Haunted Ethnography: Affective Enchantment and Spectrality within Edinburgh’s Ghost Tourism
My sincere thanks goes to Dr Dimitri Tsintjilonis, whose supervision and support helped to shape this dissertation into its final form. Thanks also to Dr Grit Wesser, who pointed me in the direction of discussing darkness. My thanks also goes to my fellow final year anthropology students of 2018/2019 for the support network which they provided. I wish to thank also all of my interlocutors who so happily welcomed me into a moment of their lives and with whom the experience of doing fieldwork could not have been more fulfilling.
Introduction: The City of the Dead
Writing to J.G. Lockhart in the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott proclaimed that ‘the abstract idea of a spirit certainly implies, that it has neither substance, form, shape, voice, or any thing which can render its presence visible or sensible to human faculties… [yet] they are, in certain instances at least, by some means or other, able to communicate with the world of humanity’ (Scott 2011: 5).
At the end of an outing with the tour company City of the Dead, a ghost attacked one of my fellow visitors. This ghost tour company is the only one in Edinburgh that offers access to the Covenanters’ Prison. The prison is found within Greyfriars Kirkyard and houses the Black Mausoleum — the reported home of Edinburgh’s most malevolent spectre, the Mackenzie Poltergeist. The poltergeist is believed to be the ghost of the former Lord Provost of Edinburgh Sir George Mackenzie, or ‘Bluidy Mackenzie’ as he was called by the Covenanters he imprisoned during the 17th century. The Covenanters were a powerful religious group in Scotland during Charles I of England’s reign, but were defeated in battle by Charles II at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge and 1,200 were subsequently imprisoned by Mackenzie, many of whom were executed or died of starvation under his watch. (The Scotsman 2005a).
Our guide huddled us into the Mausoleum and started to tell us Mackenzie’s story, including how a priest had been sent in to exorcise the place only to turn up dead one week later. Throughout this time, one member of the group began to feel sick. Afterwards, he told me that he felt a burning sensation across his chest, and their vision had blurred. When we exited the Mausoleum, the visitor was keen to show myself and the guide what Mackenzie had done to him. Three red rashes had been left on his chest. They were not there when he entered. He assured us that his hands were by his side the whole time, and nobody else had touched him. Talk spread quickly among the tour-goers; the Mackenzie Poltergeist had struck again.
Asking visitors about this incident afterwards, several were quick to dismiss it. Doubt is commonly cast over reported paranormal experiences, incidents that undermine the authority of rationalism, leaving the ‘victims’ to rely on their stories to warrant claims to truthfulness (Wooffitt 1992). Even though there exists an entire scientific discipline concerned with ghosts, namely parapsychology, ‘in current Western culture a definite stigma surrounds the paranormal’ (Schoch & Yonavjak 2008: 54) since it challenges everyday assumptions of presence, materiality and perception, preventing people from ‘taking the paranormal seriously’ (ibid.: 1). Despite this widespread scepticism, ghost walks exist in multiple cities across the UK (Clanton 2007; Holloway 2010; Hanks 2011). Inglis and Holmes (2003: 61) argue that ‘the ghost seems increasingly to walk in every nook and cranny the tourism industry can find for it.’ Scottish tourism is worth approximately £11.6 billion and growing, and over 10% of Scotland’s employment is within the tourism sector (Holzhauser 2015). Whatever the truth of the paranormal may be, it is central to Edinburgh’s status as a tourist destination.
Anthropology seems to have a conflicted relationship with ghosts. Baxstrom (2013: 3) comments that ‘the entire history of anthropology has been marked by attempts to explain away such invisible forces’ and ghosts can seem like a strange topic for social scientists (Gordon 2008). Anthropological interests in ghostliness, however, goes back as far, at least, as Durkheim’s interest in collective spiritual beings and Mauss’ account of the spirit within a gift (Lincoln & Lincoln 2015). As Luckhurst & Morin (2014) explain though, it was Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx that brought ghosts to the forefront of academic thought, triggering the interdisciplinary ‘spectral turn.’ Derrida (1994: 96) is concerned with ‘a specter, the shadow of Marx, the revenant whose return so many raised voices today are attempting to conjure away’ and how it can be understood in explicit terms of the past returning in the modern world. He was careful however to separate spirits from spectres, as the latter ‘undertake[s] a kind of incarnation, to become a body, that is, to take on a material shape’ (McCallum 2007: 238) while, echoing Walter Scott’s beliefs, spirits do not. I choose to collapse this opposition since, as I will argue, it is the blurring and incomplete manner of presence and absence (or materiality and immateriality) that characterises ghosts as opposed to the full adoption of either state.
By collapsing Derrida’s spirit/spectre distinction and focusing on the ghost’s plurality, this dissertation attempts to contribute to hauntology. Lincoln & Lincoln (2015: 192) highlight how Derrida introduces hauntology by framing it as ‘a concern with apparitions, visions and representations that mediate the sensuous and the non-sensuous, visibility and invisibility, presence and absence, reality and not-yet-reality, being and non-being.’ This aligns hauntology with the ‘liminal’, an anthropological topic of interest since at least van Gennep (1909). Spectres are liminal. They are in flux; ‘their condition is one of ambiguity and paradox, a confusion of all the customary categories’ (Turner, 1967: 97). Anthropology is in a unique place to engage with hauntology, and this ethnography aims to shed light on how spectrality is generated and experienced in one of the contexts where this occurs.
The central questions of this dissertation are ‘how is the ghostly conjured and experienced’ and ‘what purpose do ghosts serve?’ The first chapter focuses on the tour guides, and how the spectral is conjured within both places and people through an array of immersive theatrical techniques. Chapter two focuses on describing and categorising the experiences of tour-goers, accounting for significant differences in opinion as well as the role of place in facilitating these experiences. The third chapter will bring these points together to explain what I call ‘affective enchantment’ but will also move beyond the accounts of my interlocutors and explore how this enchantment affirms certain qualities of the spectral. The conclusion will then briefly consider how an ethnography of haunting highlights the way that the very act of ethnography, like ghost tours, is a haunted exercise.
The bulk of the ethnographic data was collected from participant observation conducted on seven ghost tours that I went on with groups of people from all backgrounds. Some of them I pre-arranged to go on the tours with after I told them about my research, believing it would be easier to talk to new people during the tours if I was already with others myself. I did manage to speak to people who I met on the tours, and a mixture of the two are included in the data. Most of those I spoke to were from the United Kingdom, and for many this was not their first visit to Edinburgh. This is unsurprising, as ghost tours tend to attract a large amount of British tourists (Hanks 2011). There were also however visitors from other places in the world such as the United States, Latin America and Eastern Europe. A brief survey I carried out among a number of visitors revealed that over 70% of those I met were between 21 and 36 years old. Just under 62% had been on one of Edinburgh ghost tours before, while 47% told me that they didn’t believe in ghosts. One third were unsure, while only 19% firmly believed in them.
The tours I went on were, in the order I joined them: Mercat Tours, Mary King’s Close, the Free Ghost Tour, City of the Dead, Cadies and Witchery Tours, City of Edinburgh Tours and the Ghost Bus Tour. With the exception of the Ghost Bus, all of these tours are walking-based and start on Edinburgh’s historic High Street, the Royal Mile. From there the tour guides lead visitors into a number of ‘spooky’ locations such as the South Bridge Underground Vaults, cemeteries and other sites of historical significance.
I would arrange to meet up the next day with some of those I went on the tour with to discuss their thoughts — what they did or did not enjoy, their impressions of where they visited, and so on. Some who could not make these meetings I conversed with via email. While I acknowledge that this does not generate the same kind of detailed discussion as a group conversation, and indeed the richest quantity of data came from my focus groups, I still felt it was important to capture the perspectives of as many visitors as I could, regardless of their availability. A mixture of conversation extracts and email quotes have been used throughout, and all names have been anonymised.
I also include a number of online reviews that make comments on the same tours that I visited. While none of the online reviewers were present with me on the tour at the time, much of what they were saying matched the themes that emerged from my group discussions. I also went through reviews and coded them to reveal common topics of discussion, which eventually formed the foundations of the individual chapters.
After each tour, I also approached the guides and asked if they would be willing to get in touch with me at a later time to discuss their work. I could not talk to any in the immediate aftermath of the experience, as they were required to begin a new tour almost straight away. A few of them got back to me, and it is these responses that make up the majority of my ethnographic material on the actual guiding and the guides’ perspectives. Alongside their own words I include extracts from my notes on the actions, behaviours and stories that I collected along the way. Again all names have been anonymised with one exception — Jan Andrew Henderson, published author and owner of City of the Dead, who gave me permission to use his real name.
