Passengers aboard a London bus in 1972. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty


The haunted city

The city, for all its mechanical speed, artificial light and industrialisation, is the most uncanny of human habitats

by Azania Imtiaz Khatri-Patel + BIO

Passengers aboard a London bus in 1972. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty

A train pulls into London Paddington. A disembodied voice announces the name of the station to the passengers onboard. The lights on the doors blink. The voice sounds again. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform. An ocean of people pour out of the carriages. They step over the gap with little thought, but practised instinct. There is a phantasmagoric characteristic to this everyday sight. London’s innumerable ghosts peek out of the minded gap, and are stepped over with little thought – and practised instinct.

Most metropolises are overrun with ghosts; from New York to London, Mumbai to Shanghai, a simple Google search throws up an encyclopaedia’s worth of results about urban legends based on things that go bump in the dark. Yet, when I speak of ghosts, I don’t just mean the horror-story variety. Our lives in cities are shaped by invisible hands, body-less voices and an eerie automation of infrastructure. As the French Jesuit philosopher Michel de Certeau wrote, cities are in a constant state of decay and transformation, demolition and rebuilding, and it is this repeated change that makes cities fertile grounds for hauntings. In The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), he wrote that haunted places are the only places people can live in, as the human psyche is too entwined with memory and familiarity to let go of things past. The mind, he says, comes up with creative forms of resistance to cope with the pressures of modern life, and ghosts are one of them.

The German sociologist Max Weber made a convincing case that, in times of enlightenment and industrialisation, modernity would lead to the disenchantment of society. People, he argued, would reside in the iron cage of reason and stop believing in things that weren’t rational, such as religion, magic and ghosts. Technology would burn away at our hauntings. Arguably, cities are sites of modernity, and urban lives have a caged bureaucracy and routine to them, imposed by the machinery of capitalist employment. Yet city people see – and often seek – ghosts. The question is, why?

The automation of cities has the effect of alienating people from a state of personhood. It’s as if there is a tacit shadow-self that urban life produces. To better understand how this happens, consider again those ‘mind the gap’ announcements. The announcements were first introduced on the London Underground in 1968 and the brusque caution has since become a bit of a stock phrase. Up until 2012, many stations used 40-year-old voice recordings. After four decades, a number of the original voice artists behind the announcements had passed away. In 2012, the railway announcement system was largely digitised, and the voices of the dead announcers were banished from the platforms. This is typical of the way labour networks evolve. As new forms of automation become common, some labour is created, some is made redundant. Cities are in flux, and that is the heart of the city dweller’s alienation.

Change in cities is routine, and the exorcism of London’s railway went largely unnoticed. Except if you travel 14 minutes south-east from Paddington and pull into Embankment station, where the ‘mind the gap’ announcement is distinct from those anywhere else in the city – perhaps because it is still the voice of a ghost. Following the digitisation of the announcement system, a visibly distressed woman approached staff at the station to ask them where the announcement voice had gone. As the BBC would later report, her panicked query stated: ‘That voice was my husband.’

Margaret McCollum is the widow of Oswald Laurence, the actor who had recorded the original announcement. It is easy to forget that, before being projected over audio systems every two to four minutes, the announcement voices originated in a real person with a real, complex life. McCollum returned personhood to her husband’s disembodied voice and her distress made national news. Eventually, Transport for London restored Lawrence’s voice to Embankment station. The american author David Foster Wallace wrote that every love story is in fact a ghost story. But not all ghost stories are love stories. Rather they are tales of the definitely abandoned, but not quite forgotten.

New York City has about a dozen abandoned subway stations. Paris has a similar number of stations fantômes. Geisterbahnhöfe (ghost stations) in Berlin were a tangible reminder of the separation of East and West Germany for Soviet era commuters. Transport within cities is dictated by economic and sociopolitical shifts. It is invariable that there will be stations that trains do not stop at, places of disuse that become the home of ghosts and shifting phantoms. Weber held that the industrialisation of society would ward off ghosts, and yet the very opposite has taken place in a number of settings. These are often places that have modernised infrastructurally, but still hold tight to cultural stories and iconoclasms.

A rapid urbanisation took place in Japan following the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s. The contact with western technologies led to the first railroad line being officially opened in 1872. With the establishment of modern transport, Japan’s shapeshifting tanuki discovered new tricks in the country’s imagination. Even though the tanuki is a real mammal, Japanese folklore often depicts the racoon-dog as a shapeshifting trickster spirit. In traditional tales, the spirit would take the shape of monks and children and malfunctioning household utensils, such as teapots, to make a fool out of innocent passersby. Following the creation of a modern transport system, a new tanuki lore became commonplace in urban Japan.

