Analysis

Spooky stories from the wards: why do so many nurses have one?

From spirits in the sluice room to angels in A&E, many nurses can tell of a brush with the supernatural. We share their stories and consider the purpose of such tales

From spirits in the sluice room to angels in A&E, many nurses can tell of a brush with the supernatural. We share their stories and consider the purpose of such tales

  • Tales of supernatural visitations in hospitals abound, ranging from moving objects to sentient lifts and patients who have ‘passed over’
  • Do nurses’ ghost stories serve as a way to bond with colleagues, or could they be a source of comfort when coping with the death of patients?
  • Readers share their ghostly experiences and we consider the wider appeal of the ghost story and tales of the unknown

The nurse was cleaning a

From spirits in the sluice room to angels in A&E, many nurses can tell of a brush with the supernatural. We share their stories and consider the purpose of such tales

  • Tales of supernatural visitations in hospitals abound, ranging from moving objects to sentient lifts and patients who have ‘passed over’
  • Do nurses’ ghost stories serve as a way to bond with colleagues, or could they be a source of comfort when coping with the death of patients?
  • Readers share their ghostly experiences and we consider the wider appeal of the ghost story and tales of the unknown
Grit in the machine: ghosts seem to love a corridor Picture: iStock

The nurse was cleaning a patient’s fingernails when she felt a presence. She looked up and saw another nurse across the bed, ‘real as anything’, with a large red cross on her apron.

A colleague who had gone to fetch towels returned and the first nurse asked who it was who had come into the cubicle. The Grey Lady, the colleague replied. ‘She always comes when patients are ready to pass over.’

What is it with nurses and ghost stories?

Nurses, it seems, have a great number of ghost stories. The one above features in Ghosts of the NHS and Other Spirits I Have Known by Glynis Amy Allen.

Her book describes how, during a 30-year nursing career, she encountered what she believed to be numerous ghosts and spirits, until a back injury and ill-health forced her out of the profession.

But what is it with nurses and ghost stories? Why does every hospital seem to be ‘haunted’ by a past patient or long-dead matron? And do these tales of hauntings and apparitions serve a wider purpose – an initiation, perhaps, or a strengthening of bonds between workmates?

Benign apparitions who keep an eye out for medication errors

Claire Laurent is a nurse and journalist who wrote about ghosts in her book Myths & Rituals in Nursing: A Social History.

‘I think some people are open to these experiences and others are not,’ she says. ‘When I trained, stories about ghosts were very strong. Everyone just accepted them, whether they believed in ghosts or not.’

Researching her book, Ms Laurent says she found no shortage of nurses with tales to tell. A feature of many of their stories was the ‘hapless young woman’ to whom something terrible had happened: ‘They had either died by suicide or someone caused them to lose their life.’

She adds: ‘What I learned from interviewing people about ghosts was that no one was scared by them, even though some of the stories behind them were quite horrific.’

In fact, some believed that they were benign apparitions providing warnings to them, says Ms Laurent. ‘There were quite a few where there was a tap on the shoulder when the nurse was about to give the wrong medication or the wrong dose of a drug.’

When machines go rogue

An exception to the generally ‘friendly’ phantoms said to stalk old hospitals was the story of the haunted lift at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London.

‘It used to open on each floor as you walked down the stairs,’ Ms Laurent says. ‘That did happen and it was quite scary.’

Ms Allen says for her, seeing ghosts and spirits at work was a common occurrence. She first became aware of having psychic abilities when she was 11, she says. ‘As I grew up, I saw different things, I knew things. But I never really said anything until the day when my Grandma said, “Granddad’s died, come and kiss him goodbye”.’

She is from a Catholic family and it was customary to keep the body in the house until burial. ‘As I kissed his forehead, he said, “Look after your Mam”.’

Seeing ‘ghosts’: a gift or a burden?

This ‘amazing gift’, as her grandmother described it, of being able to see spirits, stayed with her as Ms Allen began her nursing career. But it was a gift that came at a cost, she says.

Working in emergency care, with patients’ lives often hanging in the balance, she says she saw ‘hundreds’ of spirits and ghosts – so many in fact that it was almost overwhelming and she had to stop working in the emergency department.

‘I loved it but I felt I couldn’t go on,’ she says.

Ms Allen describes an experience that stood out. A family of four, including two young children were brought in after a traffic accident. ‘We had the two children in resus and the little boy was dying. His sister was probably two yards away.’ She suddenly sat up and behind her Ms Allen saw ‘massive angel wings’.

‘She shouted, “The angels have come for my brother”. I looked over and the consultant was shaking his head and the little boy had died.

Picture: iStock

Podcast documents unexplained events on the night shift

Fans of ghostly happenings and the supernatural will be familiar with the podcasts of journalist and writer Danny Robins.

In The Night Shift, an episode of his series Haunted, which explores whether ghosts exist, a nurse called Bridget describes what happened after the prolonged decline and eventual death of her patient Les.

Bridget is pragmatic and measured in the telling of her story as she talks about unexplained banging and clattering, buzzers going off on their own, paper towels and files flying across an empty side room. But things then get stranger and more menacing. Had Les come back to haunt her?

‘Maybe if everything in your life is about being scientific and ordered, you need an experience like that every so often – that little bit of grit in the machine’

Danny Robins, journalist who featured the story The Night Shift on his Haunted podcast

It is a gripping tale and ‘incredibly plausible’, Mr Robins says. ‘It’s one of those I found hardest to explain away. Stories like that have a robustness. They’re sceptic-proof, you can’t ever quite explain all the elements.

