Saturday, 31 December 2016

'They Don't Know What Death Is': Ghost Hunting at a Suicide Scene

WARNING: The following article contains details relating to the death of an Aboriginal man in custody at Boggo Road prison in the 1980s.

Brisbane's Boggo Road Gaol has been home to a number of cheap and tawdry events in recent times, including ghost hunts, ghost tours and even parties with a 'haunted house'.* I've explained the incredibly disrespectful aspect of these 'hunts' before. In short, people have died in terrible circumstances in the Boggo Road cellblocks, and well within living memory. Those people have living relatives and friends whose dearest wish is for the dead to be left alone to rest in peace.
Unfortunately, there are some in the paranormal industry who refuse to let a bit of common decency stand between themselves and a dollar, and so they dismiss the concerns of the deceased person's loved ones. This is the case at Boggo Road Gaol, and this is why the Queensland Government had to step in and ban 'ghost hunts' there.

One of the most powerful statements against the immaturity of the paranormal industry came from an ex-officer, long since retired, who carries with him the vivid memories of being a 'first responder' to suicide and murder scenes inside the old prison. He, and several other officers, have described to me in detail the experience of coming across a dead body inside a cell, the sight and smell of it, and how it stays with you.

'They don't know what death is', he told me when he heard about 'ghost hunts', 'And now they're making a fucking mockery of it'.

I don't personally class any one type of death in custody as being worse than another, but the insensitivity of commercial ghost hunts at Boggo is particularly highlighted by Indigenous deaths there, which have been the subject of major reports in the past.

One of these was the 'Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody', which took place during 1987-91 and investigated the deaths of 99 Aboriginal prisoners around Australia during previous years. These included cases at Boggo Road. The report went into great depth on the background stories of the individuals concerned, looking at the life circumstances that led to their eventual incarceration and death. Most of the material is now available online at this website. In some cases the names of some deceased persons are not included, in accordance with Indigenous customs.

The following text is an extract from the report on an unnamed man who died inside the F Wing of Boggo Road in December 1980. It is taken from the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody website and describes his final night and the circumstances in which he was found the next day. As I warned before, it does contain some explicit details.
None of the ----- who run this shit ever stepped foot in the place, they don’t know what it was like. They don’t know what death is. And now they’re making a fucking mockery of it.’  - See more at:
‘None of the ----- who run this shit ever stepped foot in the place, they don’t know what it was like. They don’t know what death is. And now they’re making a fucking mockery of it.’  - See more at:

The Man Who Died in Brisbane Prison on 4 December 1980: Events That Occurred in Custody

...While he was on remand the deceased received visits from three of his sisters and a brother and mail from his mother. During the visits by family members the deceased did not discuss the charges against him or at any stage profess his innocence. He did not complain of any harassment or ill-treatment from police, prison officers or other prisoners, or request any medication or assistance. Similarly, at no stage did he give any indication that he might attempt to kill himself.

At 4.30 pm on 4 December 1980, Prison Officer Jack Krikorian escorted the deceased and five other prisoners from 7 Yard to F Wing. He then placed the six prisoners in their respective cells and locked them up. When he locked the deceased in cell 4 Krikorian noticed nothing unusual about his manner. According to Krikorian the deceased did not appear to be depressed. He was then left alone in his cell.

At about 10.00 pm that evening, a prisoner, Christopher William Hudson, who was in cell 2, which adjoined that of the deceased, heard gurgling sounds coming from the deceased's cell. There is no evidence that Hudson attempted to draw anyone's attention to what he heard.

At 6.05 am on 5 December 1980, Prison Officer John Robert Adam, who was performing duty in F Wing, began to release the prisoners from their cells and noticed that the deceased did not come out of his cell.

Adam went to the cell and found that the bed had been pushed against the door. When he gained entry he saw the body of the deceased hanging from the bars of the cell window by a rope made from strips of sheet material twisted together. It was in a noose around his neck and tied to the last two bars of the cell window. Adam tried to find a pulse but without success. The position of the deceased's body was consistent with his having jumped from the bed with the noose tied firmly.

