Roman goddess Diana had company that Friday night on February 3, 2023. At least 15 people surrounded the statue beside London’s Green Park. Some were chatting softly, while others were just staring off at the dormant trees around, the almost-full moon that shone through leafless branches, or the park’s dark open space that somehow looked eerie yet pretty.
I found Diana and joined the pack just before 7 pm. A bearded man, with a dark grey overcoat, a black backpack, and glasses on, greeted me warmly and asked in a thick German accent: “Are you here for the ghost tour?” I nodded.
I’m from Indonesia, which has produced some of the scariest ghost stories around along with other Asian nations like Thailand and Japan. Many Indonesians, for instance, believe in the existence of kuntilanak (a woman who died at childbirth), pocong (a soul trapped in a burial shroud), or tuyul (a mischievous childlike figure with a bald head).
Hence, I was perplexed when I found out that a ghost tour was included in TripAdvisor’s list of “Best London Tours & Excursions for 2023“.
I was like, “Really?”
Wanting to experience the English horror myself, I then paid £20 to join the “Ghost, Ghouls and Gallows Walking Tour with Boat Ride” by See Your City and met with Marvin Münsch, the German tour guide, that Friday night.
The tour began at 7 pm sharp and Münsch wasted no time to build the tension. He told the story of the construction of London Underground’s Victoria Line in the 1960s, which involved the finding of bones of about 10,000 people under the Green Park. The bones, which belonged to victims of the Great Plague in 1665, were eventually left as they were with the authorities digging deeper to build the line.
“If you have taken the Victoria Line today in order to get here, now in this case, ladies and gentlemen, congratuverylations,” said Münsch, who’s also a doctoral student in the history department of University College London. “Because that will mean that at some point on your journey to this tour today, you will have had 10,000 dead bodies just above your head.”
I, along with some others, frowned and smiled, particularly due to how cheerful Münsch was when telling the not-so-fun fact. And, it turned out to be the perfect teaser of what was to come. Throughout the 2.5-hour tour, in which he took us from Green Park to St. James’s Palace and Park to Tower of London, he always sought to make all participants both horrified and amused by inserting comedy bits into various horrid stories.
At St. James’s Park, for instance, Münsch told the story of an officer of Coldstream Guards, a regiment of the British Army, who fell in love with a prostitute at the turn of the 18th century. The officer repeatedly proposed to the lady, who liked to wear a ravishing red dress, but to no avail.
“One evening, after they met and finished their business, our officer proposed once more. But this time he added, ‘Bear in mind that this is the very last time I will ask you’.” said Münsch. “She replied, ‘Thank God. And this is the very last time I would need to say no to you’.”
Furious, the officer decapitated the lady and buried the head somewhere in St. James’s Park, said Münsch. Ever since, people had reportedly seen the headless lady in red when walking through the park at night. In the 1970s, a taxi driver even had an accident after an alleged encounter with the ghost. The case was taken to a magistrates’ court, but prosecutors eventually dropped all charges against the driver, allowing the red lady to become “Britain’s only legally recognised ghost so far”.
The red lady narrative was one of the few proper ghost stories from the tour, which was dominated by Britain’s gruesome historical events. Münsch recounted in detail, among others, the death of Joseph Sellis in 1810 following an alleged love triangle involving Ernest Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland; the torture of Guy Fawkes, who was part of the failed Gunpowder Plot to blow up Westminster Palace and Parliament in 1605; and the botched execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who was seen as a threat to King Henry VIII’s throne, in 1541.
The tour participants, including a couple in their 50s, a father and his teenage son, and several young women, seemed to enjoy Münsch’s stories, with their expression turning from a grimace to a smile every time the German delivered his punchline.
Not only Münsch, many other ghost tour guides across the UK love to make dark histories comedic, as shown by a study from Goldsmiths, University of London. “Ghost walks are spaces where taboos might be challenged out loud, in a similar way to comedy clubs. You can say darkly comedic things as a guide, and as a participant you are fully encouraged to essentially laugh in the face of death,” said Gavin Weston from Goldsmiths.
I did chuckle here and there during the Münsch-led tour and found it informative. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder: “This is not what I signed up for.”
I wanted to watch Bangkok Haunted movie, not American Psycho with laugh tracks.
I didn’t expect much from the ghost tour in the first place, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt. After all, London was founded by the polytheistic Romans, who worshiped multiple gods and recognised lares and larvae — the good and evil spirits. As millions had obviously lived and died in the city throughout centuries, I thought the tour would offer more supernatural depth.
Maybe Diana was at fault. Best known as the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana also held domain over the moon and the underworld. It seemed that she gave us her blessing to hunt for spine-chilling stories under the moonlight that night, yet she kept the underworld door locked.