The Haunted City – Barcelona’s Spirits Expelled

If you’ve ever wondered why you have never felt spooked in Barcelona, the answer is simple: the city has no ghosts. This is an objective fact, and one that has to do with the city’s radical materiality, its preference for what’s hard and solid. This town has no time for ethereal things, which phantoms and spirits most definitely are. Sure, Barcelonans get afraid (like everyone else), but never for the spectral remnant of some human who once lived amongst us and is now deceased, which is what most ghosts are.

Nothing is haunted in Barcelona, not even places that could be. This is odd considering the truly horrible ways folks have died here, in fires and famines and wartime bombings; from influenza, tuberculosis and even the Black Death. Church and state have executed thousands of innocents, with strangulation by garrote vil a favoured method. I mention such gruesome details only because, if my information is right, an unjust death is one reason ghosts keep hanging around, unable to peacefully move on to a pleasant afterlife.

Like in all big cities everywhere, some residents like to get you worried about going to this or that area, citing the type of low-life humans found there (most of the time they’re wrong). But you’re never advised to steer clear of some unspeakable corner of town because it’s bedeviled by ghoulish apparitions. In Barcelona no such things exist.

Spirit-free Barcelona has no respected religious leaders, no inspirational gurus, no guides to transcendence.

If this were a properly phantasmal city it would have eerie cemeteries, where even the workers would go the long way around to avoid a certain niche. There’d be freaky-dark corners in Gothic quarter alleys where your skin would crawl. On the way up the stairs to your grandparents’ Eixample flat, there’d be some acrid burnt flesh smell coming from the entresuelo (so you’d sell the place as soon as your inheritance came through). In whole sections of public parks no plant would grow, despite the best efforts of Parcs i Jardins. Face stains would appear in some basement in Horta, we’d be as famous as Bélmez. If Barcelona were veritably frenzied by demon-like poltergeists all this would happen and more: the neighbours would gossip in frantic, hushed tones; rumours would fly. Ghost stories would abound, and they’d get mixed up and blown out of proportion, making things worse. Hard-nosed rationalists, the kind that like to throw scorn on such silliness, would find themselves waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Fear would rage. As the years went by, you’d see your children (and your children’s children) pick up on the collective anxiety, one tormented generation leading to another.

But the city has no such places, and no such feelings are felt. A few years ago a guidebook to ghosts came out (Fantasmas de Barcelona), and they couldn’t think of anything better than to do tours with “theatrical reconstructions” of each case. Like with actors, slide projections and flashing lights, about as goofy and totally unfrightening as you can get.

Historians say that Barcelona stopped being a good place for spirits, whether malevolent or good, early on. By the early 19th century industrialisation, profiteering and a radicalized working class led folks to abandon traditional religion. It was the first southern European city to see its birth-rate plummet, as folks chose to plan their families instead of leaving the brood up to divine will. God was not feared, nor any other intangible presence for that matter. Still today the Catalans are the most unbelieving citizens in Spain, not baptising, not getting married at a church, not even crossing themselves when they score a goal.

Spirit-free Barcelona, as a logical corollary, has no respected religious leaders, no inspirational gurus, no guides to transcendence. Not a single spiritual voice has emerged to speak to our hearts. Nor are there any decent alternatives to the classics. The city doesn’t have many wiccans, nor witches in robes in their candle-lit covens, nor Satanic blood ceremonies performed over pentagrams. Ouija board sales are low. All the soothsayers are on TV, and the oracles are out of town, as was always the case. If none of that good, healthy, old-time spirituality is going to happen, its pretty obvious nobody is going to fall for some nightly apparition flitting about in a white-sheet, two holes cut for the eyes.

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