Exploring the Dead-house

What is a dead-house?

Steps to the Tenby Dead House
By Andy Dingley (Own work)

Many believe that hauntings revolve around the idea of ‘unfinished business’. Spirits are earthbound until they can fix the outstanding problem and move on.

But there are those who believe the dead remain on earth because they don’t realise they are dead. Maybe they remain to torment their murderers.

Even more, there is a belief that disturbing someone’s place of burial causes the spirit to return. This was memorably illustrated in Poltergeist (1982), in which a suburban house is plagued by poltergeist activity since the house was built on an old cemetery.

I first discovered the so-called dead-house in The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts by Owen Davies (London: Palgrave, 2007). In the late 18th century, Britain’s most populous areas needed somewhere to store bodies before an inquest. This period saw mass urban migration after the Industrial Revolution. These bodies weren’t buried in the traditional way soon after death, so their ghosts remained earthbound until burial could take place.

According to Davies, bookseller and memoir writer James Lackington reported a haunting in a London hospital. A ward in the lower part of the building had been converted into a dead-house, “where a continual tapping on the windows was heard” (61). The nurses, who probably couldn’t account for such noises, assumed the tapping must be the work of an unquiet spirit since the dead-house was close by. The nurses refused to enter the haunted part of the building.

The dead-house was often located in or near a cemetery, as they housed bodies prior to burial. However others were the forerunner to the hospital morgue, or mortuary. I’ve looked online and the ‘evidence’ for haunted morgues or mortuaries seems anecdotal at best. I can’t help thinking that feelings of unease in a morgue have less to do with the presence of the dead and more to do with the low temperature and pre-conditioning by exposure to the horror end of the pop culture spectrum. Some of the ‘haunted mortuaries’ I’ve found are essentially tourist attractions!

The belief that disturbing a grave site might lead to a haunting is flawed. Most locations are bound to have had burials there at some point in the past, even if it was in Neolithic times. The concept that a dead-house might be haunted has more to do with the intrinsic revulsion provoked by corpses that Sigmund Freud discusses in his 1919 essay on ‘The Uncanny’. Essentially – it’s all in the mind…

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!


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The Ghost Story

Twenty people gathered in the library of Cavill House. They sat on hard wooden chairs arranged near the fireplace, checking their watches and muttering amongst themselves. A tall wing-backed chair sat in front of the hearth, the small table beside it holding a candlestick and a glass of port. Books sat in the usually empty shelves, draped with fake cobwebs and interspersed with plastic skulls. Jackie and Sandra stood beside the main door, whispering in urgent tones.

“He’s late! I’ll have to phone Christine.”

“What’s she going to do about it? You know what she’s like, Jackie. She’ll just tell us to sort it.” Sandra pried the door open a crack and peered into the entrance hall. She hoped to see their actor striding in through the front door. All she saw was a flurry of snowflakes swirl past the window.

“How? Sandra, it’s her event, she should bloody be here. What’s she expecting us to do, read the stories ourselves?”

A door near the back of the room opened and the attendants sighed in relief. Jackie leaned forward and dimmed the lights, leaving only the warm glow of the fire, and the pale illumination of the candles. The murmurs of the audience quietened down, and they watched a tall man walk towards the fireplace. Dark brown curls surrounded his face, and blue eyes shone above a neat goatee. Dressed in the Cavalier garb of the seventeenth century, his boots knocked hollow on the wooden floor. He sat in the chair and peeled off his brown leather gloves. Moments passed, and he opened his mouth.

“Halloa! Below there!”

The audience gasped at the sudden intrusion of a rich baritone voice into silence. The actor cast his eyes across the gathered people and leaned forwards.

“When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole. One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line.”

The audience watched, spell bound, as the actor told Dickens’ story of The Signal Man. Even the attendants came closer, ignoring their posts at the main door to kneel on the floor beside the audience. Gasps and even Sandra’s mild shriek punctuated the calculated pauses of the recital. The actor reached the closing words of the story, and left them hanging in the air. The audience leaned forward, seeking more. The actor fixed the gathering with a meaningful stare which each member felt was intended for them, and them alone.

“Samhain Greetings…and good evening.”

The actor faded into thin air, leaving only the ghost of his words in the quiet room. The audience leapt to their feet to begin a five minute standing ovation. Even Jackie and Sandra joined the applause.

The enthusiastic clapping died away. Jackie clambered to her feet and turned on the harsh overhead lights. Sandra skirted the wooden chairs and opened the little side door through which the actor had entered. She led the way toward the small cafe, stocked with interval refreshments for the audience. Twenty people formed a queue, paying for coffee or hot chocolate.

Two minutes later, a man with wild hair and snow-encrusted trousers hurried into the cafe. He grabbed Jackie’s shoulder. Her eyes grew wide when she turned to see his harried appearance.

“Simon! What happened to you?”

“I got stuck out on the back road with a flat tyre. Took me ages to get it changed. I tried phoning to say I’d be late but there’s no bloody signal out here.”

“That’s okay, your replacement came on. The audience loved him! Where did you find him?”


“The other actor. He came on a little late but he did The Signal Man. Got a standing ovation. You’ll have your work cut out for you topping that one!”

Simon stared at her.

“But I didn’t send a replacement…”

Somewhere in the house, Fowlis Westerby chuckled.

* * *

Happy Halloween from Fowlis and I! If that’s gotten you in the mood for a good ghost story, then you can do no better than No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal Man itself, one of Dickens’ finest. You can read it online here

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