Ghosts and Dreams in the History of Polar Exploration – Dr Shane McCorristine


Front cover of Dr Shane McCorristine's book

Arctic experience today is typically described as ‘enchanting’ and Arctic tourism promises that visitors will enjoy a ‘dreamscape’. But what do dreams and ghosts have to do with polar exploration? And how do the explorers’ visions and prayers, alongside the ‘spectral’ elements, such as ghosts and dreams present in the indigenous Arctic folklore, relate to the geography and history of the Arctic?


The Arctic was long imagined as an otherworldly place, thousands of miles from the warmth and familiarity of home, and nineteenth-century Britons were fascinated by the notion of the heroic explorer voyaging through harsh terrain in pursuit of the Northwest Passage. But the mapping of this vast uncharted territory was only part of the fascination with the Arctic; explorers and those who eagerly followed their perilous progress were also fascinated by the unknown, by the dreams and ghosts that might materialize there. This strangeness fascinated audiences in the 1800s when the idea of the heroic explorer voyaging through unmapped zones reached its zenith.

Dr Shane McCorristine’s MSCA COFUND CARA project, Supernatural and Disembodied Experience in Nineteenth-Century Narratives of Arctic Exploration (2010-2013), took a fresh look at understandings of Arctic exploration by paying attention to the importance of dreams and ghosts in ideas and writings about Arctic exploration.  In contrast to many stories of heroism and disaster that we are familiar with, Dr McCorristine’s work reveals the hidden stories of dreaming and haunted explorers, of frozen mummies, of rescue balloons, visits to Inuit shamans, and of the entranced female clairvoyants who travelled to the Arctic in search of  one of the most tragic lost expeditions, that of John Franklin. Through readings of archival documents, exploration narratives, and fictional texts, these strange stories reflect the complex ways that men and women actually thought about the far North in the past, and allow us to make sense of current cultural and political concerns in the Canadian Arctic.

Carrying out his research at Maynooth University, the Lincoln City Archives, the Belfast Public Record Office and the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, he looked at the ‘spectral geographies’ that went into these popular ideas about Arctic exploration, questioning the divergence between the experiences of explorers and the images, visions, and dreams present in the ‘dreamscapes’ that made up the European and American Arctic imaginations. The cold, untamed emptiness of the cold Far North was an invented idea made possible by ignoring the experience and knowledge of indigenous people.

Dr McCorristine’s project shows that the connection between the polar and the ghostly is far from being locked in Victorian history and that it survives today, especially in the context of the traumatic disappearance of Franklin’s ships, Terror and Erebus. In the nineteenth century, the lost Franklin expedition caused the British public to engage with categories of the supernatural and spiritual in an effort to imagine what happened and, perhaps, to make direct contact, physically or spiritually, with the lost sailors. This manifested itself in a variety of ways, from naval expeditions to find the missing expedition, to spiritualist seances to connect with the explorers, presumed dead, to romantic poetry. These activities taken together challenge the stereotype of the rational explorer. Franklin’s ships, Terror and Erebus continue to be hugely important today, and they have been the subject of a sustained ‘ghost-hunt’ by Canadian authorities, keen to locate the disappeared ships in order to bolster their symbolic claim to the Northwest Passage.









Northern lights above a lake and mountains

Following the success of his CARA project, Shane has been interviewed about the Arctic on popular radio shows with very large listenership, including on BBC Radio Wales (Oct. 15, 2010), BBC Radio Cambridgeshire (Dec. 11, 2012; Jun. 25, 2013), and BBC Radio 4 Today Programme (Oct. 31, 2012). In 2014, he was interviewed by the BBC World Service for “The Why Factor”, an episode which is ranked in the top 1% most popular shows out of 2,625,106 podcasts globally. In further evidence of the media interest in Shane’s project, in 2015 the awardee was invited to present his own edition of “Four Thought” on BBC Radio 4 – an episode also ranked in the top 1% of all podcasts.

The impact that this project has had on the reconsideration of the Arctic representation in cultural history has been further attested by the success of Shane’s book, The Spectral Arctic, published by UCL Press, which to date has had over 20,000 readers from 135 countries. The book has been named third in ‘Best Arctic History Books of All Time’ and there have been four international podcast shows devoted to it (“Full Contact Nerd”, USA, 2019; “Ghost Stories of Canada”, Canada, 2019, “Wild Atlantic Weird”, Ireland, 2021; “Some Other Sphere”, UK, 2021). Furthermore, the research outcomes have been included in numerous academic articles, such as The Spectral Place of the Franklin Expedition in Contemporary Culture, Searching for Franklin: A Modern Canadian Ghost Story, Christmas at the Poles: Emotions, Food, and Festivities during the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration, as well as in blog posts like Balloons, Dreams, and the Spectral Arctic after the Franklin Expedition – JHI Blog.

By exploring the significance of dreamscapes in Arctic narratives, and the existing range of emotions attached to Arctic landscapes, this project contributed to enriching our historical understanding of the ideas about Arctic exploration. More significantly, it underlined how narratives of Arctic exploration continue to fascinate contemporary readers and to resonate in the socio-political world today.

Commenting on the significance of the CARA award to his career, he said:


The CARA fellowship was transformative for my career because it provided the supports and motivation to tackle some of the key skills that are currently needed to progress in an extremely tough postdoctoral environment. CARA provided the opportunity to travel outside Ireland, to make connections and conduct extensive archival and research work in another institution. I even got to see the Aurora Borealis! The career-focused aspect of the Fellowship encouraged me also to take up opportunities in teaching and personal development courses. Finally, CARA funded my travel to conferences where I could share my research and learn from peers in my field.

Polar explorers leaving a shipwreck
Dr Shane McCorristine

Dr Shane McCorristine

Dr Shane McCorristine is Reader in Cultural History at Newcastle University. He is an interdisciplinary historian with interests in social attitudes toward death, crime, dreams, ghosts, and the supernatural. His research argues that these aspects of life were central to making people, especially in Western societies, feel modern. In looking at these topics, Shane draws on a variety of approaches and literatures from cultural history, medical humanities, and literary studies. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Shane was educated at University College Dublin where he received a PhD in History in 2008. He held research fellowships in the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, at LMU Munich, and at the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. After completing his MSCA COFUND CARA fellowship, Shane joined a team at the University of Leicester working on the large-scale Wellcome project 'Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse'. He is currently involved in a research and public engagement project on the history of Newcastle Gaol (1828-1925) - its inmates, executions, and role in the evolution of crime and punishment in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

The CARA Postdoctoral Mobility Fellowship Scheme was launched in 2010, the call ran from 2010 – 2014. Its main objective was to encourage international mobility amongst Irish-based experienced researchers at the early stages of their career, thus increasing the diversity of their research experience and their overall employability. This scheme was opened to all disciplines within arts, humanities and social sciences. There were two separate funding calls resulting in a total of 25 fellowships. The total value of the programme was approximately €6.7 million.

This COFUND was a Marie Curie Action under the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme under grant agreement no.246541

European Union logo

Data Protection Notice

Please read our updated Data Protection Notice.

Our use of cookies

We use necessary cookies to make our site work. We'd also like to set optional analytics cookies to help us improve it. We won't set these optional cookies unless you enable them. Using this tool will set a cookie on your device to remember your preferences.

For more detailed information about the cookies we use, see our Privacy Policy page

Necessary cookies

Necessary cookies enable core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility. You may disable these by changing your browser settings, but this may affect how the website functions.

Analytics cookies

We'd like to set Google Analytics cookies to help us to improve our website by collecting and reporting information on how you use it. The cookies collect information in a way that does not directly identify anyone.