‘That’s what sets my pulse racing and it’s what people love to hear. Of that series, that’s probably the case people talk about most.

Conveying the ‘strangeness and fear’ of the moment

‘The power of any ghost story lies in the teller instilling in us the fear they felt themselves and I think Bridget did that really well,’ he adds. ‘She conveyed the strangeness and fear of that moment.’

Why does he think so many nurses claim to have seen ghosts or have experienced unexplained events?

‘The medical profession – and nurses in particular – are often tasked with aiding the process of death or comforting people in their moment of death. I think ghost stories are a cathartic way of processing that.’

There may also be a feeling of guilt, that the nurse could have done more for the patient in their final hours. In those cases, the person ‘coming back’ in some form can be seen as punitive. Conversely, the ‘ghost’ may be seen as a comfort, reassuring the nurse that the patient is no longer suffering or they are in a better place.

4am: the witching hour

The fact that nurses on night shift are awake at the ‘darkest, coldest time of the night’, known as the witching hour or the devil’s hour, may also be significant, Mr Robins says.

Going up? Has a spooky lift stopped for you? Picture: iStock

‘I think it’s 4 o’clock in the morning specifically, which is meant to be the time when you’re most likely to see a ghost, the time when your brain is most tired.’

Sharing ghost stories gives a drama and grandeur to those bleak hours, helping nurses get through the night.

A way to process the death of a patient

Mr Robins says he has never seen a ghost and describes himself as a ‘sceptic who would like to believe’.

Parapsychologist Ciaran O’Keeffe, who early in his career was a nursing assistant in mental health, holds a similar point of view. ‘I’m fascinated by ghosts and still open to them, but I’m questioning,’ he says.

What reasons can he offer for the prevalence of ghost stories in nursing?

Like everyone else, nurses love a scary yarn, he suggests. ‘As a nation we’re fascinated by ghost stories. Speak to anyone and they’ll have a ghost story or know of someone who’s seen a ghost. There’s that element of excitement.’

But for nurses there are also elements of reassurance and coping. Having built a strong relationship with a patient and provided care at the end of life, nurses are perhaps comforted by the thought that death is not the end; the person ‘continues’ in some form.

But witnessing death can be harrowing, says Dr O’Keeffe, an associate professor at Buckinghamshire New University. ‘I’ve been in that situation in my nursing shifts where someone I’ve cared for dies and it is traumatic, no matter how much the profession tries to help you distance yourself from your patients.’

Telling stories helps nurses to cope with the trauma, he suggests, pointing out that storytelling is at the root of many talking therapies. And sometimes those stories will evolve into accounts of ghosts.

The holy grail of ghost stories

In The Night Shift podcast, Mr Robins discusses Bridget’s story with Dr O’Keeffe, who offers a number of possible explanations for the phenomena Bridget and her colleagues experienced.

Reflecting on the case now, Dr O’Keeffe says: ‘I remember saying early on this almost feels like the holy grail of hauntings because you’ve got a number of different things going on.

‘You’ve got the sense of presence but you’ve also got objects moving and quite crucially you’ve got multiple witnesses.’

During his career, Dr O’Keeffe has investigated countless supposed ghosts and hauntings. Are there factors other than the supernatural that can explain them all?

‘No matter what ghost story I hear there is always the potential for a rational explanation,’ he says. ‘But it would be arrogant of me to say, “That’s what happened”. You can hypothesise about natural explanations – either psychological or environmental – but that’s all you’re doing. You’re hypothesising.’

Ghosts as a source of comfort

So what do stories of ghosts and apparitions floating down corridors and hovering by patients’ bedsides tell us about the nursing profession?

It seems likely that stories of hauntings serve some purpose, whether providing comfort or a means of expressing guilt. But will ghosts continue their restless wandering round hospital wards now that nursing is firmly planted in science, evidence and proof?

‘I wonder if sometimes we need these moments of chaos in our lives to stir us up and keep us alive and fresh’ says Mr Robins. ‘Maybe if everything in your life is about being scientific and ordered, you need an experience like that every so often – that little bit of grit in the machine.

‘The sceptic view of the world is quite a grey view. It can be quite boring and undramatic and bleached by bright light. You need the shadows in the corner, the uncertainty, I think. Mystery keeps us going.’

‘It freaked me out’: Nursing Standard readers share their stories

Slamming doors in empty corridors feature often in hospital ghost stories Picture: iStock

When Nursing Standard asked readers to share their ghost stories, tales of things going bump in the night flooded in.

Spooky things have happened in care homes and patients’ homes, psychiatric wards, cottage hospitals, maternity hospitals and general hospitals, it seems.

Doors have slammed, lights gone off, taps turned on, monitors bleeped, and strange sounds and voices echoed down deserted corridors.

Readers told tales of nuns, dogs and grey ladies, figures walking past second floor windows, unexplained scents and breezes, bright white lights, a man offering sandwiches, and all sorts of objects apparently moving on their own.

The spirit in the sluice room

Louise wrote: ‘Working a night shift, someone walked past the office with a bottle in his hands, heading toward the sluice. Not an uncommon occurrence but when I got up to see who had got out of bed not a soul was in the sluice and everyone was in bed asleep. Still can’t work out who or what it was but it freaked me out.’

Susan worked in a large care home with its own mortuary. ‘I regularly used to see an elderly nun walking through the same part of the corridor. I also saw a tall old man dressed like a farmer. Both used to disappear at the same part of the corridor.’

Susan offered a different take. ‘There are more ghosts than staff – pity we can’t get them to do a few shifts.’


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