Orkney: Stepping back in time with ghosts…

I was fortunate enough last week to travel to Orkney as part of a student trip. This was my first trip to Orkney, and spending my teenager years growing up on the Isle of Skye I was looking forward to returning to island living and ‘island time’ for a few days. Last year, I visited Skye for the first time in several years and was shocked to see the impact of increased tourism. In particular, I was concerned to see how the commercialisation of folklore around sites like the Fairy Glen had been leading to the degradation of the natural environment. I was, therefore, interested to see if Orkney was experiencing similar problems.

In the last few years Orkney has become a very popular destination for cruise ships. This has resulted in a seasonal influx of large tourist numbers coming off the cruise ships to explore the island each day in the summer months. From discussions with some of the Orcadians during our trip these visitor numbers had brought positive economic benefits to the community. However, inevitably large tourist numbers entering the island was also causing issues in terms of pressurised infrastructure and degradation to historic sites. The community is, therefore, currently looking to adapt its tourism offerings to ensure a sustainable approach to welcoming tourists and sharing the ‘gems’ that Orkney has to offer, whilst preserving its heritage and natural environment. 

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As we explored Orkney we had the privilege of meeting a number of individuals who shared their stories and experiences of living on the island. We also had the opportunity to hear some of the fabulous folklore and ghost stories that Orkney has to offer – which are in abundance! Unlike Skye, the stories we discovered where not offered as a commercialised package but came from the personal stories that had been passed down through the years. There was something authentic, exciting and precious about these encounters which made you feel like you were hearing them for the first time. The ghosts stories we heard also provided the opportunity to learn about Orkney and its community in different ways: 

  1. Ghost stories enabled us to discover Orkney’s people. We were very privileged to visit Skaill House out of season and hear some of its ghost stories. skaillhouseWe learnt about the wife of one of the laird’s whose ghost is said to reside upstairs. She appears to get frustrated when the staff tidy up too early in the morning, showing her displeasure by banging on the floor. We also learnt about the son of one of the Lairds who was tragically killed in an accident involving his horse. The boys picture can be found in the house, and it is said that he is responsible for the rocking horse moving on its own. A polite ghostly gentlemen has also been seen in one of the exhibition rooms and has been known to answer visitor questions – only for them to later learn that he was not really ‘there’! Through these stories we learnt a lot about the former residents of Skaill House, their personalities, what they liked to do and their relationships with each other.skaill2
  2. Ghost stories also helped us to see Orkney in different ways.  As well as learning about some of the personal stories of Skaill House, we also learnt more about its location. The house is built upon a Norse graveyard and is situated just along from Skara Brae, illustrating the significant age of the land and how its use has changed through the years.  We also learnt about ghostly footsteps that are heard in the Orkney Museum, often at lunchtime. We had not heard of the museum being haunted until these stories were told, and suddenly the age and former use of the building as a family home was brought to life. These stories added layers to the sites we visited, allowing us to see them in different and more complex ways.  skarabrae
  3. Ghost stories allowed us to step back in time. By learning about the personal stories of the people of Orkney, and how the places had changed and evolved through the years we were able to experience the temporal dimensions of the island. These stories paint a picture of how things were, the ways they were experienced and the people that played a role in these past events. 

The ghosts stories of Orkney provided a unique way of seeing the island and appreciating its heritage. Beyond its ghosts Orkney also has a rich history of folklore, many of which can be read in Tom Muir’s Orkney Folk Tales. These stories have the unique quality of giving life and context to places that are not necessarily ‘tourism hotspots’. As such there may be an opportunity here to use Orkney’s folklore and ghostly tales to develop alternative forms of tourism to help alleviate pressure on popular destinations. 

There is, however, a lesson to be learnt from Skye and the ways that folklore have been commercialised. Orkney offered us an authentic glimpse into its heritage through ghost stories, and this felt important not just as a visitor but for the people we spoke to. Stories may be an interesting way to share Orkney’s heritage in different ways, but how these are developed and offered will need careful consideration to ensure the people, place and past associated with them is represented in authentic and sustainable ways. 

