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.

Monday, 2 January 2017

'Haunting Australia' (...and Also Your Wallet)

Having previously watched 10 minutes of the TV show 'Haunting: Australia', I swore I’d never waste that time again, but then my youngest son and I watched Penn and Teller’s Bullshit: Ghost Hunting, an hilarious but vicious takedown of ghost hunters, so we thought we’d take another look at H:A for a laugh. And laugh we did.

Australiana Pioneer Village.

This particular episode was set in the ‘Australiana Pioneer Village’ in Wilberforce, New South Wales, which houses a collection of old timber structures shipped in from around New South Wales and set up in a field. These buildings were only marginally more wooden that the acting of the H:A team members. It was the usual colour-by-numbers ‘team’ with a ‘lead investigator’, two ‘celebrity psychics’, and three other people who seemed to be filling the usual perfunctory roles such as ‘camera guy’, ‘tech guy’, etc. The team seemed too large and some of the members looked a bit uncomfortable, like they didn’t really have anything to do. They also didn't seem to know each other, and there was a palpable lack of chemistry and awkwardness in their interactions.

From the start it was obvious that this farce was going nowhere. They used the standard ‘GhosthunterVision’ method of filming people walking around rooms, which involves night vision cameras and the person trying to create a sense of tension by constantly declaring that they can ‘feel’ something, or ‘sense’ the presence of someone. Since ‘feelings’ can’t be recorded or measured, the success of all this is wholly reliant upon the audience actually believing what the presenter is telling them. I didn’t, and neither did my primary-school-aged son.

What we did see was just people walking around empty rooms talking the regulation spook-babble, trying to create an impression that something was happening when it clearly wasn’t. There is undoubtedly a commercial pressure to film some kind of a positive result, because nobody would watch a show about people walking around rooms saying ‘nope, nothing here’. The alarm bells were ringing loud because they managed to sense supernatural activity in just about every single building they walked in.

Ghost hunting cameraIf the psychics came across as dodgy, the ‘science’ was deplorable, as generally seems to be the case in these paranormal investigations. In one building they set up what appeared to be a disco ball projecting lasers through the smoke of a dry ice machine. There was some nonsense spoken about ghosts having ‘an amount of mass’, which would manifest itself in the smoke/laser combo. Of course nothing happened, although we were assured that a nearby ghost-o-meter registered over '6', but we just had to take their word for it because it wasn’t actually filmed.

This section of the show summed it all up really. We have a person claiming that 'ghosts' have a 'mass' without any explanation or exposition of what he is talking about. What is his theory or evidence to back this statement up? There was, of course, none, yet he proceeded as though this was an accepted fact, and then cobbled together the kind of 'invention' a primary-school child would doodle up. And hey presto, nothing happened.

A big focus of the show was the alleged movement of a curtain in an upstairs window. At least, we were told it moved. There was much finger pointing and excited yelling from the team, cameras zoomed in, and we were absolutely assured that it was moving. Except it wasn’t. I rewound the scene three times and we looked for movement but it just wasn’t there. The team didn't set a camera up for the window in case it happened again.

Then there was the scene where the female psychic was upstairs by herself when her camera suddenly stopped working, just before she heard a sound. And she ran out of the house. Why would a psychic who claims to have spent the night sensing and seeing ghosts suddenly run away when she hears a small noise (which nobody else heard)?

Then there was a bizarro-world breakaway scene with the team visiting TV’s ‘Summer Bay’ and having a painfully lame ‘Aussie BBQ’ where they robotically discussed how they liked their steak cooked and (I kid you not) ‘throwing a shrimp on the barbie’. Then the male psychic went for a dip in the surf and informed us that salt water is good for washing off paranormal/psychic activity. Apparently sea water washes ghosts off you.

At the end of the show came the recap of the alleged ‘evidence’. There was a recording of a random background ‘bleaargh’ noise (outside), played back with the usual trick of first telling you what you are hearing - not once but three times, in the hope that the power of suggestion is enough to make you think ‘bleaargh’ sounds exactly like ‘get off’.

Then the feedback on the laser disco experiment brought awesome evidence of something moving in the smoke. They excitedly showed it three times with a bright red arrow pointing to it. The problem, was, nothing was happening. We watched this bit twice and saw zilch. Perhaps this was another attempt at using the power of suggestion to persuade viewers that they could see something.

So that was it. Lots of ‘feelings’, a ghost in almost every building, a curtain that never moved, a random background noise outside, non-movement in the ghost-detecting disco, a ghost hunter who runs away when she hears a noise, and sea water washes off ghosts. The narration was also rather annoying. In other words, absolutely nothing whatsoever happened but they dressed the final cut of the film up in formulaic GhosthunterVision and there’s a show for you.

I found it to be a cheap act of illusion and play-acting, something like an amateur magician’s show. The team seemed awkward and unconvincing, and produced nothing I couldn’t reproduce on film with my youngest son and a night vision camera. At least the show was shown on the right channel. Science Fiction.

Unfortunately, if this show did achieve anything, it was degrading the historical value of the Australiana Pioneer Village. We really need to stop places of historical interest being turned into fake 'haunted houses'.

'Penn and Teller’s Bullshit: Ghost Hunting' - see it here

The above is abridged from an article originally published in 2015.