The tradition of screaming skulls seems to be almost entirely isolated to England, where stories of these mischievous bone locked spirits abound. A screaming skull is basically a skull of dubious origin, said to cause great havoc – storms, poltergeist activity, and (given its namesake) unearthly screams – when it is removed from its pride of place within a stately home, or other ancient abode. Just how each skull came to reside within the house, is the subject of colourful stories, which also explain why the skull is so unwilling to return to the grave.
Many of the stories about the skulls origins do not stand up to the scrutiny of investigation, but the actual tradition itself bears interest, and can be seen as a folklore motif widespread throughout the English counties.
It has been suggested that the tradition of screaming skulls may be related in some way to a fragmented ancient tradition, associated with the reverence for the head. The Celts in particular were worshippers of the head. There have been many archaeological finds from the Iron Age to suggest that this is so, from skull shrines to the plethora of carved stone heads. The tradition has also been passed down in the Celtic Myths, from Bran’s sacred head to the beheading motif found in Cu Chulainn and other folklore. The only problem with this theory is that the tradition of screaming skulls seems restricted to England, and is not found in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Counties where you would more readily expect to find fragments of surviving Celtic traditions. So whether there is any connection with older traditions is difficult to quantify, and as the stories do not seem to date back further than the middle of the 16th century the tradition may be relatively new.
In some stories these skulls have almost become the ‘luck’ of the house, in much the same way as some stately homes and castles have an heirloom, which in tradition must be kept safe to maintain good luck for the home and the family. Here is a selection of some of the most famous and well-documented screaming skulls in Britain:
The Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe Manor
Perhaps the most famous screaming skull is the one that resides at Bettiscombe Manor in Dorset. The tradition (which has many variations) to account for its presence suggests that it was the skull of a black servant of the manor some time in the distant past. It was his dying wish to have his body returned home to the West Indies, – the land of his fathers. Unfortunately the master of the house – a man called Azariah Pinney – had no intention of returning his earthly remains to the West Indies, and he was interred locally in Bettiscombe Churchyard. Soon after his burial terrible screams and strange guttural noises issued from the grave, and the house was plagued by poltergeist activity. Finally after the local villagers and family members could take no more, the skeleton was recovered and brought into the house, whereupon the haunting ceased. The bones of the skeleton became lost over the years until only the skull remained. Any attempts to rebury the skull are always said to have resulted in the same disturbances.
One owner – who was disgusted at the grisly relic – is said to have thrown the skull in a nearby pond only to be plagued by all manner of unearthly screams and groans throughout the night. Inevitably he is said to have quickly retrieved the skull from the watery depths to restore it to its pride of place. In another story the skull was buried in a deep hole in a hasty attempt to be rid of its presence. The perpetrator was shocked to discover that the skull had somehow burrowed itself out of the depths, and was met with its empty eyed stare in the morning, as it sat waiting to be returned to the house.
There is also a tradition that a phantom coach issues from the manor house along the road to the local church, and that this haunting is associated with the presence of the screaming skull.
Any truth in the mythical origin of the skull was shattered when it was examined by an archaeologist called Michael Pinney in 1963, who dated the skull to the Iron Age. He suggested that the skull was that of a female, and was most probably associated with the Iron Age settlement of Pilsdon Pen close to the Manor House, although its true origins will never be known.