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. 

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