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The night I found my scream! Experiencing the York Maze Hallowscream

On Sunday morning I woke up a little bleary eyed, and slightly bemused as I came to terms with my surroundings – a small, but lovely, AirB&B in York that we had booked out for the weekend. As I reached for my water I noticed that my throat was tender, and my voice a little croaky as I attempted to clear it. Coming down with a cold was my first thought, a common side effect of teaching freshers at the University, however, as I slowly awakened I started to remember the night before. My throat it seemed was less impending ‘freshers flu’ and much more likely the result of being chased by numerous supernatural and nefarious creatures, and the inevitable screaming that followed!

The evening before we had visited the York Maze Hallowscream. As horror buffs, we had planned the trip for a few months, travelling down from Scotland simply for the hope of being scared. We were not disappointed.

At 6.45pm we were picked up from York in the Hallowscream bus. 9A fairly normal looking bus from the outside, but as we entered we were greeted by two cheery ghouls who took our reservation. We sat towards the back of the bus, and I could not help but notice the excitement and evident anticipation as the other guests also discussed their destination. The bus started to move, and the television screens sprang to life revealing the story of the Hallowscream event. A gruesome story of a circus master and his performers slain on the grounds of the Maze, only to return to seek revenge on the living…a glimpse into the horrors that awaited us…

The bus pulled up outside the Maze and we were wished well by our goulish driver and host. As we started to make our way to the entrance, the sounds of screaming could be heard and the very faint but definite murmuring of a chainsaw. As we reached the queue the chainsaw sound grew louder…as did the screams. Excitedly we waited in line, exchanging expectations and excitement at what lay beyond the entrance. We did not, however, need to wait long. Just as we reached the entrance from the darkness a clown appeared, chainsaw in one hand and a fearful grimace on his face. He ran into the crowd, scattering punters as they hid behind each other squealing and darting in different directions. Nadine grabbed onto me and her mum, “No, I can’t do this”…but it was too late we were here, and we were here to be scared.

We collected our RIP tickets (allowing us to be VIPs for the evening) and made our way through to the first experience, a health and safety briefing. This was, however, unlike any H&S experience I have encountered before. After being herded into a large barn (which had a somewhat sinister feel to it anyway) we were addressed by a spectral head which took us through how the event would run, and laid the ground rules – no running (?!), and no touching the actors. We were then released into the night…

Our first experience had a rather unglamourous beginning as we all decided a toilet stop would not be a bad decision given the inevitable scaring that was to follow. Just as we were about to leave the toilet block, however, a women came crashing through the door looking rather flustered. Instead of entering a cubicle she just stood there looking at the door. Bravely, Tracy slowly opened the door and peered out into the darkness only to quickly retreat shutting the door behind her to the sound of a chainsaw reving up outside. 4The door then flew open and in jumped our not-so-friendly clown friend from earlier. At this point Nadine dived into a cubicle, locking the door behind her. The clown soon left, and the chainsaw noise dissipated. After a few minutes, I slowly opened the toilet block door. The coast was clear. Confidently I walked out calling for Tracy and Nadine to follow me. A few feet out, however, I regretted my decision. The clown was hiding around the back waiting in the shadows to jump out at me, with a scream I darted off into the safety of the well lit area beside the cafe only to here Tracy and Nadine also scream and retreat back into the toilets. It took a good 10 to 15 minutes before Nadine could be coaxed from the toilet cubicle and we were reunited once more.

We headed towards the main Hallowscream attractions. Even the walk towards the attractions was exciting, there was the trepidation of another chainsaw wielding clown jumping out at any moment and some fantastic special effects including a giant eye ball that looked down on us as we entered the marquee. Inside music was playing, food stalls lined the sides of the tent, and every now and again a scream could be heard followed by a creature in hot pursuit of an unwitting punter. This was going to be a good night…

 

