‘Most Haunted Live: Pirates’ Curse’. An Archaeology of Haunted Houses?

‘Most Haunted Live: Pirates’ Curse’ was filmed in Bristol and broadcast live at 9pm-12am on the 5th, 6th and 7th of May 2007 on UK Living. The Most Haunted series is a popular one on digital television and makes use of a fairly simple format. For the regular shows, a group comprising presenters, film crew and a psychic, visit locations (usually buildings), turn the lights out and wait for things to happen in the eerie green glow of the night-vision cameras. I don’t propose to discuss the ‘supernatural’ element of the show here, certainly not whether it is real or otherwise. It doesn’t matter. Rather, it is possible to look at the live version, Pirates’ Curse, in the light of contemporary archaeological approaches to buildings and archaeology media.
Pirates’ Curse took as its foci three of the more important maritime heritage sites in Bristol. On Friday night we were taken to ‘Blackbeard’s House’, a large late-seventeenth century house at the top end of Guinea Street, Redcliffe. Saturday’s exploration was a short walk away on the harbourside in Redcliffe Caves. The final show took place in the Llandoger Trow, a very well known public house on King Street, again immediately off the waterfront. Backing up the on-site team was a studio based element with a presenter and, importantly, a ‘studio-historian’ checking up on the facts. Taking the full force of modern technology to the search for historic presences, it was also possible to log on to the Most Haunted website and access night-vision webcams set up in the various locations. With the television and webcams on and, bravely, with the lights off, I settled down to a very different method of archaeological investigation…

What impressed me immediately on the first night was a conscious putting down of sensationalism (although, admittedly, it remained a ghost hunt). I had assumed that at some point, the psychics on the show would somehow ‘contact’ Blackbeard, but thankfully this didn’t happen. As the first programme moved out of the studio to ‘Blackbeard’s House’, we had been given a brief but well researched history of piracy, privateering and trade out of Bristol. The house itself is clearly a very important one. It is located on Guinea Street, which leads steeply off a dock adjoining the main harbour/river. The name suggests a connection with slave-trading from the Guinea Coast to the West Indian and American colonies and this trade connection is borne out by the house. The window heads on the street front of the building all have moulded details representative of trade; grapes, an Irish harp, a ‘native’, a Liver bird… Probably due to the early date of the building, these symbols refer largely to European trade rather to that with the Atlantic colonies, the naming of the street likely coming later. It is not known for certain whether Edward Teach (Blackbeard) has any real connection to the building.
The presenters moved around one part of the building (it has been subdivided), the psychic felt various presences and the lights were duly turned off. If I remember rightly, the ‘contact’ was a sailor called Peter and at one point he apparently laughed and exclaimed “Looking for Blackbeard?”.
In Redcliffe Caves the following evening, the show moved immediately to dismiss the popular myth that the caves were used to house enslaved Africans in transit; it’s at the wrong point of the triangular trade. Also dismissed was the easy notion that the caves were used by pirates to hide treasure. Although a pretty idea, it’s unlikely that any pirate ships sailed into the tidal, river-fed Bristol harbour after plundering shipping (although there is a history of piracy in the Bristol Channel and a number of well-known privateering voyages originated in Bristol). This night’s investigation of a cave system contrasted interestingly with that of a house. People seemingly got lost, became isolated and were shown on screen with no recognisable surroundings. Conversely, in the house the night before, even on the night-vision camera, features were identifiable and anyone with a passing knowledge of historic buildings would have been able to work out exactly where in the house the team were. All of this added to an interesting programme where the team’s psychic apparently detected the presence of a murderer dragging his female victim to a hiding place within the caves.
Night three’s location, The Llandoger Trow, is popularly believed to be where Daniel Defoe met Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, this entirely possible. Selkirk had been ‘rescued’ from his island during the privateering voyage of the twin-ships Duke and Duchess, captained by Woodes Rogers and including pirate-turned-navigator William Dampier among the crew. Very much a Bristol venture, this voyage was funded by a group of local merchants including one of Bristol’s most well-known, Thomas Goldney. After a series of disputes (and over ten years), the seamen’s’ shares from this voyage were posted in Bristol taverns, the Llandoger Trow included, and the original crew lists are available in the National Archive. Once again, the team moved around the building taking it in turns to stand alone in the basement getting scared by the noises made by the pub’s cooling equipment.
