Inside the ghastly world of seaside horror stories

Karen Ruffles 1 April 2022

It's not that ice cream that's making you shiver… step out of the sunshine and into a chilling realm of the ghostly and ghastly

We start our exploration of the dark side of the seaside here on the east coast in Whitby. I've lived here for seven years now drawing inspiration from the local landscape—literally in my case, I'm a visual artist and like many, my imagination has been captured by the feeling that there is Something here. But what is it? I'm certainly not the first—Bram Stoker famously conjured key moments in Dracula while holidaying here in 1890 (no mention of the chips, but they were still a fairly new idea at that point).

I think some of it is the age-old fear of the unknown and of course the sea itself, which has naturally led to superstition and myth generated by those who were brave or desperate enough to head out there.

It surrounds us—the call of the seabirds said to be the voices of the lost, the gravestones above empty earth in St Marys churchyard on the headland—a reminder that somewhere, out there, they haven't come home. With the sneaking suspicion that when the sea fret rolls in, perhaps they still might…

Addictions by Karen Ruffles, Drawing in the Dark

Scottish waters have been said for centuries to be filled with kelpies and the like—beings who can foretell or even create storms, which is not surprising when you consider that our most northerly shores boast the likes of the Corryvreckan Whirlpool. Third largest in the world (a terrifying thought by itself), the monster can be heard roaring from many miles away. 

This wouldn't be an exploration of our relationship with the coast, the joy of a sunny day on the beach while looking out over the freezing darkness, without a cautionary tale and so I give you The Kelpie of Corryevreckan by Charles MacKay (1814-89).

It's a ballad about a young lady who is charmed away having made the classic mistake of completely believing a handsome stranger on a suspiciously good-looking horse and is of course lost. Check out Tom Wylde's reading on the Whiskey Lore podcast for the full ballad.

Loud the cold sea-blast did blow

As they sank ’mid the angry waves below

Down to the rocks where the serpents creep

Twice five hundred fathoms deep.

The poet Charles McKay, Author unknown

Continuing our travels widdershins, we find ourselves on the west coast in Cumbria to visit Tony Walker, an author and the man behind the “Classic Ghost Stories Podcast”. I first came across his work looking for a reading of Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad by the legendary M R James.

If you haven't had the pleasure and can still walk deserted beaches without a terrible urge to look behind you, I highly recommend Tony's beautiful version and while you're at it, pair it with the excellent Dubmill Point for his own contemporary seaside ghost story. I asked Tony what he thought drew creatives to the shore and why it appears to inspire such dark flights of fancy.

“I’ve lived more than half my life by the sea so it’s no wonder it invades my stories. I’ve written stories set on a North Sea ferry and an Atlantic liner, but it’s the sea’s edge that is the most mysterious. That is doubtless because of the liminality of it—it separates one world from another like Halloween separates the year into light and dark halves, or like the silver skin of a mirror separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, at least according to Jean Cocteau.

So, it’s an edge… above all it symbolises the unconscious: those dreams and fears that we hide from, but which have a way of always catching up with us in the end. What more inspiration could you want?”

'O Whistle', Illustration by James Mcbryde, 1905

I also lived in Cornwall for a time, where between the fishing and the mining, pretty much everything is haunted or a portent, or both. It's a beautiful place—the light is amazing and famed among artists, especially painters.

I think that's possibly why the contrast between the tourist-packed towns and the area's dark history is so dramatic and strongly felt there. The coast is littered with shipwrecks as you would expect, and all those handy mining tunnels made it a perfect place for smugglers.

Those things combined led to gruesome stories of wreckers. Originally the practice of salvaging goods and materials from wrecked ships, rumours began of locals deliberately luring ships onto the rocks and when they foundered, raiding them and dispatching those who survived.

There were certainly Cornish pirates: in the Elizabethan era it was positively encouraged as the Spanish and the English were competing to see who could pinch the most off who. Lesser known are the tales of the Barbary corsairs, pirates from North Africa who terrorised the coast for two centuries taking men, women and children as slaves. If you like your history dark and damp, Cornwall is an excellent place to look.

The Hansy shipwreck near Lizard Point, Cornwall, 1911, photographer unknown

Heading back north, I want to make one more stop at Scarborough before we catch the bus back to Whitby, with the 2019 film St Maud. The titular Maud has reinvented herself after the trauma of being unable to physically save someone and when she takes on the palliative care of a retired dancer facing her final steps, becomes increasingly fixated on saving her patient's soul.

The tension between the two characters—Maud becoming increasingly controlling as Amanda is determined to enjoy her remaining earthly pleasures while she can, is played out in gloriously old school, moody gothic style.

The choice of location for this film is key—far more than simple scenery, Scarborough itself is a presence. The jangling penny arcades, bright lights and ice cream parlour contrast comforting childhood memories with Maud's increasing loneliness as she spins out of control. The extraordinary ending takes place in a very ordinary moment on the beach, but that you must see for yourselves…

A poster for 'Saint Maud', A24 Films

Karen Ruffles is a visual artist working under the name Drawing in Dark.

Read more: 5 Books about real-life scammers

Read more: 5 Ways to get rid of unwanted books

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter