Sunday, 10 September 2017

Citation Needed: Evil-Clown Fakelore in Brisbane

Bad history make clown sad. (Steven Ponsford)
The release of the movie ‘It’, based on the Stephen King novel, has the 'evil clown' theme in circulation again, and - as often happens at times like this - there are some paranormalists who jump on the bandwagon and attempt to blur the line between pop culture and the real world.

Example: A Wikipedia article on ‘evil clowns’ was amended in July 2017 to include several paragraphs on a fictional ‘evil clown’ in Brisbane. While the story contained many obvious falsehoods from the first sentence to the last, what is surprising is the amount of effort that the anonymous author had put into making this seem like a real story. After all, Wikipedia do not take kindly to people filling up their pages with fiction.

What I will do here is run through the story and debunk each bit of misinformation in turn to show how this story is ‘fakelore’ - that is, fabricated folklore.
'There is a popular urban legend in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia in which the fiendish entity at the centre of the tale appears to be an early representation of the odd crimes and violent behaviour of a mentally disturbed vagrant in the city parks of Brisbane Australia in the late 1930s.'
To begin with - there is no such ‘popular urban legend’ in Brisbane. There is no record of this story even existing before the Wikipedia entry appeared in July. However, the use of the phrase ‘urban legend’ is interesting because the author then starts making claims of official records to back the story up, even though none of these alleged records are ever cited. Just about every paragraph in this story ends with the standard Wikipedia warning of 'citation needed'.
'Queensland Police records details of a handful of petty assaults in which various women and children were set upon by a fiend who resembles the modern idea of the evil clown. The victims were pushed around and subjected to a tirade of taunts and bawdy humour by a man dressed as a clown. The assaults which lasted only a few minutes saw the victims pinched, pushed and barraged with taunts by a painted joker. The man behind the makeup was dock worker Franklin Smith.[citation needed] 
Smith, a notorious drunk and thief, was well known to the local constabulary. The case turns strange when arrest records show that Smith refused to take off the clown outfit he was wearing. Smith stated that it was gifted to him by a dying gypsy woman and had been reported to be the very same outfit worn by a jester clown who had murdered a Romanian King due his amorous intentions for the victims Queen. Whenever constables tried to remove the garments Smith became violent and animalistic. Refusing to be quiet at his trial and mocking the presiding magistrate with foul humour and ridiculous gestures Smith was sent to what was then known as the Goodna Insane Asylum. 
The events which led to the institutionalization of Franklin Smith were further compounded by the hospital records of another inmate whose detailed sessions bear witness to Franklin reportedly talking to the clown suit at night.[citation needed]'
No evidence is provided to support these claims, and no records of any incident like this seem to exist. The absence of dates is telling, as is the fact that the author starts the next bit of the story with ‘legend says’ before again referring to detailed records. Which is it - urban legend or historical fact?
'Legend says that even the staff of the asylum could not force or convince Smith to remove the jester garments. However, fellow inmates swear that he would often take the suit off in the dead of night. Hanging the outfit on his cell wall he would converse with it like a second party. One inmate claims that he had heard the suit answer back. The myth became even more mysterious in light of the actions that led to Franklin's death. Smith was feared and despised by all the other inmates despite him never having spoken or interacted with any of them. The hospital medical examiner records in great detail that Smith was attacked by a vast number of inmates when undertaking his routine bath. A senior guard at the hospital diarised the event and made note of a second group of inmates banding together to ensure the cell holding the clown suit remained locked while the mob lynched Smith in the bath house.[citation needed]'
That is quite a sensational event. Fortunately, it never happened. No proof is provided in the story, even though such events would have been reported upon quite prominently at the time, as were four suicides at the asylum during 1937-38 and an accidental death there in 1941. Any murder there would have also prompted a criminal investigation.
'According to hospital records the clown suit was fitted within a state issued body bag of the times and transferred to the Dutton Park mortuary for internment in the lower section of the Dutton Park Cemetery. Mortuary documents reveal a complaint to the State government health board over the apparent gluing of a clown outfit onto the cadaver of Franklin Smith.[citation needed]'
Once again, no evidence or reference is provided for these claims, and - even more telling - there wasn’t even a mortuary at the cemetery!
'State government investigations further detail a war of letters between the hospital and the funerary staff with hospital staff oblivious to how the clown suit had even been transferred along with the body let alone glued to the corpse. Enraged by the complaints, hospital official Dr Basil Stafford sent his head of staff Dr Peter Novel to view the body. Correspondence between the two doctors reveals a perturbed account from Dr Nobel who confessed that not only was it the suit that Franklin had worn but it was in fact glued or somehow tarred to the body of the murdered thief come jester.[citation needed] 
Dr Nobel further added that attempts to remove the costume were only successful in tearing away large chunks from the corpse and the decision was made to bury the infernal thing with the body. Franklin Smith was buried in an unmarked grave in Dutton Park Cemetery in 1941. The cemetery was made famous by the 1974 Brisbane floods in which a large section of the graveyard was washed away with some coffins still unaccountable. Further scandal over the council allegedly tampering plot records and using headstones for landfill have also brought the cemeteries name to the news headlines.[citation needed]'
Lots more allusions to the existence of records here, but still no citations of evidence. The cemetery paragraph is particularly misleading. There is no record of a Franklin Smith ever being buried in any Brisbane municipal cemetery, and there is not even a Frank Smith buried around that time. Also, ‘a large section of the cemetery’ was NOT washed away in 1974 (or ever), and so there are no ‘unaccountable’ coffins. There was also no ‘scandal’ with ‘tampering plot records’ (mistakes were sometimes made in record-keeping, but there was no ulterior motive). I suspect this was only raised here to provide cover for the fact that the burial records contradict the story.
'It is however the growing number of sightings and accounts of people being pushed or prodded by an invisible assailant and various sightings of a creepy phantom clown at the cemeteries river edge that are sparking news interest and growing the legend. If local historians are accurate the site of this spate of phantom clown activity falls right at the area in which Franklin Smith was interred 12 feet down at the request of the then commissioner Johnathan Lairborne.[citation needed]'
Again we go back to the story being a ‘legend’, as if the author can’t remember if this supposed be real or not, even though they continue to allude to official (and conveniently unreferenced) records of these events. We also have claims of a ‘growing number’ of sightings of a ‘creepy phantom clown’, although there is no record of any such sightings prior to this article appearing in July 2017. And as for ‘news interest’ - the story has never been been mentioned in any news outlet. Also, which 'local historians' have researched this? None that I or anyone else in the 'Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery' know of.

A perusal of the history of edits of the article (all detailed on the Wikipedia ‘view history’ facility for that page) reveals little. The story first appeared on 16 July 2017 and underwent several editing changes over the next few weeks. At a couple of early points the editor provided citations before quickly removing them. One of those citations went up on the 16 July and linked to a now-removed page on the Brisbane Ghost Tours website. Another citation was added on 20 July, this one linked to a 'hauntedbrisbane.com' address that redirected to the same Ghost Tours site. Another short-lived link went to the clearly-irrelevant National Trust of Queensland homepage. Although the editor promised on 22 July that ‘state archive documents to support article will be published August 15th 2017’, nothing like that has yet to appear.