There were five attractions on show to explore at the maze. I will not go into details of each of them so as not to ruin the experience for those that attend. They were all, however, fantastically scary. For the first two attractions 2073 and The Difference Engine, Nadine clung so tightly to my back that I thought she might actually climb inside my skin. Each attraction was a sensory overload as you are subjected to total darkness, strobe lighting, smoke filled rooms and fabulously realistic props, all whilst actors taunt and surprise you at every turn. Your mind is left completely bewildered as it attempts to cope with an assault on the senses all whilst battling with an “i know its not real, but…” conflict you are experiencing inside. You come out of each attraction exhilirated, amused and relieved to have reached the end and survived…only to be greeted by that chainsaw wielding clown or other characters such as Leatherface and the creepy twins which keep you on your toes, even as you are munching down on your tasty pulled pork burger from one of the stalls! Perhaps my favourite and most frightening moment was at the end of one of the attractions when you assume you have finished only to face a long smoked filled corridor. At the end, a man is standing with a rabbit head and chainsaw by his side. With only one way out we edged towards him, crowded together in fear, when suddenly he ran full speed towards us, chainsaw in hand. We fled darting through the smoke only to exit screaming and flustered past the waiting crowd…who must have wondered what fears lay ahead of them…

We had three hours between arriving on our bus and the time we were due to leave. It went past so fast, and we could not quite believe when it was time to make our way back. We left excited, entertained and somewhat exhausted after all of the scaring and screaming. On the way back to the AirB&B we relayed stories of our most fearful or humorous moments…all agreeing that actually the start of the night, Nadine barricaded in the toilet as a clown waited outside was one of the highlights! It was a lot of fun being scared, and whilst it was not ‘real’ it provided the opportunity to imagine the ‘possibility’ that it was. Each corner turned, each darkened room entered, and each ghoulish character we encountered offered a chance to escape reality and be fearful in a very ‘real’ way. As Tracy said on our way back home you got the most out of the event when you embraced and immersed yourself in the experience as the ‘victim’. Experiences such as Hallowscream allow us to let go of the sensible and rationale side of ourselves, allowing ourselves to become reenchanted with the world, even if only for a few hours.

As I lay in bed nurturing my croaky throat the next day, I smiled. We had travelled for nearly 5 hours to be scared and we had made the most of it, war wounds to show. The Hallowscream had lived up to our expectations…and I was already planning for the next one…

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Fairies vs. Tourists: Isle of Skye

Last week I had the privilege of returning to the West Coast of Scotland for a short camping trip with my husband. It is the first time I have been back to the West Coast, where I spent my teen years growing up on the Isle of Skye, for about 10 years. Needless to say it was as stunningly beautiful as I remembered it being, and even though the weather was a little soggy, the scenery was still breath-taking. I have always found that about Scotland – the weather is somewhat unpredictable but regardless of this it is still able to enchant you, indeed sometimes the moody clouds and misty mornings add to the wonder.

Something had changed though since my last visit…tourists…and lots of them. I first noticed this when we were considering finding a hotel on Skye – from previously living on the island I was fully aware of the midgy potential at this time of year and did not quite fancy sharing my tent with them. However, pretty much all of the hotels were fully booked or VERY expensive. As such, we had resolved ourselves to camping (we actually did find a hotel in the end after ending up with a very soggy tent the night before – but that is a different story!). Once we arrived on the island I was surprised to see just how many tourists there were, as well as lots of new road and tourist signs which I could not recall from before. Skye it seemed was experiencing a tourist boom!

When I lived on Skye previously we relied heavily on the tourism industry and as such I was initially pleased to see the island doing so well. Tourism 10-15 years ago was much more seasonal, and certainly not to the same magnitude! Preferring to have more of a nostalgic trip though, and to show my husband around the spots that I had grown up in and remembered fondly, I was keen to stay away from what had now become the tourist hot spots. One such place I wanted to show him was the Fairy Glen – an enchanting little place near Uig at the north end of the island. I had visited a few times when I lived on Skye and you could always enjoy a quiet stroll through the miniaturised landscape.

I was, therefore, stunned to find out when we arrived that we struggled to find IMG_2459[1]somewhere to park. Twenty to thirty cars lined the small single track lane through the Fairy Glen, and dotted around the landscape were groups of people grabbing selfies. We finally managed to find somewhere to park, and started to walk along one of the well worn paths that I could not remember from my previous visits. It suddenly felt much less a nostalgic trip and more like a tourist attraction.

Another odd thing grabbed my attention as we reached what is known as Castle Ewan. Lots of miniature piles of stones were scattered across the landscape, and spiral patterns etched into the ground with larger stones, leading to a smaller cairn in the middle. There was one particularly odd pile of stones that had coloured paint on it, as if people had marked it with highlighters. Later on my husband noticed another area of stones with this colourful graffiti sprawled across it. I started to realise as I looked around that visitors were adding to these piles, and treating them as if they were a natural part of the landscape – I guessed they assumed put their by the ‘fairies’.

