When wandering the streets of Tallinn's medieval Old Town, it's easy to imagine that some of the centuries-old houses are haunted, or at least reputedly so. Recently, a team from ERR News attempted to verify one of the claims first hand, as staffer Juhan-Markus Laats reports.
Like most European cities, Estonia's capital has its fair share of spooky tales. Books have been written about the supposed paranormal hotspots, and there are the inevitable walking tours for tourists.
A few legends are more interesting than others.
One is that of the Neitsitorn (Virgin Tower) near Kiek in de Kök, so named because it once served as a jail for prostitutes. Supposedly, it was so haunted that prisoners begged to be relocated to less "occupied" facilities.
Stenbock House, where the government resides, is known for a lady who roams the hallways in a blood-soaked dress.
And then there's the Short Leg Gate Tower, an odd, square structure sitting at the top of a pathway leading from Lower Town to Toompea. Here the spirit of a monk, more disturbingly known as the Black Monk, has made the tower his own... or so the legend goes.
Justinus is his name, the story tells us. He had been a town executioner before turning to a more spiritual way of life. He met his end in 1233, in a massacre that took place on the very spot where the tower now stands.
But Justinus, it seems, never quite went away. For decades, people working or residing in the tower have reported seeing the figure of a monk in prayer. Some claim to have had their toes pulled while sleeping and one was even punched in the ribs. Another claimed to have seen the image of a wooden ship, a meter long, floating through walls.
ERR News decided to visit the Short Leg tower some 800 years after the massacre to ask Justinus for a comment.
Lost in translation
The tower is (un-para)normally used by the musical collective Hortus Musicus, whose management kindly allowed us to spend the night.
Our team consisted of ERR News’ in-house editor and photographer Steve, physics PhD student Rasmus, who was brought along to explain any findings in terms of science and reason, and myself, a viewer of hours and hours of cheesy Discovery Channel ghost documentaries.
We settled in to start our investigation around 8 pm. The administrator of the house, Laine Lillepruun, told us that during her 20 years of working in the tower she had not run into anything unexplainable, but helpfully pointed us to the two rooms where others had seen or heard Justinus.
The first was a medieval-looking chamber that looked like something out of a horror movie. The room, used by the band for practice, came complete with a dark corner where sightings have occurred, three walled up passages and a full-sized painting of a monk-like man. The figure in the portrait, which was evidently created in the modern era with our legend in mind, has eerie blue eyes that seem to look right through you and, at the same time, straight at you.
It was in the second room - the main performance hall directly above the practice room - that our first mystery arose. This was an 8x8x8-meter, stone-lined room with four tiny windows. After shutting off the overhead lamps, we noticed a strange patch of light that was glowing high on one of the hall's walls. An in-depth investigation at first lead us nowhere closer to finding its source. Was it a disembodied spirit entity? A lingering dead soul? A quarter hour later, Steve discovered that the light was coming in from a street lamp outside one of the windows.
Still resembling a herd of wild deer ready to sprint at the first sight or sound of anything unexplainable, we kept our morale high by laughing at our own stupidity. Somewhere deep inside, however, we were doing the psychological equivalent of wetting our pants.
Now that our little spirit orb had been debunked, the ERR News team faced the next problem: how do you communicate with ghosts?
Like the pros on Discovery Channel, we came equipped with a tape recorder and camera - both said to be far better at picking up paranormal activity than the human senses. The modest line item in the ERR budget for paranormal investigations wouldn't cover instruments to record electromagnetic fields, to say nothing of the ghost-sucking plasma traps seen on "Ghostbusters."
We opted for the polite, conversational approach and proceeded by asking in a loud but friendly manner if any ghost was present. Speaking in Google-translated Latin, we asked the ghost questions about his past and what might be troubling him, all the while recording our attempt.
Having heard nothing, we walked down the chilly, medieval stairs to the practice room for take two. On our way, we had to go through an antechamber equipped with a piano. Atop said piano, inexplicably, was a coconut. What would a coconut be doing there? Was this some kind of sign?
The practice room, with its high ceilings and dark corners, was already creepy enough, but the painting of the monk alone was enough to make even a toy shop seem unearthly.
We set ourselves between the painting and a dark, sealed up passageway and tried again. We spoke in Latin once more, then crossed over into German, then Estonian and even had a go in English. We became less friendly each time, trying to hail and provoke Justinus.
Hunting ghosts is an emotional activity. It entails hope and fear in equal amounts - hope that you will actually find a ghost, and fear that you will actually find a ghost.
Feeling braver by now, we decided to test our nerves. In a kind of dare, we decided that we would each, in turn, walk around the tower alone with the lights still off. Ironically it was Rasmus, the most skeptical of us, who refused to face the painting and stare down the monk on his own. One could probably write a book on people who laugh at the idea of ghosts yet refuse to test their own skepticism.
Steve's superstitious girlfriend called and demanded that he escape before midnight. That left only Rasmus and me to set up for the night.
After an hour of waiting and walking around, Rasmus admitted defeat and tried to get some sleep. I refused to give up and continued alone.
Meditating in the performance hall, I found myself jumping into the philosophical deep end, wondering why legitimate scientific institutions, and especially religious institutions, have not invested more energy into ghost hunting.
A ghost, by popular definition, is the soul or consciousness, or at least a part of a consciousness, that has survived the death of its body. Definitive proof of its existence would show that the soul does not automatically die after the body dies, but lives on in another form - just what all religions preach.
Now if this could somehow be proven, wouldn’t it be a deadly blow to all non-believers? Estonia would suffer the most, as new studies show that we are now the most non-religious people in the world, beating out even the North Koreans.
As night-time philosophy can be dangerous even without the benefit of being surrounded by a haunted tower, I switched to the less philosophical activity of trying to contact Justinus again, hoping he might still ‘grace’ us with proof of the supernatural.
I sat in the practice room and tried the same routine, but this time with less fear. I added a few insults to motivate old Justinus, although doing so felt more like an exercise in taming my own nerves than in speaking to the beyond - or the nearly-beyond, to be more precise.
Having walked up the 15th century stairs, I found myself in the performance hall again, right where Justinus had been sighted praying.
I closed my eyes and, after a few minutes of silence, opened them again. Justinus wasn’t there.
For all our bravery, we sadly encountered nothing that could be labeled paranormal. Maybe there really was nothing to the legend of the Black Monk in the Short Leg Gate Tower. Or maybe it was just that Justinus had seen the likes of us before and was playing the cruelest trick of all on us by staying away.