This of course raises the question of who wrote the story, although it appears that the author was making an effort to remain anonymous. Their style is amateurishly affected and often cringe-worthy, while the plot reads like a rejected Scooby-Doo script, but all the mentions of unnamed official records show that they clearly fancy themselves to be a historian. It may be that the author and their alleged sources are never identified, which is quite strange as they claim to have done so much in-depth ‘research’ into this story. If the information they present is true, why would they not step forward and argue their case? That question is, of course, rhetorical.

So none of the history in this story holds up, and no citations of evidence are provided. Somebody is trying to invent a non-existent ‘urban legend’, but we can safely dismiss this as a piece of fakelore, planted on Wikipedia for who-knows-what motive. Brisbane has a problematic history with this kind of thing, as these examples from various debunkers show:

A big problem with this sort of fake history is that it creates a genuine threat to the cemetery. It distracts people from the real stories of real people interred in there, and undermines the spiritual values of the place. The graves are consecrated, effectively rendering this as sacred space that has strong personal meaning to many of the people who visit there. Stories about evil clowns just present it as a novelty paranormal sideshow attraction that attracts gullible clown-spotting paranormalists to trespass at night time. The dangers of this were made clear in August 2009 when a group of people with interest in the occult vandalised 82 graves at Toowong Cemetery. The court heard that one of the group had bragged about inverting headstone crosses because it ‘had meaning to Satanists’.

I edited the Wikipedia page to remove the fake story from the ‘evil clown’ page. No doubt it will reappear again, and I suspect the author will continue to hide their identity and their 'sources'. This, sadly, is all too often the nature of the beast when it comes to dealing with paranormalists, for whom 'citation needed' seems to be a mandatory modus operandi.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

My Evolving Attitude to Ghost Hunting

I'm a skeptic. I'd be quite happy is there was an 'afterlife', but I've seen nothing to make me believe there is one because I've got a pretty high acceptance threshold as far as proof goes. I also believe that the supernatural - if it it was to exist - should be a thing of awe and wonder, and understanding it would be an epochal triumph of science. Skeptics like me are just not prepared to accept the laughable Kentucky Fried Ghosts play-acting that too many in the 'paranormal industry' are currently engaged in.

This opinion was reached after more than a decade of personal dealings with the paranormal industry. It's been an eye-opening experience to say the least, and over that time my opinions have evolved considerably. There have been times in the past when I gave tentative support to a couple of paranormal investigation projects planned as not-for-profit fundraisers, and it was during those times that I had to confront ethical questions about 'ghost hunting', questions that I am still working through. For example, where and when is it appropriate to do ghost-o-meter-type ghost hunts?

Back in 2009 the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery were approached by a woman who wanted to set up a not-for-profit paranormal investigation fundraiser for cemetery heritage projects. The group agreed and planning commenced. It turned out to be a very strange time indeed as 'Queensland Paranormal Investigators' and the 'Brisbane Ghost Tours' business who co-ran commercial 'ghost hunts' in the cemetery (without council permission) subsequently did what they could to stop this fundraiser happening. They didn't want any 'competition'. Angry phone calls were made, silly emails were sent, and I won't go into it here but court intervention was required to stop their persistent harassment of this woman.

Of course all this only strengthened our resolve to do the fundraiser, but along the way this involved practical on-the-ground planning, and it was during this time that I came face-to-face with ethical questions. Was it right to run paranormal investigations in a place where people had been placed by their loved ones to 'rest in peace'? Personally, I was uneasy but the group planned away.

In the end it never happened anyway. Once the staff at the Brisbane City Council discovered that commercial ghost hunts had been conducted in the cemeteries they stepped in to ban them all. And quite rightly too. More than that, they overhauled access for ghost tours, charging a fee for the first time and regulating tour content and marketing, which had been getting increasingly disrespectful. After a long period of squabbling, it was something of an acceptable ending.

During this time I was also involved with the 'Greater Brisbane Cemetery Alliance', a coalition of heritage volunteers from various groups associated with various cemeteries, who - among other things - lobbied the council to crack down on nocturnal trespassing in cemeteries and ban all night tours. I pushed for the less-strident request that a total ban was the 'preferred option'.

The ban never happened, and so the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery (FOSBC) decided that if for-profit ghost tours were going to be held in cemeteries anyway, then they should offer the public a respectful alternative that focussed on real history, and so the not-for-profit 'Moonlight Tours' were born (once again there was private-sector opposition to this perceived 'competition').

Was this 'hypocritical' of us, as was alleged? Not at all. To the FOSBC, the night tour bans were had always the preferred option only. If council was going to allow ghost tours in cemeteries anyway, then the next best approach for us was to do night tours properly. Merely a change of tactic.

Something of the same process took place at Boggo Road. In November 2012, during negotiations for the interim management of Boggo Road, a Public Works official gave us three days notice (!) to produce a business plan for something we had never contemplated before - running Boggo Road ourselves. It was a request more suited to a reality TV show ('we gave the contestants three days to come up with a business plan from scratch - can they do it?') than best practice planning. But it was the kind of rushed, chaotic process than led to the controversial interim reopening of Boggo Road and all the subsequent problems.

We were highy skeptical of fair consideration, but said we'd put together an outline, that was it. Established ideas were included, but some new things were sprinkled in too, such as the monthly not-for-profit 'paranormal investigations' as suggested by one of the organisations interested in being part of the set up. As with the South Brisbane Cemetery paranormal fundraiser, it seemed reasonable enough without giving it too much thought in the rush to get the document together. Thinking about it afterwards, the problems became clear. There had been deaths in custody at Boggo Road, including Aboriginal men committing suicide. I have studied Aboriginal culture enough to know there were spiritual issues here.

Consequently, at a meeting with Public Works officials in December 2012, I voiced my concern about paranormal investigations at Boggo Road in relation to deaths in custody. The officials were of the same opinion, and no 'ghost hunts' were to be allowed. At the same meeting I also suggested it might be appropriate for the Indigenous community to conduct whatever ceremony was felt necessary to spiritually 'cleanse' Boggo Road if there was going to be ghost tours in there. Again, there was agreement. In fact, such a ceremony should have been a prerequisite to the place opening again. As it turned out, it has not yet happened.

When 'ghost hunts' were again held at Boggo Road, I again voiced my opposition. This opposition was the result of careful consideration of the issues over time. What might seem harmless enough at first can be, with further thought, disrespectful. Political interference led to these ghost hunts proceeding, but they were banned again after a change of government restored some dignity in 2015.

So, in short, opinions evolve over time. And not just my own. Even the 'Ghost Tours' owner who once ran commercial ghost hunts in Brisbane cemeteries later described such hunts as "disrespectful not only to the people that have passed, in their final resting place, but also to the living families of those that have passed as well." Of course, this opinion was only expressed some time after Brisbane City Council banned ghost hunts in their cemeteries. Before then, 'Ghost Tours' had fought tooth-and-nail to run the hunts, and promotions for them even involved smoke machines and Ghostbusters theme music.

As in my own case, there was a change of opinion here. The questions is; was this change of opinion on cemetery ghost hunts the result of genuine reflection on the subject (as in my case)... or was it just 'hypocrisy?'

Saturday, 4 March 2017

My Night Alone in a Boggo Road Cellblock

What happened when I spent a night alone in a Boggo Road cellblock?
I once spent a night alone in a Boggo Road cellblock. In fact the entire prison was empty apart from me.* The 'lights out, gates locked, 3:15a.m.' kind of empty. As far as I know, I'm the only person to have ever done this.

The answer to the first question that always comes after I mention my little sleepover is 'no, I didn't see a ghost'. There again, while there won't be some Edgar Allen Poe-ian narrative here, it actually turned out to be an interesting test of the limits of my skepticality.

It was October 2003 and the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society had organised a special Centenary Day to commemorate the passing of 100 years since No.2 Division opened as a women's prison in October 1903. To mark the event I had designed my first big museum exhibition, '100 Not Out: A century of escapes from Boggo Road', which used escape tools from the museum collection to tell the story of escapes from the prison. This exhibition took up the whole ground floor of D-Wing, including the cells, and took months of planning and construction by the museum volunteers. Being the first project of its kind that we had attempted, it turned out to be a great learning experience as there were a number of hiccups along the way. In fact, come the evening before the Centenary Day it was still not quite finished, so I volunteered to stay back until it was all in place. Darkness fell, and after turning out all the lights except for our office and D Wing, the other volunteers left, locking the big prison gates behind them, and I was alone.

I anticipated the work would take a few hours to finish, but after a few hours of glueing industrial felt onto backboards, laminating text boards and applying the finishing touches to various display cabinets, it was clear I would have to stay much later. Maybe even right through the night. All by myself in a Boggo Road cellblock. Which shouldn't be a problem as I don't believe in ghosts. I've never seen or heard anything in my life that couldn't be explained in a rational manner.

Even so, as the night wore on and I got into the wee small hours working away alone in that cellblock, it felt rather spooky, but only because I let myself start thinking about scenes from movies like the 'Sixth Sense', the original 'Woman in Black', and the original 'House on Haunted Hill'. I also remembered some paranormal investigation report I once read about the prison, reporting some 'dark energy' they had 'sensed' on the top floor of D Wing. If I turned around suddenly, would there be some horrible thing standing there staring at me? Would there be a dark shape on the top landing, watching over me? A little girl sat on the steps? A man hanging from unseen gallows? After walking over the grass circle outside, would there be faces watching from the upstairs cellblock windows? Of course not, but it's much easier to imagine such things in a setting like that than in a supermarket at lunchtime. It's an inherent quality of old deserted buildings, especially at night, that we are culturally conditioned to fill the blanks in the familiar scene with stock characters.



And so it was that at one point during that night, around 3 a.m., I found it increasingly hard to focus on the work at hand because of the niggling feeling that I was being watched (in my defence, this was after about 18 straight hours of work). The cellblock felt colder and colder and quieter and quieter, except for the light classical music playing on my radio. I managed to half-convince myself that somebody was on the top floor walkway, looking down at me. Once or twice I looked up suddenly, to settle my suspicions one way or the other, but saw nothing in the darkness up there. In the end I walked quickly over to the powerboard and switched on every light in the cellblock, on all three floors. Then I switched stations, from classical music to bogan rock and turned up the volume. Maybe enough to deter any ghosts, or at least mask any sounds they might make so I wouldn't hear. I soon managed to refocus on the work and it didn't take long for my rational mind to take over again, especially as dawn and the deadline loomed.

Imagination can have a powerful effect on emotions. Some people get easily frightened and tense on our nocturnal cemetery tours because their minds are running through spooky scenarios. While some see a darkly quiet scattering of headstones and trees, peaceful under the moonlight, others imagine a bustling supernatural landscape of shadows among the graves, the woman in black staring back at them, and lost souls wandering the pathways. Manipulating the imaginations of particularly gullible people to make them tense is what some ghost tours attempt to do, even if it means telling lies to get there ("someone saw a ghost right here during last week's tour"). In my experience, people in this induced state of mind are too quick to slap the 'supernatural' label on anything slightly out of the ordinary.

When I finally put the finishing touches to the exhibition, the sun was rising in the sky, admittedly to my relief. The front gates opened again and the first volunteers entered to set up the museum for the soon-to-be-arriving public. I said goodbye and headed home for a few hours sleep. 

And there it was. As far as I know, I'm the only person to ever spend the night completely alone in Boggo Road prison. I saw nothing (not that I looked too hard), heard nothing, and I didn't get paid $10,000 by Vincent Price for surviving the night alone in a haunted house. However, I did learn that even a skeptical mind can play tricks on itself when placed in a stereotypically 'spooky' situation, and some of us are not as always as rational as we like to think we are.

* This article was originally published in July 2012.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Busting Brisbane's Biggest Ghost Lie

‘Brisbane has been voted the 2nd most haunted city in the world by National Geographic magazine.’
This 'Second most haunted' claim for Brisbane, Queensland, was found to be false.
Or so the marketing for a Brisbane ‘ghost tour’ claims. It is, on the face of it, a surprising assertion. Brisbane is a largely modern city that has been home to European arrivals for less than 200 years. Its history has been generally quiet compared to thousands of other cities and towns around the world. Hypothetically assuming that ghosts even exist, why would Brisbane be more haunted than London, Paris, Berlin or Rome, with their millennia of bloody history? What about places that witnessed scenes of incredible wartime carnage, such as Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Volgograd, Warsaw, Manila, Gettysburg, Gallipoli, the Somme, Baghdad, Nanking, and others too numerous to list here?

And if anybody wanted to promote Brisbane as such a hotbed of paranormal activity… where was the proof?

This question began to be asked of small business owner Cameron ‘Jack’ Sim after he put the claim on his 'Ghost Tours' website several years ago (and is still there today, complete with an unauthorised National Geographic logo). Unfortunately it is a question that Ghost Tours were unable to answer.

Timeline of the claim

Sim started making unproven assertions about how 'haunted' Brisbane was back when he started his ghost business back in 1999, saying that the city was the 'most haunted in Australia'. The statistics would of course be impossible to verify. Then in 2000 an unreliable publication called The International Directory of Haunted Places (from an author who had previously written on sea monsters and UFOs) listed 14 'potentially' haunted places in the city... from a list provided by Sim himself.

Shortly afterwards it was reported in the local Sunday Mail that 'Brisbane had been voted the most haunted place in the southern hemisphere by international ghost hunters'. Once again the source for this information was Sim.

Already a clear pattern was emerging as he upscaled his claims without providing any supporting evidence: The claim is made - Somebody unquestioningly repeats it - That repetition is presented as confirmation of the original claim.

Around this time a backyard operation calling themselves ‘Ghost Research Foundation International’ started producing online 'most haunted' lists. In 2002 they wrote that York, England, was the ‘most haunted city in the world’ with Brisbane in third place behind Los Angeles. The numbers jumped around randomly in similar reports over the next few years, and in early 2009 the Courier-Mail recycled this dubious information in reporting that Brisbane was considered ‘one of the most haunted cities in the world’... by the International Directory of Haunted Places.

It was later that year that the story took the next step when it was claimed on the 'Ghost Tours' website that National Geographic had 'voted' Brisbane as the 'second most haunted city in the world'.

The story unravels...

And that's when the questions started. When the ‘most-haunted’ claim was repeated on a TV show back in 2010, the producers of the show were unable to find any evidence to back the claim up, and jokingly wrote that ‘In the meantime we'll take his word for it, like we took that Charlie Chaplin time traveller video dude’s’. In other words, they weren’t taking it seriously.

Where was this National Geographic poll? It couldn't be found anywhere, and even National Geographic themselves denied that any such poll existed, simply because they did not do such polls.

In 2011, curious commenters on the ‘Ghost Tours’ Facebook page started asking to see a copy of the increasingly mysterious poll. Things started to quickly unravel as Sim backpedalled away from his original claim. Important details of the story suddenly changed, so instead of National Geographic voting Brisbane to be the second most haunted city in the world, Sim now claimed that magazine writers had merely been told it was so... by an unnamed ‘paranormal society’.

It was now embarrassingly clear that there was no poll.

A few months later it emerged that the previously-unnamed ‘paranormal society’ in question was none other than 'Ghost Tours', who now confessed that they had ‘happily supplied information to NG’. Once again we see the same pattern: The claim is made - Somebody unquestioningly repeats it - That repetition is presented as confirmation of the original claim. Only this time the process was twisted to appear as though a ‘vote’ had taken place.

Despite repeated promises on social media to supply a scanned copy of the article, none was produced. Ghost Tours couldn’t even provide the name of the magazine in which it appeared. It was left to the National Geographic themselves to officially inform Liam Baker of Haunts of Brisbane - who did a lot of the legwork on this investigation - that they have never rated haunted cities, although the October 2008 issue of a magazine called Traveler (part of the National Geographic stable) did feature an article about the paranormal industry in York, England. At the end of that article the writer briefly listed some other supposedly haunted places, including New Orleans, Prague and St Petersburg. The last sentence reads:
‘Then there is Brisbane, Australia, ranked after York by the Ghost Research Foundation International, with more than 240 sightings...’
That is the only mention that any National Geographic publication has ever made of ghosts and Brisbane. The writer had merely referred to the dubious 'second most haunted' claim made years earlier by 'Ghost Research Foundation International', which in itself had been based on information provided by 'Ghost Tours'.

This was the point where the simple manipulation of baseless statistics turned into outright fabrication. A lazy reference by some freelance writer in a spin-off magazine suddenly became ‘As voted by National Geographic’.

‘Lie’ is a strong word to use, but there is no other explanation for what happened. National Geographic did NOT vote Brisbane ‘the second most haunted city in the world'. Yet it must have been a very deliberate act to concoct that sentence, turn it into an image and place it on a website.

Why was it done?

This is plainly a marketing ploy. A place needs to be perceived as being ‘haunted’ before anybody in the paranormal industry can try and profit from it (an imperative that has resulted in low standards of ‘proof’ for stories). Brisbane is a young city and would need a bit of ‘fluffing up’, ghost-wise.

The big question here is why would someone persist with the 'most haunted' claim long after it had been exposed as false? Why not simply pass it off as a mistake and change the wording to ‘described by National Geographic as…’? Labelling Brisbane as a particularly haunted place would still be bogus, but at least the most blatant aspect of the lie would be removed from public view.

Once again, there is a pattern.

Other websites such as ‘Hellhound’s Howl’ and ‘The Haunts of Brisbane’, and the Skeptical Enquirer magazine, have raised many questions about the claims and stories put forward by Brisbane 'Ghost Tours'. I have looked at a few cases myself, such as the evolution of the ‘Lady in Black’ tour story at South Brisbane Cemetery, and the story of an accident at a major printing press. To put it diplomatically, some of the content of these tours is ‘open to question’.

And yet the use of the 'most haunted' marketing slogan continues. Unfortunately, there is a measure of arrogance at play here, a sense of ‘I don’t care if you think I’m lying, because some people still believe me and so I’ll continue to do it’. Or, as George W. Bush once joked, ‘You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on’.

There has been much written about various assertions made by ghost tours over the years, but the persistent peddling of the 'most haunted' claim is perhaps the most damaging. It is an arrogant own goal that does not reflect well on the integrity of those responsible.

(For a more forensic examination of the 'most haunted' story, see these 'Haunts of Brisbane' articles.)

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in March 2012.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Aliens Are Not History: The Credulousness and Despair of Our Times

Remember when the 'History Channel' used to be have shows on about History instead of UFOs, ghosts, unicorns, mermaids, or whatever else is popular this week with people who don't like history? Those were the days.

Why does the so-called 'History Channel' insist on showing hours of pseudo-scientific nonsense?

One of the shows currently infesting the channel and the minds of gullible viewers is 'Ancient Aliens'. The History Channel's own synopsis for show reads:
'Ancient Aliens examine [sic] 75 million years of the most credible alien evidence here on Earth, from the age of the dinosaurs, to ancient Egypt, to the skies over the western desert in the present day US. Ancient cave drawings of strange creatures, an asphalt-like substance in an Egyptian pyramid made from the remains of unidentified creatures, continued mass sightings in the USA, these are just a few of the strange stories that will be investigated.'
In a nutshell, the show parrots Erich (Chariots of the Gods?) von Däniken and his theory that beings from another planet visited our ancestors and imparted their knowledge of astronomy, engineering and mathematics to them. The evidence for this can allegedly be found in ancient monuments such as the Nazca Lines, the Pyramids of Giza, and the statues of Easter Island. It's the usual amalgam of wild speculation, logic Fails, and interviews with people of very dubious authority and hairstyles.

I read some of that von Däniken stuff over 30 years ago, and to a young mind it can seem quite convincing. But that's because you want it to be true. Only ten years earlier you believed in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. You want the universe to be full of magic and sci-fi wonder. You want there to be Sasquatch and an afterlife and aliens and dinosaurs in Scottish lakes. All that stuff would be brilliant.

Then, one by one, all the great myths of the 20th century were exposed. The Loch Ness monster photo was a fake. The Bermuda Triangle doesn't exist. The Face on Mars was a pile of rocks. The Bigfoot footage was a fraud. Ghost photography - all fake. And so on. There were dissenting expert viewpoints to von Däniken and it soon became apparent that he was talking out of his hat. The great Carl Sagan summed it up beautifully when he wrote:
'That writing as careless as von Däniken's, whose principal thesis is that our ancestors were dummies, should be so popular is a sober commentary on the credulousness and despair of our times... I also hope for the continuing popularity of books like Chariots of the Gods? in high school and college logic courses, as object lessons in sloppy thinking.' (foreword to The Space Gods Revealed)
In the 21st century the hoaxes seem to be getting more elaborate and taking the form of TV series, but they are still easily debunked by those who know better. A couple of good articles that pull 'Ancient Aliens' apart are 'I remember why I've never wanted satellite television' and 'Ancient Aliens, or Why I Hate the History Channel'. 'South Park' also did a brilliant send-up of the History Channel and Ancient Aliens.

Is the History Channel presenting these documentaries as 'object lessons in sloppy thinking', as Sagan would have hoped? It would seem not. Even though von Däniken has been consistently discredited by scientists and historians, his fantastical theories continue to find an audience, primarily with the same old aim of extracting cash from them. A fool and his money... 

Other so-called 'educational' channels such as Nat Geo and Discovery are getting in on the act with increasing amounts of pseudoscience and pseudohistory content. Even Animal Planet is debasing itself with 'haunted pet' shows and entire series on Bigfoot hunting. It's sad that David Attenborough lived long enough to see this happen. Let's hope he hasn't noticed.   