At about 6.07 am Chief Prison Officer Frederick Henry Colebourne was advised by 1/C Prison Officer Phillip Anthony Latimer that a body had been found hanging in F Wing. He directed Latimer to assist in lowering the body and he contacted Prison Officer William Ronald Martin, a medical orderly at the prison hospital. He asked Martin to attend at F Wing.

On his arrival at Cell 4 Colebourne observed:

'Senior Prison Officer Collins and I/C Prison Officer Latimer in the process of lowering the body of a person from a position at the rear of the cell, onto a bed; the body appeared to be stiff and my observations at this time would lead me to believe that the death had occurred some considerable time before the body was discovered. The body of the person, now known to me as [deceased 's name] was examined by Prison Officer Medical Orderly, Mr R. Martin.' 
Martin went to F Wing and entered cell 4 where he saw the body of the deceased on the bed with the rope of sheeting tightly knotted around the neck. Martin felt for signs of life but the body was cold and stiff. He notified the hospital to inform the Government Medical Officer, Dr Kenneth John Morrison, and then instructed the Senior Prison Officer Neville Raymond Collins to lock the cell door until the doctor arrived.

At 7.20 am Dr Morrison arrived and examined the body. He noted in the deceased's prison medical record: '... Deep ligature mark. Knot on right side. No petechiae noted. Face swollen. Cold. Life extinct ... '. Dr Morrison told investigating police officer, Constable Jeffrey Gordon Thorpe, that in his opinion death had occurred at about 10.30 pm on 4 December 1980.
One important point I have made in the past is that people like this died while in the custody of the Queensland Government, and inside a government facility. That is why I felt it particularly inappropriate that the Queensland Government gave the go-ahead for commercial 'ghost hunts' to take place there in 2014 and, by means of rents charged, draw indirect income from them. Fortunately a change of government led to a change of heart and the ghost hunts have since been stopped.

I have published the report extract above because F Wing has been used for commercial ghost hunts in which people pay to use bogus equipment to 'hunt ghosts'. It shows that beyond the corny schlock-horror approach to ghost tours in places like this, these incidents involved real people.

I have already requested that a refurbished Boggo Road historical site feature some culturally-appropriate marker of respect and remembrance for all those who died and suffered within the walls of the old prison. They should be allowed to rest in peace.

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

Saturday, 24 December 2016

The Exorcism of Ernest Austin's Phony Phantom

Ernest Austin was sentenced to death in 1913 for the vicious murder and sexual assault of an eleven-year-old girl, Ivy Mitchell of Samford, and he was executed at Boggo Road. The crime was particularly atrocious as he had raped the girl and then cut her throat. The people of Samford never did forgive Austin, and his crime haunted Ivy’s family for the rest of their lives.

Ernest Austin, 1913. ('The Truth')

Austin found a kind of infamy as the last prisoner to be hanged in Queensland. He has also found a place among the pantheon of alleged Boggo Road ghosts, and there are rather fantastical versions of his death and afterlife currently being circulated on a number of paranormal-themed websites. There are some serious issues with these stories.*

'But there's a conspiracy theory to hide the truth!'

The story - from a 'ghost tour' company - goes that as he stood upon the scaffold awaiting death, Austin shouted out that he was proud of his crime and that his victim ‘loved it’, and then he laughed heinously, mocked the assembled witnesses, and told them he would return from the grave and cause even more suffering:
"As the executioner released the trapdoors beneath his feet, the murderer began to laugh, all the way to the very end of the 13-foot rope. Even then he tried to force out one last little chuckle from between his lips. It was said that the laughter was often heard in the early mornings in the cellblocks."
The historical record actually tells a very different version of events. Austin’s execution was witnessed by several reporters and officials, and although there were some minor discrepancies in their reports on the event, they all told a very different story to the later version. His last words, probably spoken under the influence of morphine, were reported in one newspaper as:
"I ask you all to forgive me. I ask the people of Samford to forgive me. I ask my mother to forgive me. May you all live long and die happy. God save the King! God save the King! God be with you all! Send a wire to my mother and tell her I died happy, won’t you. Yes tell her I died happy with no fear. Goodbye all! Goodbye all!" (Brisbane Courier, 23 September 1913)
A very similar account appeared in the Truth newspaper, this one reporting that ‘God save the King’ were his actual last words. Did the reporters lie? One person defending the ‘evil laughing’ story to me claimed that the reporters were part of an official cover-up of the disturbing events on the gallows, as the authorities were trying to maintain public support for hanging and did not want the awful truth of what Austin had really said getting out.

