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.