University team uncovers the hidden supernatural geography of our cities

A team of researchers from the University of Portsmouth have uncovered a new urban landscape, based not on roads and buildings but supernatural beliefs.  This new geography is mapped using emotion, memory and psychological influences that are often articulated and sustained through storytelling. 

Dr Karl Bell, Reader in Cultural and Social History, University of Portsmouth,  who led the study says:  “It has long been assumed that the world of the supernatural withered under the impact of urbanisation and that cities have become devoid of magic. Our studies show that supernatural beliefs are not just confined to rural and open spaces.

Studies into the communal and cultural function of urban supernatural ideas, demonstrates how they have continually been appropriated and updated to express and accommodate socio-cultural, economic and environmental anxieties and needs.

The research shows supernatural beliefs are often a way of dealing with the reality of urban living, and collectively articulate our anxieties about life in cities. Urban legends and folktales are often told to protect us from possible threats, designed to keep people, especially children, from dangerous situations.  

It has long been assumed that the world of the supernatural withered under the impact of urbanisation and that cities have become devoid of magic. Our studies show that supernatural beliefs are not just confined to rural and open spaces

Dr Karl Bell, Reader in Cultural and Social History, University of Portsmouth

Dr Bell will be giving a free online talk on Thursday 10 June, to discuss these ideas and his new edited book, Supernatural Cities. 

It contains stories from around the world, from nineteenth-century Paris to twenty-first-century Beijing. For example, an urban myth from Beijing warns about avoiding the night bus. Although a frightening tale of ghosts, the practical message is reinforcing the vulnerability of travelling alone late at night.

In his talk Dr Bell will recall the British legend of Jenny Greenteeth. “She was an evil water spirit who would pull children into deep pools of water. This myth was also transposed to the canals of Manchester. Again, the supernatural is used as an obvious way of keeping children from potential dangers.”

Sign up for Dr Bell’s free talk

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