 

 

On our way back to the car I noticed something odder. A large group of people walking backwards around one of the circular stone patterns on the floor, they were laughing and trying not to fall over each other as a kilt wearing tour guide directed the strange ritual. They had stones in their hands which they were dropping on the floor as they walked around.

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This strange behaviour was a little baffling, however, after a bit of investigation it seems that some tour companies are encouraging visitors to leave stones and walk backwards to appease the fairies as local folklore suggests. However, these stories appear to be entirely made up. Skye does have some fascinating fairy lore and stories associated with it including the ‘Fairy Flag’ at Dunvegan Castle, and the stories discussed here by Carolyn Emerick. The Fairy Glen, however, like the Fairy Pools gets its name not from the legends (at least known) in the area but the mystical and beautiful landscapes that they inhabit. Given this, I am not sure that these rituals to bring visitors ‘goodluck’ are necessarily appeasing the fairies, they are most certainly, however, changing the landscape. Indeed, if there are fairies at the Fairy Glen I am fairly sure that the sudden influx of tourists moving stones around their backyard would do quite the opposite of appeasing them!

One thing that did strike me though was that the tourist-made structures that now inhabited the Fairy Glen did add another mystical element to the place. There was strange eeriness to the abandoned stone spirals, and crooked rock structures littering the landscape. Personally, I think the beauty of the Fairy Glen can be appreciated in its natural form with or without its fairy residents. However, what became viscerally clear from my visit was that this place has little choice in whether it has fairies or not. Every stone placed, step walked backwards and story told (real or not) by its increasing tourist crowds sprinkles a little more fairy dust on the Glen…

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From an academic perspective I found the role that tourism was playing in the formation of local legend interesting. I wondered to myself how long it would take, given the significant visitors numbers, for these stories to become part of Skye’s ‘official’ fairy lore. On a personal level, however, I found the treatment of the Fairy Glen in this way quite sad. The landscape is beautiful and mystical without the creation of rituals to add to the visitors ‘experience’. As such, I would encourage guides and visitors to consider how such a place can be appreciated without an impact upon the natural environment. The Fairy Glen is a stunning setting to tell stories of fairies, amongst the miniature hills, lochs and trees, but perhaps that is all that is needed. I would like to believe we can still be enchanted by the beauty of a place, and its authentic natural properties, without the superficial ‘thrills’ engendered by performing such rituals.

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What is Ghost Tourism?

Following my previous blog on the commodification of ghosts I thought it would be interesting to explore the increasingly popular area of ghost tourism further. By ghost tourism, we are referring to those touristic experiences that involve the commercialisation of ghosts.

Firstly, it is worth noting that ‘ghosts’ as an attraction and indeed the commercialisation of them is not necessarily a new phenomena. Consider for instance the case of the Cock Lane Ghost of 1762 which drew in large crowds to a small lane in London, as a result the local businesses in the area reaped the rewards. Or the famous case of the Fox Sisters of 1848 who attracted many people to their séances to witness reputedly paranormal events. However, whilst historically these cases were fairly infrequent, in recent years we have seen the rise in contemporary ghost tourism and as a result an increasing number of businesses and organisations offering ghost-related services and experiences. In his paper “Legend-tripping in spooky places”, Holloway (2010) offers an interesting assessment of the different types of ghost tourism that are available:

Forms of Ghost Tourism

Hotels & Haunted Accommodation – rather than avoiding telling their guests about spooky goings on and the darker history of where they are staying, it is now common to see hotels openly advertising themselves as haunted. Indeed there are now sites that promote haunted places to stay such as hauntedrooms.co.uk, and you might even find yourself paying more for the extra ‘visitor’!

Ghost Hunting – most likely inspired by the hugely popular TV show Most Haunted and the subsequent paranormal shows that have emerged from this, there are now numerous organisations that offer paid ghost hunting events. These events usually involve participants taking part in ghost vigils, using ‘paranormal’ equipment, conducting séances and staying overnight in a haunted building. Whilst plenty of businesses have tried their hand at offering paranormal events some of the longer standing companies in the UK include Haunted Happenings, Fright Nights, and Mysteria Paranormal Events.