I have used various sources and as such this dissertation may be of interest not just to anthropologists but also to scholars of theatre, tourism, sociology, history and philosophy. Throughout however, Specters of Marx will haunt the questions I ask and the answers I try to provide. While Derrida’s ideas have been developed and changed, his work remains foundational to studies of spectrality. Like a ghost, Derrida’s words ‘are alive with the force that has prompted their return’ (Gordon 2008: 112), and years after their publication remain present in modern discussions of theatre (Luckhurst & Morin 2014), literature (McCallum 2007) and most obviously hauntology. It is fitting therefore that beneath the detail of the experiences which lie at the centre of my discussion, Specters of Marx is lingering not far below the surface.
Chapter One: Spectral Beings and Being Spectral
This chapter focuses on how guides perform their roles and the way they make use of theatrical techniques to invoke the ghostly quality of haunted places. They immerse tour-goers into their chosen environments, embodying the characters and stories that they are trying to tell, an example of ‘the human being and its total environment… function[ing] as material signs in their specific material quality’ (Fischer-Lichte 1995: 88). Fischer-Lichte (1995) also emphasises that performing bodies are not static, but mobile and adaptable. I argue here that this adaptability appears in ghost tour guides as the act of transgressing categories, meaning that their ‘externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration’ (Cohen 1996: 6). In this way, they induce a spectral, otherworldly quality in themselves and in the visitors.
Walking up the Royal Mile, it is easy to spot ghost tour guides amongst the crowds of people ordinarily found on the historic High Street during Edinburgh’s summer months. Each tour’s representatives are a mixture of different ages, genders and nationalities, but consistent with ghost tours across the UK, they are normally in costume (Hanks 2011). Some wear all black; a long velvet or leather trench coat with black boots and trousers. These may be complemented with a black hat or a walking cane depending on the guide’s preference. Others attempt what Decker (2010) refers to as ‘being period’ — replicating the clothing and appearance of those from the era that the tour guide’s character is taken from. Some guides adopt the role of a locally famous historical figure. For example, City of Edinburgh tours have a guide that resembles the appearance of Major Weir, who in 1670 reportedly confessed to witchcraft and his ghost is rumoured to haunt his old home on West Bow (The Scotsman 2016).
Cohen (1985) divides a guide’s role into leadership and mediation. The former includes guiding tour-goers around different planned routes, allowing them access to sites not open to the public and maintaining group morale. The latter includes enabling interactions between visitors and points of interest (talking about landmarks, discussing significant events at different sites and such), the delivery of information but also the selection and interpretation of this information. The guide, at a basic level, is one ‘who leads the way through an environment in which his followers lack orientation or through a socially defined territory’ (ibid.: 7). Edinburgh’s ghost tour guides seem to fit this description. They follow pre-planned routes which can involve access to otherwise inaccessible sites. Mercat Tours offer exclusive access to the Blair Street Underground Vaults, while City of the Dead are the only company allowed into the Black Mausoleum. Furthermore, they typically discuss locations such as the vaults, graveyards and houses of the Old Town in great detail, with a strong emphasis on ‘how things were’ or ‘back then.’ Primarily discussing historical sites and information means that Edinburgh’s ghost tour guides do not only lead and guide their company through an unfamiliar space, but also through an unfamiliar time and specific historical setting.
The first tour I went on was guided by a young woman called Roxanne, who had been leading her own group for Mercat Tours since March 2018 and was dressed head to foot in black. Starting the tour, she shouted to gain everyone’s attention, and several people in the crowd jumped when they heard her. We were gathered round in a circle by the Mercat Cross on the Royal Mile, the monument from which Mercat Tours draws its name, with Roxanne standing on a small step on the monument so she was higher than everyone around her. Prior to entering the Blair Street Vaults, Roxanne led the tour around various points of interest around the Royal Mile, zig-zagging between different closes (narrow streets) on each side, and telling the group historical vignettes or ghost tales at each stopping point. This journey took the group slowly towards the underground vault entrance, where we arrived about half an hour later.
The vaults have been the subject of several studies over the years. Wiseman et al. (2005) conducted a rigorous paranormal investigation inside the Blair Street Vaults, concluding that people’s expectations and beliefs in paranormal activity were secondary to environmental factors such as light and naturally occurring magnetic fields in determining behavioural responses within places rumoured to be haunted. This study was referenced during the tour as we were taken through the rooms in ascending order, from least to most haunted. It is also discussed in Mercat’s souvenir book, which proudly states that this remains ‘the most systematic investigation of a haunted location in the world’ (Geddes 2012: 40).
The tour is a walk around nine stone vaults connected by short archways that were each used for different purposes. Other tour-goers would comment to me how ‘stuffy’ and sometimes ‘claustrophobic’ it felt. Roxanne did check with the group beforehand if anyone had breathing difficulties such as asthma, in case they would struggle with the air quality (or lack of it) once inside. Although structurally it is similar to what it would have been like during the 18th and 19th centuries, Roxanne explained that, to meet modern health and safety requirements, electricity had been installed so fire exits could be indicated and some low level lighting had been installed in some rooms. This proved necessary, as the cobbled ground was uneven at points and slippery from rainwater since the vaults were never waterproofed, so darkness could result in injuries to visitors. Rooms without lights were completely dark save for the dim candle the guide held in her hand.
Roxanne walked the group around each room, encouraging us to come close to her so we would hear what she was saying. She started in rooms that had occasional reports of ghost sightings, blending these reports with historical details about life in the vaults and facts about their construction. As the tour moved from room to room, the ghosts took a greater role in the stories, until we were taken into what is known as the White Room — reported as the most paranormally ‘active’ room (Wiseman et al. 2005; Geddes 2012). Roxanne explained that this is the home of an evil spectre known as ‘The Watcher’, who reportedly causes watches or torches to stop working and even triggers physical pain in some visitors. Geddes (2012) notes that The Watcher is also known as ‘Mr Boots’, since visitors have reported hearing the sound of boots walking on stone when there doesn’t seem to be anyone there, although Roxanne never used that name during this tour. She also told us, in a particularly malevolent and dramatic tone of voice, that The Watcher has a habit of blowing out candles… before blowing out her own candle and momentarily plunging the group into complete darkness. She waited, and then relit it a few moments later.
Talking to tour-goers afterwards, this moment of blowing out the candle was highlighted as a point where the ‘obviously well-rehearsed’ and ‘theatrical’ manner of the guide was clear to see. This moment of the tour, indeed the tour as a whole, is an example of what Fischer-Lichte (1995: 86) means when she describes how avant-garde theatre movements ‘claimed to close the gap between art and life and to fuse theatre and reality.’ The understanding of theatre was expanded beyond the traditional stage, so ‘any kind of exhibitory, demonstrative or spectacular event’ (ibid.: 86) could now be understood as such. More specifically, environmental theatre was conceptually broadened to incorporate street parades and processions among other things (Biggin 2017) and ghost tours fall within this classification. It makes sense therefore that tours feature guides who it seems are performing a rehearsed role.
Theatre is strongly connected with haunting. Clements (2013: 26) concludes that theatre is a ‘ghosted practice’ and stresses the ‘repetitions, disappearances and reappearance’ that characterise performance art, aligning the theatrical with the spectral. Derrida (1994: 98) repeatedly talks of how ‘specters… come on stage,’ words that emphasise the close connection of spectrality and performance. In light of this, seeing theatrical techniques and props such as candles being used on this tour and others was of little surprise. Several of the tour-goers in my company expected there to be a theatrical aspect to the tours, something I was also expecting given that I went on a tour myself several years beforehand. This suggests that the connection of haunting with performance is more than just an academic concern, but something that is recognised and expected among those who go on ghost tours.
I was able to discuss Roxanne’s job with her a couple of days later. She told me that she finds it very enjoyable and unlike her previous work. A history graduate, she had worked as a guide previously for another company, but Mercat Tours require her to bring a more ‘theatrical element’ to guiding which she was not experienced in before she started. She also recalled her first visit to the vaults:
I went into the vaults for the first time on a tour with a very good guide, and she created a really spooky atmosphere. I remember feeling quite uneasy, because it was very authentically creepy especially because of the stories and candlelit rooms.
It is an atmosphere that Roxanne herself is now tasked with regularly creating for visitors. This is achieved through detailed and entertaining storytelling that generates anticipation of ghosts such as The Watcher — ‘the anticipation is at once impatient, anxious and fascinated: this, the thing… will end up coming’ (Derrida 1994: 4). Although the performative aspect emerges as a crucial part of the ghost tour guide’s role and a method for building expectations, not all guides attempt to be incredibly performative. Roxanne mentioned that, despite her candle moment in the White Room, her style is not overly theatrical and it would feel ‘unnatural’ for her to attempt otherwise. She says that while other guides are given scope to be much more dramatically expressive, she is equally allowed by the tour company to come across as more naturalistic in her delivery. While my group saw Roxanne as well practiced, she does not see herself as an especially elaborate performer.
