How to Survive a Haunted Spaceship

Source: Event Horizon

Believe it or not, ship hauntings are real. Here's how to exorcize outer space apparitions and come out alive.

Imagine you’re aboard a spaceship on a multi-year mission to explore deep space. Your crew and ship are small, yet capable, all carrying the hope and excitement of seeing first-hand what lies beyond our solar system.

You then see something dash down a nearby corridor. You follow it to discover friends and loved ones staring back at you, even though they shouldn’t be there. Or maybe you encounter something more sinister, like malfunctioning equipment, your crewmates acting suspiciously, or someone floating in the vacuum of space who invites you to join them outside.

It’s moments like these where you need to take a deep breath and consider that you may be trapped in a sci-fi horror scenario. Hallucinations and violently malfunctioning equipment could be a sign that an unknown presence haunts your vessel. Try not to panic, because following these steps could help you pull through.

Space Ghosts

In sci-fi films such as Event Horizon and Solaris, malicious spaceships or stations take the haunted house concept to a whole new level. In a home, often regarded as a safe space for families, the danger to its occupants is relatively easy to resolve. Families can call up an exorcist, run away and abandon the house, or (in extreme cases) demolish the place and try to move on with their lives.

In Event Horizon (1997), a rescue ship is invaded by a malicious presence that causes hallucinations.
In Event Horizon (1997), a rescue ship is invaded by a malicious presence that causes hallucinations.

Space vessels are an entirely different story. There’s nowhere to run if an unseen, malevolent force comes aboard, and no one to call for help. Your ship is literally the only thing keeping you alive. In movies, survival depends on reaching an escape shuttle and getting away from the threat as quickly as possible before blowing up the main ship.

Or, you could embrace the haunting as an unintended consequence of making contact with an alien species or object. There could also be other real-life scenarios that explain a spaceship haunting, all of which can be dealt with in a less destructive and defeatist manner.

It’s in the Air

The first thing you need to do is determine whether the ship is malfunctioning. For instance, one possible issue is a loss of oxygen which results in a toxic buildup of carbon dioxide. Oxygen deprivation can lead to hypoxia, a serious condition with symptoms that include hallucinations, confusion, and shortness of breath.

Vital organs such as your brain and liver may be damaged within minutes of symptoms starting to show. Meanwhile, a buildup of carbon dioxide in a sealed spaceship could lead to suffocation, or a potentially fatal condition called hypercapnia where too much CO2 accumulates in the blood.

Hypercapnia symptoms include flushed skin, rapid breathing, a quickened pulse, shortness of breath, and reduced neural activity, possibly leading to headache, confusion, and lethargy. If the condition is allowed to progress, advanced symptoms include disorientation, panic, hyperventilation, convulsions, unconsciousness, and death.

The movie Sunshine (2007) involves a small isolated crew gradually succumbs to madness.
The movie Sunshine (2007) involves a small isolated crew that gradually succumbs to fatigue and madness.

The main problem is that both gasses impact neural activity, leading to confusion and tiredness. Additionally, there are studies that show that breathing in too much carbon dioxide in a crowded room could make you think more slowly, essentially making you dumber the longer you’re exposed to it.

As such, it’s important to get to an emergency oxygen tank as quickly as possible. Strap on an entire space suit if you have to. Your onboard systems should flash big bright warnings in the event of a toxic gas buildup or oxygen loss.

If those warnings didn’t go off for some reason, you could have systems problem that needs repairing. Should everything check out, and your crewmates aren’t showing signs of passing out, your haunting is likely from something else.

It’s All in Your Mind

Earth has a long history of hauntings aboard seafaring ships, which likely helped give rise to mythical creatures such as sirens. In actuality, the people being haunted were usually suffering from exhaustion and sleep deprivation.

This is a serious problem that occurs on solo boat races around the world where the isolation of the sea, combined with the constant work and lack of sleep, lead to vivid and sometimes dangerous hallucinations.

As one captain explains, the problem with hallucinations is twofold. They make you see things that aren’t there, and they make you stupid. Therefore, it can be difficult to tell reality apart from a waking dream. The most frequent case is yelling at a non-existent crewmate for being in the wrong place.

