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UK Ghost Story Festival: Supposedly scary, yet proved to be another safe space

Sarah Elliott reflects on her day at the UK Ghost Story Festival on 17 February 2024, finding it to be an inspiring space—despite differences.

“When different becomes the norm, it creates a safe space for so many people,” writes Sarah of her UKGSF experience. “We felt at home.”

Fighting slashing rain, misty windows and dimming vision was all worth it on the drive home from the UK Ghost Story Festival. The animated chatter from my twenty-year-old neurodiverse daughter proved it. It was our first time, and we are newbies to this genre world. First times can be challenging. You don’t know what to expect, what to bring, how to act or how it will all turn out. 

I don’t particularly relish going somewhere new, unknown, or untested. Identifying as a Black woman living in England, I’m pretty used to being in the minority at most events, but it doesn’t deter me from attending. I’m happy to put my Black face in white spaces (mostly).  What was important to me was the mental and emotional safety of myself and my daughter.

It took us a while to find the venue—but that was down to our lack of navigation skills. Thank goodness someone had posted a picture of the museum in Discord (or was it on BlueSky?)! We received a warm welcome and were told directions to find our first workshop (cue panic rising at the thought of multi-step instructions). But, thanks to plenty of staff around, we made it to the right place and on time!

I always feel a bit like a secret agent or undercover spy when I’m in a new place. I check out where the nearest exit is and do a quick sweep of the ‘crowd’. If I’m with a member of my family or another Black friend, we always try and spot another Black person (this ‘you’re the only one’ Highlander gig wears thin eventually). On this occasion, there were just the two of us, and like Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder:

Where were all the People of Colour? We are the Global Majority after all. Something must be wrong with the math. I did spot one or two others, but no Black people like me. Why was this? Was it the ever-popular trope of Ethnic Minorities always getting killed off first in ghost and horror stories? Was that what was keeping us away? Time to flip the script! I find that often the culprit lies with lack of representation—when you don’t see yourself there, you feel as though you don’t belong or you’re not welcome. 

DISCLAIMER: these are my personal reflections and whilst there may be many who can relate to them, I am not putting myself out there as the spokesperson of all People of Colour/Ethnic Minorities (delete as preferred).

So, how do you attract people to these events so there is representation, and how do you achieve this without it seeming tokenistic? I don’t have the answers, but we won’t get them until we start the conversation. Here’s a starting point: You build on the commonalities, the connections and the camaraderie that is built when you’re in a space filled with those that may have been ‘othered’. They’re the ones who dare to be vulnerable, and different, and divert from the linear. It’s the ones who show up with brightly coloured hair, sporting one-of-a-kind original clothing and accessories and proudly displaying their diversity and difference. We may not all be there yet, confident and comfortable in our precious spectrum of skins, but we are all on our journey and it’s beautiful.

Still, the whole day was a vibe. Striking up conversations with strangers; animated chatter about story ideas; coveting tarot decks; hanging on every word of advice given by Teika Marija Smits; creating eerie legends in Angeline Trevena’s workshop; being inspired by panel talks (they ask some good questions); learning how to keep safe when we write as our own haunted houses (thanks, Sarah Jackson); making new friends and connections and buying books!

I had already been told that genre writers were lovely and the more time I spend with creative types in general, the happier I feel to be able to be my authentic self. My daughter had a mini panic when we were leaving the house that morning as she couldn’t find her fiddle toy. I told her not to worry and joked that if we asked at the event, there was bound to be someone who had one!  I had visions of people turning out pockets overflowing with tangles!

When different becomes the norm, it creates a safe space for so many people, and this is what festival organiser Alex Davis conjured: We felt at home. We were safe, welcomed and valued. We’ll be back. I can tell this first time is going to be a habit.

Main image by Wouter Supardi Salari on Unsplash

Meet the author

Sarah Elliott is a published writer and poet. She is a regular contributor to the Nottingham spoken word scene and has self-published two poetry books (Warrior Wisdom Sun, 2022; United Under One Sun, 2023). Sarah also writes flash fiction and short stories often with a hint of the supernatural. She hosts a monthly flash fiction group as part of the London Writers’ Salon as well as being one of the hosts for the online Writers’ Hour. When Sarah isn’t writing, she is either coaching and mentoring teachers or chucking needles into people for acupuncture treatments! Sarah is currently writing a tarot-inspired collection of flash fiction, short stories and poems. The Substack newsletter A Writer’s Life chronicles Sarah’s writing journey, and you can also find her articles and author interviews on The Horror Tree website. More from Sarah here, or follow her on Instagram.

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