Rather than viewing the performance purely in terms of typical acting techniques — such as the raising of the voice and interaction with props — it makes more sense to view the guiding itself as a kind of ‘show.’ More specifically, it makes sense to view ghost tours as examples of immersive theatre, and the guides as a part of that phenomenon. Biggin (2017) notes that several different understandings of immersive theatre exist, but they all centre around the ‘actor’ and their audience occupying the same space and the latter being directly involved in the spectacle, in a setting that dissolves the separation of the two amidst an interaction dictated largely by the environment. All the walking ghost tours in Edinburgh’s old town are like this. Roxanne was just one of many guides who try to keep themselves close to the tour-goers and only project their voices as much as necessary, only shouting when outside in the noisy streets. This was often for practical reasons so that everyone could hear them, but contributes to the erasure of the performer-audience distinction.
Approaches to this differed depending on the size of the group. The Cadies and Witchery Tour had a very small crowd when I visited — there was no more than five or six of us. This allowed the guide to get much closer to the group than he would otherwise be able to do, and not just in terms of physical proximity. Before the tour began, he told the group where he was from and asked the visitors where they had come from, and received a range of answers from Argentina to South East England. His expectations of my prior knowledge of Scottish history rocketed when I told him I was from the Highlands, expectations that I embarrassingly failed to meet. The guide was able to break down the distinctions between performer and audience not just in terms of the physical space between the two, as seen in instances of immersive theatre in London (Biggin 2017; Luckhurst 2017), but by making himself a familiar figure having once been unfamiliar. He brought visitors into the experience by doing so, instead of maintaining the separation between ‘him’ and ‘his group.’
Most groups I joined were considerably bigger, and tour guides have to take a different approach in these instances. The Double Dead Tour is the longest and most expensive tour that City of the Dead offer. Its name comes from the fact that the tour takes visitors into the Niddry Street Underground Vaults and into the Covenanters’ Prison, which are normally offered as two separate tours. When the guide Bruce took us into the vaults, he had to gather the group of forty or so in a low-ceiling room to tell us about ‘the Hellfire Club’ — a notorious drinking gang that was active when the vaults were still used for accommodation and commercial purposes in the 1700s and 1800s. To do so, he got the group to encircle him, and holding his candle began to walk around the circle so everyone could periodically see him up close. Other than his dim flickering candlelight, the room was pitch black. As the wax on his candle would melt, he would let it drip onto his hand, seemingly without flinching. Beneath his storytelling I could hear members of the crowd whispering that the hot wax apparently did not hurt him (he must have had ‘asbestos hands’, one visitor exclaimed). His story included an account of a ghost that has been reportedly seen in these vaults, a ghost believed to be one of the deceased, destitute members of the Hellfire Club.
Here the immersion takes a more ambiguous form, closely aligned with another example — the London-based Punchdrunk theatre company. Formed in 2000, Punchdrunk take pride in allowing ‘audiences [to] experience epic storytelling inside sensory theatrical worlds’ (Punchdrunk 2018) in the style of immersive theatre. Luckhurst (2017) notes how Punchdrunk’s performers often make use of low tones of voice, inconclusive narratives and different spaces as a means to draw their audience in. Similarly here, Bruce never raised his voice or changed the pace of his speech, gave no indication verbally as to whether he believed that the ghosts were real, and led us around a number of different locations. The trick of the immersive method however may go beyond words. Bruce wore all black, making him hard to see sometimes in the darkness of the vault. As he discussed the spirits that allegedly ‘stalk’ and ‘wander’ in the vaults, he himself wandered around the group, never looking at anyone directly and paying no attention to the hot wax until we left the room, at which point he peeled the partly set wax off his hand. The intended effect was clear; Bruce was mimicking the behaviour of the spectres he was talking about, suggesting (perhaps playfully) that he himself was a ghost.
Members of my group that I spoke to found this to be an incredibly effective storytelling technique. Tracey, a postgraduate psychology student, later told me about the impression that it left with her:
When he was telling the story in the underground vault room and was walking around the circle holding a candle as the only light source. I thought it was dramatic but in a more understated way. Also when he walked past you with the candle it disrupted your vision which made it feel like you might see something in the corner of your eye and freak yourself out.
Bruce’s method had the double effect of embodying a spectre and making visitors more cautious of what they might see, both of which depend heavily on Bruce’s control of lighting within the cramped room. It is a two-fold technique. The invoking of spectrality in the space is seen both in Bruce himself and the way that his movement, controlling the only light source in the vault, affected fields of vision and opened tour-goers up to the possibility of seeing ‘something’ beyond what is already present to them. Ghostliness is conjured both within and outside the performing body.
To Lincoln and Lincoln (2015: 201), Bruce’s story would be an example of ‘secondary haunting’ as ‘they — and not the ghost — hail the audience and tell the story of sufferings past, but they do so as a living subject who speaks on behalf of the dead, not as one caught on the border of life and death.’ This may describe written historical accounts, but does not apply here. Robert, a council worker from Edinburgh that I got talking to during the tour, commented that he liked this moment in the vaults because Bruce was ‘able to best locate us as “visitors” to that place’ and give a distinct impression to the group that they didn’t belong there. Feeling like you do not belong in a place, but being there anyway, is one of the explorative and transgressive techniques used to build up excitement and anticipation within immersive experiences (Biggin 2017). Bruce deliberately crafted a situation where he was occasionally visible but also not visible, where he seemed to look human but apparently showed no reaction to hot wax that would cause people pain. This embodiment of the spectral, the impression of being between life and death, projected the feeling that the human visitors were ‘guests.’ Bruce ‘evoked the spacing between the life and death of an event… a space we might call the tension of the present tense’ (Thrift & Dewsbury 2000: 422) by speaking about (and as) someone who died long ago. He performed an ambiguity that, in tandem with the content of his story, attempted to bring the spectral to the group. The guide makes what is immaterial material and what is absent present through this display.
When I got the opportunity to ask Bruce about why he adopts this approach, his answer was every bit as theatrical as his guiding:
There is nothing worse in God’s Green Earth than being responsible for a haunted story not having its desired effect. It will get you when you most don’t want it to and you will rue the day you failed it. Theatricality is the best weapon against the story having reason to get you. Told well it will leave you be. The stories tell me torture would be even more effective but I have been encouraged towards theatricality.
In Bruce’s account, the rationale behind his work is that the stories have the agentic capacity to bring an unpleasant reckoning in his direction if he fails to do their content justice. Telling a ghost story means a lot more than adopting a scary voice in a dark room. Bruce performed these stories, and theatre is a ghosted practice. In a sense, Bruce transcended metaphor and became a ghost.
This may seem a strange claim, but there is more than one kind of ghost. Ghosts are typically imagined as tied down to specific locations and as a core characteristic of haunted historical places (Bell 1997). By contrast, the ghost that Bruce — and indeed the entire tour group, myself included — became is an invader, an alien, an unwelcome guest. Punchdrunk’s spectators become ghosts through ‘a sensation of not quite belonging’ (Biggin 2017: 181) and helping to form ‘the constructed scenography and performance, or the ghost, that which is temporarily brought to the site’ (Pearson 2012: 70). Narratives of Edinburgh’s ghosts talk about active spirits showing hostility towards intruders. The Watcher in the Blair Street Vaults, Roxanne told us, once reportedly screamed at a woman to ‘get out’ multiple times. In the Black Mausoleum, Bruce told us that a psychic brought in by the tour company sensed a number of spirits and that, while it was unclear exactly what they were saying, they clearly wanted to be left alone. The group are where they do not belong — the guide’s role as a leader of the group through an unfamiliar space (Cohen 1985) is a testament to this. The Mausoleum ‘let itself be inhabited in its inside, that is, haunted by a foreign guest’ (Derrida 1994: 4), as do other haunted locations. Visitors begin to tread on the same boundaries of ambiguity as these ‘resident’ ghosts; they inhabit the temporal present yet find themselves in a spatial, historical past. They are visible to each other and yet ‘underground’ or in exclusively accessible spaces that are invisible to the rest of the world. The spectral is not only brought out of these spaces on tours, but an invasive spectrality is brought into them and acted out. As Bruce demonstrated with his storytelling, the boundaries between human and spirit become blurred.
To sum up, ghost tour guides can be seen as practitioners of hauntology. They guide their audience through the spectral, to present ghosts as ambiguous beings, and become ambiguous themselves. To do this, they contribute to immersive atmospheres that are meant to trigger ‘high engagement, emotional investment, rapt attention, sensory stimulation, emotion, empathy or make-believe’ (Biggin 2017: 179). Furthermore, they make themselves and their group part of the spectral. The need for adaptability in their roles becomes apparent in how they seem to abandon the human and become ghosts themselves, occupying a liminal state and space as they immerse the group into haunted places. The next chapter will consider the affective experiences of the visitors as they participate in this immersion, what creates and mediates this experience and how this is communicated in physical, emotional and sensory manners.
