Horror in Who: Ghosts

Let’s focus on what we glimpse in blurry photos: they look like us but they pass through this world without leaving a footprint. They could offer us a glimpse beyond the veil. How do ghosts leave a lasting impression on Doctor Who?

Ghosts seem to be an apparition of our concerns about the afterlife and the unknown, two things that recur in horror. They perhaps stem from early beliefs in an unseen world integrating with our own – shamans and other mystics were always held in high regard – but can our modern-day sciences explain these theories away?

That’s an idea Doctor Who dwells upon: that strange occurrences are merely the result of science we don’t yet understand. But actual ghostly sightings in our favourite show are few and far between…

Timely Apparitions


The first notable mention of ghosts came in 1972’s Day of the Daleks, in which the Third Doctor, Jo Grant, and UNIT visit Auderly House, the site of an imminent World Peace Conference, after its organiser, Sir Reginald Styles, witnesses a ghostly assassin. The Doctor insists there’s no such thing as ghosts – and of course, the show takes a rather unusual look at this potential glimpse into the afterlife.

It’s all timey-wimey.

Time travel is a major explanation for ghosts in the Whoniverse, as is the supernatural being merely the result of advanced technology. The TARDIS lets us live through lives long since lost. Just look at 2005’s Father’s Day in which Rose is given a little extra time with her Dad: he is basically a ghost, to Rose and then to the world between the time he’s pushed from the path of the car, and when he sacrifices himself to save everyone. In that little pocket of reality, he is a dead man walking. Similarly, Ashildr is brought back to life in The Girl Who Died (2015), essentially being forced to become a ghost from another era, trying to find her place in subsequent appearances throughout Series 9.

The same could be said about the Cybermen. In Army of Ghosts (2006), they are literally mysterious apparitions – humanity seeing them as deceased loved ones returning – but as a whole, the Doctor argues that they died when they were converted.

Parallel universes offer a further explanation for ghosts, specifically in Warrior’s Gate (1981) in which the Tharils can travel between N-Space and E-Space. With strange figures phasing in and out of the castle, this gateway becomes a typical haunted ruin in the most unusual circumstances. It’s merely transference of energy from one plane to another.


Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. Maybe our fascination with the afterlife is a way of pondering what happens to our (typically spiritual) energy. It is, according to Dr. Nikola Tesla, a key to understanding: “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration,” the futurist argued. Probably the most memorable example of a haunted house is the Seventh Doctor serial, Ghost Light. In a fine example of a paradox, the Doctor takes Ace there to exorcise her demons, and thus creates her demons in the first place! But it all occurs because of the dissipation of Light. It’s notable that this 1989 story centres on evolution, and perhaps this form of dispersal is the ultimate step: to ‘ascend’ to a higher plane of existence, released from a physical form – that was, after all, the Time Lords’ ultimate plan at the end of the Time War, according to 2010’s The End of Time!

These Four Walls

A further mention of haunted houses comes in 1977’s Image of the Fendahl; the woods around Fetch Priory were said to be haunted. But a ‘fetch’ is quite different to a ghost. A fetch is a supernatural double of a living person, commonly a sign of impending death. The idea likely originated in Irish folklore, finding traction in the 1825 book, Tales of the O’Hara Family, by Michael and John Banim (the latter of whom pondered on The Fetches, “so prevalent in this part of Ireland”).

Fetch Priory is the typical haunted house, a notion many of us believe in – to the point that, at the New York Supreme Court in 1991, it was ruled that a seller in certain circumstances had to disclose whether a house had a reputation for hauntings!


There are several instances in which a property serves the same narrative function as a traditional haunted house without the need of ghosts: Greystark Hall, the run-down orphanage in 2011’s Day of the Moon is essentially run by the Silence, figures that permeate the shadows of the endless corridors; Winter Quay in the following year’s The Angels Take Manhattan is a place no one escapes from, populated by the dead; and 1984’s The Awakening mixes time travel with psychic energy to stalk the church of Little Hodcombe.

Perhaps the most interesting examination of ghosts (and a sublime example of a haunted house) is 2013’s Hide. Not only does it mull over ideas of energy dispersal but the Neil Cross-penned episode furthermore puts the whole character of the Doctor (and his relationships) in a whole new perspective.

In a chilling montage, the Doctor and Clara witness the life-cycle of Earth, and while the Time Lord is “okay with that,” his companion most certainly is not. “To you, I haven’t been born yet – and to you I’ve been dead 100 billion years,” she argues. “Is my body out there somewhere in the ground?” The Doctor agrees that it likely is. She goes on: “But here we are, talking. So I am a ghost. To you, I’m a ghost. We’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing.”

Thanks to time travel, death becomes somewhat obsolete: to any higher species, we are all dead people walking. It really is a scary thought – but one hinted at in 1970’s Inferno. The Doctor has witnessed the deaths of his friends (or at least their parallel world counterparts) and must stop it happening again. He has seen their demise and it waits in their future. The Doctor, then, is merely delaying the inevitable whenever and wherever the TARDIS lands.

The actual ‘ghost’ in Hide is, once more, a misinterpretation of scientific theory, and talk of the screaming woman echo back throughout the history of Caliburn House. She is called the “Caliburn Ghast” (‘ghost’ coming from the Old English, gást); “The Wraith of the Lady” (‘wraith’ being a Scottish word for ‘ghost’); “the Maiden in the Dark”; and “the Witch of the Well.”