We can't even invoke that disingenuous last line of defence for paranormal frauds - "it's just a bit of fun". Not only do the people serving this stuff up demand to be taken seriously, but this it is actually affecting the worldview of a lot of vulnerable people. For example, when singer Kate Perry told Rolling Stone in 2011 that she had become obsessed with Ancient Aliens because 'When it talks about the sky people, how everyone comes from the sky and how the Pyramids were used for star observations, it's too much for me. It all seems to connect the dots. It's blowing my mind,' you just know she has millions of impressionable fans taking that opinion on board.

Why are large sections of the TV-viewing western world retreating into an Age of Unreason? Is 21st-century mass communication allowing people to exist in cocoons of their own unreality, cherry-picking sources of information that conform to and reinforce their own worldview, so their mind moves in ever-decreasing circles? We all do it to some extent, but has it allowed certain governments to seemingly give up on evidence-based solutions to social problems (crime, climate change, communications infrastructure, you name it), and yet find wide support for their wilful ignorance? If scientists can be ignored, what chance have historians got? When Australian Education Minister Christopher Pyne launches culture wars to demand children are taught his view of History, how do historians push back? Projects like Honest History will help, but when supposedly authoritative outlets like the History Channel actively engage in dumbing down history it gets that much harder.

The last word here goes to Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews over at 'Bad Archaeology', who summed the whole sorry mess up like this:
'I find it incredible and frightening that a worldwide distributed television channel that bills itself as ‘The History Channel’ can broadcast such rubbish as Ancient Aliens. If it were an entertainment programme, I’d have fewer worries (although it would still make me cross); it is the implied authority of the channel (‘The History Channel’, not just any old ‘History Channel’) that makes the broadcast of this series so potentially damaging... A channel that is making claims for its authoritative status, which offers educational resources, has a responsibility not to mislead its viewers (no doubt its executives think of them as ‘customers’). That responsibility is one that all makers and broadcasters of supposedly factual television have, but one that few of them take seriously: the responsibility to check facts.'


 Why does the so-called 'History Channel' insist on showing hours of pseudo-scientific nonsense?

* This article was originally published in February 2014.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

History and Ghost Hunting

It has become relatively common for ghost-hunting teams to have a someone described as a 'historian' in their ranks, although I have yet to come across a case where that person is a qualified, professional (i.e. 'real') historian. While part of their task might be to get a timeline of 'paranormal' incidents at a supposedly haunted place, invariably they also research any historical deaths associated with the site. In truth, these are perfunctory tasks that could be undertaken by anybody. They certainly don't make you a historian, just as looking at the moon doesn't make you an astrophysicist.

In fact, I would argue that having a 'historian' in the investigation team is often pointless. This is mainly because the usual purpose of their work is to find a dead human to identify as the 'ghost'. That task relies on a speculative process I call the 'False Identity Assumption' - the two-step assumption that unusual phenomena can be associated with the surviving consciousness of a dead person, and that the dead person can be positively identified. It is, in effect, speculation built on a foundation of more speculation, and distracts from what should be the primary aim of observing and recording 'paranormal activity'.

The presence of a 'historian' on the ghost-hunting team is a warning sign of an inherently unskeptical and unscientific approach, that they will readily attribute any unusual phenomena they observe to the 'ghosts of dead people' and then attempt to identify those people. It is the classic 2+2=5 scenario.

This need to link ghosts to specific humans seems to be a holdover from traditional ghost stories, whose subjects (apart from the mischievous 'imps' types) had a human background, almost always with a particularly tragic death incident that lent the story a real sense of pathos. Such an approach is the stock-in-trade of 'ghost tours', where the backstory of the human behind the ghost takes centre stage. This allows the tour guide to flesh out the story (and tour minutes) with some drama. Take away the human story, there is often very little left to talk about. I am not aware of any ghost tour story without a human 'character' involved, although there could be one or two out there. Again, this whole approach is based on the ''False Identity Assumption'.

Now, having said all that, a decent bit of history research can be useful in debunking the stories associated with some hauntings. There are numerous cases in which the murders, accidents and other tragedies claimed to be behind certain ghost stories turn out to be completely imaginary. Unfortunately, cases of genuinely interesting activity can be undermined by attaching fake backstories to them. Sometimes an alleged instance of paranormal activity can become so dependant on the backstory that when that story is exposed as false, it even kills the ghost off (for example, see the case of the  South Brisbane Cemetery 'Lady in Black').

I would suggest that paranormal investigators drop the whole 'backstory' thing - unless they intend to debunk backstories - and focus on testing for unusual phenomena.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

The Fakelore Finger of the Old Printing Office

During research for an article about the sandstone devils on the walls of the old printing office on Brisbane's George Street, I came across a couple of online reviews of a ghost tour that stops outside that building.* The tour guide - reportedly in a 'prophetic, Lord of the Rings-esque voice' - relayed a rather graphic story of blood and horror there, as you might expect to hear on such a tour. However, when I looked for further details about the gruesome events described in the story, there were no actual historical records to support it. Did it really happen, or was this a case of 'fakelore'?

The Old Printing Office, George Street, Brisbane, has been the scene of dubious historical stories.
Printing Office, George St., Brisbane. (Brismania)

The tour guides are not historians, so these tours are strictly scripted and the story here is quite specific in some details. In the words of one reviewer):
'And in one particular incident here, an apprentice printer (it’s believed) attempted to fix the gut-wrenching noises of a printer against the wishes of his seniors. He stopped the machine, went inside and after a few minutes it started again, as did his harrowing screams. Legend has it, it took three days to clean out the machine and all that was left was his wedding ring finger, ring still intact. Lily [the guide] tells us the printer still exists in Brisbane’s archives, and unlike other printers - which contain black ink stains - this one is still stained blood red.'
Another reviewer wrote that the customers were told about
'...a gruesome workplace accident involving a printing apprentice (spoiler - all that was left was a flayed skull and a finger, still wearing its wedding ring).'
This seems like the kind of tragic - even spectacular - event that should have attracted a lot of media coverage when it happened. My research turned up a host of 'lesser' incidents at the Printing Office that were deemed newsworthy, such as when William Martin had the top of four fingers cut off in 1895. There was coverage of Charles Hampson dying of heart disease in the printing office in 1911, as there was when James Lytton had his hand crushed in a machine there in 1926. There was also mention of the nightwatchman who collapsed and died on the William Street side of the office in 1931.

There were numerous accidents at other printing presses around Brisbane and Ipswich reported in newspapers. A 17-year-old named James Robertson died at the 'Watson and Ferguson' printery in 1893, after being pulled into the machinery. He was pulled three times around the shaft and lost an arm, and suffered several broken ribs and two broken thighs. He also lived long enough to make it to hospital. This suggests that it is unlikely that a printing machinery could reduce a human body to no more than a single finger, as claimed in the tour story.

19th century printing machine.