However, the Courier and the Truth took opposing editorial stands on capital punishment, so why write the same story? Surely it would have suited the anti-hanging writers at the Truth to print a story with Austin laughing at his executioners, showing the failure of the death sentence to impress any sense of repentance upon him. The angle they instead took was to portray Austin as a ‘feeble-minded degenerate’, someone with a ‘mental deficiency’ who was raised in a home for neglected children and lived an institutionalised life that had made a monster of him. Their headline proclaimed ‘THE STATE SLAYS ITS OWN CREATION’. Blame for the crime was apparently to be shared with government authorities, his Frankensteinian creators.

The illogical conspiracy theory (with zero evidence) used to defend this ghost story can be safely ignored.

'But old timers say it's true!'

In later years, Austin was re-created as a supernatural demon. It has been claimed - again, from 'ghost tour' people - that prisoners would see a face appear outside their cell door, and when they looked into his eyes they somehow knew it was Austin and that he had made a deal with Satan to deliver their souls in exchange for his own. Having locked eyes with the prisoner, the ghost of Ernest Austin would then come through the door and try to strangle them, driving some to madness… or so the story goes.

I have spoken with many former prisoners and officers, and while some of them have a weird story or two about 'ghostly' happenings, none of them knew anything of this 'soul-stealing Austin' story. This includes people who, during the 1960s, were confined in the dormitory area of 1 Division that in earlier years had been the gallows area itself. Not only did people not see or hear anything spooky there at all, the prisoners weren't even aware that the place was supposed to be haunted. Quite simply, the story did not exist, much less the ghost.

He haunts the wrong part of Boggo Road!

One of the mysteries of this story is that Austin is said to haunt No.2 Division - a place he never set foot in. In 1913, No.2 Division was actually a prison for women. Austin was confined and executed in a cellblock in a completely different part of the prison reserve, one that was demolished back in the 1970s, but his spirit somehow moved to another building to conveniently haunt part of a ghost tour route.

Be gone, demon!

So how did this Austin story come to be? How did it gain currency after the closure of Boggo Road despite strong contradictory evidence? One plausible explanation is that the story was well suited to the theatrical tenor of a commercial tour. It just takes one person to refer to someone else repeating it, and the ‘evil Austin’ ghost story spreads on the Internet, as the desire to tell a sensational story overrode a proper reading of the historical record.

The transformation of Austin from a vicious but all-too-human murderer into a (literally) satanic monster is an injustice to historical enquiry and an insult to intelligence. The existence and propagation of this story also demeans the memory of Ivy Mitchell. Not to mention overshadowing the historical importance of the abolition of execution in Queensland (the first part of the British Empire to do so). We can only hope that the debunking of the phoney phantom of Ernest Austin will help this ridiculous aspect of the story fade into history.

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in September 2013.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Is Toowoomba the Most Haunted City in Australia?

A July 2015 headline on the Daily Mail website described Toowoomba as ‘Australia's most haunted town’.* Given that we have another source (falsely) proclaiming Brisbane to be the ‘second most haunted city in the world’, logic suggests that Toowoomba must be now be the most haunted city in the world!

