26 March 2018

Ghost Trek: The Next Generation

I helped develop the 'Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery' night tour for the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery, and I'm a guide on the tour. And I'm even not sure 'paranormal tours' should be allowed in municipal cemeteries.

The 'Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery' tour was an idea that had been floating around for a long time. The aim was to develop a new style of night tour at the cemetery, one that questions the whole subject of ghost stories and gets people thinking more critically about them.

Why? To address some of the problems created by the paranormal industry operating in various cemeteries around Australia.*

Which problems? As many members of the FOSBC see it, presenting our cemeteries as 'haunted houses' populated by a wacky array of cartoonish ghost characters has the potential to undermine what is perceived as the primary function of those cemeteries, which is to provide a dignified place of rest for the deceased, and a place of contact and memory for those they left behind.

Cemeteries are no ordinary spaces. The land in there has literally been blessed. When we talk about graves being consecrated, we refer to land that 'has been made sacred' by means of religious services being conducted there.

They are also imbued with a sense of love. Read the headstone inscriptions, look at the flowers and grave trinkets... the people who create and visit the graves at South Brisbane leave a lot of love there.

So is it right that people who are dealing with profound depths of loss and grief might hear that the blessed resting place of their loved one is 'haunted' by an 'evil clown' or a 'skull-faced nun'? Is that what they signed up for when they paid Brisbane City Council several thousand dollars for a new grave plot?

To my mind. the Brisbane City Council has a duty of care to paying customers to make sure that the resting places they sell them are imbued with a sense of respect and dignity. Are they meeting that duty of care if they allow paranormal tours in the cemeteries? Opinions vary. They've already banned hen's parties, themed birthday parties and 'find-the-ghost' hunts in cemeteries. They even had to ban pseudo-occult rituals in ghost tours. Why? Because all these activities were seen as incongruous to engendering a respect for cemeteries. A consistent approach might also extend to prohibiting cemetery ghost tours.

Is there another solution to this problem? How can we ensure our cemeteries are treated respectfully? Stricter controls on tour marketing and content has already been tried to an extent. The results are mixed. After all, South Brisbane Cemetery is still being promoted - falsely and for business purposes only - as 'one of the most haunted places in Australia'. How about a public awareness campaign and petition to get them out of cemeteries? That always remains a possibility, but it would be messy.

Our own immediate approach to the problem is a whole new kind of tour that gets people thinking; Where do the stories come from? Have they changed over time? Do they have valid historical bases? What are the possible rational explanations?

The trick was getting the balance right, grounding the subject in reason, science and historiography, while still allowing for a sense of possibility regarding the supernatural (as Hamlet said, 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.') The basic premise of our tour is that ghosts (however you define them) might exist, but don't believe everything you hear. After all, the best researchers are the ones who are the hardest to convince.
"The basic premise of our tour is that ghosts (however you define them) might exist, but don't believe everything you hear."
The usual hosts would be me (sceptic/historian), Tracey Olivieri (cemetery historian) and Liam Baker (paranormal historian and researcher). This is a good mix of perspectives and experience. Tracey grew up in the local area and played in the cemetery as a child. She knows a few old ghost stories about the place from back then, and she's had her own strange experiences there. When it comes to ghost stories, she can sort the wheat from the chaff and recognise older stories that genuinely existed years ago (without necessarily being true), as well as newer stories of doubtful origin (a problem analysed in this Courier-Mail article).

Liam has been involved in 'paranormal research' since the 1990s and was involved in early ghost tours at the cemetery, so he knows how the industry works. He is a well-known critic of shoddy history and practices within the paranormal industry, and also writes and directs the history project 'The Haunts of Brisbane'.

I'm a professional historian and a sceptic who (just like Liam) has debunked my fair share of ghost stories and fake history. I prefer to look at the cemetery stories in terms of folklore or - as the case may be - fakelore.

Tour development is an ongoing process. If anything feels like it doesn't quite work in the tour, we either fix it or throw it. If the balance seems out of kilter here and there, we shift the weight. So far the tours have been a runaway success in terms of sales, and feedback has been all positive.