The following is another example of a lesser accident being reported:
'Sensational Accident. At a Printing Office. Caretaker Falls into Flywheel.
On Friday, William Booth, the caretaker of Messrs. W.H. Wendt and Co., printers and stationers, Elizabeth street, when starting tho gas engine, slipped and fell between the spokes of the flywheel. He was quickly extricated by the other employees, but not before his head was severely cut and crushed. When the ambulance was sent for it was thought that Booth was dead. He was, however, after first aid had been rendered, quickly conveyed to the General Hospital, and after treatment was enabled to proceed to his home. Mr. Booth, who is about 55 years of age, is considered to have had a miraculous escape from being killed.' (The Telegraph, 20 May 1905)
Even the story of a printing worker whose workplace accident left him with no more a bruised hand made the news in 1926. And yet, there is not a single mention of the apprentice-mincing accident described in the tour story anywhere in the records. The reportage on these other incidents shows that it would not have been ignored, so it would be fair to suggest that the incident never really happened. I asked around a few friends, but they knew nothing of any such accident. Which brings us to another big question: Where does this story come from?

Despite the absence of basic information such as names and dates, some quite specific details are provided in the tour story, such as the finger with the wedding ring. Most apprentices were boys and unlikely to be married, but no details of the alleged victim's age or identity are provided in the story. Then there is the old printing machine being stained an unwashable 'blood red', implying that the machine had been soaked in blood that could not be removed. These are minor details of the story, but they must have some origin. How did they make it into a tour script?

Oral History is a possible source, but in the absence of documentary evidence it remains pure hearsay. I have written tour outlines myself and facts are always the starting point for a story, and they are double-checked. The way I see it, if you are selling History to people, as a product, then you have an ethical obligation to make sure your content is based in fact. It is not good enough to simply prefix these claims with 'legend has it' or 'it is believed', without explaining to paying customers that what you just told them probably did not happen in real life. Failure to do so opens the door to 'fakelore'.

The 'devil' outside the Printing office (C. Dawson)

Fakelore is a recent label for an old practice. In its broadest sense, fakelore has been defined as 'inauthentic, manufactured folklore presented as if it were genuinely traditional'. It can be applied to local history stories and urban myths that have no basis in reality. They come into being via bad research or outright invention and - if left to ferment for long enough - can end up being believed by a lot of people as fact. Once established, these stories can be hard to kill, as I discovered myself when writing about the widespread belief of people from my hometown that hangings used to take place there, despite solid evidence to the contrary.

When it comes to creating folklore, questions of intent are hard to prove. Is this 'finger' story a result of (very) bad research, or invention? Other people have analysed (non-ghost) stories from the same source and also found them to no supporting evidence or identifiable sources. these include tales about an imaginary morgue in one cemetery and non-existent roads in another. This cemetery tour review in the Courier-Mail also questioned the accuracy of information being presented to customers. I have documented a few examples of 'fakelore' myself, such as a cemetery 'Woman in Black' story. In my articles I have asked for any evidence to back the finger story up, but despite several stories being questioned in the public sphere over a number of years, there have been no defending counter-arguments from the tour business.

And so the questions remain.

This case does point to a problem with History tours, in that their content usually escapes the corrective scrutiny that historians apply to the printed word. This particular Printing Office tale is not the kind of data mistake that even professionals can sometimes make, such as getting a date or a name wrong. This is an entire start-to-finish story about an historical event that that simply never happened, and yet it is still being spread via tour stories.

These stories need to be nipped in the bud before they become accepted historical fact, and they should certainly disappear from these tour routines..

* Article originally published in July 2015.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

(Please Don't Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear

This ghost-detecting teddy bear takes ghost hunting industry to new depths.
Know a small child that you really, really hate? Want to psychologically scar them for life? Well now you can, with BooBuddy the ghost-detecting teddy bear.

BooBuddy looks like a normal bear, but he can detect motion, sounds, and changes in electro-magnetic fields and temperature. And when he does, lights in his paws and tummy start flashing and he starts talking to the ghost.

As the BooBuddy website tells us, "Kids will love it, but this is NOT a toy". As though there's absolutely no chance a child will ever end up with one of these singing, flashing teddy bears in their bedroom.

This ghost-detecting teddy bear takes ghost hunting industry to new depths.
Clearly not a toy.

Imagine a child sleeping peacefully in their room being suddenly awoken by BooBuddy, whose stomach is flashing bright green and his paws are red. BooBuddy then starts speaking one of these phrases:
‘Did you make it cold in here?’
‘What was that, could you please say it again’
‘ha ha ha BooBuddy is ticklish’
‘Do you want to be my friend?’
‘Can you make a noise for me?’
‘Would you like to sing with me? Twinkle, Twinkle little star...’
‘Is this your house?’
‘Can you make it colder for me?’
‘What colour is the light in my tummy?’
‘What? Did you just say something? Say it again.’
BooBuddy also attempts to summon more spirits to the child's room:
‘Do you have more friends we can play with?’
This scientifical wonder will set you back a mere $100-150. Here's the promo video...


* Abridged from an article originally published in July 2015.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Woman in Black: Solving the Mystery of a Vanishing Ghost

Every town has a 'white lady' ghost story. I know my old hometown of Heywood, Lancashire, does, and they're pretty much par for the course as generic ghostlore goes. ‘White Lady’ stories have been around for centuries in Britain, and are generally associated with some romantic tragedy or other, usually involving women who have lost a husband or lover. A slight variation on this theme are 'Lady in Black' stories, and the South Brisbane Cemetery has one of its very own. In recent years, however, this particular Lady in Black has been suffering something of an identity crisis, but I think I can now resolve some of those issues for her.*

Tracey Olivieri, cemetery historian and author of 'The Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery', grew up in the local area during the 1970s and recalls children back then trying to scare each with ‘lady in black’ tales, telling each other of a dark figure moving through the cemetery. The most common theory was that it was the ghost of a heartbroken young 19th-century widow who used to visit the grave of her dead husband every day. She died unexpectedly, but had not realised this and still tended the grave, wearing her mourning clothes. According to Tracey, "If anyone approaches her she just lowers her head and simply disappears amongst the graves. She is not menacing and is not a ghost to be scared of." She was only ever seen within 'the Teardrop’ section of cemetery, on the hill near the main entrance (so named because the cemetery roadway circles around it to form the shape of a teardrop).

19th-century mourning clothes19th-century mourning clothes

By the late 1990s, however, ghost tours had started in the cemetery and the backstory changed dramatically. This online version dates from 2001:
"A woman in a black Victorian dress often walks down the road through the cemetery towards the prison... Many old-timers claim she's the tormented spirit of the only woman who was ever executed in Queensland!"
The woman that the 'old-timers' refer to here is Ellen Thomson, who was executed at Boggo Road in 1887 and is a rather stereotypical candidate for a ghost story. She was the only woman hanged, a mother of six, a convicted murderer, and an Irish Catholic who died clutching a crucifix and proclaiming her innocence. The original tour story, as it was relayed to me, went something like this: Because she was a woman, she was given special dispensation to be buried outside section 6B (where executed prisoners were normally buried), and now her ghost could be seen wandering near section 10C, wearing the black dress she was buried in and clutching a string of rosary beads to her chest...

Ellen Thomson, hanged at Boggo Road Gaol, 1887. (Qld State Archives)
Ellen Thomson (Qld State Archives)

What I find most interesting about this tale is the fact that it was the headline story for the cemetery ghost tour for a few years before it completely vanished without trace from the itinerary. A new story with an all-new 'lady in black' suddenly appeared, this one absurdly featuring a nun with a ‘skull’ face. So what happened to Ellen? Why was her story dropped so abruptly, never to be spoken of again?

