The Screaming Skulls of England

Alex Nichol, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Alex Nichol, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Alex Nichol, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1791, British historian John Collinson recorded a strange anecdote in his History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset. In one out-of-the-way parish, reported Collinson, residents had been haunted by Theophilus Brome (also spelled Broome), a local man who had requested that after his death his head be returned to his farmhouse rather than buried with the rest of his body. The villagers initially obliged, but when they later attempted to remove Brome's skull from the house, they were met with ear-splitting results: The skull supposedly screamed and moaned, piercing the villagers' ears with “horrid noises, portentive of sad displeasure” until they moved it back into the dead man’s farmhouse. Years later, when the villagers once again tried to dig a grave for the skull, their spade split in two, making it impossible to return Brome’s head to the earth.

Though Collinson’s story was presented as a peculiar anecdote, similar screaming skull stories have been reported throughout Britain, perhaps as far back as the 16th century. In fact, legend has it that some old English manors are home to a peculiar resident: a mischievous spirit locked inside a mysterious skull. Though the stories vary from place to place, it’s generally said that when a skull is removed from its home it begins to scream, causing mischief and misfortune until it's returned.

Britain's screaming skull legends are fascinating for both their persistence—they've been passed down orally for generations—and the mystery surrounding their origins. Though little academic literature exists regarding the skulls, many paranormal enthusiasts have noted a tenuous link to Celtic mythology, in which the strange powers of the human head figure prominently. However, others note that if the skull legend were Celtic it would likely appear throughout England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Instead, the legend is restricted to rural England, which means its origins may be part of a uniquely British superstition.

No one has ever been able to pinpoint the origin of these tales—there is no known original story from which the other legends sprang. Since they're mostly the subject of oral folklore rather than historical record, their roots are nearly impossible to trace.

But if the legend’s origins are lost, the specific stories it inspired are still very much alive. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe Manor. The story goes that several centuries ago, an elderly servant at the manor begged Bettiscombe's owner, Azariah Pinney, to send his body back to the West Indies after his death. But Pinney ignored the old man’s dying wish, and had him buried in a local graveyard. The dead servant made so much noise, and haunted the manor so relentlessly, that the Pinneys had his skeleton dug up and brought back to the manor—where all noise abruptly ceased. Though it wasn't the West Indies, apparently the luxurious Bettiscombe Manor was a satisfactory alternative.

Over the course of several centuries, all the bones from the skeleton except the servant’s skull were lost. To this day, the family keeps the skull in their home for fear of disturbing the ghost. In 1910, one historian reported:

"At a farmhouse in Dorsetshire at the present time, is carefully preserved a human skull, which has been there for a period long antecedent to the present tenancy. The peculiar superstition attaching to it is that if it be brought out of the house the house itself would rock to its foundations, whilst the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year. It is strangely suggestive of the power of this superstition that through many changes of tenancy and furniture the skull still holds its accustomed place 'unmoved and unremoved!'"

But if the skull in Bettiscombe Manor lies dormant unless moved, other screaming skulls have been said to be more active participants in their households. In the 19th century, the Screaming Skull of Tunstead Farm was said to bring good luck and protection to the farm where it was stored. In one 19th century travelogue, The Perambulations of Barney the Irishman, the titular Barney observed: “There are many strange stories in Tunstead concerning a skull in the possession of Mr. John Bramwell, who holds it in great veneration, declaring that it prevents the house and farm from being robbed; and that he would sooner part with the best cow he has than with the skull.”

Sitting on the farmhouse windowsill, the Tunstead Skull (known as “Dickie") mostly looked out over the farmlands making sure nothing was amiss—that is, until the Railway Company tried to build a new track through part of the Tunstead land. According to locals at the time, each day the company would start building the track, and each night, Dickie would undo their work. In 1863, a magazine called The Panorama reported: “It was the steadfast belief in the district that the ghost would undo, at the Coombs embankment, the work which had occupied many men during the day, and that Dickie was only propitiated at last by an interview with the engineer, at which he was promised a free passage over the line forever.”

Nowadays, the screaming skull legends seem to be dying out. A 1963 scientific examination of the Bettiscombe skull found that it belonged to a woman who lived 3000 or 4000 years ago, disproving the myth of Azariah Pinney's servant. Superstition, meanwhile, is losing the sway it once held over rural England, and over the years many of the skulls have been lost.

The skulls have, however, been portrayed in a few 20th century books and movies, the most notable being Francis Marion Crawford's 1911 ghost story The Screaming Skull and a 1958 film of the same name. And for anyone interested in seeking out the screaming skulls of oral legend, plenty of paranormal travel sites have mapped out the locations of the myths. Or, you can always rent out an old manor in the English countryside—you never know what you'll find.