Ghost Ships, Ghost Ships Everywhere…

September 24, 2017 § 3 Comments

Growing up on an island in the Atlantic, I spent summers reading adventure stories. One such tale was Brian Jacques’ Castaways of the Flying Dutchman. In this young adult fantasy novel, a boy stows away on a ship: the Flying Dutchman. The ship’s crew is a depraved lot, and most fearsome of all is Captain Vanderdecken. One day Vanderdecken curses God for inclement weather, and an angel descends on the ship, scourging all but the faultless boy (and his dog). The ship’s crew is doomed to wander the seas for all eternity, never to make port, while boy and dog conversely must wander the earth, spreading goodness wherever they go.                                    cotfd

The myth of the ghost ship and its doomed crew is remixed again and again in maritime tales. The polar vessel in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner comes to mind, with its glowing seraphs and reanimated corpses. Here, too, exists a lone survivor, who must wander the globe sharing his cautionary tale. We see ships of similar make in Poe’s story “MS. Found in a Bottle­­”—whose ghost ship gives off a “dull, sullen glare of red light”—and again in his novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Such ships are spooky to say the least, often emitting a ghastly radiance, and seem to portend disaster for those who sight them.


                “Upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship”                    MS Found in a Bottle by Byam Shaw c. 1909

Perhaps the best-known contemporary nod to this myth appears in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, where the story of the Flying Dutchman is conflated with that of Davey Jones’ Locker, the guardian of which gathers the souls of the dead-at-sea. Krakens and maelstroms are also par for the course in these films, yet this is in keeping with older, more literary nautical adventures.


While there are many iterations of the Flying Dutchman myth (including a German opera by Wagner!) the unifying element seems to be that the sailors are exempt from the ruins of time and barred from return to land. In Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, Captain Nemo’s submarine may be considered one such ship. This mysterious craft emits a phosphorescent glow, which readers learn is due to the engine’s mechanisms, and not an otherworldly curse. Still, mysteries abound regarding not only where, but when Nemo is from. Like many a ghost ship captain, Nemo eschews dry land in favor of the ocean depths. You might have noticed, too, that Captain Nemo enjoys playing creepy organ music, as does Captain Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Nemo’s existence is an isolated, liminal one, and as such, he and his ship may be seen as ghostly; indeed, he promises Dr. Aronnax “he who enters the Nautilus is destined never to leave again.”27twenty_thousand_leagues_under_the_sea27_by_neuville_and_riou_027

 What is it about seafaring that encourages storytellers to include these ships in their narratives? Perhaps ghost ships are a caution against hubris in the face of the ungovernable ocean, or of loving the sea too much.

–Elena Britos












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§ 3 Responses to Ghost Ships, Ghost Ships Everywhere…

  • There is certainly something ghostly about both Captain Nemo and his Nautilus! I wonder if we cannot also see Nemo as participating in another ghostly tradition—that of the vengeful spirit. Cultures all over the world have versions of this myth, but many of the various traditions and folklores see the vengeful spirit as doomed to exist in a liminal space between the dead and the living until it avenges its own wrongful death. One of the most famous of Japanese ghost stories features the vengeful ghost of the disfigured bride Oiwa, who remains in the realm of the living to haunt the murderous husband who had poisoned her in order to free himself to marry another woman. Oiwa drives him mad and causes him to kill his new wife before pushing him off a cliff.

    If Nemo is a ghostly figure, he is a vengeful one. For Nemo, the wrong he seeks to avenge is not only his own, but that of all oppressed peoples. It becomes clear in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that Nemo is not simply wandering the ocean, but is on a mission to both provide material support for colonized peoples and punish their colonizers. Verne reveals in a later novel, The Mysterious Island, that Nemo is an Indian noble, Prince Dakkar, who has to flee his homeland after his participation in India’s First War of Independence (known largely in Britain as the Indian Mutiny of 1857), a widespread rebellion against British rule in India. What is fascinating about Nemo is that he seems to understand himself as a figure not bound by a national identity, but of one people with all those he understands to be oppressed. (We learn, for instance, that he is providing money to support a rebellion in Greece against the Ottoman Empire.) Thus, the wrong that the vengeful spirit of the ghost ship Nautilus seeks to avenge is not one violent death, but many—every death resulting from the violence done to colonized peoples—too many deaths to ever be avenged.

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  • Thanks for this, Elena! I love the Brian Jacques reference (and the fond memories of Redwall it inspired), and I appreciate the way you’ve established the trope of the ghost ship in this post.

    You’ve also reminded me of a news article I read a few weeks ago concerning one of the prototype submarines used in the US Civil War ( Although Nemo’s Nautilus is obviously way, way more advanced than the hand-cranked ( metal tube mentioned in that article, I think it’s interesting to think about potential real-life referents for Verne’s “ghost ship.” The H. L. Hunley went missing during combat in 1864, just five years before the original serialized publication of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Could there be a connection between the danger and mystery shrouding the early submarines of the US Civil War and Verne’s impulse to write about underwater ghost ships? There’s a lot to think about here – thanks for raising the topic!

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  • vandyjg says:

    Hi Elena,

    Thanks for your post! I agree that the ghost ship is a compelling archetype, and the examples you give are really interesting. What strikes me about the Nautilus in Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is that its eeriness stems from its conflation of the man-made and natural. In Chapter 6, Captain Farragut says, “It is evidently a gigantic narwhal, and an electric one too” (26). Even after M. Aronnax et al. discover that the Nautilus is “a phenomenon of man’s making” (35), there are elements of the ship that still seem supernatural. Captain Nemo, after explaining that the ship is run entirely by electricity, asserts, “my electricity is not everybody’s” (62), suggesting an air of mystery to an otherwise knowable scientific process. Also, the method by which the Nautilus breathes—”like the cetaceans do” (129)—is further evidence that the ship is not easily classifiable.

    Beyond the ship itself, I appreciate your attention to Captain Nemo’s “liminal” existence. His eschewal of dry land seems to go hand in hand with his eschewal of society and law. And yet, he is the character on board who appears to have the highest sense of moral decency: “‘those who you call savages, are they worse than others?'” he asks M. Aronnax (124). Though clearly, as you point out in your final questions, Captain Nemo’s primary motivation is his love for the sea: “The sea is everything…It is an immense desert where man is never alone, for he feels life quivering around him on every side. The sea does not belong to despots…Ah, sir, live in the bosom of the waters! There alone is independence! There I recognise no masters! There I am free!” (55). Freedom for Nemo seems tied to the sea’s unmoored existence from land’s tyrannies, and yet, there is a vitality to the sea that inspirits Nemo. This line between a peopled, despotic society and the elusive, life-affirming luster of the sea is indeed a ghost-like in-between space—one where questions about what it means to be truly alive may be considered.

    I’m reminded of Bulkington from “The Lee Shore” chapter of Moby-Dick, who sets out to sea again soon after returning from a four year’s voyage because “The land seemed scorching to his feet.” Melville writes, “all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore” (97).

    Captain Nemo seems under a similar spell: the sea is a kind of placeless place of ultimate freedom, a ghostly arena where the threat of annihilation is imminent, and as a result, life may be all the more treasured.

    (Note: I’m quoting from the Collins Classics edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (2010) and the 2nd Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick (2002)).

    Liked by 1 person

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