Reading the related article, however, we soon realise that that logic has very little to do with any of this. What we find is a lazy media outlet using amateur ‘pop paranormalism’ as page-filling clickbait.
‘A growing number of residents in the regional Queensland town of Toowoomba are documenting a series of spine-tingling encounters with ghosts. The other-worldly activity is so frequent, a team of ghost hunters has set up shop in the not-so-sleepy town.’
So they say in the article. I’d guess that the allegedly ‘growing’ frequency of ‘other-wordly activity’ came after the ghost hunters set up shop. Members of the featured group - ‘Toowoomba Ghost Chasers’ - claim to have conducted hundreds of paranormal ‘investigations’ and found that the regional city (population 110,000) is ‘full of ghosts’.

Why would this be? As one member explained, Toowoomba's history ‘makes it a haven for spirits… It's one of the oldest towns in Queensland, and it has a violent past - it's like the wild west… Maybe there's a lingering presence from that bloody history.'

This statement doesn’t add up at all. Within Australia, Toowoomba would be a minor league player when it comes to violent history. And that’s in a country that - while having seen its share of spilt blood - has been relatively quiet in the global context.

Main street of Toowoomba, allegedly the 'most haunted city in Australia'.
Toowoomba (Wikipedia)

The article has a number ‘spooky’ photos, which are bad even by the usual standards of grainy ‘what am I supposed to be looking at here?’ ghost photography. A bit of a shadow here, some unconvincing pareidolia (seeing patterns in random visual data) there… The story attracted nearly 200 comments and the vast majority of them were skeptical or outright mocking, especially of the poor quality of the images and the illogical interpretations of them. These included ‘Caroline’ from North Tamborine, Queensland, who wrote that ‘I absolutely believe in ghosts, but all of these photos are a stretch to say the least. The top photo is more than likely just pareidolia - seeing faces in things. There's a lot of shadows in all of the photos.’

‘One-Law-For-All’ from Manchester, UK, wrote, ‘None of the pictures are even slightly convincing...’, while ‘Diddlydee’ from Dunham-on-the-Hill, UK, added ‘These pics are even more awful than the usual ghost tripe you print. You could quite literally print any old picture, circle any vague shape or shadow and say it's a ghost.’

To be fair, I’d guess that most ‘paranormal investigators’ would also be unconvinced by these photos.

This photo from 2012 is claimed to be of a 'ghost hovering near a grave'. What it looks more like is shadows on a headstone creating a pareidolia effect.

The photo above - from 2012 - is  alleged to be of a 'ghost hovering near a grave'. What it looks more like is shadows on a headstone creating a pareidolia effect.

'Lady in Red' ghost photo from Toowoomba, Queensland.

The 'Lady in Red' photo above shows a red area that is is quite prominent considering how grainy this photo is, suggesting it would have been especially clear to the naked eye. Unfortunately, without a less blurry image allowing identification of surrounding background objects such as the dark area next to the reddish area this looks like another case of grainy pareidolia.

Alleged 'ghost photo' from a cave near Toowoomba, Queensland.

This particularly unconvincing photo was captioned with 'Ghost chasers believe the face of a supernatural spirit can be seen in this picture'.

Alleged 'ghost photo' from a cave near Toowoomba, Queensland.

This one was captioned 'Toowoomba Ghost Chasers believe this picture... captured some sort of paranormal activity in the night'. That's an interpretation somehow even vaguer than the photo itself.

Alleged 'ghost photo' in cemetery, Toowoomba, Queensland.

'A ghost sighting near a grave', according to the caption. Again, there is nothing unusual, although pareidolia might suggest the face of Kermit the Frog: 

Alleged 'ghost photo' in cemetery, Toowoomba, Queensland.

These people seem to use the word ‘believe’ a lot, when phrases like or 'might be' or 'looks a bit like' would be more appropriate. There are more, equally unconvincing ghost photos in the article, such as this one with the claim that 'Some experts believe a 'little girl in blue dress with her arm around a little boy in black pants and jacket' can be seen':

Alleged 'ghost photo' in cemetery, Toowoomba, Queensland.

Which ‘experts’, exactly?

