BIG READ: Ghosts of marines who hover between the living and dead

Searching for ghosts at Fort Widley.
Searching for ghosts at Fort Widley.
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The dark underbelly of Portsmouth’s creepy past is catching up with it big time as the city’s second festival of the dead begins. MILLIE SALKELD reports

It’s dark. It’s cold. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up as he skips down the tunnel.

Dark City by Karl Bell that inspired Darkfest.

Dark City by Karl Bell that inspired Darkfest.

You hear his drum beating as you get nearer to the stairs and as you turn your head he disappears into thin air leaving only the pitter patter of small footsteps running back through the tunnel.

This is the story of the little drummer boy who is said to haunt the tunnels at Fort Widley after he was chased by an officer and fell to his death down a spiral staircase.

Sound like the type of stories you like to read before bed?

Well then, make sure you are one of the boys and ghouls who get down to this year’s Portsmouth Darkfest.

People are very keen to talk about ghosts and strange things that have happened

Dr Karl Bell

It’s the culmination of creative and academic studies in Portsmouth showcasing the dark side of the city in a series of live theatre performances, cinema screenings, crime-writing workshops, murder mystery evenings and ghost hunts.

Organiser Karl Bell is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Portsmouth and focuses his research into spiritualism and the supernatural events of the Victorian era in Portsmouth.

Karl says: ‘I am a cultural historian and I find the supernatural a very interesting way to get into the minds of people in the past .

‘Portsmouth has a rich history of ghost stories and supernatural ideas.

Dr Karl Bell.

Dr Karl Bell.

‘When you start talking about hauntings in a particular building or place, even if you don’t believe in it, the place will always seem slightly different.’

Karl founded Portsmouth Darkfest last year and this year the festival, that started on Thursday and runs until November 30, is back with even more events to celebrate the city’s gothic sub-culture.

Karl says: ‘ Darkfest is a cultural and creative festival in which we engage with local writers, musicians, artists and filmmakers.

‘This year we have 35 events including a live storytelling down at the Square Tower for Day of the Dead, paranormal investigations at Fort Widley and The Royal Marines Musuem as well as public talks, so it kind of bridges the academic and creative gap.’

Portsmouth Darkfest started last year after Karl was invited to the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub to give a talk about his research.

The 46-year-old adds: ‘I gave a talk to the writers and they used my findings as inspiration to write short stories which led to the creation of Dark City which encompasses a selection of ghost stories set in Portsmouth.

‘We thought, people are obviously interested so where can we go from here, and as we already had the Day of the Dead event existing, these two things formed the core from which all these other activities gradually developed.’

Last year’s festival saw 1,000 people descend on 22 different activities throughout the month.

Karl says: ‘It was kind of an unexpected success. It kind of struck a chord with the creative people who were involved in it but also local communities, I guess because it comes on the back of halloween.

‘This year we think there is scope for more people to come as there are more activites and venues are larger, but it is also more coherent as we have developed a steering committee.’

Portsmouth-based company Dark Encounters, which offes ghost hunts and zombie encounters, is working with Karl and his team on this year’s festival.

Karl says: ‘What has enriched this year is having Dark Encounters involved so we have been able to offer a range of ghost walks, zombie encounters and paranormal investigation in a way we weren’t able to last year.’

‘For one of the events I did a ghost walk around Old Portsmouth but this year, because we have Dark Encounters on board, we can have more.’

The paranormal investigation will see visitors experience the Royal Marines Museum at night while searching the historic building for old sailors trapped between this world and the next.

The Darkfest team believe they are the first of their kind and hope to evolve the festival in coming years .

Karl says: ‘As far as we know it’s the only festival of its kind, but we have toyed with approaching other cities to see if they would like to pick it up as a theme, particularly those along the south coast.

‘The hope is we can connect with other cities and grow this phenomenon.

‘For me it’s important as we grow that people involved in it are increasingly getting more of a say of what it should become in the future.’

The festival centres around halloween because Karl thought it would be an interesting focal point for the event.

He said: ‘People like talking about the dark side and it’s normally only for set times of year like halloween that we can indulge in these supernatural ideas.

‘People are very keen to talk about ghosts and strange things that have happened.

‘There’s all that sort of stuff in people’s minds. This is an outlet where we can let people have fun with it.’

The events this year mostly cater for all ages with a few exceptions for darker and alcohol-fuelled activities.

Karl says: ‘We’re trying to engage different types of people hence the wide variety of events.

‘There wasn’t so much for younger people last year but these family-friendly opportunities have come up and they’ll work this year.’

Karl adds: ‘We encourage fancy dress, particularly on the Day of the Dead which is popular as it is close to halloween.’

So whether you feel like a night at the museum, getting spooked at the cinema or think you could be the next James Patterson, be sure to take a wander down to Darkfest.


•Groundlings Theatre, Portsea is home to the ghosts of two children, Emily and George, who are said to be among the nine or 10 phantoms haunting the Georgian theatre.

•In 1990 a man staying in the Saumarez block at HMNB Portsmouth, HMS Nelson (now demolished) reported waking up after the room fell cold. He said he felt something sitting on his legs but could not see anything and after the bed started shaking violently the man felt his legs and the top half of his body being lifted up.

•A ghostly woman in a dressing gown was said to wander the corridors of St Mary’s Hospital, Milton, during the year of 1969 looking for her baby who had died of unknown complications.


•Paranormal Investigation

Revellers will spend the night in The Royal Marines Museum with access to the creepy attic spaces and damp dark cellars the public does not usually see. Ghosthunting with experienced investigators.

(Tonight, 7.30pm - 1.30am)

•Day of the Dead

Tales of terror, spooky stories and monster music from the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub at the Square Tower, Old Portsmouth.

(October 30, 6pm)

•The ‘Dark Arts ‘

Exhibition featuring the darker side to art in the city will be held at Hunter Gatherer Coffee, Southsea. Opening night will see dark music from Gothamistic and dark poetry from Simon Kennedy. (November 3, 7.30pm)

•Zombie Encounters

Get ready for an immersive zombie experience at an underground highly secure centre for research and experimentation at Fort Widley.

(November 10, 7.30pm)

•Ghost Walk at Spice Island

Dark tales about the streets of Spice Island will transport you to the murky world of Georgian England.

(November 12, 8.30pm)

•Murder Mystery Evening

Captain Black welcomes you aboard HMS Warrior for a party. Everything seems to be going well but is this just the calm before the storm?

(November 18, 7.30pm)

•Dark Portsmouth

Join University of Portsmouth historians Prof Brad Beaven and Dr Karl Bell, for a journey through some of the hidden histories of Victorian Portsmouth.

(November 29, 7pm)

For other events and how to buy tickets, visit