It started out innocently enough, with a pre-tour chat with our guide through the mysteries of the Reykjavík netherworld: Jónas Þorsteinsson, an affable and rugged-looking man with a ten-gallon hat who was smoking a cigarette outside the Tourist Information Office.
A simple query on what exactly we would be doing instantly launched him into a ten-minute monologue on the various ghost stories he had threaded together from historical archives, ancient folklore, general hearsay and the separate investigations of four recognised mediums.
Of particular interest to him was a Danish jailer called Sigvart Bruun, who had brutally raped and beaten up to 60 of his female prisoners, killing those he had made pregnant, including one Steinunn of Sjöundá. Steinunn was then buried outside of hallowed ground, and her ghost became a frequent and uninvited guest at funerals and sermons at the Reykjavík Cathedral, eventually becoming so bothersome that the church clandestinely had her exhumed and relocated to a cemetery... according to the story, that is.
“You can imagine how excited I was when I heard about that,” Jónas said with an exhilarated grin. A veteran of variously successful ‘haunted’ tours abroad, he has done quite a bit of (metaphorical) digging to unearth some genuine Reykjavík ghost stories, and isn’t terribly concerned about whether or not the stories have any factual basis. He is also keen to point out that truth in the historical sense of the word is a far more fluid concept than people realise, or as he himself put it, “There’s three sides to every story: the winners’ side, the losers’ side and my side.”
Three other people joined us for the tour: two young female tourists and a quiet, reserved man in an orange anorak toting a massive camera, whom Jónas identified only as ‘Jói’. By the time they joined us, Jónas was off on a tangent about how Icelanders were in fact Indians and seemed eager to start the tour. He walked us to several downtown locations believed to be haunted whilst explaining his compelling rationale for the existence of ghosts.
“I believe they exist. I mean, you can always discuss whether or not ghosts exist, but you can also discuss whether or not God exists... then it gets a little bit more complicated,” he affirmed in passable English. “But your body is made up of energy, and energy cannot disappear.”
Another of Jónas’s favourite topics was the elves of Icelandic folklore, or ‘hidden people’, as he kept calling them. He pointed out a largish rock in a downtown playground, which is believed by many to be an elf dwelling, explaining that a bulldozer had once moved the rock so a house could be built without perturbing the rock’s residents. “The hidden people are basically nice, but they can be pretty brutal if you screw with them.”
He then enlightened us with tales of a considerably more violent version of how Iceland took up Christianity than the one taught to me in school, and a ghost story about pissed off Viking apparitions scaring the hell out of a bulldozer operator working on the construction of the Reykjavík Centrum Hotel, and how that ghost had reignited the Icelandic ‘Viking’ spirit. “The ghost was set free during the construction of the hotel, which was around 2001, and as you might know, since then Icelanders have been going abroad a lot and buying foreign companies and things... they have basically been behaving like Vikings.” He also pointed out that the spectres of many children are said to haunt the hotel, and if you are staying there, you could always tell a ghost child apart from a living one by the way it crawled. “A ghost will always crawl on just one elbow and one knee.”
A significant stop was made inside the garden behind the parliament building, where Jónas told us about ‘Speaker’s Corner’, a special part of the garden where, according to tradition, anyone could come and make a plea to the parliament. He said that the mediums he had hired to investigate downtown had seen “thousands of hidden people, praying for mercy” in the face of the destruction the country would suffer at the hands of big business. He also read, in its entirety, a special plea made to parliament by the ghost of Viking hero Grettir the Mighty that had been delivered on that very spot, and apparently Grettir is a fan of either Quentin Tarantino or Sonny Chiba, as his speech had the tendency to paraphrase the fictional Bible quotation used by Chiba in The Bodyguard and later tagged as Ezekiel 25:17 in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. “...and you will know my name is Grettir the Mighty, when I lay my vengeance upon thee”... I suppose there really is such a thing as the Modern Viking.
All in all, the tour was interesting, informative, pleasant, revealing and above all, very, very weird, sometimes even simultaneously combining all five elements. At one point we walked alongside the pond in central Reykjavík, enjoying the view while Jónas read aloud all 60-something names for Satan in the Icelandic language. And was Jónas worried that people might not be able to relate to the murky, rustic superstitions maintained by the most eccentric of Iceland’s populace? Not at all. As he put it himself: “It’s a nice walk, whether you’re listening or not.”
I didn’t really know what to expect from a tour advertised only as “Icelandic Haunted Sightseeing Walks,” but in retrospect, I suppose the fact that the Haunted Iceland website also advertised a tour called the Naughty Reykjavík Pub Walk should have tipped me off.