I accept that this throws up a hard question. Are the 'Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery' tours part of the 'paranormal problem' within our cemeteries, or are they part of the solution? If I thought they added to the problem, I'd be shutting them down immediately. We see them as raising the bar and making a positive difference to the way people think about ghosts and cemeteries. There are quite a few different 'ghost tours' right around Australia, and they generally follow a formula in terms of costuming, content and tone. The usual approach with formulaic ghost tours is that the hosts are trying to convince the customers that the stories are true. We do something different. Our stories are not blindly presented as being 'true'. They are framed in the wider context of the paranormal industry. There is a scientific perspective that presents possible explanations for strange experiences. And there is sound critical analysis in terms of the history.
"The usual approach with formulaic ghost tours is that the hosts are trying to convince the customers that the stories are true. We do something different. Our stories are not blindly presented as being 'true'."
So the 'Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery' is not a typical 'ghost tour' by any means. As far as we can see, it is the first of a new generation of paranormal-themed tours where it's not about the ghost, it's about the story.

* Is this just a Queensland problem? A survey of advertised tours indicates there are at least 67 different ghost tours available in Australia in recent years. Seven of these include visits to cemeteries as part of a wider tour, while another eight are exclusively contained with cemeteries. Of that last category, seven are based in Queensland. 

15 March 2018

Stories of Women in the Cemetery: Getting the Balance Right

I recently co-hosted an 'International Women's Day' night tour at South Brisbane Cemetery, along with cemetery historian Tracey Olivieri. We basically split the tour, doing alternating spots, and did our own research for the graves we were stopping at. It was about halfway through the tour when it hit me just how downright grim my stories were. Probably around the time that one of the people on the tour asked me if there were going to be any 'upbeat' stories.

'The Women of South Brisbane Cemetery' tour, 9 March 2018. (C. Dawson)

To be fair, I had managed to make something of a running joke about the tone of my material, from the point that my first stop opened with 'this is going to be a bit depressing', followed by the stories of three women who had committed suicide by throwing themselves in the Brisbane River (at different times).

Then came the story of Ellen Thomson - hanged for murder - and then a woman who died after having an illegal abortion. By this point I was reconsidering some of my remaining material, including the woman who had four of her kids die before she went blind, and the alcoholic woman who was a prisoner when she gave birth to a stillborn child and then died herself three days later. Last of all was the woman who drowned herself in the river a few months after she saw her toddler burned to death.

As I said, downright grim stuff. I did drop a couple of stories, mainly to save some time, but it does raise important questions about how we tell the stories of women in history. It might be a cemetery, but should I be taking it easy on the 'women as victims' angle?

To begin with, I do have a natural preference for the 'dramatic' in these tours. I'm not comfortable telling mundane stories; 'This guy was an accountant from Yeronga, and then he died of old age'. I need my stories to have a bit of a kick to them. 100% accurate, but memorable. Other cemetery tours I have created include 'Hangman's Walk' - exclusively about capital punishment - and 'Gruesome Graveyards' which features stories of hangings, grave robbing, murder, and general bad luck. So the tour content was partly related to my usual approach. 

There is, however, a problem that we in the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery have been aware of for some time. When researching a place like 'our' cemetery - which was largely shunned as a burial ground by the rich and famous of colonial Queensland - it can be difficult to find the stories of many of the women in there. Because of the regressive social conditions of the time, most of them were in the background, working in the home, while on their headstones many are defined simply as 'wives' or 'mothers'.

This was an era when women didn't have many basic rights, such as voting, or take prominent roles when a man could do the job. For example, the first female MP in Queensland was elected in 1929. She lost in 1932 and there wasn't another one until 1966. Before then, there would have been hundreds of male politicians, who are now clogging up the best spots in cemeteries all around Brisbane.

The women you notice the most in the colonial records tend to have died particularly tragic deaths or were the spouse or parent of a successful man. There are, however, quite a few who were independently successful or performed inspiring acts. And there are others whose life experiences can tell us a lot about everyday life in old Queensland. We did mention some of those in the tour, but perhaps there should more be of these stories.

At the same time, we don't want to hide the fact that life was often hard for women, sometimes too hard, simply because they were women. This can still be the case today. And telling the sad stories of wasted lives gives more context to the more inspiring stories. The task is to find the right balance.

Coming out of the International Women's Day tour, one of the jobs of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery will be to research and document the stories of more of the women interred in the cemetery. We will be hosting a couple more 'women's tours' in the coming months, and hopefully we'll have a few more success stories that don't end - fingers crossed - with the subjects jumping in the Brisbane River.