Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences


School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature (SASHPL)

Public or community group

Local creative and community groups, writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, storytellers and performers, small organisations and businesses, and the public

Quick links

Project introduction

Portsmouth DarkFest is an annual creative and cultural festival that runs from late October to mid November. It explores ghost stories and the supernatural, urban legends, crime, horror and hidden histories. 

It involves interaction and collaboration with a broad range of local creative groups, writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, storytellers and performers, and small organisations and businesses within Portsmouth. It also engages the public, with a considerable number of free events in each annual programme, and showcases the breadth of the cultural scene in Portsmouth. Specific community groups include the Portsmouth Writers Hub, the T’Articulation spoken word troupe, the Tongues and Grooves poetry group, Trash Arts (filmmakers), Portsmouth Film Society, and The Front Room (open mic performances).

DarkFest originated from an initial collaboration between Dr Bell and the Portsmouth Writers Hub. Drawing upon Bell’s research interests in Portsmouth historical folklore and supernatural beliefs as inspiration, local writers created ghost and horror stories set in the city. Bell and Stephen Pryde-Jarman (Writers Hub) co-edited these into an anthology entitled Dark City: Portsmouth Tales of Haunting and Horror (2016), published by Life Is Amazing, a local publisher. 

Launching this book in October 2016, Bell and the Writers Hub worked together to create a small cultural festival that explored themes of the supernatural and urban noir. Based around Halloween, this involved Bell connecting with a range of Portsmouth-based artists, writers, spoken word performers, filmmakers and musicians to develop events for this festival. As its corner stone, the festival built upon an existing annual storytelling event at the Square Tower, The Day of the Dead, run by Portsmouth novelist William Sutton.

While Portsmouth has a vibrant cultural scene, the formation of the first DarkFest festival demonstrated that different types of local creatives rarely engaged or collaborated with one another. It was felt that the festival could both stimulate such interaction and showcase the diverse creative talents that exist within the city. By doing so, it was hoped that it would help boost Portsmouth’s cultural self-confidence, the city often viewing itself as culturally inferior to nearby Winchester, Chichester and Southampton.

Bell’s research also encouraged him to want to promote the idea of our hidden local heritage, to understand the forgotten histories and little known stories that inform our sense of place, and to encourage the public to appreciate how ghost stories can lead to alternative ways of understanding our local environment. 


Project staff

  • Dr Karl Bell, Reader in Cultural and Social History, 2016-2020

Engaging with the target groups

Following Bell’s initial presentation to the Portsmouth Writers Hub, he led on the development of the festival. This involved meeting with a number of leading members of various community groups and providing support as outlined in the Support section below. This led to the creation of a festival steering committee. It also gave festival event organisers (from CGs) the ability to access university venues through Bell’s negotiation and involvement.

One of the key concerns of the DarkFest festival is to break down the sense of the university as an ivory tower, and to encourage the public to engage with cultural activities in university venues. This has been promoted through free festival events such as public lectures, writers workshops, and an immersive piece of storytelling based in Park Building in 2018.

Making outward-facing connections, the festival has also worked with key cultural venues in the city, including the Kings Theatre, The New Theatre Royal, Aspex Gallery, the Historic Dockyard, Southsea Castle, Groundlings Theatre, the Cascades shopping centre, and the historic Square Tower. It has also works with smaller businesses and organisations, including local coffee shops and the Coastguard Studio.

Support for the project

A festival steering group was created in 2016, led by Dr Bell. This steering group has evolved over the years, but continues to feature representatives from key community groups such as the Portsmouth Writers Hub, the 1000 Plateaus art collective, T’Articulation and the Front Room. Bell continues to serve as the lead organiser for the festival, and is supported by Melanie Bassett, the Research Fellow who works with the Supernatural Cities project.

The committee serves to curate the content and variety of the programme, to reach out to new contributors and local venues, to respond to requests from potential participants (including, in 2019, Dacre Stoker, great grand nephew of Bram Stoker, who had heard about DarkFest even though he was resident in the USA), and to coordinate its promotion.

The Supernatural Cities website serves as the home for the festival’s programme (see supernaturalcities.co.uk/2019/10/14/darkfest-2019/) and actively promotes the scheduled events via a lively social media campaign. We also work closely with steering group members who promote the festival via the Facebook page. Bell and other steering committee members have promoted the festival through local media channels, including interviews with Express FM, Wave FM, That’s Solent TV, Portsmouth News and Southsea Lifestyle magazine.

