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Ghosthunting in Basel’s backstreets

If you thought that ghosts only haunt Victorian houses or castles in the United Kingdom, you are in for a surprise. For centuries ghosts have also haunted the streets and houses of Basel.

By Nicole J. Bettlé

Whether at Heuberg, at Heuwaage or in the cloisters of the Minster: ghosts and undead are lurking everywhere in Basel. Visit Basel (website in German only) with its team of guides offers a “Ghost Walk” through Basel’s old town – for expats also in English. Horror fans will be delighted.

Totengässlein (The Deads’ Alley) – quirky but inconspicuous by day, haunted at night

On the tour through Basel’s haunted realms participants will also hear the story of the Anabaptist Joris. Known in his lifetime under the name Johann van Brügge, he lived in a mansion at Heuberg during the middle of the 16th century. Basel’s council only learned about his dark secret three years after his death: the former protestant refugee from the Netherlands had been one of the leaders of the Anabaptist movement. Posthumously he was convicted of heresy; his body was exhumed, beheaded, burnt, and finally his ashes were scattered in the Rhine. Since then the ghost of Joris has been haunting Spiesshof, where he once lived.

The Anabaptist Joris cannot find peace and rest at Spiesshof where he once lived

Howling and skeletons
Visitors on the “Ghost Walk” will also learn about demon shapes and other ghostly apparitions. The Spalenvorstadt is notoriously home to a horrendous beast that marks the street with its evil-smelling urine and, with frightening howls, predicts the impending demise of city officials. Then there is the Markgräflerhof, which is haunted by the “White Death”. It lurks on the windowsills of a mansion at Hebelgasse and announces great misfortunes. Finally, at Totengässlein (Alley of the Dead) you might even be able to witness a procession of the undead during dark winter nights. As skeletons they roam Basel’s alleys and forecast death by the plague or other misfortune.

In the folklore of the German-speaking world ghost-like apparitions are summed up under the term “revenant”. Those considered to be potential revenants were particularly people who had either died unexpectedly or in an unnatural or violent manner; but also stillborn or deformed babies, those who had not been baptised, or women who had died in childbed. In ancient times, however, it was believed that the reason behind the appearance of ghosts was an unfulfilled destiny: they still had a job to accomplish in this world. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, emphasised the ghosts’ desire for revenge.

Sometimes you can hear ghosts lamenting in the cloister of the Basel Minster

Usually ghostly activities start appearing when the peaceful rest of the dead has been disturbed or when a dead person wants to punish someone. For that reason it once was a custom to ram a stake through the heart of a potential revenant. With this method the dead were supposed to be firmly nailed to the ground and thus prevented from returning. Although impaling was later forbidden by the church, the belief in revenants remained firmly anchored in people’ minds. This also explains the emergence of tombstones. Their original purpose had actually been to prevent revenants from rising from their graves again.

Church influence
The myths about ghosts and demons are as old as mankind itself. The vision of people returning from the dead actually grew in importance with the cult of the so-called “poor souls” and with the worshipping of Saint Mary and the veneration of saints during the Middle Ages. It was particularly the church’s influence that shaped the modern view of ghost-like and demon-like creatures.

Sitting on the windowsills of the Markgräflerhof, the “White Death” announces great misfortunes

Although the distinctions between ghosts, demons and other ghostlike creatures are fluid, strictly speaking demons are a completely different matter. In fact, demons are actually divine creatures, even if they inhabit that twilight zone between the living and the dead. The oldest surviving descriptions that go back to the early Stone Age depict them as birdlike mythical creatures. However, the early Church Fathers very soon incorporated them into their own vision of angels and demons.

Nevertheless, the most popular visions are those that have been passed down by folklore throughout the generations. They become alive again on that walk through the old alleys of Basel. The “Ghost Walk” will be held daily in the evening until April, also in English. And for those who still fancy reading about (local) ghosts, the article “Witching Hour in Basel” is recommended (The Basel Journal, 1/2015).

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