The dark side of the white, polar world

Detail from Lost on the Ice Caps by Albert Operdi Albert Operti alluded to the strange atmosphere in the polar regions in his art

The polar regions have, for centuries, been considered to be otherworldly. But where does this idea come from, and why do even Western scientists find themselves taking it seriously?

In 1845, John Franklin set out from England to find the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic and was never seen again. Along with 134 men aboard two ships, he vanished into the great white silence.

Numerous rescue expeditions were launched in the years following, eventually turning up a small number of bodies.

Some of the men had attempted the march south to Canada after two years trapped in frozen hell - perishing en route.

According to reports from local Inuit, the last remaining men had chopped up their dead shipmates and tried to boil them in kettles. In 1992, forensic investigations on bodies confirmed that "de-fleshing" had taken place. John Franklin and his ships have never been found.

It is the most enduring and horrifying of polar mysteries - dreams of heroic discovery turning to cannibalistic nightmare.

For Dr Shane McCorristine, a cultural historian at the Scott Polar Research Institute, it is a peak moment for the polar regions' otherworldly, spectral status in the collective consciousness of the West. It has, he says, inspired everything from gothic literature to psychic proclamations.

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People describe fluttering, rustling noises emanating from the distant sky ”

End Quote Dr Shane McCorristine

"The traditional historical approach to polar exploration focuses on the heroic age, tales of glory and valour. I'm more interested in the things that explorers briefly mention or repress - dreams, nightmares, hallucinations, experiences of the uncanny," says McCorristine.

"When Franklin didn't return, a collective anxiety was transmitted throughout the Empire," he explains.

"A flurry of clairvoyant activity started to fill the information black hole, with reports of people - often young women - having psychic visions of Franklin."

In 1849, press reports of a young girl in Bolton "communicating" with Franklin while in a trance triggered a wave of similar clairvoyance from Ireland to India and as far away as Australia, feeding the public need for news of Franklin.

His wife, Lady Franklin, began regularly attending seances in London.

Northern Lights Unexplained events are said to accompany the Aurora Borealis

"The girl, known as the 'seeress of Bolton', used relics of Franklin's hair and handwriting to 'send' herself to the Arctic to talk to him. She describes Franklin himself - correctly stating he was bald - along with the ice, marvellous animals and 'many queer looking things', on one occasion imitating Franklin by drinking fish oil," says McCorristine.

"The press leapt on this, along with later psychic reports, creating a sense of the Arctic as a sort of twilight spirit world in the mind's eye of the public."

Once it was clear Franklin was dead, he became what McCorristine calls a "celebrity ghost" - a popular request at seances, particularly across North America.

Current attempts by the Canadian government to find Franklin's ships show that this research has contemporary relevance. McCorristine talks of the "self-consciously gothic" language employed by Canadian experts, deliberately invoking this supernatural aspect of the Franklin mystery.

"By calling up ghosts of the past and trying to discover the ships of the first Westerners to venture into the area, Canada can be seen to claim symbolic ownership of what is now a very valuable area."

Festival of ideas

  • Phantasmal attitudes to the polar regions will be explored in a series of public events for Cambridge University's Festival of Ideas
  • Shane McCorristine and colleagues will be using installations and alternate descriptions of some of the exhibits to reveal the ethereal provinces of the human psyche conjured through polar exploration

Along with the oil discovered when early warning bases were built in the area during the Cold War, the dream of the Northwest Passage itself - choked with ice during Franklin's time - could become a reality, and a hugely significant trading route, due to climate change.

McCorristine is enthralled by the dark side of the white continents, such as unexplained phenomena reported by many while experiencing the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.

"People describe fluttering, rustling noises emanating from the distant sky - which science tells us can't be the case, but indigenous people have accepted for hundreds of years as the sound of dead souls," he says.

"As much as Western explorers and scientists take a purely empirical approach, trying to disenchant native beliefs, there is always something they can't explain which irritates and haunts them."

McCorristine is planning to survey members of polar exploration parties on their dreams and superstitions, before and during their time in the Poles. Explorers' blood tests will be analysed, starting with the Shackleton Epic expedition in a few months.

The Arctic

arctic volcano
  • The Arctic region contains a vast ice covered ocean roughly centred on the Earth's geographic North Pole
  • The sun doesn't rise at all on the shortest day of the year within the Arctic Circle
  • Humans have inhabited the Arctic Region for thousands of years and the current population is four million
  • Geologists estimate that up to 25% of the world's remaining oil and natural gas might be within the Arctic Region

"When you combine extreme landscapes with complicated human beings, strange things can happen. For example, on Shackleton's march across South Georgia during his famous Antarctic expedition, all three of the team reported feeling the presence of an extra, fourth man near them at all times."

This sense of "presence", of the otherworldly, is something that the shamans of indigenous Arctic people have been tapping into for centuries, using trance-like states and dreams to predict the weather, hunting prospects, and commune with the dead. As McCorristine points out, these ancient traditions - and the clairvoyant explosion following Franklin's disappearance - are "on the same plain of human experience".

For McCorristine, the polar regions are areas where the contemptuous Western attitude to dreams can become blurred: "In traditional societies, including indigenous arctic people, dreams are an important source of information - discussed first thing in the morning.

"The dismissive nature of Westerners towards dreaming has a history of crumbling... when faced with the blank screen of the polar regions."

In fact, no less than Shackleton himself attributed his entire polar fascination to a dream he had when he was 22: "I dreamt I was standing on the bridge in mid-Atlantic and looking northward. It was a simple dream.

"I seemed to vow to myself that someday I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on until I came to one of the poles of the Earth, the end of the axis upon which the great ball turns."

'The Dark Side of the Poles: Dreams and Nightmares in Polar Exploration' runs from 24 October until 4 November.

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