The name ‘dead house’ conjures up all kinds of ideas, doesn’t it? Is it a house occupied by the dead? Is it a rotten house that no one lives in anymore?
It’s a common belief that hauntings revolve around the idea of ‘unfinished business’. Spirits are earthbound until they can fix the outstanding problem and move on.
Just look at the film Ghost.
But is that right? After all, there are those who believe the dead remain on earth because they don’t realise they’re dead. Maybe they remain to torment their murderers.
Hm. Just like Ghost. Interesting.
But there is also a belief that disturbing someone’s place of burial causes the spirit to return. Just look at Poltergeist (1982). A suburban house is plagued by poltergeist activity since the house was built on an old cemetery.
It’s as if building developers just don’t care where they build!
But what about the dead house?
I first discovered the dead house in The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts by Owen Davies (London: Palgrave, 2007). In the late 18th century, Britain experienced a population boom. Coroners needed somewhere to store bodies before an inquest. Because these bodies weren’t buried in the traditional way soon after death, 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. The authorities converted a ward in the lower part of the building into a dead house, “where a continual tapping on the windows was heard” (p. 61). The nurses assumed the tapping must be the work of an unquiet spirit since the dead house was close by. After all, how else could they account for noises? The nurses refused to enter the haunted part of the building.
It inspired my short story, ‘The Dead-house’, which you can hear in audio form here.
In the UK, the dead house often stood in or near a cemetery, since they housed bodies prior to burial. However, others were the forerunner to the hospital morgue, or mortuary.
There was also a dead house in Byker, in Newcastle upon Tyne. It stood beside the River Police Station at the mouth of the Ouseburn. The police used this dead house to lay out bodies fished from the river. According to SeeNewcastle, the dead house was demolished in 1906.
In A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof, Roger Clarke relates the story of a body fished from the Thames in Bermondsey in August 1886. After it was taken to dead-house near St James’ Church, rumours started “that the dead body was up and about and walking the churchyard at night” (2013, p. 171). Around 2000 people turned up every night to see this necromantic miracle.
A Royal Dead House
There’s even a dead house under Somerset House. Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, lived in an earlier building on the site, Denmark House. The house boasted a chapel and burial ground since she and her staff were Roman Catholic in a Protestant nation.
Following the demolition of Denmark House, the builders re-used the gravestones in the walls of the new version of Somerset House. The area is known as the Deadhouse.
Can you find a dead house outside of the UK?
Dead houses are common elsewhere in the world, often in colder climates where the ground was too hard to dig graves during the winter. In Ontario, there was even a fad for building dead houses in octagonal shapes.
The University of Mississippi dead house predated the Civil War. But the university used the building as a morgue to house war dead before burial at the Civil War Cemetery across the campus. Demolished in 1958, a journalism school now stands on the site.
Christina Steube notes local anecdotes in which people claim to encounter ghostly presences in the area. Are they Civil War victims or long dead students?
But no matter where they are, the dead house seems to inspire fear.
There’s always a ‘but’…
I’ve looked online and the ‘evidence’ for haunted morgues or mortuaries seems anecdotal at best. People report weird noises, strange feelings of dread, or flickering shadows seen out of the corner of the eye.
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!
Many believe that disturbing a grave site might lead to a haunting. Or would it? Most locations are bound to have had burials there at some point in the past, even if it was in Neolithic times. The concept of a haunted dead house owes more to the revulsion provoked by corpses and the general eeriness of the place!
Essentially – it’s all in the mind…
Do you think there’s any truth in the tales about the dead house? Let me know in the comments!
Nutty about folklore and want more?
Add your email below and get these posts in your inbox every week.
You'll also get my 5-step guide to protecting your home using folklore!