Chapter Two: Affective Experiences
Ghost tour guides can be seen as those who bring out the spectral in and into certain spaces. However, not all tour-goers react to this in the same way. While tour guides often receive praise for, and place great emphasis on, the performative aspect of their roles, this is also often the main point of criticism from tour-goers. This chapter will shift the focus of my analysis from the guides to the visitors and attempt to understand their responses to these immersive confrontations with spectrality. Echoing their reactions, the emphasis will be on feeling as experience, and affect as mediated by an aspect of each visitor’s subjectivity, namely their belief in ghosts and prior knowledge of Scottish history. However, ‘the specter demands that one takes its times and history into consideration’ (Derrida 1994: 101) and as Bell (1997) explores, this is tied into the experience of place; a space imbued with meaning that depends in large part on its history. The way that place determines experience will therefore also be discussed in conjunction with subjectivity, and how experience is expressed in multiple ways.
Carl — a 22 year old from Mexico City who I got to know on the Mercat Tours outing — was not impressed by all of Roxanne’s actions:
[…] sometimes she was maybe trying to do this horror stuff like blowing out the candle in the vaults, and trying to be scary. Sometimes for me that was over the top or with the wrong people it can be wrong. I mean for me I was like ‘ha she is trying to be funny’ but for some other people it might be like ‘nope. Please don’t do it. You are scaring me.’
Carl acknowledged that his view is just one opinion. Nevertheless, ‘overly-theatrical’ guides are a common focus of criticism in online reviews as well, especially when this seems to take precedence over discussing the historical subject matter. A review of Mary King’s Close commented that ‘real information lacks behind a more or less boring entertainment show… the tour guide was friendly but more acts as a theatric actress rather than a professional guide’ (TripAdvisor 2018). While the City of the Dead guide Bruce stressed that theatrical engagement with the stories is key to a good tour, too much of this performative aspect does not sit well with a significant number of tour-goers.
Another common complaint about the tours is with regards to authenticity. Inglis and Holmes (2003) note that tourist spaces are often designed to represent a particular idea of a ‘true to history’ heritage, a distinctive and endlessly interesting opportunity for the tourist to dive into the history of Scotland. The tour guide plays a crucial part in this, as they are expected to provide accurate and meaningful historical information (Cohen 1985). Authenticity cannot explain the motivations of every tourist in any given country or situation (Wang 1999), but tour-goers often evaluate Edinburgh’s ghost tours in terms of how authentic or inauthentic they felt they were. Alongside the guide’s tendencies towards the theatrical, this is the most common critique of Edinburgh’s ghost tours when looking through online reviews.
This image and expectation of authenticity emerges as a powerful theme in visitor evaluations and as a site of contestation. Discussing positives of the tour, Carl talked about how he found the vaults fascinating:
What gave me a really lasting impression was when she [Roxanne] mentioned that the vaults were closed in the 1880s. And then they didn’t reopen them until the 1980s… It was 100 years of [the] vault [left] untouched. I mean that says a lot about history. Preserving a piece of history for 100 years. For me that was the lasting impression.
Untainted and accurate history is highly valued. Rather than coming as a surprise to visitors, to many this is the expectation and the response is overwhelmingly negative if this is not met. One reviewer reported that he enjoyed his experience with City of Edinburgh Tours overall but complained that ‘the start of the tour is essentially just telling local rumours, not actual facts’ — to which the manager of the tour company responded by saying ‘our stories have been researched by a published local historian. We can assure you the stories are true facts’ (TripAdvisor 2017a). A discussion of and challenges to authenticity can be traced throughout reviews and feedback given on historical ghost tours.
Theatricality and authenticity (or lack of) are themes of criticism that intersect with one another. Similarly, they inform the tour companies’ efforts to market themselves as authentic historical experiences and convince visitors that the history they are telling is what really happened. Geddes (2012) emphasises the minimal changes to the Blair Street Vaults that have been carried out in order to have them open to the public. This means that ‘the damp, dark, bare chambers still retain their original character and atmosphere. This enables us to sense the history and imagine what it was like to live and work in Edinburgh over two hundred years ago’ (ibid.: 48). Over-modification is seen as a barrier to experiencing history in all its detail, inhibiting the potential for an immersive experience of the past. Tour companies are highly aware of this when trying to present themselves as reliable sources of local history.
Different responses to the same tour content can be partially explained in terms of differences between the individual visitors. Watt (2016) notes that those who believe in paranormal occurrences and those who do not may interpret incidents differently. Michelle, an English visitor who described herself to me as a ‘militant atheist’, commented on Roxanne’s guiding in the vaults, saying ‘as somebody who does not believe in ghosts at all, I think she did a really good job.’ Her positive evaluation was limited by her personal beliefs, as she openly admitted. Similarly, ‘staged authenticity’ and the ‘mythicizing of Scottish heritage’ (Inglis & Holmes 2003: 56) may affect people in different ways depending on their familiarity with Scottish history, and if they are as receptive to such stories in the same way that Carl was. Gregor, who I invited to come on three tours with me, volunteers at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile and claimed familiarity with much of Scotland’s folklore. On the Free Ghost Tour, he talked with the guide about how her version of one of the legends varied from the one he was accustomed with (specifically those of kelpies, described to us as mythical mermaid-like creatures that would lure passers-by to a watery grave). While not accusing the guide of promoting false information, he nonetheless responded in a different way than those around him who did not demonstrate similar levels of intellectual investment — Gregor was the only tour-goer who talked to the guide about tour content. Belief in the paranormal and prior knowledge clearly can influence how affected different people are by the same stimuli, helping to form that individual’s own perspective.
Tour-goers, when reflecting on their visits, also discuss how the different locations made them feel, for instance in relation to darkness and light. Roxanne’s route around the vaults was essentially mapped out by dim electrical lights and some candles, although corridors that we did not venture down were left in complete darkness. Elizabeth, a creative industries mature student at Edinburgh College, described what she experienced when she was down there:
I could see everything she [the guide] was pointing out to us. Some dark side-tracks were creeping on me… I would not want to be there alone.
Darkness is often viewed in negative terms, as the time of demons and thieves, and as something that requires controlling (Schnepel & Ben-Ari 2005). This is in contrast to light, ‘[which] is a divine creation’ (ibid.: 153) and associated with morally upstanding activities and positivity. Fear of the dark is also made use of by Punchdrunk, by ‘depriving spectators of light in order to disorient and instil a sense of panic in them’ (Luckhurst 2017: 9). Such instances of gothic entertainment evoke ‘certain responses… [of] claustrophobia, loneliness, a sense of antiquity’ (Williams 1995: 39–40) through the use of techniques such as this. The dark is a tool of the theatrical tour.
Darkness is played on by many different tourist experiences. Promoting the story of Burke and Hare as part of their attraction, the Edinburgh Dungeons tell visitors to ‘edge your way through the darkness and tombstones of the dark burial ground’ and that ‘you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time’ (Merlin Entertainments Group 2018). This statement plays on how darkness has historically been associated with illegality and horrific acts, and that visitors are being transported back into a time of great evil. As another example, the deliberate rendering of the vaults — or rather, certain sections of the vaults — as dark controls the guided experience. The darkness demarcates not only where tour-goers should not go, but where they dare not go. The resulting feelings of unease, imagined isolation and fear are the intended emotional effect of this set up.
By contrast, an interruption in darkness negatively affects the atmosphere being generated. The Double Dead Tour involves moving from the South Bridge Vaults to Greyfriars Kirkyard, which is around a ten minute walk. While the guide walked us down Cowgate, which is shadowed on either side by tall buildings and steep inclines, the sun was still out as the tour was running in the early evening before sunset. I was talking to Robert about Bruce’s display in the vaults when we emerged into the afternoon sunshine, heading off towards the kirkyard. When I asked him about how he felt the tour was organised, he commented on this break between the two sites:
The use of two locations with a walk in the sunshine in between did break the spell a little bit, so there wasn’t much continuity of experience between the two sets of stories. I can see why this is also delivered as two separate tours.
Robert found that any attempt to characterise the visitors’ experiences with a ‘playful openness to the supernatural’ (Holloway 2010: 632) was weakened by the interruption of darkness that the tour format necessitated. This part of the tour is forced to abandon darkness, which affects how the tour makes the visitors feel at that particular point.
Darkness and light are not the only means through which a reaction can be elicited. Tour guides place great emphasis on what visitors can (or might) see. As Holloway (2010) signifies, tours arouse the potential of spaces to be haunted and for the dead to return. Roxanne’s first stop on our tour was the Double Height Room. The room, we were told, takes its name from the fact that it used to be two separate vaults, one on top of the other. At some point the floor of the above room collapsed or was knocked down to form one single large vault, with a ceiling over twice as high as before. Roxanne told the group that the ghost of a naked crying man is occasionally seen above the archway that we had all just walked through to enter. Bell (1997: 816) is right in saying that ghosts have a ‘stubborn rootedness in particular places’ but the specificity of the ghost’s location on ghost tours — in that corner of the room, above that door, and so on — is much more detailed than a broad association of spectrality and place asserts. I found myself, being of a nervous temperament, deliberately not looking above that doorway. I did so not because I was sure there was something there, but because there might be something there — ‘just in case’ I told myself. What I saw instead was that several members of the group also avoided looking above the doorway, or had a quick glance before turning back to face Roxanne as she continued speaking.
