Photo by Sean Gallup
Like any good storyteller, it's almost impossible to tell when Pieter Fuster is lying. And like any good story, it doesn't really matter.
In a black waistcoat, tails, and top hat, the Creator of the Ghost Tour waits as his group forms at Old Town Square. At 9 p.m. he will lead his followers through the back streets of medieval Prague, stopping at sites of some of the city's creepiest hauntings, where he will tell the stories he has researched and collected. This is not another vaguely educational yawner tour led by a goose-stepping umbrella toter. Fuster's view of the city is actually fun.
At the Tyn Church he gives his version of the 18th-century tale of Ulright the Spirit Raiser: "His skill, such as it was, consisted of raising the spirits of the long dead," Fuster says in his thick Newcastle accent, standing on the very spot where (legend has it) Ulright conjured his spirits. According to Fuster, Ulright (who also wore a waistcoat and tails) performed his popular Saturday-night spirit raisings in front of the church, angering the souls he disturbed. Ulright remained safe from their wrath; the story goes, only as long as he "followed his meticulous procedures."
Safe, that is, until the night he ventured onto the consecrated ground inside the church and accidentally raised not one, but thousands of spirits. "Ulright had gone too far this time," Fuster says. The terrified conjurer dashed out of the church and fled towards the Square, Fuster explains as he leads the tour that very way, continuing:
"Just as Ulright reached the Square, the angry spirits fell upon him, ripping his limbs and tearing his bones from their sockets. Ulright lay dead, in pieces around the Square." Since then, says Fuster, Ulright's damned ghost is condemned to reappear every Saturday night at midnight to reenact the horrors. "He has one leg," Fuster tells the group in a wary tone, "and carries his head under his arm." Oh, that guy.
Just how much of the story Fuster fabricated is as lost in mystery as Ulright's reasons for calling forth the dead. (Anyone who saw Fuster at Molly Mallone's, when he jumped on stage and sang a story he created on the spot, has to wonder.) A bas-relief of a man fleeing a church, directly over the Tyn Church's side entrance might, however, make one believe. And maybe even shudder.
Curling through Retezova Street, Foster's audience is enthralled as he continues his storytelling: "The Barber Of Prague was once a Proud and prosperous man who went mad when his obsession with alchemy drove him to poverty, his wife to suicide, and his daughter to prostitution." Finally, Fuster says, the Barber took to begging people on the street to let him shave them, and then slashed them with his razor if they refused. According to legend, his soul can only be freed from its tortured state if he finds a man who will consent to being shaved, which is unlikely considering his dementia, his reputation, and his rusty razor.
Along the way, Fuster also points out the severed arm hanging in the Church of St. Jacob that was supposedly lopped off of a foiled thief by the ghost of the Vegetarian Butcher. On the corner where he tells the 16th century tale of a priest who killed a prostitute after she bared her breasts to him, he points out her bare-breasted likeness, built into a nearby windowsill "as a tribute."
By the time the tour returns to Old Town Square, its members have picked up more than just a few lines of postcard fodder. Prague is a city full of ghosts, and it helps to know which ones are friendly and which ones will disembowel you. Just in case he's not making it all up.
This month's FIRST contributors are Omri Ben-Amos, Michelle Legge, Michael Wayne Jr., David Freeling, Radha Burgess and Anne Renahan.