Takanawa Ushimachi oborozuki kei (View of Ushimachi in Takanawa by Hazy Moonlight) (1879) by Kobayashi Kiyochika; Meiji era woodblock print. Courtesy the British Museum, London

A packed train traverses a narrow tunnel in the small hours of the night. As it powers along, its driver hears the telltale sound of another locomotive chugging towards them from the opposite direction. He pulls the train to a screeching halt to wait for the other locomotive to pass. The terrified passengers fear an impending crash, but the other train never arrives. The driver is confused, but carries on the journey. This happens again the next night. And the next. And the next again. The train stops to avoid a collision – the other carriage never appears. Frustrated, one night the driver does not stop his train. It juts forward, and the passengers brace for a collision that never comes. However, the following morning the crushed corpse of a tanuki is found by the tracks.

For the folklorist Michael Dylan Foster, the tanuki tale is allegorical; it’s representative of the loss of a traditional, communal way of life in the face of industrialisation. The spirit tries to take the shape of the modern in order to impede it, but is crushed under the inevitability of modernity’s approach. Yet, the prevalence of the paranormal tale indicates the stubbornness that city folk show in holding on to their ghosts. This peculiar space that ghosts occupy as both literal and figurative indicates their function as boundary objects.

Utilitarian approaches to urban planning do not leave room for emptiness

In the work of the American sociologist Susan Leigh Star, boundary objects are terms of communication that are plastic enough to be adaptable across multiple viewpoints and yet maintain a continuity of identity. ‘Boundary’, in this usage, does not mean edge or periphery, but rather a shared space where exactly that sense of here and there is confounded. Thus, even semiotically, ghosts transgress clearly defined boundaries. They can be literal and metaphoric, modern and non-modern simultaneously. Ghost stations can be simply abandoned spaces or spaces we imagine as occupied by paranormal entities, or both. The phenomenon of such urban paranormality is not delimited to trains and railroads, though few tangible infrastructures enshrine industrialisation, urbanisation and transition as profoundly as the locomotive.

In that vein, the fear associated with the abandoned but not empty transcends the division between fact and metaphor. This contradiction is made curious by the fact that contemporary cities are choked for space. Utilitarian approaches to urban planning do not leave room for emptiness. Spaces that fall into disuse for one purpose are quickly repurposed for another.

After union strikes shut down Bombay’s (as it was then called) textile mills in 1982, the defunct mills quickly became haunted in popular imagination. Legend goes that Mukesh Mills, a large mill complex that burnt down in a mysterious fire, is perhaps the most haunted site within the city. This hasn’t prevented its use as a peculiar wedding venue and the setting for grand Bollywood film shoots. Stories of actors being haunted and getting possessed while shooting at the location often make their way into local gossip rags, especially before the release of a big-budget horror film.

While ghost stories of furious, dead workers and grotesque doom-harbingers attached themselves to the looming mill structures, they did not diminish the fact that these spaces were available real estate in a land-starved geography. The mills found an easy transition from industrial hubs to malls, film-shoot locations and housing estates. Their ghosts learnt to co-exist with shoppers and Bollywood stars and occasional tourists. The same was not true of the working-class labour networks that relied on the decimated mills. More than 150,000 workers were made jobless as the textile-manufacturing industry disappeared overnight.

For their residents, cities are often nodes of loss and mourning. In his seminal essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903), Georg Simmel highlighted this. The city is a hub of intense external and internal stimuli, and, to protect oneself against the constant change, metropolitan individuals create a ‘protective organ’ over their mental life. For Simmel, this takes the form of a blasé attitude where the emotional reactions of the metropolitan person to potent events are moved to the sphere of mental activity that is least sensitive, and furthest removed from the depths of personality. In other words, troubling reactions are not expressed fully and become repressed within people. And so, the ups and downs of urban life deny us a fully affective personhood. This is a defensive mechanism to emotional overstimulation in the face of a landscape that shifts perpetually, and the cold automation that is distinct from a pastoral life.

In industrialised cities, people feel they’re dispensable. Following the aforementioned labour-union strikes in Mumbai in 1982, more than 80 mills once central to working class employment in the metropolis were shut down. Cities are shaped by a cruel callousness to those on the lowest rungs of their sociopolitical networks. A woeful Gujarati-language song from this era croons Mumbai Ni Kamani Mumbai Ma Samani, translating loosely to: ‘What rises on the coast of Mumbai will be washed away by Mumbai’s sea.’ For the alienated worker, the city is Kronos-like, swallowing what it has birthed itself.

