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The lucrative business of haunted houses

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Via Financial Times

At the end of Devil’s Walk, past the gnarled hanging trees, once the scene of mass executions, lies the medieval castle. My taxi driver does not like coming here. There is just something about the place, he says.

The sun sinks, casting shadows across the courtyard. I reach my room by climbing a twisting stone staircase. Previous guests claim to have heard the rustling skirts of the ghost of Lady Mary Berkeley, former mistress of the castle, who died of a broken heart here exactly 400 years ago. Somewhere a door bangs in the wind. Otherwise the place is quiet.

An email arrives on my phone. Attached is an excerpt from the 1895 diary of another one-time mistress, Leonora Sophia Van Marter:

“I feel the presence of something unworldly watching my every move. The darkness can be felt in a physical way, and in this castle, it envelops and overwhelms like an evil black tar.

“I am sitting alone in the Pink Room almost too scared to write; I apologise for my shaky handwriting but my nerves are stretched. I am trying to be rational, but my fear is so intense I could cry.”

My room is cold. Is it a sign of a spirit’s presence? Or is it because the radiator is switched off?

Chillingham Castle Front aspect of Chillingham Castle, showing both Norman and Elizabethan architecture, and flying Northumberland flag.
Chillingham Castle © Gregor Schmatz for the FT

Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, close to the Scottish border, claims to be one of Britain’s most haunted buildings — though it is unclear by what measure (statisticians tend to be a rational bunch). The property, surrounded by lakes and gardens, is part holiday lets, part home to the Wakefield family which includes Dominic Cummings. The British political strategist and adviser happens to be married to Mary Wakefield, daughter of the castle’s owners, Sir Humphry and the Hon Lady Katharine (the ownership bloodline dates back to the 13th century).

When it comes to spooks and spectres, Chillingham is striking — and its owners are making the most of their unearthly asset.

The lure of ghosts, especially at Halloween, has not been lost on owners of old properties such as Chillingham. According to James Probert, director of marketing at Historic Houses, which represents independently owned historic homes, ghost tours are “growing as a source of visitors and income”.

“You need to think about income and be imaginative,” says Elena Faraoni, whose family owns Hoghton Tower, a Grade I-listed Tudor house in Lancashire in the north of England. “Running these historic places is hard. Ghosts add to the value of marketing. It’s an interesting crowd — they really believe.”

Hoghton Tower © Hoghton Tower Preservation Trust
Hoghton Tower © Hoghton Tower Preservation Trust

That’s the spirit

The embers of the log fire are glowing in Chillingham’s Minstrel’s Hall. I meet Mark Trotter, who runs the castle’s ghost tours. Tall with clipped white hair, he looks every inch the detective (which used to be his job). Having moved from County Durham for a quiet life, he now runs visits and oversees trips from paranormal groups, of which there are many. “It’s their life,” he says.

Trotter brushes off my cynicism with a smile and a shrug. When he leaves the castle, he does not give the ghosts another thought. “We’re paid to give people a nice evening. I can’t magic up a paranormal experience.”

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Ghosts had never crossed his mind before he worked here: “I will always look for a logical explanation.” But now, after several “encounters”, he claims to be a believer. The most frightening, he says, pointing to the two iron chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, was the night he saw them swinging around in synchronised rotation. Other visitors claim to have experienced hair-pulling, a poke in the back and ghostly sightings. One woman threw up after a tour. Neither ectoplasm nor alcohol-induced, Trotter insists.

Surely this rationalist-turned-spiritualist act is a marketing ploy, I ask. Trotter shrugs. He is not up for trickery. “Good practice is being extremely honest. Bad practice is hamming it up.”

We head off through the dark, dark woods to the torture chamber and the chapel. The crowd includes a couple on their second visit, despite not seeing a ghost the first time; a father and daughter; and a group of women on a night out who may have had a few drinks. Enjoying a concurrent tour is a group of office workers on a bonding trip.

Hannah, 14, wanted a Halloween “experience” and is hoping to be scared. I ask her father, Scott, whether he believes in ghosts. “I’ll find out today,” he says. Whether it is nerves or the cold, he appears to be on edge. When he discovers I am staying in the castle, he is incredulous: “In one of these rooms? Ooof!”

Chillingham Castle Impailing pole and body, displayed in the Torture Chamber.
Torture Chamber at Chillingham Castle © Gregor Schmatz for the FT

Visiting haunted houses taps into emotional needs, says Margee Kerr, a sociologist and writer who studies scare attractions. Fear brings a natural high and conquering it lifts confidence. She tells me via email that people enjoy the thrill of putting themselves in challenging positions — to feel that they have overcome adversity and shown courage. Haunted houses also offer escape from their day-to-day thoughts, tapping into their almost animal-like instinct.

“We can enjoy being fully in our bodies, feeling primal and animal. We want opportunities to explore something novel, test ourselves, show our courage and feel brave.”

Visitors to Hoghton can become very anxious, says Faraoni. “It’s their own imagination that takes them to that place.”

Brisk business

The costs of running ghost tours are very low. Advertising to paranormal groups on social media is cheap and effective marketing. Aside from paying a tour guide, owners of historic houses do not even have to pay for electricity. Candles and torches are more atmospheric than overhead lights.

Business at Chillingham is brisk. The castle receives about 2,700 visitors a year on its two-hour tours at £20 a throw. Another 200 or so sign up for a bumper version: four hours at £40, plus the castle hosts up to 30 people a month from visiting paranormal groups at a £50 per person charge. Some visitors may decide to stay overnight for the full haunted experience — at extra cost.

