Pay a visit to the Dead-house!
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 is no longer lived in?
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. This was memorably illustrated in 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 was starting to experience a population boom, and 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. 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” (p61). 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.
In the UK, 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.
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.
When Denmark House was demolished, the gravestones were kept and used 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.
But no matter where they are, the dead-house seems to inspire fear.
That said, I’ve looked online and the ‘evidence’ for haunted morgues or mortuaries seems anecdotal at best. It’s mostly categorised as 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!
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 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 folklore about the dead-house? Let me know in the comments!
Ghosts & goddesses
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