This occurred again on other tours. The City of Edinburgh Tours outing ends in a single vault underneath South Bridge where ghosts reportedly reside by the furthest wall from the door. Many members of the group, myself included, deliberately did not look at that part of the room. It was because, as I was told multiple times, there could be something there, or they were open to the possibility of this. Robert told me how he stayed in the Black Mausoleum for a moment after everyone else to take a photo, then got out quickly. He said that he had been alerted to ‘how some ghostly experience could happen’ by the latest of the Mackenzie Poltergeist’s attacks, and didn’t want to stay there any longer. Just the idea of a ghost — the association between spectrality and that place at that time — controlled our actions and stopped us looking for fear of what might be there.
A fundamental consistency underlines all responses. Whether a visitor feels that tour guides are brilliant or too performative, whether the history feels authentic or misleading, or whether they feel like a ghost might just be visible, there is always an emphasis on what someone feels. Whether it is Robert reporting that he could ‘feel part of what was going on’ or Tracey telling me that she ‘felt like he [the guide in Mary King’s Close] was putting on too much of a show’, the evaluation is, at all levels, framed in terms of a felt experience, more specifically an affective experience. Ghost tours are designed to have emotional and sensory impacts on their audiences. While the intended effect may be lost, some kind of impact is created nonetheless. Bruner (1986: 3) sums up experience as what has been ‘lived through.’ Experience is ‘how events are received by consciousness’ and ‘not just sense data, cognition… but also feelings and expectations’ (ibid.: 4). Affect accounts for ‘social passion, as pathos, sympathy and empathy, as political suffering and trauma… but also as unconditional and response-able openness to be affected by others’ (Athanasiou et al. 2009: 6). While affect is linked to emotion it also goes beyond this by connoting physical effects and by reaching out beyond one’s own subjectivity (Navaro-Yashin 2009), instead emerging as an interconnected phenomenon between bodies. With this reading, any kind of response, answer or opinion that appears within groups in response to a certain stimulus can be termed as an affective experience.
Any enquiry concerning affective experiences will fall flat though if the sources of affect are not considered. The core question is ‘does affect emerge from the self or from the environment’ (Navaro-Yashin 2009: 5) or in other words, do affective experiences come from within the individual or are they imposed upon it? Affect cannot just be considered in terms of subjective or collective responses to stimuli, but must be open to considering the stimuli themselves as points of origin. Watt (2016) notes that a study of the environment’s influence on cognition has proven a fruitful line of enquiry for parapsychologists, ratified by Wiseman et al. (2005) who found that location plays a crucial role in the experience of haunted places. The strict parapsychological focus of their work means that their main concern is the effect on mental recognition and cognitive process, whereas a humanities perspective is more concerned with the symbolic relationships people have with places (Bell 1997; Jones & Evans 2012). These perspectives are hardly incompatible. Tour-goers and guides comment frequently on the darkness, fluctuating temperatures, unexplained noises and even occasional nausea. These sensual experiences evidence both the effects of the environment on the physical bodies of visitors and illustrate some of the common cultural associations made between places and the presence of ghosts (Watt 2016). In any case, individual subjectivity cannot be assumed as the only source of affect, and the ‘place’ emerges as another origin.
Place is already a well-researched topic. Jones & Evans (2012: 2319) define ‘place’ as somewhere where ‘humans layer their own understandings onto abstract space’, understood primarily in terms of emotional attachment. Bell (1997) has identified how ghosts help to construct the particularity of sites deemed as historically significant. He argues that ‘the sense of the presence of those who are not physically there… [is] a ubiquitous aspect of the phenomenology of place’ (ibid.: 813). This means that the spectacle of ghosts, and the potential for an immaterial presence, is heavily associated with wherever they are found. These locations are not static but changing between multiple identities as the individual body helps to construct a place, and in turn a place constructs the individual body (Jones & Evans 2012). Robert told me that during the Double Dead Tour his experience was influenced by his own interests in magic and occultism, but he also found ‘it fascinating and creepy to be in that space with all the truly unsettling history and spooky reputation.’ This is an example of how subjectivity within the person influences the affect felt within a place and in turn how such a place is understood, while the reverse is also true; places affect individual perception, emotion and reaction.
The experiences that ghost tours leave with their visitors too can be interpreted as examples of what Anderson (2009: 78) refers to as ‘affective atmospheres’, described as ‘a class of experience that occur before and alongside the formation of subjectivity… the shared ground from which subjective states and their attendant feelings and emotions emerge.’ Anderson (2009: 80) continues by explaining that atmospheres do not emanate from physical environments alone, but ‘are generated by bodies — of multiple types — affecting one another as some form of “envelopment” is produced.’ Jones & Evans (2012: 2327) argue that ‘place is a fundamentally embodied phenomenon’, emphasising that the subjectivity and reactions of individuals are as much physical as they are emotional or mental. As tour-goers travel the route together, and are encouraged into a liminal state as they bear witness to the spectral, affect comes from their emotional and behavioural responses, but these responses are influenced heavily by pre-existing cultural understandings of ghosts. It is these responses, founded in subjectivity and place, that generate atmosphere and which represent the type of experiences that ghost tours want to leave visitors with.
Some clarifications are required. Firstly, attempts at atmosphere are not always successful. Mary King’s Close is a potential example of this. About halfway through the tour, we were taken into an area known as the Changing Rooms, which run alongside the abandoned street known as Allan’s Close. The small house (as it once was) was dimly lit, and some support pillars had to be installed by the tour company to prevent the roof caving in — but the other details such as the bricked up fireplace, wall colouring and floor were all left unmodified. The smallest room here, we were told, was believed to be the bedroom of a small child called Annie. In 1992, a Japanese psychic entered the room and was reportedly ‘struck by an overwhelming feeling of sickness, hunger and cold and, when she tried to leave, felt the ghastly tug of a ghostly hand on her leg’ (The Scotsman 2005b). Our guide told us that the ghost seemed less active when the psychic had left it a toy, specifically a small antique doll. Since then, the tours have invited tour-goers to leave small offerings in a pile in the corner of the room, and at least several dozen ‘offerings’ have accumulated there over the years. Mostly they are stuffed toys such as teddy bears and more antique dolls, although some of the more peculiar items included a toy of the snowman Olaf from the movie Frozen and a Westlife CD.
It elicited a mixed response from the tour-goers in my group. Tracey, who had also come with me on the Double Dead Tour, was not impressed:
[…] I don’t know how I feel about them having the big pile of stuff in the middle of this really old room that had been quite good to see in itself. Then if you pack it full of things like Westlife CDs and Frozen dolls that kind of… when you are there, trying to immerse yourself in the era, but then you look at that and you are like ‘oh’ and it throws you back into the modern world again.
This is taken further by an online reviewer who felt that ‘Annie and a pile of tatty toys, rather undermined the credibility of the tour’ (TripAdvisor 2017b). The toys feel like ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas 2003: 36) to some, in that they are disrupting the established association between places and ghosts, highlighting the existence of such an association in the first place. This disruption is discussed explicitly in terms of the felt experience. Tracey’s feeling about this was uncertain at best, and the tour’s intended experience was replaced with an alternative based on her own response to what she saw.
The second clarification is that not all tours aim to leave tour-goers with the same kind of experiences. The Ghost Bus tour was seen by tour-goers not only as more of a comedy show rather than a ghost tour, but one that actively parodies what the majority of other tours attempt to do. It takes place in an old routemaster bus from the 1960s that had originally been used to transport coffins for funerals. It is black and purple on the outside with a gothic decor inside, featuring a ‘conductor’ as opposed to an ordinary guide. It was the only tour that involved being driven around the city as opposed to walking, and the only one that ventured into Edinburgh’s New Town. The conductor was seen by my group not so much a ‘leader’ or ‘mediator’ (Cohen 1985: 9) but a comedian, with the actual ‘guiding’ around the city left to the driver (who the tour-goers never see). Mary, from Texas, joined the City of Edinburgh Tours outing as well and reflected on her experience of the ghost bus:
I think because I’d been on another tour before, it almost made it more enjoyable, because it mocked the kind of things that other tours do to try and make it scary.
The whole group agreed that it was more of a ‘comedy performance’ and that, crucially, this worked in its strength. The focus here is not on fear or even promised historical accuracy (at least, not to the same extent as the walking tours) but on an entertaining, comedic piece of theatre. It draws its content from the darker sides of Edinburgh’s past, but does not attempt to immerse its audience in this darkness, nor aim to scare the passengers. To generalise tours as prioritising information and ‘fear factor’ glosses over the deliberately tongue-in-cheek approach that some tours adopt.
