Ghosts on the Underground: A Documentary that Reveals Just How Haunted the Tube Really Is, by Joe Kane (director)
2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the London Underground (the Metropolitan Railway Company opened the Metropolitan Line between Paddington and Farringdon Street on 10th January 1863), so it is apposite that Polar Media has reissued the documentary ‘Ghosts on the Underground’, first broadcast on Channel 5 in 2005. Beautifully shot, it captures the eerie quality that arises from the disjuncture between the Tube’s image of utilitarian busyness and its eeriness when deserted. Ezra Pound may have been thinking of the Paris Metro, but his words are even more relevant to London:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.
In this alienated, atomised, world we are all apparitions to each other. With its tracking shots along deserted corridors, roaming ticket halls and escalators as well as the places the public never sees, the film amply demonstrates the network’s uncanniness. Think what it must be like for the employees who look after the deserted stations and track at night. It takes a strong nerve to go alone into tunnels, with no-one else – at least no-one living – around.
According to the stories presented here, there seem to be three main sources of ghosts in the Underground: those of workers killed in its construction and maintenance; those whose remains, long buried, were disturbed during excavations; and those of passengers, some murdered, some suicides, some the victims of accidents. The film, soothingly narrated by Paul McGann, takes us on a tour of a few of these stories, recounted by those to whom they occurred. They are down to earth Londoners, not it would seem given to flights of fancy, who struggle to understand what happened. Given the limited time available to the filmmakers, and the emphasis on including eyewitness accounts, this has to be a small proportion of all the anecdotal evidence available, but it is a useful sample.
Experiences have ranged from a sense of presence, hearing footsteps, and seeing the evidence of invisible feet sinking into ballast in front of the witness’s eyes (but would cindery ballast hold the imprint of a footstep?), to seeing apparitions and even chatting with them on occasion. In one peculiar instance, an employee investigating a report that someone was on the platform at night, when the station was closed, failed to see anything unusual even though his colleague in the control room said there was a person standing next to him on the platform, visible on his CCTV monitor. Occasionally corroboration is supplied by different individuals, unknown to each other, filing similar reports, thereby strengthening their evidential value.
One of most unnerving experiences, which was auditory, happened to an employee who was in his office when he heard what he took to be children crying followed by screams and sounds of general mayhem, lasting for 10-15 minutes. This was at Bethnal Green, which had been the site of the 1943 disaster in which 173 people, mostly women and children, were killed on the staircase, the largest loss of civilian lives in a single incident during the war. Customers are not immune as witnesses: passengers on the Bakerloo have reported seeing a person sitting beside them reflected in the window opposite, though the seat next to them is vacant.
As well as first-hand experiences by employees past and present, there were contributions by two well known researchers, both sadly no longer with us. The main one was Vic Tandy, who died in July 2005 (the same month as the 7 July Islamist bombings in London, three out of four of which were detonated aboard tube trains). Tandy appeared at several points discussing infrasound, the theory that very low-frequency sounds, below the level of human hearing, can generate a range of physiological effects that may be misinterpreted as paranormal. (For more on Tandy’s work on infrasound see Tandy V. & Lawrence, T. (1998). ‘The Ghost in the Machine’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62, 360-364; Tandy, V. (2000), ‘Something in the Cellar’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 129-140.)
While infrasound remains a possible factor in generating emotional states that may then lead to a particular interpretation, it is clear that such an explanation cannot account for the full extent of phenomena described in the documentary, and raises the question why, if infrasound is ubiquitous in the system, sightings are not more common. Inhibition in coming forward with a story cannot be the sole explanation. Tandy also shows that at Bethnal Green loud voices from the street can carry into the station, perhaps explaining the experience reported there, but as recounted, it seemed to be of an entirely different order to hearing a distant ruckus in the street.
The other investigator interviewed was Maurice Grosse, who died in 2006. He was on discussing the ‘Bruno Hauptmann’ photograph. The figure in the electric chair which appears in a family snapshot taken in a carriage in 1983 corresponds to a photograph of a waxwork at Madame Tussauds of Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted of the murder of Charles’ Lindbergh’s son, though with the addition of sparks coming from the hands to symbolise the act of electrocution. The photographer, Karen Collett, was interviewed, as was an expert from what was then the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, now the National Media Museum. He examined the 110-format negative and ruled out tampering with the image.
Maurice used to show this one regularly in his slide shows of anomalous photographs. It always looked like a poster seen through the window, though one remarkably well lined up inside the window frame, which argued against an accidental conjunction. Yet Madame Tussauds say they have no knowledge of such a poster and nobody has produced a copy since. The biggest question remains unanswered – if one were to expend time and effort on a hoax, why create one which looks exactly like a poster seen through the window? Given these uncertainties over the image’s status and meaning, while one can see why the filmmakers wanted to include a tangible piece of evidence, rather than rely on eyewitness statements, this is not really strong support for the thesis that the Underground is haunted.
Since 1863 the network has grown enormously, and continues to evolve, in a sense a giant organism pulsing beneath the feet of Londoners (it is a mark of our preoccupation with this subterranean aspect that we easily forget how much of it is actually above ground). It is no accident that two horror films set there (Death Line and Creep) are effective chillers; not forgetting the role Hobbs End tube station played in Quatermass and the Pit. The London Underground is an amalgam of the strange and the prosaic which is always ready to surprise.
According to the documentary, ghost reports are increasing, a phenomenon it suggests is linked to the number of bodies disturbed during construction work. It concludes that the Underground may be ‘possibly one of the most haunted places in the world.’ It certainly has the power to evoke strong emotions, and these are long-lasting, in one’s own lifetime and perhaps beyond. Travelling on the system shields one from the stimulations of ordinary life, perhaps creating the conditions required to perceive ghosts around us, or alternatively allowing the imagination freer rein than it enjoys in the workaday world above. Mind the gap.