University of Portsmouth's History Blog

A Festival of Dark Delights: Portsmouth DarkFest 2018

Dr Karl Bell, Reader in Cultural and Social History, discusses the launch of this year’s Portsmouth DarkFest. Karl researches ‘everything spooky’, and his second book was on the Victorian legend of Spring-Heeled Jack. He’s now working on a book on proto-science fiction ideas in British culture between c.1750-1900.

This weekend sees the return of Portsmouth DarkFest, an annual creative and cultural festival that explores the supernatural, the spooky and urban noir.

Now in its third year, the festival originally grew from my historical research into nineteenth-century ghost stories in Portsmouth. I was particularly interested in the power of folkloric stories and the way haunted locations can change our understanding of both the local environment and local histories. This led me to the Portsmouth Writers Hub and my challenging them to create a new body of folklore for the city; ghost and horror stories set in modern Portsmouth. The best were gathered together in an anthology entitled Dark City: Portsmouth Tales of Horror and Haunting. The first DarkFest festival grew from the launch of that book.

Since then I have led a collaboration between an ever-growing number of local artists and University of Portsmouth academics, creating a rich and varied programme of public events for the Halloween season. Over the years the festival has developed into an annual celebration of creative cultures in Portsmouth. Drawing upon shared themes taken from my Supernatural Cities research project (ghost stories, urban legends, crime, horror and dark histories), events now include contributions from a diverse range of multimedia artists, writers, musicians, performers and academics. The festival also involves working with a range of local businesses and cultural organisations, including Aspex Gallery, Southsea Castle, the Kings Theatre and Groundlings Theatre, and some great local coffee shops such as Hunter Gatherer.

This year’s programme will include creative writing and art workshops, public talks on subjects ranging from horror cinema to Spiritualism, theatrical plays and immersive zombie experiences, live music and storytelling, and open mic poetry performances. There is also a call for artists (of all types) to get involved in a future collaboration called Dark Side, Port Side.

Following the popularity of last year’s promotional videos on the festival’s Facebook page, this summer we ran a public workshop to create new videos for DarkFest 2018. (For more details see Eilis Phillips’ report). Everyone had lots of fun creating stories and videos from scratch, most of which feature DarkFest’s mysterious plague doctor character. These videos are now being rolled out as part of the festival promotion and the first can be seen here.

Both the Supernatural Cities research project and Portsmouth DarkFest seek to develop and explore the interconnections between academic and creative practices, and to encourage collaborations between the university, the city’s cultural organisations, and its local creatives. In coming together, we aim to enrich the local community and to enhance the city’s cultural self-esteem.

Portsmouth Darkfest provides an exciting opportunity for students to explore their creative sides. If you are a creative writer, filmmaker, musician, poet or performer, we can introduce you to the many like-minded creatives in the city, and perhaps even provide a way of showcasing your talents at a future DarkFest event. If interested, please feel free to contact me at karl.bell@port.ac.uk

This year DarkFest runs from 19th October – 11th November. All events are open to the public and many are free. For the full DarkFest 2018 programme click here. For regular updates on events you can follow the Supernatural Cities project on Twitter @imaginetheurban


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  1. Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence | - April 24, 2019

    […] the same event was our Dr Karl Bell, Reader in Cultural and Social History, for his work organising Darkfest, an annual creative and cultural festival, and running the Supernatural Cities project (more of […]

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