In Spectres of Marx (1993), Jacques Derrida roots this alienation from the self and from one’s own labour at the heart of what makes humans spectral beings. While the present is ever shifting, it is also perpetually haunted by the past. It is unsurprising, then, that those people and classes who form a city’s invisible work networks are often seized by a ghostly anxiety about progress, a shadowy intimation that it will leave them worse off, and even render them insubstantial to the city.

Between 2019 and 2020, I spent considerable time conducting interviews in a slum rehabilitation site in Mumbai. These were housing complexes that had been newly built following a government-mandated bulldozing of the slums that had stood on the plot previously. One of my interviewees described how the elevator next to her state-allocated apartment was haunted. Her reasoning was simple: many construction workers had died while building the apartment complex, so it was a ‘place of loss’, she declared. While I could find no records of actual worker deaths, this sentiment of loss was repeated across interviews, and across sites.

Though laid in concrete, metropolitan foundations are easily unsettled

As working-class, rural-to-urban migrants, the residents of Indian slums have a tenacious relationship with the city. Yet while the city represents material and social progress, it also lacks the stability of the village. These residents are haunted by an anxiety about progress. The anthropologist Andrew Johnson articulates this anxiety as the fear that arises when individuals and societies are unsure and uncomfortable about whether progress has actually taken place. There is a top-down articulation of an improved quality of life, the embracing of a neoliberal global aesthetic, but those whom it impacts directly find themselves on the affective fence about it. Cities represent this conundrum. While there is constant change, is this change truly for the better? Does it account for the deep unsettlement it causes in people? Does it make sense of the fear that is produced?

This anxiety is not exclusively a working-class phenomenon. In Johnson’s own work, he extends it to the upper middle class living in the newly constructed gated communities of Thailand. Johnson’s interlocutors are not rural-to-urban migrants, but city born. Despite their considerable privilege, these metropolitan residents are not free of hauntings either. The narrative of urban progress in Chiang Mai runs parallel to cautionary tales involving ghosts of violent foreigners and widespread drug-induced crimes. Following the financial crisis of 1997, the once-prosperous city’s skyline was dotted with abandoned buildings.

There’s a building in Chiang Mai that is popularly believed to be haunted, along rather archetypal lines. Called the House of Success, it was apparently built by an eccentric tycoon who ignored traditional feng shui omens in his pursuit of a Greco-Italian ‘European style’. Months after moving in with his family, in 1997, he lost his entire fortune, went insane and hacked his family to death with an axe before allegedly killing himself. The ghosts of the family are said to haunt the mansion in the northwest of Chiang Mai. The house remained empty for two decades. Recently, it was taken over by a hotel chain and refurbished into a boutique lodging experience.

Even for the urban bourgeoisie, places like the House of Success are tangible reminders of financial precarity. Stories of reversal of fortunes are double-edged fairy tales: traditional warnings are abandoned for material gain; catastrophe follows.

Johnson explained the rise in Thai ghost stories through the Freudian uncanny – the fear that arises when the familiar becomes unfamiliar. For the residents of Chiang Mai, the empty houses in their neighbourhood were spectres of an uncertain and terrifying future: the familiar discourse of the urban only moving forward (progressing) were rendered unfamiliar. The rise in migrant-worker networks brings to the fore anxieties of replacement. There arises the potent and often xenophobic fear of demographic transitions. Though laid in concrete, metropolitan foundations are easily unsettled. As Karl Marx foresaw, the self-destructive traits of the modern means ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

There’s a page from the penultimate chapter of Xiaolu Guo’s novel A Lover’s Discourse (2020) that comes to mind when I think of cities. The protagonist is asked by her husband: did she not dislike London when she first came to it? Did she not find herself very lonely when she first arrived? And she responds by saying that was true, but that had been her past life. A life as an absolute foreigner in a foreign land. Yet it was in the city that she had begun her adult life and come to the realisation that she had forever lost her parents and her home.