Bell used some Supernatural Cities project funding to pay for the cost of printing the festival’s promotional material in 2016-18 (we decided to move that campaign online for 2019). The project’s funds were also used to help part-fund an Arts Council England bid by local creatives who have been involved in Darkest 2017 and 2018. This led to the creation of the Dark Side/Port Side app, a blend of spoken word performances and films that reinterpreted the ‘Sailortown’ walking app created by the University of Portsmouth [Karl Bell’s scholarship contributed to the original app]. Dark Side, Port Side was launched at the start of the DarkFest 2019 programme.

From 2018, staff from the CCI faculty have been involved in supporting the festival and, as a result, we have been able to offer an extended range of rooms and venues for events and workshops.

Recognition from the University

The festival was promoted via the Supernatural Cities website, FHSS and CCI social media posts, and promoted internally via intranet news. Bell’s time commitment to this activity was recognised with a nominal allocation of hours on his WLP in 2019-20.

In 2019, Bell received a commendation from the Vice Chancellor for his work on DarkFest and local civic engagement. TheUoP  media team has also been extremely supportive in terms of sending out promotional statements and helping to arrange media interviews.

Examples of activities delivered

As indicated above, DarkFest evolved to have two key objectives. These were:

  1. To foster greater creative collaboration within Portsmouth, and to showcase the range of creative practices and talent within the city. In doing so it was hoped it would stimulate a greater sense of cultural self-confidence within the city;
  2. To encourage a greater appreciation of the way storytelling and folklore shapes how we understand our local environment, history and identity.   

These have been delivered through a richly diverse range of activities. Events are run by local groups or individuals, but coordinated and promoted by the DarkFest steering committee.

Over the four years of the festival, we have staged over 100 individual events. These include theatrical plays and immersive activities involving audience participation, musical and spoken word performances, storytelling events for children and adults, public talks and lectures, artistic and creative writing workshops, ghost and dark history walking tours, film screenings, and the live recording of two supernatural-themed radio plays. You can see examples from 2019 here.

Involvement and collaboration in the festival has led to a number of initiatives by local creatives. One such example is the DarkSide / Port Side app. This provides an exciting interactive online tour of Portsmouth’s murky past through contemporary word and film.

The app was the brainchild of John Sackett, Creative Director of events company Big Adventures who, with the support and part-funding of the Supernatural Cities and Port Towns and Urban Cultures projects at the University of Portsmouth, successfully secured a grant from Arts Council England.

Dark Side/Port Side was inspired by the Sailortown walking tour of Portsea and Old Portsmouth which was created using research from the University of Portsmouth’s ‘Port Towns and Urban Cultures’ project – including Dr Karl Bell’s research into Portsmouth’s supernatural side. Dark Side/Port Side showcases the rich and innovative new ways in which local artists and filmmakers have interacted with our academic research. Moreover, it has the potential to encourage the wider public to learn more about Portsmouth’s past and its creative present.

How activities met the identified needs

We have obtained testimonials from key members of the festival steering committee, including lead members of Portsmouth Writers Hub and the organiser of The Front Room. Since 2017, we have also been asking festival attendees to complete a post-festival questionnaire via Facebook. While this has never resulted in large numbers of responses, it has encouraged feedback that helps us tailor the content of the programme. A summary of the data from questionnaires from 2017-2019 is available via Pure.

There have also been the social media responses to DarkFest events, and the annual programmes in general. These have been most evident on Twitter and Facebook. Again, some of these have been gathered together as evidence of public and participants’ responses to DarkFest and what it has meant to the city. It has also become evident from audience attendance and composition that the festival has developed a loyal group of followers, many of whom attend more than one event in each year’s programme. 

Outcomes and impacts of the activities

The co-edited fiction anthology, Dark City: Portsmouth Tales of Haunting and Horror (2016) gave many local writers their first publication credit. A number have subsequently gone on to produce and publish novels and further short stories. Some initial results from surveys and testimonials are included below. The questions have encouraged responses to the two key aims indicated in the section above.

