Ghosts on the Seafloor: seaQuest DSV’s “Knight of Shadows” 

by Alissa Burger

In the early ‘90s, the NBC series seaQuest DSV (1993-1996) offered viewers the opportunity to imagine a time in which expanded exploration and colonization of the deep sea were possible, traveling along with the men and women of the seaQuest, a deep submergence vehicle dedicated to peacekeeping and scientific research. While seaQuest’s “near future” of 2018 is now in our collective rearview and the series itself was remarkably uneven—including sweeping cast changes between seasons and the third season’s fast-forward into the future and transporting the sub to an alien planet—there are several early-series episodes that effectively tap into the mystery and irresistible draw of life in the ocean’s depths. 

The first season featured a Halloween episode called “Knight of Shadows” (Season 1, Episode 9), in which the crew of the seaQuest find and explore a sunken ship from which music inexplicably still plays and a lone light burns in one porthole window. 

 Combining elements of the traditional Gothic ghost story, ghost ship legends, and what Sara Rich calls “shipwreck hauntography,” the crew is able to engage with and explore this sunken ship with an immediacy and intimacy of which today’s explorers can only dream. 

From the episode’s opening scenes, there are multiple layers of ghostly engagement and intercession. Captain Nathan Bridger (played by Roy Scheider) is getting cozy in his cabin for the evening when his hologram deck turns itself on and begins reciting navigational instructions. After several rounds of this repetition, a woman’s spectral arm appears, reaching out from the hologram’s rippling surface as she calls for Bridger to “help us.” 

While the initial hologram channels the voice of a residual haunting—repeating the same coordinates with no personal awareness of or interaction with Bridger—the woman’s presence is more active, desperately seeking contact and assistance. Finally, a second active presence appears, as an angry man interrupts the woman’s pleas for help, attacking Bridger and throwing him across the room, with the shouted warning to “get away!” These three presences are interconnected, though they work at cross purposes, requiring Bridger to actively negotiate what these ghostly communications mean and how he will choose to respond. 

The grief and loss that underscore many hauntings are echoed in this opening scene as well, through the image of Bridger’s deceased wife Carol, whose image he calls up on the hologram to serve as a sounding board and audience for the story he is telling. Unlike the other three figures, Carol remains silent, a comforting presence but ultimately no more than a projection of Bridger’s desire to connect with her, as he tells her “I think I wanted to share it with you because it’s a love story,” as he overtly negotiates his uncanny experience through connecting his past and present. These opening interactions establish broad parameters for what viewers can expect from this particular ghost story: a complex combination of love, grief, and rage, centered around ghosts with a wide range of abilities and inclinations for interacting with the living. 

“Knight of Shadows” does not follow a singular ghost story narrative tradition and similarly, the expectations of a haunted house story are upended by the fact that this particular haunted house is the shipwreck of an ocean liner named the RMS King George, which sank in 1913. Rich’s theory of shipwreck hauntography is ideal for exploring the seaQuest crew’s experiences of and interactions with the spirits aboard the George. As Rich explains, shipwrecks are ideal for interrogating and “dismantling the murky, fluid boundaries between past and present, sacred and secular, ‘nature’ and culture, and particularly life and death … A close encounter with a shipwreck in its underwater realm is a brush with the eerie, horrific, and uncanny—but also the wondrous, ecstatic, and sublime” (13). As the crew of the seaQuest board the shipwreck of the George, they become immersed in this liminality, drawn into the mystery of the ship’s sinking and the desires of the ghosts who remain onboard. 

Dr. Kristin Westphalen (played by Stephanie Beacham) is the seaQuest’s lead scientist and the most skeptical of the crew members to board the George, though Westphalen is the one who ends up having the most intimate encounter with the ghostly presences of the ship, as her body is taken over by the spirit of Lillian Strathairn, the woman who called to Bridger for help. 

While the exploration of the haunting follows a relatively familiar trajectory—elemental manipulation, spectral communications, a love triangle, unfinished business in need of resolution before the spirit can be laid to rest—the George itself adds an element of the unexpected, a new riff on an old tale. While many shipwrecks become tombs for those who did not make it off the ship alive, in the case of the George, the ship was intentionally sunk on the day of Lillian’s scheduled wedding, becoming a tomb for the living as everyone was ferried to safety except Lillian, her fiancé Robert Fitzgerald (the ship’s engineer), and the jealous Captain Phineas Wideman, who wanted Lillian for himself. With the ship sabotaged and air pockets trapped inside, the three of them survive the sinking, trapped in the shipwreck on the seafloor for nearly a year and a half before Robert and Lillian die (of pneumonia and a broken heart, respectively) and the Captain commits suicide. As the seaQuest’s crew discover through reading Lillian’s diary, Westphalen’s embodiment of Lillian’s experiences, and Lucas Wolenczak’s (played by Jonathan Brandis) conversation with the ghostly Captain, Lillian is held there by her hatred for Captain Wideman, while the Captain cannot move on until he is forgiven by Lillian. This catharsis is achieved, Lillian and the Captain are warmly welcomed into the afterlife by Robert’s spirit, and presumably all is well, as the mysterious light in the George’s porthole window finally goes dark.

The crew of the seaQuest is able to board the George, to engage and interact with the spirits that reside there, and to solve the shipwreck’s mystery with an immediacy and experience that remains beyond the reach of contemporary explorers and nautical archeologists. As Rich notes, “These quiet, broken vessels … exist both beyond and despite our access” (13). We can see them and explore them, even taking remote-operated vehicles around their smoke stacks and through their now-deserted halls, but we cannot touch, breathe, or live them. This is a “what if?” proposition that seaQuest’s “Knight of Shadows” delves into, removing these barriers and limitations to grant the crew of the seaQuest full access to both the George and its mysteries. However, while the George’s ghost story is entertaining and its resolution offers release, there is arguably something more satisfying in the abiding mystery. The questions are more compelling than the answers the crew provides, and the exploration is little more than an echo of the lived experiences, loves, and heartaches of those entombed in the shipwreck of the George. Shipwrecks elicit a yearning to see, while offering us only fleeting glimpses, awakening a desire to know a story that can never be completely told. In giving the crew of the seaQuest such unfettered access to the shipwreck, the George becomes both something more and something less: a story we know, though a mystery we have lost. 

Alissa Burger is an Associate Professor of English at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri (USA). Her research interests include horror, the Gothic, graphic narratives, and the work of Stephen King. She is the author of the Devil’s Advocates series monograph IT Chapters 1 & 2 (2023) and The Quest for the Dark Tower: Genre and Interconnection in the Stephen King Series (2021). Her previous work on the ocean and popular culture includes “‘Beneath the Surface Lies the Future’: Narrative, Characterization, and the Natural World with seaQuest DSV’s Darwin” in the edited collection Animals in Narrative Film and Television: Strange and Familiar Creatures (2022) and “Exploration, Education, and Humanity: James Cameron’s Deep Sea Documentaries” in A Critical Companion to James Cameron (2019).

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