Ghost Tours & Walks – perhaps the most popular form of ghost tourism, ghost walks involve companies offering organised tours around a location where alleged hauntings have taken place. They are incredibly popular attracting large audiences throughout the year, and particularly over the Halloween period. Some cities, such as York, have numerous ghost walks leading to increased competition and as one tour guide once said to me the, Ghost Wars.

In addition to the categories identified by Holloway, I would be inclined to add to this a few additional forms of ghost tourism which have recently emerged:

Haunted Attractions – whilst ghost tours take visitors to the hauntings, there is a growing number of attractions that bring the hauntings to visitors in the form of museums and collections. For instance, you can visit Lorraine and Edward Warren’s Occult Museum, or Zak Bagan’s (from Ghost Adventures) newly opened paranormal museum in Las Vegas, both of which feature objects and artefacts believed to be haunted or possessed by spirits.

Ghost Festivals and Haunted Places – increasingly cities and towns are marketing themselves a ‘paranormal hotspots’. The City of York for instance claimed the Most Haunted City in the World title with over 504 recorded hauntings, and Pluckley claimed the Most Haunted Village in England status with a said 12-16 ghosts. Increasingly, the most haunted status of these destinations has become part of the tourism strategy, advertising their haunted history and promoting visitor attractions based on this. In addition, several ghost/ paranormal festivals can now be found hosting a range of events for the ghost tourism audience (i.e. Cheltenham Paranormal Festival, and Stirling’s Scottish Paranormal Festival).

Self-guided paranormal tours – perhaps a fairly new addition to the ghost tourism field is the concept of self-guided tours primarily involving visitors planning road trips or destination visits by following recommended routes and ‘hot spots’ for paranormal activity. For instance, you can now access haunted travel guides and road trips. Indeed I know a couple who have recently left for their holiday in America to do just this.

Why has ghost tourism become so popular?

The popularity of ghost tourism can perhaps be attributed to a number of broader social changes. Firstly, as discussed in my previous blog, we are now in an ‘experience economy’ which as discussed by Pine and Gilmore (2011) leads to consumers seeking more meaningful and unique experiences through their consumption decisions. Ghost tourism is well situated to offer these kind of experiences, fulfilling many of the requirements that Poulsson & Kale (2004) suggest make up such experiences – primarily, personal relevance, novelty, surprise, learning and engagement. Secondly, the rise in ghost tourism corresponds with the rise in popularity of dark tourism or thanotourism – the travel and consumption of sites associated with death and tragedy (for instance prisons, battlefields etc). Dr Philip Stone a leading researcher in this area and Director of the Institute of Dark Tourism Research, suggested that the desire to consume dark tourism is multi-faceted and proposed a spectrum of dark tourism in 2006, from the more light hearted Dark Fun Factories which focus on entertainment through to the darkest which he suggests are Dark Genocide Camps, largely focusing on historic education. Ghost tourism, and its various forms, has the potential to be located along this spectrum from its most light-hearted offerings (such as ghost walks), through to darker engagements such as ghost hunts and their associated activities. Indeed it could be suggested that ghost tourism goes one step further by offering individuals the chance to not only engage with dark sites, but actually to have ‘dark experiences’. Further, popular media has played an important role in bringing many of the forms of ghost tourism explored here into the public eye. Programmes such as Most Haunted, and the many shows that have evolved from this including Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Paranormal Witness, My Ghost Story, amongst many others, have popularised the paranormal and in doing so driven demand for opportunities that encourage engagement with it. Finally, as suggested by Holloway (2010) the increased interest in ghost tourism could also be associated by an increased desire to be re-enchanted with the world. As Holloway suggests, recent years have seen the advancement of science and logical thinking and whilst this has led to wide-spread development and technological advancement, it has also somewhat disenchanted the world, taking away some of the wonder and mystery that has resonated with human history for a very long time. Movement away from spirituality, religion, myths and fables, has led to an increased feeling of disenchantment, and as such individuals search for feelings of awe, enchantment and mystery though other means – ghost tourism being a potential outlet for this.

In conclusion, it could be suggested that the increased diversity and popularity in ghost tourism could potentially be attributed to recent changes in society. In particular, as explored in this blog, these may include an increased desire for experiences and in particular dark experiences, increased access to ‘paranormal media’ and a yearning to be re-enchanted with the world.