– DarkFest survey for 2018 (15 respondents)

Scale of 1-5 (5 being highest satisfaction) All respondents stated that they enjoyed DarkFest overall, with 11 rating their enjoyment at the top of the scale.

Respondents said DarkFest had an effect on their:

  • knowledge of local history and geography (no effect = 3/15; some effect 8/15; significant effect 4/15)
  • awareness of local cultural and creative activities (no effect = 1/15; some effect 8/15; significant effect 6/15)
  • understanding of the supernatural (no effect = 6/15; some effect 8/15; significant effect 1/15)

– DarkFest survey for 2019 (19 respondents)

63% attended 2 to 4 events. 32% attended 5 to 9 events. 5% attended 10 events+. Scale of 1-5 (5 being highest satisfaction) 74% chose a rating of 5. 21% rated 4.

Respondents said DarkFest had an effect on their:

  • knowledge of local history and geography (no effect = 3/19; some effect 11/19; significant effect 5/19)
  • awareness of local cultural and creative activities (no effect = 0/19; some effect 7/19; significant effect 12/19)
  • understanding of the supernatural (no effect = 4/19; some effect 8/19; significant effect 7/19)

The significance of DarkFest as a cultural event in Portsmouth was highlighted when the festival was nominated for “Best Event” at the 2019 ‘The Guide’ Awards, Portsmouth’s annual celebration of local arts and culture. This recognition confirmed DarkFest’s place in the local cultural calendar.

Involvement in DarkFest has encouraged some local artists, spoken word performers, musicians, actors and filmmakers to collaborate on their own Arts Council England-funded projects. 

  • The first, the Dark Side, Port Side app (outlined above) was partially funded by Bell’s Supernatural Cities project and another FHSS-based QR project, Port Towns, Urban Cultures. 
  • The second, the transmedia Cursed City project built upon the collaboration and ambition demonstrated in Roy Hanney’s 2018 DarkFest event, Cure or Be Cured.

Inspired by the UoP Sailortown app, Dark Side, Port Side was also developed by Nautoguide. Nautoguide have stated that working with UoP and local creatives on apps such as Sailortown, Dark Side/Port Side, and our current story-driven app, 'Portsmyth', has inspired their working practices and challenged them creatively. Their feedback declares:

“Simplistically we’ve become more creative as a result and used our design skills to go deeper, such as theming the basemap (Darkside) or creating layers that sit over the map to give it a “mood”.  No other client has challenged us in this way.”

They also said: 

“We’ve become more exposed to naval and history local to Portsmouth and gained a wider appreciation of the naval impact upon the city. We’ve expanded our creative boundaries and had fun on the journey to do so, even becoming directly involved in the launch of these initiatives. As a result we’ve almost become virtual students of the History department of the University of Portsmouth.”

More generally, many of the DarkFest steering committee have gained confidence and skill in organising cultural events around the city throughout the year. Many are involved in Portsmouth BookFest (in February) and the city’s open mic events. 

Evaluating the activities against project objectives

Festival activities and the broader development of DarkFest are evaluated in a variety of ways. These include:

  • Steering committee meetings and post-festival reviews
  • Evaluation of post-festival questionnaires, 2017-2019
  • Anecdotal responses from committee members who lead various local community organisations.
  • External responses – social media, the Guide Award (Portsmouth News) nomination

Learnings from the project

DarkFest wash-up and planning meetings have highlighted the need to market DarkFest more robustly with a coordinated approach. We have adopted an easy-to-read event calendar which is used on the Supernatural Cities website and have coordinated our social media posts. We have also introduced online feedback surveys and are capturing our social media metrics.

From the beginning of the festival, we worked to develop a DarkFest ‘brand’, including logo and aesthetic. This has been important in giving a diverse range of cultural activities across multiple venues a sense of coherence and collective identity. This has become more refined over the years and continues to be an important consideration going forward.

DarkFest has grown and thrived as a grassroots cultural festival over four years. To help it develop, and to ensure that it isn’t run purely on good will and the promise of creative exposure, we have started to explore ways of making the steering committee and the festival a more formal entity. We had considered the creation of a CIC. We are now hoping to obtain external funding to expand the scope and scale of the festival. Currently, we are considering an application to Arts Council England for DarkFest 2021.

On our forthcoming ‘Portsmyth’ app, opportunities for feedback will be incorporated into the gameplay for better capture of impact.