There was also a video in the article that was claimed to show ‘the horrifying moment a spirit eerily floated across a backyard’, and a ‘shadowy shape emerges seemingly from nowhere and then move around before disappearing’. One of the 'ghost hunters' said that they had not ‘seen anything like it in a long time', and helpfully concluded that 'It has to be something. There is no other explanation that we can come up with.'

While it is quite an interesting video, the attitude of ‘there is no other explanation we can come up with' says a lot. Genuine scientific investigators of allegedly paranormal activity (for example, Richard Wiseman and Benjamin Radford) apply imagination and intelligence to come up with natural theories for recordings like this. Back in 2008 Radford examined a very similar video to the one in the Toowoomba article and found that the most logical explanation was that it was a small insect on or near the camera lens (see ‘The Kansas Gym Ghost’).

Coming up with that case on the Internet took me less than a minute. It provides a feasible explanation. It seems incongruous that people who have closely examined this video for weeks or months would not have considered this.

Another video of ghostly activity at Disneyland has similarly been explained quite rationally as an ‘artefact of old equipment’. ‘It’s a ghost’ should always, always, be the very last resort. Unfortunately, for too many people dabbling in the paranormal, it is usually the first resort. Then again, media outlets are not interested in ghost hunters who never find a ghost, are they?

The article then covers Toowoomba’s supposedly famed 'lady in the red dress'* ghost, which is claimed to be ‘the ghost of Elizabeth Perkins, a resident who died in 1944’ after being struck by a train. Someone has got their dates wrong here, because Mrs Perkins was killed in 1929.

One of the ghost hunters said that he investigated this by heading to the train station and calling out the names of people he believed had died nearby ‘and therefore could be haunting the area’. He recorded changes in 'electromagnetic energy' with an electromagnetic field (EMF) detector. When he read Perkins’ name out, the meter ‘lit up’ and so he asked if it was Elizabeth Perkins, and claimed that ‘there were footsteps and she definitely walked past’.

This is so full of irrational assumptions that it is worthless. Aside from the fact that it takes an initial leap of logic (and faith) to link unusual phenomena with the unproven existence of post-death consciousness, and then asserting that consciousness can be associated with specific named individuals, the science here is completely false. EMF detectors record electromagnetic fields. As Benjamin Radford has written:
‘Many ghost hunters consider themselves scientific if they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, EMF detectors, ion detectors, infrared cameras, sensitive microphones, and so on. Yet for any piece of equipment to be useful, it must have some proven connection to ghosts. For example, if ghosts were known to emit electromagnetic fields, then a device that measures such fields would be useful. If ghosts were known to cause temperature drops, then a sensitive thermometer would be useful. If ghosts were known to emit ions, then a device that measures such ions would be useful. 
The problem is that there is no body of research showing that anything these devices measure has anything to do with ghosts. Until someone can reliably demonstrate that ghosts have certain measurable characteristics, devices that measure those characteristics are irrelevant… EMF detectors, ion counters, and other gear have no use in ghost investigations.’ (Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 34.6, December 2010)
The evidence presented in the Daily Mail article makes a very weak case for the existence of ghosts, much less that Toowoomba is ‘Australia’s most haunted town’. For the sake of their own credibility, I'd suggest that groups such as Toowoomba Ghost Chasers be a lot more critical with the evidence they present. The reporter also failed to provide a counterview, and the result is the kind of B-grade newspaper filler that helps to sustain the ‘paranormal industry’ in its current misguided form.

I'd say that the people of Toowoomba should take these alleged ghost sightings with a very large grain of salt.

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

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Ghost Hunts, Charlatans, & ‘Psychopathic Liars’

Snake oil linament.
There are some very good people 'working' in the paranormal field, but unfortunately there are some real pieces of work too. One group some friends and I had particular problems with a few years back was 'Queensland Paranormal Investigators', who ran Ghost Hunts. These ghost hunts were held in places like South Brisbane Cemetery and were also planned for Boggo Road. QPI and their colleagues tried to scare off 'competition', and around 2010, when we were planning our South Brisbane Cemetery 'Moonlight Tours', they were rather antagonistic.