Have we commodified ghosts?

In addition to my interest in researching the paranormal, I am also a lecturer in Events Management. One of the modules that I teach on and have an additional research interests in looks at the rise of the experience economy and our desire to communicate our identities through lifestyle consumption. During the first couple of years of my doctoral research whilst living in York, and prior to this, I was involved in organising ghost tours and paranormal events. Indeed my involvement in this area influenced my decision to pursue research into the paranormal, with my undergraduate dissertation focusing on the reasons why individuals consume paranormal events and experiences (the work can be found here). As such, I have always been fascinated by peoples desire to pay for paranormal experiences – a practice which has become increasingly popular. To the extent where I think we can start to question whether we have somewhat commodified ghosts?

It could be argued that for a long time people have paid to have some form of interaction with the paranormal world. Be this paying a spiritual healer or witch doctor for their time, paying to visit a séance during the rise of the Spiritualist movement, or paying simply to be entertained by books, films or people telling ‘spooky’ stories. However, in the last 15-20 years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of organisations that offer the potential to have a ‘first-hand’ paranormal experience, for a price. This is without doubt a reflection on the popularity that surrounded, as Koven (2007) calls it ‘supernatural reality TV’ series Most Haunted, which launched in 2002. Regardless of the authenticity of the show it is fair to say that it attracted significant viewing figures (approximately 1 million per new show according to the shows producers) and popularised the notion of ‘ghost hunting’ as a hobby that was open to the general public. As a result, a number of amateur paranormal groups started to emerge with it being suggested by researchers such as Hill (2010), that there are about 2500 groups operating in the UK alone. At around the same time several businesses also started to emerge often formed as ‘side-lines’ for the amateur groups, and offered the paying public the chance to have the ‘Most Haunted experience’. Most Haunted themselves also started offering ‘live’ shows in 2005 attracting in a substantial viewing audience of over 5 million.

Initially, businesses offering paranormal events were fairly few and the cost to attend an event was relatively high. For instance, you may be charged £70 to £100 per person to stay overnight in a supposedly haunted building and take part in a range of activities (such as séances, ‘vigils’, table tilting, Ouija boards etc). However, over the years the number of businesses offering these types of events has increased resulting in more competition, this has also led to the uniqueness of the offering being reduced, and as such the cost of attending paranormal events has also dropped. These days you might pay £20-40 to attend a ‘normal’ paranormal event, perhaps more if an overnight stay is involved. In addition to paranormal event companies, the ‘ghost economy’ has diversified with the number of organisations offering ghost tours increasing, hotels capitalising on their ‘haunted rooms’ (there is even a website to find them),  and destinations have even incorporated it into their tourism strategies (York is apparently the most haunted city in Europe).

The ‘ghost economy’ is quite literally ‘booming’ (don’t mind the pun). However, it does not stand alone with the desire to consume varied and meaningful experiencse identified in a range of other sectors (i.e. events, tourism, hospitality). Indeed, it could be suggested that the desire to consume paranormal experiences reflects a movement towards a more experience-based economy generally (as discussed by Pine and Gilmore, 2011). Further, a rise in dark tourism (travelling to places associated with death and suffering i.e. prisons, war camps etc) has also been identified by researchers such as Dr Philip Stone who has established a research institute dedicated to exploring the phenomena. It is plausible to suggest that there is a link between dark tourism and ghost tourism with those sites often associated with death and disaster often attracting speculation for potential hauntings as well. The difference being that rather than simply learning about these sites which is often associated with dark tourism, those visiting these sites as part of a paranormal event will be seeking a ‘dark’ experience there also.

The consumer market that now exists for paranormal events and experiences has resulted in the uniqueness that these experiences once had becoming somewhat lost in the milieu of options available. It has become a relatively commonplace and fairly competitive market place – there is money in ghosts and they are being capitalised upon. As such, it could be argued that ghosts or certainly the ‘ghost experience’ has been commodified. And perhaps this raises some interesting questions about whether the meaning of these experiences has changed, the role they now play in our society (from spiritual to entertainment) and what is next for ghosts and their stories after they have been consumed by the ‘ghost economy’?