For all it brings to the local economy, York’s ghost tourism is not without criticism. Attractions that lean in to the macabre and sadistically thrilling might be seen as voyeuristic, salacious and insensitive (such as the grim stories of orphans abused in the York Industrial Ragged School, now supposedly haunting the site of the workhouse in Bedern).[2] Meanwhile the twee marketing of friendly ghosts adds to York’s Disneyfication as a stone-cobbled, Potter-esque city catering to tourists over local residents.

But ghost hunting doesn’t have to be the eye-roll, tourist-trap vehicle for dubious historical anecdotes that it presently falls into the mould of. In fact, it may prove an invaluable tool for lifting the veil on the darker, less marketable histories that haunt York’s spookily twee reputation – namely the city’s links to colonialism and the slave trade.

Classical Ghost Tourism sights include the York Ghost Merchants shop on the Shambles.

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Learn about the stories that do not feature on traditional walking tours with York Uncovered!

Hauntology and postcolonial theory

 

In historical theory and political philosophy, ghosts and haunting have provided scholars with an excellent way to articulate how the present cannot be severed from the past.

A term first coined by Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx (1993), hauntology has been employed by historians and postcolonial scholars to assert the existence of the ‘psychic scars of colonialism’ on present society.[3] The legacies of colonialism and their very real ongoing power in shaping today’s world, from socio-economic structures and everyday racism to the contour of urban landscapes, can be conceptualised as ghostly – the presence of something that is no longer but still enacts force in the world as ‘disturbances and lingering presences […] through which current formations manifest the symptomatic traces and uncanny signs of modernity’s history of violence and exclusions’.[4]

Ghosts of violence past which refuse to rest in peace demonstrate how ‘in many ways, that colonial era never ended’ but continues to manifest in uncomfortable presences – some solid, others spectral.[5] However, like ghosts, many of us can choose whether or not to believe such things exist in our world. In heritage particularly, careful curation of museums and historic houses offer sanitised and palatable versions of their pasts:

‘History is a séance, a conjuration in which selected ‘friendly’ ghosts (stories of the past) are summoned to speak with the visiting public whilst others are exorcised from the accounts of certain heritage sites and stately homes.’[6]

When it comes to addressing structural racism and the ongoing legacy of the British Empire in our society, for many privileged enough not to be adversely affected, these things are often presumed to be safely something of the past. Avery Gordon asks ‘how do we reckon with what modern history has rendered ghostly?’[7] How indeed do we reckon with the parts of modern society that have been rendered by popular discourse or common-sense thinking as over and done with and no longer of concern or relevance to the way we live our lives now?

A ghost tour advertisement on Monkgate.

A ghost tour stops outside St William’s College.

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The ghostly traces of York’s colonial past

The first step may be to identify which ghosts are haunting what places and who is inviting them in. Landscapes, according to Michael Bell, are of the most haunted, ‘filled with ghosts. The scenes we pass through each day are inhabited, possessed, by spirits we cannot see but whose presence we nevertheless experience’.[8]

A city literally built on the foundations of an imperial army, York’s landscape is heavily populated with ghosts of its earliest colonial pasts. Roman history is on show everywhere and at Treasurer’s House, longstanding urban myths of Roman soldiers haunting its cellar are actively promoted by the National Trust. However, not all ghosts of York’s colonial histories are so obvious or literal. More recent colonial histories haunt through legacy instead, most notably that of the city’s chocolate industry which rooted its labour and wealth in exploitation across the British Empire.[9] The numerous buildings, streets and organisations founded by and named after local confectioner families, or even the distinct and ever-present smell of chocolate arriving on the breeze from the Nestlé factory, hardly seem likely material for ghost stories. But these things that appear innocuous or melt into everyday surroundings nevertheless indicate the invisible omnipresence of a less palatable history haunting York. Local tourist attractions often bury these uncomfortable pasts in favour of maintaining a marketable, family-friendly ‘chocolate city’ reputation. Could York’s equally compelling reputation for haunting provide a way to counteract this?

A more productive haunting for York

 

Ghostliness is a powerful tool, by identifying the persistent existence of the past within today’s society, it can interrupt the present we take for granted and indicate that ‘beneath the surface of received history, there lurks another narrative, an untold story that calls into question the veracity of the authorised version of events’.[10] .

However, Colin Sterling is careful to point out that ‘the concept of hauntology is only useful if it helps us to do more than simply name a situation: it must direct us towards alternative modes of production and methods of critical engagement’.[11] Can we use York’s ghostly reputation to ‘invite back the ghosts that sanitised history has banished’?[12]. How can we ‘put life back in where only a vague memory or a bare trace was visible to those who bothered to look’?[13].

York’s ghost tourism may already have provided us with an answer. Already, Uncomfortable Oxford run Haunted Tours, drawing on the supernatural to interrogate histories that continue to disturb public memory. Consider a Ghost Walking Tour in York but with an Uncomfortable Cities spin – making contact not with the dead but with the histories buried six feet deep instead. Can York’s haunted reputation be used to engage participants in the uncomfortable ghosts we’d rather attribute to a trick of the light? Can it draw them back into a plain of visibility? This is a conjuring that does not require a medium, simply the willingness to recognise we do not exist in this present world alone, but every day walk side by side with the ghosts of the uncomfortable pasts we are built on.

 

Written by Esme Boore

This article was originally published on the research blog of Uncomfortable Oxford.

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Want an Uncomfortable Ghost Tour? Check out our

Haunted Oxford Tour

While we do not have a Ghost Tour in York (yet!), our Haunted Oxford tour examines haunting through the echoes of gender disparities, oppression, violence, social division, and the powerful grip of memory.

References

[1] BBC, ‘York: most haunted city in the world!’, BBC Home (24 September 2014).

[2] ‘The Ghostly Children of Bedern’, Ghostwalkbrighton (2021) https://ghostwalkbrighton.co.uk/the-ghostly-children-of-bedern/

 

[3] Jaques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf, London: Routledge, 1994; T.J. Demos, Return to the Postcolony: Spectres of Colonialism in Contemporary Art, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013, p.3

 

[4] Demos, Return to the Postcolony, p.3.

[5] Demos, Return to the Postcolony, p.3.

[6] David McNeill, “Heritage and Hauntology: The Installation Art of Michael Goldberg” in Adam Geczy and Benjamin Genocchio, eds, What is Installation?: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Installation Art (Power Publications 2001), p. 55.

[7] Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edition (University of Minnesota Press 2008), p.18.

[8] Michael Bell, ‘The Ghosts of Place’, Theory and Society 26, (1997) 813-836, p.813

[9] See Charlie Cayzer, ‘Uncomfortable York: Cocoa History and Global Connections’, Uncomfortable Oxford blog (12 April 2023).

[10] Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, ‘Introduction: The Spectral Turn’ in Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, eds, The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory (Bloomsbury Academic 2013), p. 63.

[11] Colin Sterling, “Becoming Hauntologists: A New Model for Critical-Creative Heritage Practice”, Heritage & Society 14:1 (2021), p. 70

[12] McNeill, “Heritage and Hauntology”, p. 54.

[13] Gordon, Ghostly Matters, p. 22.

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