I try to moderate my own language in these pages, but others have been harsher. Stephen Downes, a contributor to Channels 9’s A Current Affair, pulled out of show after ACA aired an uncritical segment on the ghost hunts offered by QPI/Ghost Tours in early 2010. He did not hold back in this article 'Who ya gonna call? Ghost boasters apparently':
'All right, so QPI will be dismissed by most people as an hilarious loser... But how can ACA risk its credibility as a “scam-busting” program by presenting complete and utter bullsh-t such as this? As someone who has appeared on ACA from time to time to comment on marketing issues - drawing on published studies in consumer behaviour and peer-reviewed academic literature on marketing and brand management - I actually feel embarrassed to have been seen in the same company as these charlatans.'
Harsh words, but nowhere near as harsh as those used by the folks who run the website exposing ‘Australia and New Zealand Military Imposters’ (ANZMI). These are very passionate people who do not mince words, and in a recent exposé about a military imposter they opened up with this:
'A psychopathic liar has no conscience, no feelings of guilt or remorse, and he cares not a fig for the well being of friends or family members he betrays. He does not struggle with shame no matter what kind of harmful or immoral lies he tells.'
I'd suggest they have confused the terms 'psychopath' and 'sociopath' here - which can be dismissed as amateur analysis anyway - but the rest of the article goes downhill from there. They are talking about Shane Townsend, a founder of Queensland Paranormal Investigators who is seen in this photo with his 'Ghost Hunts' partner ‘Jack’ Sim.

Ghost hunter in fake identity controversy, Ipswich, Queensland, 2010.
Queensland Times, 19 January 2010

It’s a long article that you really have to see to believe. They write:
'As a further insight into the personality of Townsend, he claims in media reports and on web sites to be a Psychic Medium and claims to have been tested at the University of Canberra and the ABC Testing unit for gifted children. His claims of being a gifted Psychic are for those gullible people silly enough to believe him, we do however know that he is a gifted liar. Townsend has: 
Lied about having served with SASR
Lied about serving in Cambodia, Iraq and Afghanistan
Lied about being a decorated soldier
Lied about his academic qualifications
Lied about serving with USA Navy SEALs
Lied about serving in the RAN
Falsely worn a DCM
Falsely worn 3RAR Parachute wings
Falsely worn and Infantry Combat Badge
Falsely worn other medals that have not been awarded to him
Produced numerous false military documents'
Those who were offended by Shane and the Ghost Tours/QPI people 'ghost hunting' around war graves in the South Brisbane Cemetery on a cheesy TV show a few years back will sense some karma in all this.

Like I said before, I know good people who dabble in the paranormal, but shonky characters are attracted to the paranormal industry like moths to a flame. It is not a science, it is not regulated, there is no definable right or wrong way of doing it, it lends a thin veneer of mystery to otherwise suburban personalities, and you get to deal with some very impressionable people and maybe even get to take their money. When these types try and make it hard for us to carry out our not-for-profit History activities it gets frustrating, but people like Liam Baker over at the 'Haunts of Brisbane' website do a good job of trying to lift standards in the field of paranormal research.

'Hilarious losers', 'complete and utter bullshit', 'charlatans', 'psychopathic liar'. Harsh words, but not mine. The ANZMI website puts it well:
'If you tell the truth it becomes part of your past.
If you tell a lie it becomes part of your future.' 
* This article was originally published in 2011. 'Queensland Paranormal Investigators' appear to have not been active since that year. 

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Should Ghost-Hunting Be Banned?

Straight from the top, I will say my answer to that question is 'yes'.

Not all ghost hunting, but specifically commercial ghost-hunting. The kind where customers are charged a lot of money by a self-proclaimed 'paranormal investigator' to take them around an allegedly 'haunted' place with electronic gadgets that are claimed to help them detect ghosts.

