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Sunday 5 June 2016

The House of the Screaming Skull

“The Screaming Skull” is the title of a Hollywood movie from 1958, a short story first published in 1908, and a rather dubious legend that can be traced back to Victorian times. The short story was set in Cornwall and the film somewhere in the United States, but the legend comes from Bettiscombe Manor in Dorset. That’s only about six miles from where I live, but it isn’t open to the public, and it’s quite a distance from the main road, so I’d never actually seen it till last week. I felt rather awkward gawping at what is obviously just a private house (even if it’s a famously haunted one), so I carefully kept to the public footpath and managed to grab the appropriately cryptic view shown above.

The legend of Bettiscombe’s screaming skull is one of Dorset’s best known ghost stories. In their book Dark Dorset, Robert Newland and Mark North devote no less than 17 pages to it. As is often the case, the legend seems to have evolved with each telling. The first reference to an old skull being kept at the manor house dates from 1847, but it wasn’t described as “screaming”, and it wasn’t associated with a ghost. Quite the opposite, in fact – “While this skull is kept here no ghost will ever infest Bettiscombe House”.

In 1872, the lawyer and amateur folklorist John Udal repeated the story of a skull being kept in the house out of superstition, and added that “the legend runs that it belonged to a faithful black servant of an early possessor of the property”. Just over a decade later, in 1883, the daughter of a British Museum researcher accompanied her father to the house, and picked up a much more detailed version of the story. The servant “had declared before his death that his spirit would not rest unless his body was taken to his native land and buried there”. Ignoring the warning, they buried him in the local churchyard – “then the haunting began; fearful screams proceeded from the grave”. The body was dug up and the skull brought into the house, but “the reputation of the screaming skull of Bettiscombe House remains unimpaired”. This was the first written reference to “screaming” in connection with the skull.

Around 1900, John Udal was posted to the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. By chance, he came across a plantation that had been founded by “John Pinney, son of Azariah Pinney, formerly of Bettiscombe”. Udal also learned that one of the early plantation workers had been given the slave-name Bettiscombe – and immediately leapt to the conclusion that this was the “black servant” associated with the legend of the screaming skull. Most modern accounts of the Bettiscombe legend take this association for granted, without mentioning the shaky foundations on which it is based (except Wikipedia, of course, which gleefully tells us that “In 1963 a professor of human and comparative anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons stated that the skull was not that of a black man but that of a European female aged between twenty-five and thirty”).

The reason I decided to go and look at Bettiscombe Manor was that I recently came across the movie version of The Screaming Skull on a public domain movie site (I’d already read the short story a few years ago). It’s often said that the film is based on the story, and the story is based on the legend … but beyond the phrase “screaming skull” there’s really no similarity between the three versions. The short story (written by F. Marion Crawford, and originally published in two parts in Collier’s Magazine in 1908) is really quite clever, although it’s narrated in an old-fashioned way. In contrast the movie comes across as atrociously bad, but that’s largely due to its low budget and amateurish direction. If you can get all the way to the end without falling asleep, the underlying storyline is actually quite good.

Partly as an excuse to show a couple of downmarket paperback covers (which as regular readers know, I can never resist), here are two items of related trivia:
  • The part of Dorset in which Bettiscombe is situated is called Marshwood Vale (in fact I parked the car in the village of Marshwood itself). This boasts a very tenuous connection with H. P. Lovecraft, courtesy of John Brunner’s 1992 short story “Concerning the Forthcoming Inexpensive Paperback Translation of the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred” – in which he transposes two of Lovecraft’s infamous New England towns to the Dorset countryside. Brunner’s version has “the small town of Arkham overlooking Marshwood Vale in the county of Dorset, England”, while Dunwich is “a parish whose boundaries adjoin those of Arkham”. The story is reprinted in Robert M. Price’s Necronomicon anthology pictured below.
  • The anthology in which I read F. Marion Crawford’s “The Screaming Skull” was The 4th Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories, also pictured below. The longest story in the book is James Blish’s werewolf-themed novella “There Shall Be No Darkness”, originally written in 1950. Much later, in 1974, this story was adapted as The Beast Must Die by Amicus Productions – often seen as an inferior competitor to Hammer Films. This is one of their best films, though – pretty faithful to Blish’s original plotline, and with plenty of added seventies grooviness.

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