There are differences then, but in all cases the terminology of ‘affective experiences’ still applies. Authenticity, fear and over-theatricality are expressed in terms of what a visitor feels. Michelle saying to me that the Free Ghost Tour ‘ended after what felt like only an hour’ and Gregor complaining that jump scares ‘feel cheap and lazy’ are just a couple of examples that came up repeatedly stressing the feeling of the experience. In being brought into a liminal state and in becoming ‘ghosts’, the tour-goers and the guide are actors within an immersive performance. In responding to the emotional and physical effects imposed on them, mediated through their status as subjects and through the relationship to the place around them, visitors are also acted upon. With this perspective, it matters not what experience the visitors have in order to understand them all on the same terms.
This development may help to resolve a difficulty of studying tourists. Affective responses to attractions such as ghost tours are varied and unpredictable among those who visit them (Hemmings 2005). In this instance, the sense of unease triggered by darkness or the deliberate looking away from a point where one may see a ghost can be understood in the same sense as a lack of authenticity or disappointment in not being ‘spooked’ or scared. It is a quality of experience that is ‘more personal, as it refers to an active self, to a human being who not only engages in but shapes an action’ (Bruner 1986: 5). Qualitatively different responses indicate affective experiences in all cases — sometimes more emotional, other times more physical, but always a result of atmospheric and environmental factors blended with subjectivity. This allows even vastly different experiences to be categorised in the same way.
To go down this trajectory might lead to a consideration of emotions ‘as primarily neither meanings nor feelings, but as experiences learned and expressed in the body in social interactions through the mediation of systems of signs, verbal and nonverbal’ (Leavitt 1996: 526). The responses of tour-goers are shown verbally and through bodily behaviour, charged with emotive evaluation or what does and does not ‘feel right.’ They are refined by their subjective stances of prior knowledge and personal belief but also by the place and environment around them. The final chapter will consider the result of spectral invocation and affective experiences in terms of ‘affective enchantment.’ I will argue that a certain form of enchanted history is instantiated and encouraged through a mixture of introducing individuals into a liminal state, which induces affective responses to the possibility of the spectral and illustrates the ghost’s uncanny nature.
Chapter Three: Affective Enchantment and Being Present in the Present
Ghost tours involve themselves with spectrality and generate affective experiences for the visitors, who are immersed in the tour through theatrical techniques and the use of place. Tour guides attempt to beckon the ghostly through embodied theatrical techniques and by generating immersive atmospheres in haunted places. Experiences are determined by the individual’s responsiveness to this performance and the affective triggers of the place in question. This final chapter will bring those themes — spectrality and affective experiences — together to discuss how history is enacted on the tours and how this history has ghostliness at its centre rather than commitment to factual accuracy alone. I would also like to explore and emphasise how this kind of historical retelling, which Clanton (2007) and Holloway (2010) refer to as enchantment, emphasises the ghost’s unexplainable, liminal nature that makes it so terrifying.
When the experience of going on a tour is unsatisfactory, tour-goers are quick to criticise. Michelle joined me on the Free Ghost Tour which took place in the middle of the afternoon. When I asked her if there was anything about it she did not enjoy, she gave the following response which picked up on the guide’s behaviour and the environment in which the tour took place:
[…] when you’re attempting to create a distinct imagery in people’s minds and tell stories which, at least for that moment, feel believable in a setting where there are no props and its broad daylight, overstepping the enthusiasm line can take a story from captivating to a little childish. In doing so, there were a few occasions where I found my mind jumping back and forth between the imagery being created in my mind and the real world in front of me having had my thought processes interrupted.
The Free Ghost Tours do not go underground but instead lead visitors around the old city centre and stop off at various points of interest. There are also no costumes, with guides instead wearing a branded yellow cagoule over casual clothing. Furthermore, while guides are bemoaned for over-the-top performances, online reviews of tours also pick up on if the guide is yawning, monotone in their delivery or seemingly more interested in moving the group along quickly than giving them time to look around. The lack of a controlled, immersive experience — an atmosphere that can effectively ‘interrupt, perturb and haunt fixed persons, places or things’ (Anderson 2009: 78) — meant that the tour was not engaging enough for Michelle, a common criticism of tours in general. While several ghost stories were told in different places, the environmental aesthetic of settings such as a cemetery or dark room was lost. The experience was not as memorable or enjoyable, a typical consequence of this and the lacking theatrical engagement of some guides.
There is another reason why Michelle may have found her ‘mind jumping back and forth’ between what the guide was talking about and the present day. The guide talked not just about ghosts but Edinburgh’s history more generally — witch trials, old local markets and historical monuments such as the Flodden Wall (the old stone wall that used to enclose the city, which still exists in fragments today). These stories of the past were told sometimes in front of old buildings but also near more modern ones — such as the Edinburgh City Council building on East Market Street, parallel to the Royal Mile. Other visitors found it easier to imagine what the guide was saying when older buildings were the backdrop for the discussion. One such tour-goer, Peter, made this comment to me:
[…] so much of old Edinburgh is still intact, like you can visualise these images. I think if the Royal Mile wasn’t there telling us what happened, [it] would be harder.
The Royal Mile is talked of almost as a teller of history itself, recalling the past in the same way that a guide does. Both the performing guide and the setting, the place of the discussion, contribute to the imagining of the past that is delivered on the tours. City of the Dead’s founder Jan Henderson echoed this view when I got the chance to ask him about his work:
The Old Town [of Edinburgh] still looks old. It has a totally gruesome history. The two gel pretty well.
The Scottish capital, in Jan’s view, is an ideal place to learn about the darker side of history. Edinburgh’s unique architecture, blending historically old buildings with more contemporary structures, is an aid to this process.
Such historical retellings, occurring in a contemporary environment and often featuring guides dressed in period costume, lend themselves to a discussion of what Anderson (1985: 3) refers to as ‘the simulation of life in another time’, or living history. Handler and Saxton (1988) argue that whilst exactly what living history encapsulates is vague, it often places great emphasis on the achievement of authentic experiences. This is not just in terms of historical accuracy, but also an experience ‘in which individuals feel themselves to be in touch both with a “real” world and their “real” selves’ (ibid.: 243). These are expressed in affective terms, with practitioners of living history commenting on when it feels real or special and explaining how it permits an escape from the mundane nature of everyday life, while also allowing an exploration of past mindsets and behaviours (McCalman & Pickering 2010). It is this experience that ghost tours promise and upon which expectations are built. City of Edinburgh Tours for example proclaim that their guides possess ‘expertise in bringing the events of our past to life’ and they ‘bring their own personality to the role and enjoy the full freedom to relate their favourite tales’ (City of Edinburgh Tours 2018). It is claimed here that the guides make historical details obvious and bring them to the forefront of experience courtesy of their expressive performances. Living history provides a ‘rubric of experiential learning’ (McCalman & Pickering 2010: 3) for both guide and visitor as they are invited into places of historical significance to see the past expressed through immersive performances.
The employees of the tours that I spoke to get great satisfaction from their roles. Jan told me that he had little interest in history before becoming a guide, but subsequently discovered that he had a great passion for it. Richard, a guide for City of Edinburgh Tours, especially enjoys the public speaking aspect of the role, while Roxanne from Mercat Tours finds the role incredibly ‘interesting’ and ‘quite different from day to day.’ Tourist sites ‘are intrinsically concerned with creating an affective relationship with the past’ (McCalman & Pickering 2010: 8) and this applies to the guides as much as the visitors. Ghosts render those places of historical significance more engaging and interesting than they otherwise might be (Clanton 2007), increasing engagement with, and affection for, involvement with the tours for the guides. This is the case for visitors too — while online feedback picks up on interesting and valid criticisms, the overwhelming majority of reviews mark Edinburgh’s ghost tours very highly, with frequent praise levelled at the guides and the location. On ghost tours, living history is an immersion in the historical retelling. A historical retelling close to the hearts of the storytellers in which spectrality plays a significant role, and that is designed to leave visitors with positive experiences.
However, living history is subject to limitations. Commentators on historical re-enactments are quick to point out that a ‘hindrance to complete authenticity is the impossibility of recovering the subjective experience of people in the past’ (Handler & Saxton 1988: 245). Michelle’s comment about daylight taking away from the effectiveness of the tour is one example of how the past in its reality escapes even the most devoted history teller or reenactor. Schnepel and Ben-Ari (2005: 154) highlight how prolonged states of darkness were much more common before the invention of electric lighting, meaning ‘that for most of us nowadays it is hard to imagine what life was like without electricity, how dark darkness can really be.’ Even when tour companies stress the ‘unaltered’ state of their primary locations, low level lighting, glowing fire exit signs and the reassuring light of the guide’s torch or candle are never too far away. The abundance of light can prevent full immersion in the experience, and finding the stories ‘believable.’ Given how ‘performances of the past… rely equally on experience to verify these claims to historical accuracy’ (Schwarz 2010: 20), when the experience does not — indeed, cannot — map onto what ‘life back then’ would have been like, then the engagement with the historical material is diminished. The affective responses are less positive, and tour feedback can be more negatively charged as a result.
