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?'

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