After recently speaking to people who went on those early tours, I think the mystery of the vanishing ghost has been solved. It turns out the ghost tour had been taking people to the wrong grave! The hanged Ellen Thomson actually had been buried in section 6B after all, back in 1887. The ghost tour had been stopping at the grave of a different Ellen Thompson, who died in 1903 and was buried in section 10C.

This was a glaring mistake that couldn't go undetected for long, and sure enough the truth was realised at some point prior to 2004. Unfortunately, this left the ghost of the executed Ellen Thomson haunting the wrong part of the cemetery, so it seems the story was quietly disappeared while a new one appeared in its place. The Catholic element was retained, but the action moved to the Teardrop, a different part of the cemetery.

The crucial question in this whole episode is what happened to the older ghost? Even if it had been misidentified as the wrong person, surely the same ghost would still be around there anyway? It would be no less incredible, even if it was somebody else. Apparently not. When the mistake was realised, the tour spot vanished and so did the alleged ghost.

The only logical conclusion to be drawn from this sudden disappearance is that the ghost was never there in the first place, and that the misidentified grave site (and accompanying backstory of murder and execution) was a convenient spot for a stop on the tour. It is also notable that it was conveniently replaced with a previously-unmentioned  'Lady in Black', the skull-faced nun.

Sometimes, we can learn more not from what is left in, but what was left out.

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in December 2011.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Hallucinations and Ghost Sightings

In a rational world, the first response to what might seem like a 'paranormal' experience should be to go through a mental list of possible 'natural' explanations. And with a supposed 'ghost sighting', that list must include 'hallucination'.

Now I know that people who insist they have seen a ghost get particularly adamant that they were not 'seeing things', but hallucinations are more common than you might think, especially among children. According to one British study, 17% of 9-12-year-olds experience hallucinatory episodes, a number that roughly halves in teenagers and drops again in adults. Researchers believed this was actually a low estimation. They found that most hallucinations were occasional and non-symptomatic of mental health issues, but are generally a result of 'life stresses, poor sleep and periods of low mood that fade when the difficult situations do'.

An article about this report in the Guardian drew comments about readers own experiences. These included this one from 'hpat77':
'As a child, my hallucinations were extremely vivid, and terrifying. I remember being surrounded by thousand of spiders, crawling all over me, and despite my mother's persistent reassurance that none of it was real, I still felt that intense fear as I could not shake the realistic creatures from my vision. This happened a few times, but now as I leave my teenage years I have long grown out of it.'
And this one from 'caliandris': 
'I had hallucinations three times as a child, aged about 8-11. In each case I had a very high temperature associated with an ear infection. The striking thing about them is that I can still remember them vividly, and how frightening they were: a small woman knitting on the windowsill, hundreds of bouquets of flowers protruding from the walls, and a complicated sequence where I was chasing a police car and was stopped by an elephant on an elastic band...'
This subject strikes a chord with me because I had three similar experiences as a child. I can't put a date on them, but they probably all happened before I turned eight years or so. I don't recall being under any stress or anything, but I can tell you that these hallucinations were incredibly vivid and I still remember each incident very clearly today, over 40 years later.

One occasion involved a frog. I never liked frogs - slimy, jumpy little things - and one night as I lay in bed, my head to the side, I saw this frog suddenly jump up onto my bed, near the pillow, and then hop under the sheets. I freaked out and screamed and my parents came running into my room. 'What's wrong?' 'THERE'S A FROG IN MY BED!' They ripped back the sheets and... nothing there. They looked all around the place, but no frog. They said I must have been seeing things, and I was, but it felt very, very real.

Another time, I was walking across a busy road in Bury, Lancashire, just behind my mum. It was daytime. We'd been to a supermarket and were crossing through traffic to a bus stop on the other side of the road. I distinctly remember looking up and seeing a massive Saturn V rocket (those big black and white ones) flying horizontally and silently through a small break in the low clouds directly overhead. I watched the black-white-black-white sections moving through that gap, and was totally lost in the moment. Then suddenly I became aware of cars braking, horns honking, and my mother pulling on my arm and yelling at me. I'd stopped halfway across the road and brought traffic to a halt, standing there staring at this rocket in the clouds. It was an incredibly vivid sight and has stayed with me like it was yesterday. I also remember my mum shouting at me at the bus stop and me being embarrassed and crying as everyone stared at me. But, again, it seemed so real. Quite frankly, if wasn't so totally unfeasible that an Apollo mission rocket would be flying low over south Lancashire, I might still suspect that maybe I really had seen something.

A third occasion, which was probably the earliest and the scariest of these incidents, happened when I was lying in bed at night, head to the side, staring at a wardrobe, when suddenly two strange figures slowly lifted their heads into my line of view on the side of the bed. One was what I can only describe as a 'Mother Goose' lookalike, with a large human-sized goose head and spectacles. The other was a woman with a strange wide face, overly large eyes and red Dusty-Springfield type hair. They both stopped and looked at me silently and I screamed, at which point they both slowly moved down out view. My mum came running in, but there was nothing there. I told her what I saw but was assured that I was just seeing things.

So while the frog and the rocket were demonstrably not real and therefore easily dismissed as hallucinations, what about when people see human figures, especially in their bedroom at night? In my case, because of the 'mother goose'-type figure, it was just weird enough to be dismissed as 'seeing things'. But what if there had been no goose? What if it was just the female figure? There is an existing cultural explanation for such things, and that explanation is that it could be a ghost. So instead of being able to just dismiss it as an hallucination. I'd be left with with the feeling that maybe I'd just seen a ghost. Space rockets and non-existent animals can be explained away, but ghosts... well, that's what they do. They look like people and appear and disappear at random, just like I saw.

So how many people who believe that as children they saw a strange human figure were in fact hallucinating? How many one-off sightings by adults have the same explanation? It is of course impossible to say, especially as some people become very emotionally attached to the belief that they have seen something so incredible.

Despite this, hallucinations do happen to a significant percentage of the population and should always be considered when it comes to a list of possible explanations for ghost sightings, although they would be more plausible in some cases over others. 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Sad Case of the Belanglo Forest Ghost Tours

In July 2015 there were national (and even international) headlines about disrespectful 'ghost hunters' in Australia who went too far and brought the wrath of the public, the media and the state government down upon themselves.*

The story was about ‘Goulburn Ghost Tours’ in New South Wales and their Belanglo State Forestry ghost hunts/tours. The forest is where psychopathic serial killer Ivan Milat buried seven of his victims in the 1990s. Tour customers could pay $150 per head to visit the forest between 6pm-3am with ‘paranormal equipment and training, snacks and billy tea.’

The mere act of selling a ‘hunt’ for the alleged ‘ghost’ (however you define that) of a real person - especially one who died within living memory - is unethical enough. The main issues are selling use of a fake product (scientificky ghost-o-meters) and disrespecting the dead and their loved ones. What turned the media mob onto Goulburn Ghost Tours was the tactless way in which they sold the event like it was a slasher movie. The promo blurb for this ‘Extreme Terror Tour’ included such statements as:
"Come with us to Belanglo where Ivan Milat buried the bodies of his victims! Once you enter Belanglo state forest you may never come out…"
According to this report, the now-deleted advertising ran like this:
"Are you ready to turn grey overnight? Come with trained and experienced Paranormal Investigators to Belanglo State Forrest where horrific crimes have been committed and bodies have been found. Learn about his crimes and use paranormal techniques to help solve the baffling murder of Angel, believed to be murdered AFTER Ivan Milat was jailed!"
The creators of the post continue to try to entice crime enthusiasts to the tour by asking them if they feel like they are being watched and if there is another victim just waiting to be found. When the shit hit the media fan, the New South Wales government stepped in to ‘block’ the tours on the technicality of the group not having a permit to enter the forest.

