I hope I’m not speaking solely for myself when I say that I’ve always been curious about the ghost walks advertised on Broad Street, led by the brilliant Bill Spectre, and wondered what secrets such a walk might reveal. I’m fairly sure I am speaking for myself, though, when I admit that I actually spent my Friday night this week following one.Of all the supernatural phenomena, ghosts or spirits are probably the most hotly debated. Their traditionally transparent but unmistakably human forms, emotional back-stories and even their use of language ties them closely to our culture, making them not some far-fetched demonic species but a spectacle of humanity. Ghosts are not monsters – they are antithetical versions of us. Is this why we find them so fascinating, and are so much more ready to believe in them than other paranormal subjects? Bill Spectre, standing tall on a stool in the middle of Oxford, illuminates the subject nicely for a crowd of enraptured tourists. “They didn’t have Britain’s Got Talent in those days” he quips, referring to the public hangings that used to take place in Oxford and the subsequent ghost stories which grew up around the site.
Oxford is supposedly a treasure trove of ghostly residents, and doesn’t exactly refute the idea of haunting with its spooky surroundings. St John’s library, BBC Oxford tells us, is home to Archbishop William Laud, beheaded in 1645, apparently in the middle of an essay crisis; Catholic master Obadiah Walker can allegedly be seen moping about the front quad of University College. Bill Spectre tells the crowd with great relish that New College was built on a plague pit – traditional horror conventions tell us this must mean it is absolutely full of ghouls with unfinished business.
Planting such ideas in the minds of Spectre’s audience doesn’t seem to be a very difficult task – call me paranoid, but the cobblestones and archways of Oxford have me glancing over my shoulder far more frequently than in my hometown, and an imagined knock on the door turns into a conviction that the 19th Century building I live in is haunted. Oxford is brimming with potential for haunting – hearing about ghosts in this setting seems almost normal and expected.
What gets me thinking, though, is Spectre’s constant circling around themes of sin and retribution. His story of the punishment of the Hell Fire Club, with a member being dragged through a barred window like meat through a mincer at Brasenose, all comes down to blasphemous activity. The story of Amy Robsart, who Bill tells us haunted her husband Lord Robert Dudley after he is believed to have arranged her death, centres on the theme of crime and punishment. Reports of ghostly activity in Trinity College manifest themselves in the chapel; the ideas of sin and redemption, purgatory and passing on circulate constantly through these stories, until before I know it I’m wondering if Goosebumps and Casper the Friendly Ghost were all along just telling me to shut up and behave.
Horror stories as socialisation – the thought occurs to me as the wonderful Mr Spectre is producing a book from his jacket pocket, and before I know it he’s levitating it in the air and my train of thought is gone. Hearing the ghost stories of Oxford seems to be more of a reassurance than an indictment of their power: suddenly your fear of visiting certain places in the dark becomes an illusion, entertainment, Britain’s Got Talent. We relish the tales of ghostly activity like we relish the sight of a man using an everyday object to defy gravity – we know there are smokes and mirrors behind it, but we go along with it anyway – because who doesn’t love a good ghost story?