So far so spooky, and very entertaining it was, but why is this television event of interest to contemporary archaeology? Far from being a somewhat frivolous piece of light-entertainment, ‘Most Haunted Live: Pirates’ Curse’ raises a number of issues around approaching buildings in particular and material culture in general. I will discuss these interlinked ideas under three loose headings; haunting, story-telling, and materiality.
The idea of ghosts or haunting is not a new one in archaeology. Especially in phenomenological approaches to places, the analogy of haunting is common and receives much employment in discussions surrounding the prefix re- (Carlson 2003). Re-membering, re-living, re-engaging; all of these are often discussed as if they are an encounter with ‘ghosts’. Here, in a sense, the word refers to the perceived overt presence of History and finds resonance in period reconstruction or the touring of historic sites.
Perhaps another way to theorise haunted houses is in Freudian terms. Freud’s discussion of the concepts of heimlich/unheimlich states that often the most unheimlich situations result from encounters with what has previously been heimlich (Massey 1995). Taken literally, this opens up a number of ways of looking at houses or the home. Horror movies for instance are often centred on the introduction of an unknown (killer/spirit) to a home. Most Haunted stakes its reputation and audience on just this idea. By approaching homes and public houses as haunted, they introduce the unheimlich element into the study of familiar locations. This approach perhaps says something about erasing taken-for-granteds and entering into the study of a building as an agnostic rather than a knowing researcher (Latour 1987). I remain unconvinced about applications of psychoanalysis in archaeology, but Most Haunted allows us to look at this idea instead in terms of contrasting methodological approaches to archaeological study.
Most Haunted Live finds another archaeological connection through its recourse to story-telling. The format of the show allows for the direct telling of individual stories supposedly told direct from historical figures. This contrasts with the oft-felt (and legislated) need to describe a building in terms of its historic structural development. Various approaches to story-telling in archaeology suggest that stories are important in both the explanation of sites to others and in the primary interpretation of archaeological material. This hyper-interpretive archaeology is of interest. Also important is how ‘direct’ story-telling of this kind, almost as an extreme version of oral-history, is able to challenge the prevalence of linear narratives in archaeological interpretation.
It is with discussion of materiality that the real importance of Most Haunted Live to theorising archaeological approaches to buildings can be found. Firstly, with the lights off, the buildings on the programme are encountered as creaking floorboards, changing temperatures, feelings of discomfort and the proximity of unseen objects rather than as describable materials. This is an extremely important point to make as here, Most Haunted is emphasising the materiality of houses in a way which actively removes their visual element. Secondly, we as viewers see through the darkness, either via television or the webcams. The distortions of night-vision filming or the grainy jumping of a badly streaming webcam change the viewers’ encounter with the locations. We can consider how the materiality of these haunted houses is directly affected by television and internet technologies for us as remote investigators. For the armchair archaeologist watching the switching back-and-forth to different cameras while looking simultaneously at all four streaming webcams it becomes possible to experience an entire building at once, an interesting and alien concept. Walls, for instance, disappear as we now have eyes in every room.
Quite possibly, thinking of Most Haunted as offering an alternative approach to the archaeological study of buildings is not too dissimilar to a number of theoretical approaches being developed outside ‘mainstream’ archaeology. A large number of artists (and indeed others) for instance use ruins and disuse as a way of presenting ideas on the history of an individual building. Here, we see the idea that the almost Gothic aesthetic of decay is an affective entry-point into a structure’s history. This is certainly analogous to the approach of Most Haunted with its eerie green glow and psychic pretensions. Overall, ‘Most Haunted Live: Pirates’ Curse’ offered a new and interesting approach to archaeological investigation of buildings, one that is not reliant on the visual, on narrative or even on physical presence. I’m surprised to find myself looking forward to the next live show…..
Carlson, M. 2003. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
Massey, D. 1995. Space-time and the Politics of Location. In Lingwood, J. (ed.) 1995. Rachel Whiteread: house. London: Phaidon Press
Latour, B. 1987. Science in Action. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press