If you are part of a group that enjoys paranormal investigations out of personal interest and don't charge people to join you, that's a different thing. If you are using electronic equipment, I would dispute the science behind your methods, but it's your time and your money. Also, if your investigations focus more on the 'psychic' approach instead of using gadgets, that's something else again. The mediumship field is clearly open to all manner of fakes and charlatans, but my concern here is with selling the use of gadgets.

Here are the two basic reasons I would like to see commercial ghost-hunting banned.

1. Ghost-detecting gadgets are fake and you should never pay to use them

People are being charged a lot of money to use electronic devices that don't do what they are advertised to do.

Thanks to the advent of ghost-chasing 'Reality' TV shows, the electromagnetic field (EMF) detector has become the gadget of choice for many new ghost-hunting enthusiasts. EMF detectors actually do have a place in scientific examinations of the natural background environment of a place where paranormal-style activity has been alleged to occur. As academic researchers Tony Lawrence and Vic Tandy explained in this excellent paper:
'The ways in which normal earthly events might conspire to convey an impression that a house is haunted... are numerous. Thus, all of the following may well be the more mundane cause of an ostensible haunt; water hammer in pipes and radiators (noises), electrical faults (fires, phone calls, video problems), structural faults (draughts, cold spots, damp spots, noises), seismic activity (object movement/destruction, noises), electromagnetic anomalies (hallucinations), and exotic organic phenomena (rats scratching, beetles ticking). The exclusion of these counter-explanations, when potentially relevant, must be the first priority of the spontaneous cases investigator.' ('The Ghost in the Machine', Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol.62, No. 851, April 1998)
Unfortunately, instead of taking an academic or scientific approach, it now seems to be common practice for ghost hunters to attribute unusual spikes in EMF readings to a supernatural presence. Commercial ghost hunts - which sell a 2-4 hour thrill-seeking experience as opposed to serious investigations - often use EMF detectors as ghostometers. One Brisbane business advertised their guides as using 'scientific paranormal investigative techniques to detect activity'. A guide on this hunt was filmed in a marketing video passing an EMF detector over a cemetery headstone and announcing he had probably just detected a ghost.

Electromagnetic field detectors are being passed off as ghost hunting devices.
The K-II Meter. Pretty lights = dead people.

A variation on the EMF detector is the 'K-II Meter', the uselessness of which was amply demonstrated in experiments conducted by the Randi Educational Foundation.

These gadgets are real enough, but the use of them is completely misplaced and based on an unproven assumption that ghosts emit an 'energy' that can be detected and measured (to be fair, not all ghost hunters believe this). This implies a scientific understanding of what a 'ghost' is comprised of. Of course the mere existence of ghosts has not been proven in any way, so it follows that any theory as to what they are 'made of' is scientifically baseless. I recently wrote about the 'Haunting Australia' TV show, in which one ghost hunter claimed that ghosts 'have an amount of mass' that might be detected if they walked through his contraption, which looked something like a disco-light ball with a smoke machine. As you might expect, nothing was detected.

Other common gadgets include audio recorders for capturing 'electronic voice phenomena' (EVP). Ghost hunters have played these recordings for me in person (and there are plenty of examples on YouTube and TV), but in almost every case it is either explained to me first what the indistinct noise is about to say, or there are subtitles on related videos. The 'seed' of suggestion is planted in your mind, distorting the listening experience. In reality they are usually undecipherable noise - just try listening to one without someone else telling you what it says first.

The article 'Electronic Voice Phenomena: Voices of the Dead?' goes into better detail. EVP are also very easy to fake, and there seems to be industrial amounts of fraud going on judging by what is available online.

The big question is, it is ethical to to advertise these useless gadgets as being capable of 'detecting ghosts' and then charging customers money (sometimes well over $100 per head) to use them? Especially without a disclaimer explaining that these things don't actually work for the advertised purpose? In my opinion, it is hugely unethical.

The issue becomes more serious if the commercial ghost-hunt operator knows the gadgets do not do what they are advertised to. In that case, it looks like outright fraud. Of course, it is difficult for an outsider to know what the operators might really think about their products.