Cities are the true unheimlich, Freud’s original word for the uncanny. It translates more accurately and more poignantly to ‘unhomely’. What was once familiar, safe – secure and stable – is not so anymore. In his 1919 essay ‘The “Uncanny”’, Freud describes unheimlich as being characterised by the fear of inanimate objects coming to life, severed limbs, ghosts and the image of the doppelgängers. Through most of its characterisations, the city embodies all these elements. Structures that are stone and metal and wiring come to life and speak in human voices. There is the metaphoric disembodiment of person and personhood – labour and production. Ghosts run amok in cities both as figures of speech and as believed experiences. Doppelgängers are common, too, as one passes brightly lit shop windows and catches the glance of a shadow that looks like them, but more ragged, exhausted, translucent around the edges, and wonders: Is that me?

Arguably, Shakespeare’s Hamlet features the most famous literary ghost. ‘Mark me,’ he cries. The ghost screams for retribution, but, more importantly, acknowledgement. Urban psychogeography similarly styles ghosts in cities. The phantoms hunger for attention and call out to be noticed. The urban provides a perfect veil of anonymity; people disappear into crowds and routines, inside change and the avoiding of change. Ghosts are born out of the anxiety that rebels against such anonymity. Even though city folk are not easily overwhelmed by change and transition, they retain the need for recognition in the ephemeral landscape. While industrial modernity in the post-Cold War generations has been upheld as the ultimate promise of progress, it hinges on the belief that we will be remembered: that our actions will speak for us. Derrida wrote his Spectres in response to Francis Fukuyama’s claim that the spread of liberal democracy marked the end of history. But at the end of history (if we take Fukuyama’s vision seriously) all that is left is ghosts. Ghosts of a lost future, and a fading past.

I don’t wish to paint a picture of industrialised dehumanisation. Rather, ghosts are a rallying cry for us to remain human. There is something poetic and also deeply kind in personifying what we fear. The most common ghost stories in cityscapes are stories of kindness. From vanishing hitchhikers to lost phantom children asking for help, urban legends acknowledge that the city is a scary, lonely place – somewhere that cannot be navigated alone. Even though the ghost emerges from urban alienation, it is much like a burn blister. Though unsightly, it exists to prevent the worsening of the condition.

Marx described alienation (or estrangement) through three facets or conditions, and the ghost buffers us against all three of them. The worker’s first alienation is from his product, where labour is separated from the labourer’s emotive and intellectual pursuit. Though irrational and unseemly, the fear of automations being possessed (ghosts in the machine) builds a meek bridge between alienated workers and their product. The second alienation of capitalist modernity is one’s alienation from the process of production. In the repetitive, mechanical motions that we perform on autopilot, we are separated from the process of creation. To be haunted disrupts muscle memory, creates a space for reflection and reconnection. Ghosts in mills and metros demand you look back, beyond the assembly line. In the face of a tanuki, the driver must first stop the train.

There is a potent reconciliatory power to memory and ghosts. As we mark ghosts, we return their personhood

Marx’s final alienation is our estrangement from the Gattungswesen, or ‘species-essence’. I understand this best as the denial of personhood, where we become shadows of ourselves, less affective and more phantasmagoric. In Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936), for example, a factory worker is so maddened by the rush and the pressure to hammer a particular set of bolts, he frenzies on till he is almost swallowed by this machine. A more everyday example of such estrangement is the culture of punching in and out of work, where the worker’s presence (and self) is not a flesh-and-blood body, but rather a timestamp.

Yet there is a potent reconciliatory power to memory and ghosts. As we mark ghosts, we return their personhood. The voice at Embankment station becomes Oswald Laurence, once again – husband, actor, man. Ghost stations become spaces for communal storytelling, and unnamed workers live forever among the bricks of apartment complexes they helped create.

A train pulls into Paddington station. A disembodied voice announces the name of the station to the passengers onboard. The lights on the doors blink. The voice sounds again. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.

The motions are recurrent. From a distance, the sight is the same as the one four minutes ago, six minutes ago, eight minutes ago. Yet it isn’t. A young woman in a yellow jacket fumbles over the gap, catching herself just in time. Her Russell Group-issued tote bag gives her away. She is new to the city. In her line of sight, the world is alive, buzzing; history walks among the throngs of people that push her to the automatic gates, the card reader, and then to the elevators extending over the underground. A tentative Sun peeks above the murky London skyline.

A government advisory is plastered over a station wall – a pastel pink background with the words: ‘Does it all feel too much?’ It is an awareness campaign for the newly launched mental-health helpline. A term from a lecture on neologism comes to the young woman’s mind:

sonder (n) The profound feeling of realising that everyone, including strangers passing in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s lack of awareness of it.

From beneath the gap, an ocean of ghosts smile.