Goulburn Ghost Tours sparked controversy with their ghost tours about Ivan Milat's murder victims.

The Goulburn Ghost Tours website and Facebook page were quickly taken offline. In their defence, tour manager Louise Edwards claimed that the tour was run ‘with sensitivity’.
“Lots of people know about Ivan Milat, but not about the people he murdered,” Ms Edwards said. “We wanted to remind people that the victims are real people. They are not just victims of Ivan Milat. They are more than that. We don’t want people to forget about them.”
And what better way to reframe these people as being more than ‘just murder victims’ by charging ‘Extreme Terror Tour!’ punters $150 to visit the scene of their murders and try to find their ghosts?

To my mind, the only real difference between the Balinga State Forest ghost hunts and the ones at Brisbane's Boggo Road (2015) was in the marketing. Goulburn Ghost Tours clearly went over the top in calling their product an ‘Extreme Terror Tour’. The marketing spin for Boggo Road ghost tours and hunts was more subdued, thanks to pressure on the state government from community groups demanding that the prison’s history be treated with at least a modicum of respect. The Boggo ghost hunts were actually banned by the Queensland Government until 2014 because they were deemed to be too disrespectful. The ghost hunts restarted after certain ‘political manoeuvrings’ but were blocked again after a change of government in 2015.

Regardless of the content of their advertising, what all these commercial ghost hunts have is common is that they commodify the tragedy and grief of other people by taking customers to places where murders and/or suicides took place and trying to find their 'ghosts'. They are in the business of cheap thrills. And they often do this against the expressed wishes of those most affected by the tragedy.

What I would like to see is more government regulation of this commercial activity. That means a ban on ghost hunts in all government properties, and strict approval for where other ghosts hunts may take place. We need ‘truth in advertising’ rules for when people advertise the use of electromagnetic field detectors as ghost-o-meters. And hunts should only be allowed at specific locations after a certain amount of time has passed since any death took place there.

As it is, there is nothing stopping ghost hunters crawling over the scene of every horrific murder or suicide in Australia, even recent ones. And this does happen, usually in secret. Groups tend to be more careful these days, but a few years back you could dig around the Internet and find ghost hunters discussing their clandestine exploits. For example, back in 2009, people were visiting a spot at Deep Water Bend, near Bald Hills on Brisbane’s northside. The story was that the bound-and-gagged body of a murdered woman was dumped there and her ghost now haunted the spot, where her distraught spirit could be heard ‘begging for help’.  How would that thought make her loved ones feel?

I also heard rumours of ghost hunters snooping around the place where the body of Brisbane murder victim Alison Baden-Clay was found a few years back.

What this indicates to me is that there are people interested in ghost hunting who have a real lack of empathy for other people. This doesn’t include all paranormalists, as I know some very good people interested in the subject, but there are clearly a few who just don’t get it. They seem determined to prove that, despite your most fervent wishes, your loved one is NOT resting in peace.

I hope that the recent government inteventions with Goulburn Ghost Tours and Brisbane Ghost Tours act as a reminder to other ghost-hunting groups to think hard about the ethics of what they are doing, especially when it comes to respecting the feelings of real people who are struggling with traumatic loss in their lives. Their pain is not your gain.

These people include this woman, whose 17-year-old grandson was lured into Belanglo State Forest in November 2010 by Milat’s great-nephew and tortured and killed with a double-sided axe. She had this to say about the ghost tours there:
“It is a money-making tour at our expense,” she said. “I can’t stop people from running these ghost tours, but I think it’s disgusting. They are taking advantage of our grief.” 
Mrs Auchterlonie said her family was only just “getting some normality back in our lives”. 
“We are hurting and this is just opening up old wounds again,” she said. “We are just trying to become normal people again. It would be same for the families of all the backpackers who were murdered there.”
In a similar vein, the granddaughter of a man killed at Boggo Road in 1966 wrote to me about her family’s treatment by some in the ghost industry:
“For years my family have been tormented with nonsense in the media and on the internet about my grandfather’s death. This was a traumatic event that affects all of us to this day. My own father wasn’t much more than a boy when Bernard was killed, and the sadness and struggle the family endured shaped the adults they became, and the children that they went on to have. The loss has been compounded in the years since by an awful man perpetuating stupid stories and rubbish about Bernard. He conducts tours and interviews focusing on my grandfather's supposed ghost... This man has even contacted me, as have a few ‘internet crazies’. It has all been very upsetting... 
Personally, the stories are more than ‘vague and unconvincing’. They are also hurtful and distressing. And it makes me so angry that people are trying to make money by exploiting my family history. This man… is still a very large part of some people’s lives.”
I have given other examples elsewhere of how families and friends of the deceased feel about paranormalist exploitation of their loved ones. Unfortunately, in the absence of a media frenzy or government action, the commercial exploitation of their tragedy continues.

* This is abridged from an article originally published in July 2015.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Nobody is Going to Sue You For Sharing a Story

Eric Cartman
The potential privatisation of access to history at Boggo Road Gaol has raised a number of important issues relating to the practice and presentation of History. One of those questions is, what happens when you attempt to privatise folklore? I ask this because somebody sent me a link to a Facebook post written by a person claiming to have been on a ghost tour of Boggo Road. I won't link it here (I'm not sure it was an authentic account of events) but it did give an insight into the attempted privatisation of folklore, or the appropriation of memories. At one point this person writes:
"I won't go into detail of the stories and experiences told to us... as I don't want to be sued or have any sort of legal case thrown at me for using his material."
You can't get sued for talking about a story you heard on a guided tour. Sure, if you use that same specific sequence of words when doing your own tours or books then there would be a problem, but when it comes to the source material... nobody owns these stories. There's nothing you can hear on most tours that other people don't already know. If somebody tells me a story, that doesn't mean that I suddenly own it. I don't own their stories and I don't own their memories. And they've probably shared it with a lot of other people anyway.

So just like you can put a plot outline of Star Wars on Wikipedia without being sued by George Lucas, you can recap something you heard on a tour. Or write a review. For example, this review of a 'South Brisbane Cemetery Ghost Tour' appeared in QWeekend in September 2011 and critically recalls a number of story elements:


I have heard these claims of private ownership folklore before. When Tracey Olivieri was writing her book The Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery she received this veiled threat in an email from the owner of Brisbane 'Ghost Tours':
"The ghost stories and tales used our tours are from specific sources which can be identified. They are not common knowledge or in the public realm. They are our legal property."
So Tracey was told that she wasn't allowed to share the stories - even though that she had heard them as a kid growing up near the cemetery - because they now allegedly 'belonged' to somebody. The threat was ignored and Tracey moved ahead with her book as it was quite obvious that the claim of 'legal property' was baseless.

So there is no legal impediment to talking about - in your own words - something you heard on a tour. This nonsensical notion of folklore as private property really needs to be stamped out.

This article is abridged from one originally published in March 2013.