- By Dr Emma Liggins

HAUNT Manchester celebrates mysterious and alternative cultural happenings in and around the city – with a recent ‘Ghostly Stories’ event at Salford’s Ordsall Hall (find more about the history of the hall here) being one of them; combining spooky family-friendly storytelling with a truly historic location. Dr Emma Liggins, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University and part of The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies, went along on Sunday 2 December to find out more…

Since the Victorian period ghost stories have been associated with Christmas, when special supplements of spooky and disturbing tales appeared in periodicals such as Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round. It became traditional to tell ghost stories around a roaring fire on long, dark evenings. Lots of famous magical tales such as ‘The Nutcracker’, ‘The Snow Queen’ and ‘Frozen’ are set in the depths of winter, often in the snow and the extreme cold. So what better time to emulate Dickens by giving family-friendly readings of some of our favourite ghost stories and dark fairy tales?

The Great Chamber in Ordsall Hall, a beautiful Tudor manor house on the outskirts of Salford, was the dark setting for our readings last Sunday. Like any self-respecting stately home, Ordsall Hall has its resident ghosts, including a White Lady and spirit children.  It even has its own ghost cam, where you can try to spot spooks for yourself.

It’s certainly an inspiring place for ghost-story researchers Matt Foley, Alicia Edwards and myself, from the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Our new partnership with the Hall recently included a Halloween event on ‘Haunted Heritage and Literature’, where we spoke about our work on ghostly white ladies, Victorian haunted houses and ghost stories of the First World War in the atmospheric Great Hall.

This time our ghostly space was the Great Chamber. Said to be one of the most haunted rooms in the building, the Chamber is dimly lit, with old portraits and fireplace, candles, a headless dummy in full Tudor dress and a four-poster bed.  To fit the era of the stories we read, it was also a great opportunity for us to dress up in Victorian and Edwardian costumes, including top hats, veils and mourning jewellery.

Over the course of the afternoon, families, students and fans of the supernatural paused in the Chamber to listen to tales of headless horsemen, phantom trains, ghostly cats and the wicked snow queen who lured Kay to her frozen realm. We read stories by authors from around the world, including Washington Irving, Amelia Edwards, Abigail Wheatley and Hans Christian Anderson.

The final story was Russell Punter’s reimagining of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, in which haunting is a reminder of the need for charity and social reform.  Some of the children created ghostly sound effects with bells and cymbals, others listened to the stories dressed up in the Tudor outfits from the enticingly open wardrobe at the back of the room. There were some interesting responses about what they found frightening – we overheard children telling their parents about penny dreadfuls, and speculating about whether the headless horseman could be a zombie!

If you’d like to get in the (dark) Christmas spirit and read some ghost stories for yourself, there are lots of great collections and authors to discover.  Adults could try Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ about a ghostly child out in the snow, E. Nesbit’s ‘Mansize in Marble’ about the marble knights who walk from their church tomb or anything by M.R. James or Vernon Lee.

There are also lots of fabulous anthologies of abridged ghost stories for children, which we used for this event, such as Chris Mould’s Dust ‘n’ Bones and The Usborne Book of Illustrated Ghost Stories, both of which have amazing colour illustrations. Highly recommended as stocking fillers for children who like fantasy, magic and things that go bump in the night.

Photo credit: with thanks to Leonie Anne Rowland