In one instance, a sailor thought he saw his sister aboard and went to hug her, only to wake up and find his arms wrapped around his sail. Another handed the wheel to a trusted friend – who was, in reality, on a different boat – while he went to take a nap. In extreme cases, sailors think they’re docked, then step off their boats while still out at sea.

Fortunately, this serious problem has a straightforward solution. Get plenty of sleep and do it regularly, though this may be easier said than done in deep space. For example, there won’t be a day/night cycle to guide your circadian rhythms, and overtiredness might prevent you from falling asleep. But you have to make it work.

This means setting up a schedule that allows time for sleep and sticking to it. If your problems aren’t necessarily with hallucinations, but with the rest of the crew – who seem to have grown more sinister lately – then you could be facing another big issue. You and your crewmates may all be going mad like in movie, Sunshine.

Just Because You’re Paranoid…

The effects of being crammed into a small space alongside a small number of people for a prolonged period of time is something that NASA and other space programs are still studying. It’s a major factor that deserves careful consideration as we aim to send astronauts on longer missions in space.

For example, a round trip to Mars will take about three years, and the crew will need to learn to constantly live and work together in tight quarters during that time. Previous experiments with long-term group isolation didn’t fare well.

Biosphere 2 self-enclosed habitat environment. Image source: Wikipedia
Biosphere 2 self-enclosed habitat environment. Image source: Wikipedia

The first Biosphere 2 experiment, which sought to create a fully self-sustaining ecosystem for a small group of people, ended in disaster. In addition to unforeseen complications that compromised the experiment, all eight participants ended up splitting into two tribal groups.

They may have entered the facility as friends, but left on completely non-speaking terms when the experiment prematurely concluded. Astronaut Mike Massimino, while appearing on the show Startalk, spoke about experiencing cabin fever while on the International Space Station.

This prompted comedian Chuck Nice to ask, “You ever have the urge to just break through with an ax and go, ‘Here’s Johnny!’?” Massimino responded by saying, “No. And that’s why we don’t have axes.”

Whether bolstered by supernatural spirits like in The Shining or just going mad with loneliness, the psychological hazards of long-term isolation are real, and that’s a major problem when you’re a ship’s hull away from certain death. Regular communication with loved ones may help, but it becomes increasingly difficult the further away you are from Earth.

In Passengers (2016), two civilian crew members are woken from stasis too early, stranding them on the ship.
In Passengers (2016), two civilian crew members are woken from stasis too early, stranding them on the ship.

The communications time delay between Earth and Mars is about 14 minutes – depending on the distance between the two planets – which makes for a very slow conversation. At best, the delay can be shortened to four minutes, at worst it can be up to 24 minutes. Meanwhile, NASA’S Eyes estimates that a signal traveling at the speed of light could take up to 48 minutes to reach the moons of Jupiter.

The delay grows longer the further you head out. In the movie Passengers, the protagonist Jim Preston tries to send an emergency message to Earth, only to discover that it will take 55 years to receive a response.

Overcoming Cabin Fever

It’s difficult to come up with a single solution that works for everyone. Ultimately, travelers need social interaction. After all, humans are evolved to be social animals, and isolation may lead to low morale, depression, and aggressiveness toward each other. In addition to intense psychological training, new technologies may be necessary to keep the crew going.

This may include faster-than-light speed communications such as the Ansible device first introduced by Ursula K. Le Guin in the 1966 novel Rocannon's World and later used by various other authors. A little entertainment may also go a long way.

For instance, astronaut and musician Chris Hadfield recorded and released the album, “Space Sessions: Songs From a Tin Can” while serving aboard the ISS. In both the book and movie, The Martian, stranded astronaut Mark Watney stays sane by binging on his crewmates’ collection of media, which includes vast collection of 70s disco music.

It’s likely that entertainment, especially the immersive kind like Star Trek’s holodeck, may be a key factor in long-distance space travel. Yes, we’re suggesting that VR goggles and video games might be a solution to keeping a crew sane. The problem is finding offline games that will provide years of entertainment with no updates.


Steven is a pop culture junkie who regularly binges on sci-fi TV shows, movies, books, and video games before completely overthinking them.