Saturday, 6 January 2018

A critical look at the paranormal industry

Fake ghost photography by William Hope (1863-1933).We are living through the most intense era of ghost-fakery in human history. A combination of new technologies, market forces, popular culture and a widespread disregard for science has produced a thriving 'paranormal industry'.

This industry has a fundamental requirement for its business model: that enough customers believe in ghosts. Unfortunately, this commercial pressure has led many in the industry to fabricate evidence about the supernatural. Ghosts, Schmosts exposes some of this fraud, and the often-dodgy ethics of the paranormalists.

* * *

The desire to understand the nature of existence, non-existence, and everything in between is an elemental part of being human. Over the millennia it has sprouted a thousand branches of religion and philosophy. Great minds have produced great works, and spawned great movements, yet the question remains unresolved.

Lesser minds have also engaged in, and exploited, the subject. The rise of Spiritualism during the 19th century - driven by a sincere curiosity about the afterlife - spawned an epidemic of fraudulent mediums and ghost-photographers, not to mention the 'playing the ghost' prank craze. These people were usually exposed as frauds, as were many 20th-century 'ghost hunters' such as Harry Price and Ed and Lorraine Warren. By the 1960s, a popular TV show for children - Scooby Doo - had one simple premise to every story line: the ghost or monster was a fake dreamt up by nefarious schemers. When it came to awareness of paranormal fakery, it seemed that progress was being made.

An angry mob chases a 'ghost hoaxer', Devon 1894. (Illustrated Police News, 21 September 1894)

And yet, here we are...

The forces of technology, pop culture and capitalism have combined to bring us a 21st-century version of the mediums and ghost-photographers of yore. Television is awash with multiple teams of 'ghost hunters' engaged in trickery to keep their audiences engaged. In real life, thousands of amateur teams act out what they see on TV. A cast of mediums provide pay-per-minute life advice on late-night phone-in cable shows. On the streets, 'ghost tours' tell sensationalist tales with flimsy (or zero) provenance that reduce historical landmarks to the status of novelty haunted houses.  

Ghosts, Schmosts draws on the lessons of history and my personal experiences to shine a light on fakery, to explore the cultural contexts of 'pop paranormalism', and to build the case for a better way of approaching the paranormal.

Chris Dawson
Brisbane, Queensland

Top image: Fake ghost photography by William Hope, (1863-1933).

Friday, 5 January 2018

Horrible History and the Plough Inn Ghost Mystery

Paranormal investigators tend to cross over into the field of 'historical enquiry' when they require a ‘backstory’ to flesh out alleged supernatural events. This is especially true when the people involved are trying to sell tours or books. Imagine a tour guide walking a group somewhere only to announce 'a woman once felt a hand on her shoulder here' before moving the tour on somewhere else. More material is needed, and unfortunately the need for a story often overrides scrupulous historical enquiry. 

Useful examples of this process in action are the stories being circulated about a girl who was strangled at the Plough Inn, South Brisbane, during the 1920s:
'The Plough Inn near Southbank at East Brisbane may seem like a very innocent pub, although it has its fair share of ghostly stories too... The owners of the Inn believe the ghost to be that of a girl who was strangled in the building in the 1920’s when the area was still fairly rough. Nobody has actually seen her, although many have heard her voice around the building. Her favorite part of the Inn is around guest room 7, although she has been heard in other parts of the Inn.'[i]
This story is basically copied from an earlier website about the ‘Ghosts of Queensland’. The similarities are obvious:
'Legend has it that it is the ghost of a young girl strangled in the hotel in the 1920s when South Brisbane was still the haunt of sailors, prostitutes and spivs. No one has seen the ghost but many claim to have heard her. She lives, staff have been quoted as saying, where Guest Room 7 used to be before the renovations, where the atmosphere is always cold and oppressive.'[ii]
And so it appears on website after website. People cut-and-paste, change a few words around, reproduce it on their own sites, and so it spreads. The backstory has also been further developed, as seen in these somewhat corny lines:
'In the 1920’s a publican, whose name has yet to be located, murdered his wife on the very same balcony where many have stood before. She too has been seen wondering [sic] the hallways, herself looking for answers.'[iii]
Here the ghost is further identified as a publican’s wife, it has actually been seen, and she is given a motive for her presence (how this is known is not elaborated on). She is apparently ‘looking for answers’, and well she might... because this murder never happened. Nobody was ever murdered at the Plough Inn. The story is a complete furphy.

Plough Inn, South Brisbane, circa 1939. (John Oxley Library)

To be fair, there is a back-up story about the hotel, this one involving the tragic drowning of a young girl:
'In the great floods of 1893 a young girl was trapped in the cellar during the watery up rise. The cellar is still used to this day, and there are staff members who claim they’ve seen a young girl in the cellar dressed in late 19th Century period clothing.'[iv]
At least the story is half-right this time, but once again proper historical research is lacking. The girl was Selina Brown, who actually drowned during a flood in 1890 (not 1893) while swimming in the back yard (not a cellar). Furthermore, she was aged sixteen (not eight, as claimed elsewhere). That these basic facts of the story - the ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘who’ - were all wrong demonstrates the dangers of putting too much stock in folklore and suburban ghost stories and not carrying out some basic research. It was actually a more responsible researcher who debunked this story in 2009 on behalf of the Plough Inn owners, who were somewhat tired of hearing it at the time.[v]

This case displays all the characteristics of the average ghost story, including;
  • The all-too-quick attribution of supernatural causes for hard-to-explain events. Have logical questions been asked? Who heard the noise and what state of mind where they in? Can the noise be naturally attributed to the hotel environment? Instead, a leap of logic is taken and an unprovable, fantastical conclusion has been reached - the sounds are the voice of a dead person; 
  • An historically inaccurate back story has been developed in the absence of valid historical research; 
  • The resulting story has spread unchecked and has been further elaborated and distorted in the process. 
Ghost stories are a fluid phenomenon. Even more so when people telling them (or making them up) are desperate for a backstory and neglect to check the historical facts.

[i] ‘Ghosts of Brisbane’, www.freewebs.com/liannamaye/ghostsaroundbrisbane. htm (accessed May 2010).
[ii] ‘The Ghosts of Queensland’, www.queenslandhistory.com/ghosts1.htm (accessed January 2005).
[iii] ‘Our Brisbane’, www.ourbrisbane.com/food-and-drink/the-plough-inn (accessed April 2010).
[iv] ‘Our Brisbane’, www.ourbrisbane.com/food-and-drink/the-plough-inn
[v] T. Olivieri, personal comm., November 2009.