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Ghosts haunt Zurich streets

The Grossmünster church is at the centre of one of the most gruesome tales

(swissinfo.ch)

The sober banking centre of Zurich might not be the first place that springs to mind when thinking of haunted houses and ghostly goings on.

But thanks to Englishman Dan Dent's ghost walk, the city's darker side has come out of the shadows, with tales of headless saints, hanging maidens and poisoned mayors.

It's a dark autumn night in Zurich just before Halloween. A crowd gathers at the central Paradeplatz for an English-language tour around the city's dark alleyways and haunted corners.

There's no warming up as it kicks off with a particularly gruesome story - an account of the murder of Zurich's three patron saints, Felix, Regula and Exuperantius.

They fled to the city in the third century AD to escape Roman persecution of Christians. However, they were discovered and beheaded on the exact spot where the Wasserkirche ("Water Church") now stands.

"Their dead bodies then rose to their feet, picked up their heads and walked off, leaving a trail of blood behind them," recounts Dent.

"When they reached a clearing on the hill they lay down and waited to be buried. The site of their graves is now Zurich's most famous landmark, the Grossmünster church."

Another story of murder – or is it? – is centred on another religious building, St Peter's Church.

Mysterious death

Buried just below the clock tower is Rudolf Brun, a city mayor in the 14th century. He died a terrible and mysterious death, that some attributed to poisoning.

In the 1970s, Dent says, Brun's remains were examined and tested positive for arsenic. But as the substance was often used in earlier times for medicinal and recreational purposes, the result was inconclusive.

Brun's bones were reburied at the clock tower, but without his skull, which had mysteriously disappeared.

Just a few weeks later two boys were playing football near the gravesite, when the ball came to rest at the feet of a dark figure, wearing old-fashioned clothes.

The story goes that as one of the boys went to retrieve the ball, the figure turned round towards the tower wall and walked right through it.

"From the description he gave many people believe he saw the ghost of Rudolf Brun, perhaps disturbed by the poor treatment of his remains," said Dent.

Eye opener

Other tales include the story of the ghost of a peasant girl who hanged herself on the Uetliberg hill after being betrayed by the cruel and lustful Duke of Manegg, and the poltergeist who drove a family out of their home in the Shipfe quarter...

There certainly seems to be no shortage of creepy happenings in the city. And Dent knows how to deliver the stories in an entertaining way - he used to work on the Ghost Hunt of York in northern England.

After meeting his wife on one of the tours, he moved to Zurich and set up his own version. This has proven to be an eye opener not just for tourists but also for locals, who make up the bulk of the tour attendees.

"The most common comment I hear is that people weren't aware of this aspect of their city," Dent told swissinfo.

This is all the more surprising as, according to historians, there is no real tradition of city ghosts in Switzerland, with tales of haunting being more common in the country's mountain regions.

Religion

Dent thinks that religion has also played its part in attitudes to ghosts, especially in Zurich, home to Zwingli, one of the great Protestant reformers.

"Zurich as a city and Switzerland as a country is still quite religious so I don't think there are many ghost stories written for that reason. However, it is still easy to find legends and sagas from Zurich," he said.

The Englishman admits he's never seen a ghost but says there are some things that cannot be explained.

"People like the mystery, the unsolved aspect, [ghosts] are part of people's subconscious – the feeling of 'I don't believe in ghosts but I am scared of them'. It affects you on two different levels - intellectually and emotionally."

To which the popularity of the spine-tingling tales on the city's Ghost Walk would seem to attest...

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich

Key facts

Dan Dent spent seven years with the award-winning Ghost Hunt of York. He set up the Zurich Ghost Walk three years ago.
It runs from March 1 until October 31 from Wednesday to Sunday, starting at 7.30 pm from Paradeplatz.
This year the tour will also run on Tuesday October 31.

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Halloween

The name Halloween dates back to the 16th century and comes from "All Hallows Eve" on October 31, the day before All Saints Day.

The custom stems from the Celtic tradition of warding off evil spirits on the last day of the Celtic calendar.

Today's American-style celebrations, such as trick or treat or lighting pumpkins, are relatively new to Switzerland, but the country has its own ghostly traditions linked to this time of year.

One of these also involves lighting pumpkin lanterns to protect people against malevolent spirits.

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