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Who You Gonna Call?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

It may come as an absolute shock to you that I am a card carrying, dyed in the wool sceptic when it comes to the world of the supernatural.

I’ve always been interested in myth, legend and folklore and in my younger days I was undecided about some aspects of the supernatural although the realism and rationality of maturity have left me in no doubt of the preposterous nature of so-called paranormal activity.

This has never been illustrated for me so perfectly as it was when I visited the Niddry Street Vaults in Edinburgh, purported to be the most paranormally “active” site in the capital, if not the country. So legendary are it’s multitude of spectres and poltergeists it even attracted ghost hunter supremo Yvette Fielding and her Most Haunted accomplices.

The vaults themselves do have an impressive atmosphere about them. According to our guide they started out as an open street of traders which was eventually built over and became the vaulted storerooms for the tradesmen and retailers constructed above.

Limestone construction proved to be incompatible with the storing of goods however as they vaults let in too much moisture and so were eventually abandoned as storage. Lying empty they became a refuge for the city’s poor and disenfranchised who set up their own community beneath the South Bridge.

As with all ghettos the inhabitants fell prey to criminals and ne’er do wells, out of sight of the authorities. Burking, murder, rape, child abuse – all commonplace activities in the vaults. This bloody and sadistic history forming the basis of the many alleged hauntings of the vaults.

Eventually they were sealed up and remained undisturbed until three students in 1973, aware their flat adjoined the vaults, broke through the wall for a swatch and had a party in the vaults. So terrified by the evil they experienced they never returned to the flat. The landlord of the flats, clearly shrewd in the extreme, immediately purchased the vaults and made them a tourist attraction.

Up until yesterday I had never actually visited any of the Edinburgh vaults although I was aware of their existence and their reputation. With an afternoon to spare and a tourist spirit we decided to take one of the many guided tours of this most grisly of attractions.

It turned out to be quite enjoyable if only because it was a bit of a laugh. Some of the historical tales (gleaned supposedly from police records and other written sources) of crimes committed – the murder of a man caught molesting a woman’s son, the death of a large group of people who, seeking refuge from fire were asphyxiated and cooked, the stone vault becoming a massive oven – were interesting and engaging. Standing in the dark, damp vaults it was easy to imagine the horrors that people must have faced living and working in them.

Then it started to get a bit silly. One tale in particular undermined the experience for me. That of a seventeen year old girl lured into a meeting of the Hellfire Club where fifteen of its members subsequently raped her, roasted her alive on a spit then ate her (“they even made her eat parts of herself!” our guide declared with grim sincerity) in a dark occult ceremony.

Apart from the obvious practical inconsistencies (how exactly does one eat oneself once one has been roasted alive on a spit?) my biggest problem with this tale is the lack of any documentary evidence to back it up. “We had no idea this had taken place” our guide told us, “until a psychic entered this chamber and figured out what had happened”.

I have grave misgivings about psychics and mediums. Largely because they are all charlatans and liars. Yes that’s right Derek Acorah, I’m talking to you and all of your manipulative ilk. Perhaps a debate for another time, it’s sufficient for my purposes just now to emphatically state that all so-called psychics and mediums are simply con artists adept at cold-reading, generalising and manipulative vulnerable people. Usually for money. You should all be ashamed of yourselves.

Anyway, the guide’s credibility quickly drained away as he maintained a highly amusing and slightly irksome level of “What was that? Did anyone else hear/see/feel/smell that?” theatrics. Yeah mate it was traffic noise. It was dripping water. There was nothing there at all you’ve just made it up.

A couple of the people on the tour seemed to be buying into it although I don’t think anyone got really scared. The highlight was a room that had been used by a modern day witches coven (I know, I know) in the late nineties until the atmosphere turned sour and they were too scared to go back into it. The stone circle they had made in the centre of the room was claimed to be imbued with evil powers and our guide did a great job of hamming this “fact” right up.

Supposedly a sceptic, foolhardy on the fumes of his own disbelief, ignored his warnings to stay out of the circle. When he stepped in he felt a presence and challenged it to do something to him. He promptly suffered a (non fatal) heart attack and was carted off by paramedics.

As a result the guide would not allow anyone to step into the circle while he was in the room. He left the room ahead of us to give us the chance to try it out. Despite it pandering to him on some level I obviously had a wee dance in the circle. I was horrified when I felt the overwhelming urge to giggle like a schoolboy at how nonsensical it was. Maybe it did have dark powers after all.

It’s easy to be dismissive of the notions of hauntings, especially when the brochure lists among the catalogue of supernatural occurrences “an adolescent boy vomited in one of the vaults” (spooky) and “regular occurrences of panic attacks and visitors leaving the vaults” being two of my favourites. I firmly do not believe in ghosts and ghoulies.

The vaults however do possess an atmosphere that is sinister and oppressive. They are dark, dripping and cold and feel very out of place under the streets of a modern city. It’s easy to see how impressionable minds could be convinced they are experiencing strange phenomena and witnessing the materialisation of spirits. In those claustrophobic cells your imagination can run riot, and the sensory deprivation of the darkness would easily give rise to mildly hallucinatory imaginings.

From that point of view it was an enjoyable experience. Out of your comfort zone it’s a watching a scary movie on your own sort of experience where the only demons you are likely to encounter are your own expectations that you drag in there with you. Our tour group seemed relatively sensible, I would imagine in a larger group of “believers” the tour would be an absolute riot of ghost train proportions, each person’s hysteria magnifying the other’s.

So a mixed experience although ultimately rather satisfying. And proof to me of that age old adage – I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost!

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