Recorded Apparitions

However, its origins lie in a much-loved 1972 Nigel Kneale drama, The Stone Tape. So influential was this 90-minute tale that it became synonymous with a rationale on ghosts – and it’s a concept Doctor Who frequently leans on.


Upon hearing that Amy’s house had been broken into, the Eleventh Doctor explains in The Pandorica Opens (2010): “If they’ve been to her house, they could have used her psychic residue. Structures can hold memories; that’s why houses have ghosts.” This is known as residual haunting, that emotional events can be recorded in inanimate matter like rock and replayed: stone acting as tape. But while that’s where it gets its best-known name from, the theory was first put forward by archaeologist, Thomas Charles Lethbridge in 1961. After becoming disillusioned with his peers, he and his wife, Mina, moved to Hole House, Devon, which he soon believed haunted.

He attempted to study the paranormal in as scientific a manner as possible, and concluded that ghosts were, in fact, recordings of past or future events. He continued on this line of thinking in his book, ESP – Beyond Time and Distance, which theorised that dowsing could detect energy rays emitted from every object.

Under the Lake/ Before the Flood (2015), however, introduced a neat addition to the so-called “Stone Tape” theory: that it’s not just inanimate objects that can detect, record, and repeat events, but humans too. This led to the Doctor experiencing his very first ‘proper’ ghosts, and as amazed as he was, the Fisher King hijacking mankind’s end also angered him (though again, it played into the series’ notion of time as a limiting factor for all life).


Written by Toby Whithouse – who also featured a ghost as one of the lead characters in his sci-fi series, Being Human – the serial’s antagonist used deaths to his advantage, rewriting synapses in the brain, carving them into a specific pattern, and broadcasting that as a signal into space once his victims have passed away. These ghostly apparitions are devoid of any consciousness or personality, so we can conclude that the only thing that survived was this signal and appearances of The Drum’s crew.

Because they display no emotion or recollections of their previous lives, those killed are effectively like the inanimate objects in residual hauntings. They’re rocks, with messages carved in them.

What The Dickens?!

Residual haunting became more widely known when it was used in The Stone Tape – and one reason for its original cult status was the BBC’s decision to air this ghost story on Christmas Day 1972.


That definitely wasn’t the first ghost story set at Christmas, though: Winter is, without doubt, the ideal time for horror tales and they became increasingly popular in the Victorian era. Leeds Metropolitan University’s Professor Ruth Robbins has chalked this up to the rise of periodicals such as The Strand Magazine in which two genres prevailed: detective stories (like Sherlock Holmes), and ghost stories.

Perhaps Charles Dickens’ most recognised classic, A Christmas Carol was perfect for an audience gobbling up short stories and Penny Dreadfuls. It’s a novella that’s proved very influential to Doctor Who, spawning at least two stories – one of which even steals the book’s name!

In the 2010 Christmas special, the Doctor becomes a ghost, but Dickens’ first full appearance in Doctor Who came in 2005’s The Unquiet Dead, suitably battling ghosts… or so it seems. The Gelth offer an intriguing glimpse into the mind of the author, who trod the line between the psychological and the supernatural. Biographer, John Forster described him as having “a hankering after ghosts.” Indeed, his tales of ghosts, notably Four Ghost Stories, appeared in All the Year Round and Household Words. Within a month of his death, spiritualists (many of whom he had angered) claimed to have been visited by Dickens’ ghost, some even relaying the supposed ending to his unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.


Mark Gatiss, a fan of A Christmas Carol, wanted to set The Unquiet Dead at Christmas (the sole festive episode to star the Ninth Doctor), and included a scene with the Gelth appearing on the knocker of a door, parallel to a scene in the original book. Dickens wrote:

“Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London, even including – which is a bold word – the corporation, aldermen, and livery. Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven-year’s dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change: not a knocker, but Marley’s face.”

His deceased friend was then described as “with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot-air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless.”

Isolation and Horizons


Two Doctor Who serials in particular borrow from a further ghost tale: that of the Flying Dutchman. Legends concerning ghost ships have existed since at least the 18th Century, but this ship, destined to sail forever with its doomed crew, was first noted in the memoir, A Voyage to Botany Bay (1795). George Barrington wrote:

“In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared.”

It was said seeing the Flying Dutchman was a portent of doom – but Barrington lived until December 1804! (In 2006’s Tooth and Claw, Queen Victoria claims that anyone who sees the Koh-i-Noor “must surely die.” The Doctor retorts that it’s true of anything, if you wait long enough.)

The legend was expanded upon by Samuel T. Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and this links with 2011’s The Curse of the Black Spot where Captain Avery’s ship remained becalmed. Coleridge described this situation as:

“Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.”

This ‘sitting duck’ dilemma is in opposition to Doctor Who‘s previous story focusing on ghost ships: in Enlightenment (1983), the Eternals exist beyond time and have little regard for humanity’s mortality. There is something ghostly about them – especially their plight. They may exist outside of the “small domain” of time, but their endless existence stretches out before them and they constantly look for something to entertain them, to ground them, which must surely haunt their every moment.

Tracks of Tears


Doctor Who frequently ponders over the afterlife, but not often ghosts in particular. But Hide and A Christmas Carol provide further intriguing glimpses at ghosts, or more specifically, at our central character. We may all be ghosts to the Doctor, but maybe he is the same to us. The fact that Clara’s grave is out there somewhere foreshadows The Name of the Doctor.

In the Series 7 finale, he also tells Clara that his previous incarnations are his ghosts: after so many regenerations, so many faces all dotted around the universe, they, too, are dead men walking. But that’s a story for another day…

(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in October 2014.)