However, as Clanton (2007) argues, historical authenticity is not the be all and end all for ghost tourism. This is because ghost tours, in not only inducing affective responses but also conjuring the spectral qualities of places and bodies, represent a special type of living history that uses the spectral to ‘lure visitors and re-enchant, or in some cases, enchant, them with the past’ (ibid.: 11). Ghost tours are examples of what Holloway (2010) describes as enchantment. Enchantment takes place ‘where we are simultaneously excited and made to feel uneasy as the world we know, the mundane… is suspended and affects us in unforeseen ways’ (ibid.: 625). Bringing forth spectrality in places such as the Blair Street Vaults is an example of this. Edinburgh’s ghost tourism ‘engineers — through a relatively consistent performative infrastructure… affective charges of possibility and speculation’ (Holloway 2010: 618). The focus of the city’s ghost tourism is not on accurately evaluating or reconstructing history. Instead, the past is brought into the present for the purposes of entertainment and (to a lesser extent) education, taunting tour-goers with the ghostly. Conjuring spectrality subverts typical understandings of the everyday and encourages affective responses. Ghost tourism however ‘delights but does not delude’ (Saler 2006: 702), and visitors are aware that what they are seeing is not an authentic retelling of history in the most idealised sense, but an enchanted history meant to entertain visitors with the spooky.
Authentic experiences of enchanted history take a specific form. Handler and Saxton (1988) highlight that authentic experiences refer to a life that is planned or authored and encapsulates the ‘magic’ or ‘special’ (ibid.: 245) moments during re-enactments when it feels as real as it possibly can. These remarkable moments are understood in contrast to the lesser experiences of daily life. Carl described ghost stories in this way, as ‘legends’ specifically:
For me, legends are filled with fantastic things that somehow are true. That’s the definition of a legend. So all these legends… they are true somehow for me.
Carl understood the apparent impossibility of ghosts and yet, in ways he could not express, they remain at least partially true for him. Another visitor added to this by saying that a legend like a ghost ‘could be true but is not necessarily.’ This kind of impact, leaving visitors wondering about the truth behind legends, is achieved through theatrical techniques (Holloway 2010). It is a separate phenomenon from the ‘historical truth’ of the tour, since the theatrical and immersive delivery of most tours ‘encourages audience members to get lost… in the “real” (highly detailed, tactile etc.) fictional world’ (Biggin 2017: 197), an example of what Gordon (2008) means when she explores how haunting sucks people into a version of reality. Visitors are enchanted and left grappling with what just might be the case. Authentic experiences on tours involve creating an experience that is emotively, as opposed to only factually, real.
Handler and Saxton (1988) do not bring spectrality into their discussion of authentic experiences. Making this step, one could argue that the dichotomy between authentic and inauthentic experiences echoes the Durkheimian binary between the sacred, the ‘superior, powerful, forbidden to normal contact, and deserving of great respect’ understood with direct reference to the supernatural, and the profane, ‘the ordinary, uneventful, and practical routine of everyday life’ (Pals 2006: 96). The spectral can be seen as supernatural and sacred; it is that which is not only forbidden but foreclosed to typical modes of perception, requiring a specific rendering of place and bodies in order for it to become even partly intelligible. It is this process that characterises ghost tours, the attempt to ‘mould enchanted affectual registers in conjunction with different materialities that have the capacity to affect and act on tourists’ bodies through the multiple modulation of intensity and enchantment’ (Holloway 2010: 634) and generating affective responses ranging from ‘emotion and sensation, panic and intimacy’ (Biggin 2017: 201) that typify immersive experiences. Through the planned medium of the tour, the experience has the emplotted nature it requires and feeds into the magic of the moment that McCalman & Pickering (2010) identify as a sign of a historical re-enactment’s affective potential. Living history makes itself authentic in this case not through attempting to recreate that which is long gone, but instead bringing the ‘long gone’ back into the present day in a fantastical manner designed to entertain or spook, or more broadly generate an experience which is described in affective terms and permits an escape from normal life. It is the affective enchantment of a ghostly past.
This is, however, not the full picture. Holloway (2010) discusses the deliberately utilised techniques such as environmental influences and space as something that opens visitors up to being enchanted and suggesting what just ‘might be’ as opposed to ‘what definitely is.’ Tour guides talked to me in detail about the techniques they consciously employ to fulfil their roles, be it an attempt to ‘really try [to] ham it up’ as the City of Edinburgh Tours guide put it to me, or the use of ‘jumper ooters’ (employees paid to dress up in dark costumes and suddenly jump out on tour-goers, triggering an unexpected jump scare). They were all at a loss though when asked to explain what they thought ghosts were. Reflexive awareness was replaced with evident confusion. Roxanne explained ghosts in terms of ‘a chill, feel[ing] something brush past’ — what they do rather than what they are — and maintained that any definition of ghosts should be kept broad to account for the wide variety of experiences, something she is largely unable to characterise beyond what people have told her. Jan Henderson, despite having published numerous books on ghosts in Edinburgh (Jan Andrew Henderson 2018), could only give a brief explanation to me:
I honestly can’t [explain ghosts]. I don’t think they’re dead people though. That’s just silly.
Something about spectres escapes the very performers tasked with conveying their being. It is a common experience with ghosts. Observing a ritual in Kuala Lumpur, Baxstrom (2013: 3) explains how ‘I cannot directly “see” the demon or the spirits, but I am convinced that they are there. Or that something is there.’ The full explanation of this moment is limited by what he could not see, yet he feels that something is obviously escaping his ordinary perception. This goes back to the role of subjectivity; Michelle’s evaluation of Mercat Tours was influenced by her inability to believe in the spectral, while Baxstrom’s evaluation of the situation is limited by his inability to see it. He ‘had not mastered this sensed invisible force at all’ (ibid.: 3). It is a lack of mastery that applies to tour guides and operators as well it would seem, who are unable to explain spectral beings asides the case studies from visitors that most companies scrupulously record.
Even the practice of living history houses a contradiction at its core. Acting is a ghostly activity since it involves stepping into a role that has to manage a contradiction between a connection to the unexplainable and immaterial through techniques of embodiment and material performance (Luckhurst & Morin 2014). Discussing ‘the inheritance of Marxism’, Derrida (1994: 54) argues that ‘one must… assume its most “living” part, which is to say, paradoxically, that which continues to put back on the drawing board the question of life, spirit or the spectral, of life-death beyond the opposition of life and death.’ Taking history on as a performative impulse means that what is called ‘living history’ is not actually concerned with the ‘living’ at all, nor simply with the dead, but by confusing the two into a state that is hard to articulate. Ghosts can be every bit as contradictory as the practices used to invoke them, and to enchant visitors with their potential being.
It would be naive therefore to assume that the full affective force of the spectral is limited to those things knowingly used by tour guides and companies. Ghostly chronotopes (that is, the performed spatio-temporal discourses within ghost tourism) ‘are prior to ideologies, affording their conditions of possibility… in their heterogeneity and juxtapositions’ (Wirtz 2016: 345). Spectrally-infused stories — indeed, the spectral itself — contain inherent contradictions. It is ‘a paradoxical incorporation… [a] carnal form of the spirit’ (Derrida 1994: 6) which directly impacts on the experience of the person who confronts (or is confronted) by it. My own confusion and fear in the vaults, the graveyards and the other haunted places was not based so much on my stubbornness that something was there, but a fear of what ‘could be’, something Holloway (2010: 625) describes as ‘an assemblage of the possible.’ This feasibility of the spectral is generated by the ghost tour experience, but this experience does not (perhaps, cannot) sufficiently explain ghosts beyond teasing visitors with their potential existence.
This may be because ghosts have a liminal and ambiguous state. They escape classification and logic, rendering them unexplainable other than through recalling experiences in haunted places. However, this is not to say that the presence of ghosts is unexplainable. We should instead ask ‘how is absence performed, materialised and objectified? In and through which kinds of tools, objects, representations and spaces is absence made present’ (Meyer 2012: 103)? Ghostly presence is generated through performative techniques that brings the spectral quality out in both people and places. When Bruce enters a liminal state, he transgresses categories of human and non-human — something often attributed to that which is evil and beyond our understanding. For example, the killer Michael Myers from the Halloween movie series is meant to be ‘a mythic, elusive bogeyman, one of superhuman strength who cannot be killed’ (Rogers 2003: 131) and who eludes the human state. This monstrosity is not explained, but presented. That’s all that can be done. It takes the performance of this state and the immersion of witnesses into the moment for this ambiguity to become clear. The ghost as somehow between presence and absence, and materiality and immateriality, is evidenced within affective enchantment.