So, on the basis of selling the use of fake products alone, I think ghost hunting should be banned. There is, however, another valid reason to restrict them, one that applies equally to non-commercial investigations - respecting the dead and their surviving loved ones.

2. R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

When it comes to the issue of respect, the line between appropriate and inappropriate venues for ghost hunts can be a fine one. Would you, for example, approve a ghost hunt at a place where someone you knew closely committed suicide? How about a house where a local family was recently killed in a fire? Or the murder site of Daniel Morcombe or any other child? What about Gallipoli? The Lady Cilento Children's Hospital?

If you have any sense of decency, the answers should be 'no'. Sometimes, however, it is not that clear cut. As ghost hunts tend to link alleged paranormal activity with the 'ghosts' (however defined) of specific people, the basic rule of thumb should be to ask yourself if the place has a special meaning to the loved ones of the deceased, and is it possible that your activities will upset them?

To begin with, I have an issue with 'identifying' ghosts. The process involves a sequence of related assumptions, each one requiring an irrational leap of logic in itself, and so the result gets increasingly unreliable with each step.
  1. Difficult-to-explain localised phenomena can be attributed to something called 'ghosts'.
  2. Ghosts represent a post-death human consciousness.
  3. That post-death human consciousness can be associated with specific dead people.
  4. Person x died in this location, therefore I can identify this ghost as being person x.
So the process of identifying a ghost as a specific person is in itself immensely illogical. But leaving that issue aside, is it even ethical to do so? If the alleged ghost is of a person who died a long time ago (say, over 100 years), it is not so much of an issue. But what if it was more recent, and relatives and friends of the dead would prefer to believe that their loved ones are resting in peace, and not some tortured soul forever wandering an old prison or cemetery? What if they don't want thrill-seekers wandering around 'hunting' the spirits of their loved ones?

The recent example of ghost hunts at Boggo Road has provided us with a good case study. The surviving heritage-listed prison buildings opened in 1903 and closed in 1989. A number of deaths happened in there during that time, due to natural causes, suicides, and - just off to one side of the eastern wall - a murder. Some deaths occurred as recently as the 1980s. These included Aboriginal men killing themselves in their cells. Some of these cases were examined as part of the 1987 'Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody'. The Commission decided that the material it had gathered should be made 'as publicly accessible as possible', but:
'...was aware that most of the material was less than 30 years old. It acknowledged that privacy and Aboriginal cultural sensitivities would need to be considered (eg it decided that the details of individual cases should not be released on the ground that they were too distressing to the deceased's family and friends).' [my emphasis]
The prison became a historical site in the mid-1990s, and when part of Boggo reopened on a short-term basis in 2012, the state government prohibited ghost hunts on the grounds that they were disrespectful and not relevant to historical interpretation. Unfortunately, the ghost hunt ban was overturned in 2014 by the Newman government. There was a public backlash and a petition (see the Courier-Mail's 'Stop this sick Boggo Road sideshow and leave those who died in that prison in peace') but the politician's decision stood. The hunts were only banned again after another change of government in early 2015.

I have written before about these Boggo ghost hunts, and I quoted a number of people who had contacted me. This statement came from a family member of someone who was murdered at the prison in the 1960s:
‘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... 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, Bernard Ralph, is still a very large part of some people’s lives.’
I also heard from relatives of deceased prisoners, as well as former officers and inmates themselves. People who lived with the reality of what death in the prison meant. The unanimous feeling was that the ghost hunts had to stop.

I'd argue that ghost hunting should not occur when it is likely to offend the loved ones of the deceased. This applies especially to commercial ghost hunts, where the intent is merely to make money. It applies even more especially in cases where those loved ones have asked you not to do it.

So in summary, I'd argue that commercial ghost hunts are an unethical rip-off because of the ridiculous equipment used, and all ghost hunts should be prohibited in places where they would be likely to upset the loved ones of the deceased.