Chillingham Castle French Urn gifted by King Louise Phillip in 1832, standing in Italian Garden.
Italian Garden at Chillingham © Gregor Schmatz for the FT

Like any business, however, a bad review on TripAdvisor can dash fortunes and exposés of fakery rip through paranormal chat groups like a poltergeist on the rampage. Even death, it seems, will not save you from social media.

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And there is another obvious flaw in the business model: ghosts. They do not appear on demand, even if you do believe in them.

Sarah Callandar-Beckett owns and runs Combermere Abbey in Lancashire. While she believes in the spirit world, which she admits “might sound kooky”, and is happy to talk to guests about that, she does not market tours as ghost hunts. “As you cannot guarantee an experience, it is better not to give people high hopes.” She does, however, feature a ghostly Victorian photograph on the abbey’s website, purportedly of the ghost of the second Lord Combermere, reclining in a chair in the library.

Combermere Abbey - the restored Library where the ghost photos were taken.
The library in Combermere Abbey where the ghost photos were taken.
https://combermereabbey.co.uk/stories/ghost-combermere-abbey/
The ghost photos taken in the library at Combermere Abbey

Faraoni, a firm non-believer, says owners tread a fine line between heritage and Disneyfication. “We don’t have people coming out of cupboards saying ‘boo!’ .” Nor would she want her house to be overtaken by scare tourism. “We’ve had people say they would like to come in with an ouija board.” She turns them down. “It’s a family home.”

By contrast, film producer Bil Bungay has no ambitions to live in his reputedly haunted semi-detached ex-council house in Pontefract, West Yorkshire — though he does let it out to groups of visitors for up to £400 a night. Bungay bought 30 East Drive to stage a premiere for his 2012 film, When the Lights Went Out, loosely based on the house’s alleged poltergeist, a local 1960s legend. “People now visit almost every night,” he says. “They come for three reasons: to visit the subject of a movie, to have the prospect of a genuine encounter with a poltergeist and, lastly, to have the bejeezus frightened out of them.” Overnight visitors must bring their own bedding and breakfast is not included.

30 East Drive © Bil Bungay
© Bil Bungay
30 East Drive
Alleged poltergeist at 30 East Drive

What happens when an owner decides to sell a haunted house? One estate agent tells the story of a buyer who withdrew his offer after discovering witches were once burnt in the garden. Henry Pryor, an independent buying agent, says a “haunted” house is the kiss of death and should never be emphasised in marketing materials. “Quite the reverse. People are genuinely spooked. Converted churches don’t sell particularly well. Houses next to graveyards are not great [sellers either].” If the estate agent knows a house is haunted, they are obliged to tell the buyer, he says. “If the owner is asked ‘Is the house haunted’, they should answer truthfully although I suspect that ‘I don’t believe in ghosts’ would be a reasonable defence if challenged.”

Paul Veenhuijzen, a Dutch businessman who is trying to sell 16th-century Earlshall Castle near St Andrews in Scotland for £5m, says his house reputedly has two ghosts, including Robert the Bruce. “You can hear him coming up the steps with his heavy boots. Until you realise that it’s the rope on the flag mast,” he says. “I don’t believe in it; we’re from Dutch farming stock.” He is not convinced buyers are deterred from haunted reputations. “I’m not hiding it. I tell them.”

Earlshall Castle
Earlshall Castle in Scotland

Before my tour of Chillingham, I asked Christopher French, head of Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, why people believe houses are haunted.

It is all down to context, he says. Experiments in which participants were told that a disused building was the site of paranormal activity were more likely to feel a presence than those who just turned up at an empty building.

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“Things that are relatively mundane, the odd creak, the draft, take on a new significance.” Shadows and high ceilings tap into an evolutionary instinct: you are scared of what you cannot see. Theatrics, in other words.

Nevertheless, belief is powerful. “Most of us don’t believe the idea that when we die, that’s the end. The notion that spirits hang around an earthly plane is evidence of life after death.”

French finds ghost investigations boring. Nothing happens. Paranormal groups with their own kits, he says, “look like they are doing science and they really [are] not. If you wanted to look at it properly, you would take into account your own biases. They’re actually on the hunt for the evidence of ghosts.”

I think about our conversation as the Chillingham ghost tour ends. There are selfies, “woos” and gasps when we venture out to the dark, dark woods, said to be populated by the spirits of soldiers, monks and prisoners. A woman says she feels uneasy in the Edward Room.

Everyone leaves, apparently happy. Some insist a slammed door was not just the wind. One woman says she felt uneasy at the top of the castle. A man from Detroit jots down Trotter’s email address so he can tell him if anything happens in the castle’s rooms, where he is staying overnight.

A testing time

Over a cup of tea, Trotter shows me his paranormal investigation kit stored in a large yellow toolbox, which he uses on the castle’s premium tours. There are electromagnetic field meters — aka ghost meters — and Electronic Voice Phenomenon recorders that are said to pick up on spirits’ sounds. Together we go to the chapel, dousing rods at the ready. He shows me how to hold the rods and ask the spirits questions.

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“Is anyone here with us?” The rods cross, signifying yes. He continues his spiritual 20 questions, establishing Eleanor is here. “Is David here?” Nothing. “Elvis?” I think, but I keep my mouth shut.

Then it is my turn. At first, nothing happens. Perhaps my hands are gripping too tightly. I loosen them and repeat the question. “Are any spirits here?”

The rods cross. Did my desire to please the amiable Trotter hasten their movement? And for a brief second, I wonder if I should try to contact my dead dad.

We call it a night.

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