Without this, a simple walk into these haunted spaces may not signify ghosts. South Bridge vaults not used for ghost tours house various pubs, clubs and leisure facilities, many of which make little claim to being haunted and even fewer make a conscious effort to play on this possibility (Banshee Labyrinth’s claim to being ‘Scotland’s most haunted pub’ on its sign outside being the exception). Without the affective techniques of ghost tourism, ghosts never ascend from their state of absence and their potential existence is never experienced by visitors.
However, the process of making what is absent present rarely takes a completed form. Absences are ‘an ambiguous interrelation between what is there and what is not… cultural, physical and social phenomena that powerfully influence people’s conceptualizations of themselves and the world’ (Bille et al. 2010: 4). Absence is ‘sensuously, emotionally and ideationally present to people’ (ibid.: 3) in the way that I registered the potential for ghostly presence in the vaults. This has already been studied by Kidron (2013) among descendants of Holocaust survivors who visit Auschwitz. The felt presence of ancestors ‘enabled the performance of survivor emotions tacitly present in the home’ (ibid.: 187), whereas with urban ghost tourism the reverse seems more accurate. The performative aspect and its consequences trigger affective modes and signify a presence where there was once, or still is, absence. Doubt remains however as ghosts are ‘only connected to the present as an apparition, simultaneously visible and invisible. To be alert to the ghost — and the presence of ghosts — requires a particular kind of seeing’ (Pile 2005: 139) which escapes the majority of visitors. Both Roxanne and Bruce told me that they have a good number of ‘creepy’ stories to divulge during their tours, but sightings of spirits or other serious incidents are actually very rare. Absence is disturbed, and the spectral is rendered present, but not in its frightening totality.
The flux between presence and absence is one way that ghosts are beyond coherent explanation, but not the only one. Pile (2005) argues that Freud’s notion of the uncanny covers those things which were once familiar but are now strange and horrifying, yet retain a certain amount of their familiarity. Importantly, the ‘uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old’ (Freud 2004: 166) that has returned. Ghosts as uncanny beings sit simultaneously in history and in modern times; indeed the ghost comes into being by being a thing that somehow returns and in doing so transgresses simple, oppositional thinking (Derrida 1994). The ghost confuses the past and the present, forcing you to ask ‘whether the spectrality effect does not consist in undoing this opposition’ (ibid.: 40). Spectres breach temporal realms as they are absent from now insofar as they are consigned to the past, and yet in an ambiguous and unsettling way, they are made present in the present.
This generation of presence was seen across all ghost tours. In the Niddry Street Vaults, Bruce’s embodiment of the spectral as he became a ghostly, ambiguous figure gave the distinct impression of a spectral presence being there, even if the sight of any ghost was not recorded. Roxanne did the same when blowing out the candle in the Blair Street Vaults, mimicking the reported actions of the resident ghost there. In Mary King’s Close and on the City of Edinburgh Tours, the period dress of the guides was designed to give the impression that they were figures from the past, as opposed to simply actors portraying these figures (an impression they would reinforce by addressing the crowd in first person, and recalling their ‘own memories’ of a certain place as if they were there at the time). It is what Derrida (1994: 41) calls a form of ‘conjuration… the magical incantation destined to evoke, to bring forth with the voice, to convoke a charm or a spirit.’ Yet this incarnation never takes the full form of seeing a ghost in full material form. It is neither there nor not there, but as a possibility — ‘the experience of the impossible, which can only be a radical experience of the perhaps’ (ibid.: 35). Presence is only ever connoted to a certain extent, bringing that which is historical into the now, but not completely. This is, however, enough for the basis of immersive experiences of the spectral and creating enchanted experiences for visitors.
To conclude, the conjuring of spectrality and the experiences drawn from subjectivity and place on ghost tours add up to an important and intricate result; affective enchantment, with the spectral at its heart. Guides and visitors are participants in a form of living history, one which finds authenticity not from accurate reconstruction but from the emotive experiences of a site that becomes real through immersion. Ghost tours are enchanted experiences; they promote ‘a sense of reflexive openness to and pleasure in the spooky’ (Holloway 2010: 634) that contrasts to the more mundane nature of everyday, non-spectral life. However, while spectrality is made present through theatrical immersion and the encouragement of affective responses, ghost tour companies remain uncertain what the nature of spectral beings is. This is because ghosts are seen as ‘transgressing the temporal separation of past and present’ (Bille et al. 2010: 10) and instead as being between the two. The theatrical and immersive conjuring of spectrality and the suggestion of ghosts highlights their uncanny nature as indescribable, supposedly impossible beings. Guides often tell haunted stories with the intention of unsettling or chilling their visitors. The way that they signify ghostly presence exacerbates this result by highlighting the liminality of the ghost, and enchants even non-believers with a magical feeling of the perhaps. They escape explanation even for those tasked with enchanting visitors with these legends in the contemporary world.
Conclusion: Haunted Ethnography
The driving question behind this research has been ‘what is done with ghosts?’ What I have attempted to show is that they are conjured from and into haunted places through the employment of theatrical techniques. This leaves visitors with an array of affective experiences determined by their own background and beliefs, as well as the influences of the place being visited. This all contributes to affective enchantment, a living history that does not prioritise historical reconstruction but instead enchants visitors with the possible and alludes to another reality that visitors can become immersed into. This also highlights the blending of the distinction between past and present, material and immaterial, and even human and ghost. As such, affective enchantment is of relevance to hauntology and recent developments in the study of absence. This involves a disintegration of the distinction between spectre and spirit as argued by Derrida (1994), as ghosts are not material or immaterial in a complete sense and the very transgression of these categories is central to their quality.
Such a quality is perhaps what assures the ghost’s popularity. We possess ‘a cultural fascination with monsters — a fixation that is born of the twin desire to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate… that which threatens’ (Cohen 1996: viii). Derrida (1994) also signifies that the spectral is topic of fascination. This fascination is present in the writing of Sir Walter Scott and in the Scottish capital’s tourism industry today. Believers and non-believers in the paranormal are enchanted by the unexplainable phenomenon of spectres. The ghost’s unexplainable nature contributes to its presence in Scottish tourism.
Such an argument has left one area of enquiry untouched — that of thanotourism, or dark tourism. Kidron (2013) contributes one example of research in this area, studying visitors to the old Auschwitz concentration camp and the presencing of ancestors. Holloway (2010) explains that ghost tours also often take place in sites associated with horrific actions and events, such as prisons or graveyards. While ‘ghost tourism tends towards the “lighter” end of the dark tourism spectrum’ (ibid.: 620), thanotourism cannot be given adequate consideration within the focus of this research. Interesting work on ghost tours that firmly considers them within this area could follow from what has been discussed in this dissertation.
It is also worth briefly noting the issue of interpretation. Lukes (1975) identifies that the validity of the ethnographer’s interpretation of events is far from guaranteed, and that the best case scenario is that it is backed up by the understandings of others. Given how my breakdown of the tours is based in the accounts and experiences of my interlocutors, woven with an analysis that borrows from several disciplines, I am confident in my account. Nevertheless, as made clear in this dissertation, one thing can be interpreted very differently by different people, and this potential is what makes the study of ghost tourism and spectrality so rich for further research.
This dissertation has, in general terms, looked at why and how the past is invoked and brought into the present. A recurrence and recalling of what has passed seems like a central characteristic of the ethnographic method itself. In referring to my field notes and revisiting interviews, I was consistently consulting that which has already happened. My notes are accounts of a past that had at one point been the present. Similarly, the reference to various citations throughout this dissertation is always a reference to past research. The ethnographic method, blending fieldwork with existing theory, necessarily depends on what has already occurred, and now returns.
It has taken an ethnography of haunting to demonstrate that ethnography itself is haunted, constantly returning to academic work of old and to notes that ceased to describe the present moment as soon as pen was put to paper. With my interlocutors and cited sources playing such a prominent role in this ethnography — as, indeed, they do in all ethnographies — ‘the dead appear as the protagonists of a disquieting story told by others’ (Lincoln & Lincoln 2015: 195). Obviously, not all the authors or participants in this research are deceased, but their experiences and words have lost the liveliness of the present moment. Although it may sound overambitious, I would like to think that this observation may fuel new discussions about how anthropology should be reflexive on its use of old sources like Freud, Durkheim, Turner and others. It has taken a direct concern with the ghostly, with affective enchantments and the invoking of the spectral in haunted places, to highlight how the ethnographic method cannot escape the ghosts of its past.
Yet, as this research highlights, to see ghosts as being purely of the past is limiting. For ghosts do not remain in the past, but come back into now. This ethnography, concerning itself primarily with the spectral and the ghostly, highlights ethnographies more generally as being a mediation between explaining what has been seen before the time of reading, with argument supported from those writing before even back then, and yet all explained in the present. The research method that anthropologists hold onto so dearly is an entity within which the past is blurred with the present. A spectre is haunting anthropology… the spectre of ethnography.
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