There be hidden folk
Ghosts and trolls haunt a tour of Iceland’s creepy capital
WHEN Oli Kari Olason decided to offer guided ghost tours of his native Reykjavik, he hired a team of mediums to scout out haunted hot spots. ‘‘The problem was, they saw ghosts everywhere,’’ he says. ‘‘Thousands of them. Even on rooftops.’’
Olason gestures from the Old Harbour, where his tours start, towards the compact downtown area of Iceland’s capital city. His words conjure a momentary image of spectral figures hovering in doorways and on parapets. Then we set off to meet some of them.
Iceland is saturated with the supernatural. ‘‘It’s a leftover from the old Nordic mythology, the bits Christianity didn’t strip away,’’ reckons Olason, a historian and former teacher. The country’s other-worldly landscape, of lava fields, geysers and waterfalls, has surely also shaped the collective psyche. Whatever the explanation, this is one of the most superstitious cultures in the developed world, which is why Olason’s Haunted Walk is more than just a bit of light-hearted ghostie nonsense. It gets to the soul of a place where not just ghosts but elves, trolls and huldufolk ( hidden folk) are taken seriously by even the most serious-minded.
The first stop for our small group — my partner and me, a young American and a French couple — is a car park near the Salvation Army building. Three of the four mediums Olason hired showed a great interest in this expanse of tarmac. ‘‘So I used my amazing skills as a historian to find out that a house used to stand there,’’ he says. In 1953 this house was the scene of an horrific crime when the owner, a pharmacist called Sigurour Magnusson, killed his wife and three children before committing suicide. ‘‘Afterwards people who moved in complained of hearing the cries of children and the wail of a woman,’’ Olason says.
In 1961 the house was lifted and moved to Arbaejarsafn, an open-air folk museum of traditional Icelandic houses in the city suburbs, where it has been admired ever since as a fine example of urban vernacular architecture.
As we walk old Reykjavik’s tidy streets, Olason explains that Icelanders are brought up on the Icelandic Sagas, early medieval histories of their ancestors in which ghosts are real and dangerous. So when Iceland’s only serial killer, Axlar Bjorn, was sentenced to death in the 16th century (it’s believed he killed up to 18 people) the authorities made it as difficult as possible for him to come back: ‘‘They chopped off his head, arms and legs.’’ What they couldn’t destroy, however, was his DNA.
In a country with a notoriously small gene pool, where
Oli Kari Olason, right, leads one of his Haunted Walk tours