|Respecting the dead: The memorial for John Pat in front of the prison walls of the decommissioned Fremantle Prison. It was erected in September 1994 "in memory of all Aboriginal people who have died in custody in Australia". The poet Jack Davis contributed a poem which is inscribed on the right hand side of the memorial. (Creative Spirits)|
It is important to note that I was writing there about commercial ghost hunts only. In this concluding piece I will address what is probably a more important aspect of this business:- respecting the dead and their surviving loved ones. And this one applies to all ghost hunting, commercial or otherwise.
When it comes to the issue of respect, the line between appropriate and inappropriate venues for ghost hunts can be a fine one. Would you, for example, approve a ghost hunt at a place where someone you knew closely committed suicide? How about a house where a local family was recently killed in a fire? Or the murder site of Daniel Morcombe or any other child? What about Gallipoli? The Lady Cilento Children's Hospital?
If you have any sense of decency, the answers would be 'No'. Sometimes, however, it is not that clear cut. As ghost hunts tend to link alleged paranormal activity with the 'ghosts' (however you define that) of specific people, the basic rule of thumb should be to ask yourself if the place has a special meaning to the loved ones of the deceased, and is it possible that your activities will upset them?
Who Are You?To begin with, I have an issue with 'identifying' ghosts. The process involves a sequence of related assumptions, each one requiring an irrational leap of logic in itself, and so the result gets increasingly unreliable with each step.
- Difficult-to-explain localised phenomena can be attributed to something called 'ghosts'.
- Ghosts represent a post-death human consciousness.
- That post-death human consciousness can be associated with specific dead people.
- Person x died in this location, therefore I can identify this ghost as being person x.
So the process of identifying a ghost as a specific person is in itself immensely illogical. But leaving that issue aside, is it even ethical to do so?
If the alleged ghost is of a person who died a long time ago (say, over 100 years), it is not so much of an issue. But what if it was more recent, and relatives and friends of the dead would prefer to believe that their loved ones are resting in peace, and not some tortured soul forever wandering an old prison or cemetery? What if they don't want thrill-seekers wandering around 'hunting' the spirits of their loved ones?
The recent example of ghost hunts at Boggo Road has provided us with a good case study.
The Boggo Case
The surviving heritage-listed prison buildings opened in 1903 and closed in 1989. A number of deaths happened in there during that time, although executions were not carried in those buildings. Causes of death included natural causes, suicides, and - just off to one side of the eastern wall - a murder.
The prison became a historical site in the mid-1990s. Ghost tours commenced there in 1999, but ghost hunts were rare. At least one happened prior to 2001 (I found an investigation report where the person wrote subjectively of 'sensing a dark energy' near the top of D Wing), but ghost hunts were not offered on a commercial basis before 2006, when the place closed for redevelopment works. At least, they never happened with the knowledge of museum management.
During the closure of the prison site, the ghost tour business began advertising 'ghost hunts' at Boggo Road, although they did not have access to the site. Some might call this 'misleading'. Then, when part of Boggo reopened on a short-term basis in 2012, the state government prohibited ghost hunts on the grounds that they were disrespectful and not relevant to historical interpretation. I was personally informed of this in a meeting with very senior public servants, and again in writing several weeks later.
It is easy to see why the hunts were banned. Boggo Road, like most prisons, saw its fair share of death. Some as recently as the 1980s. These included Aboriginal men killing themselves in their cells. Some of these cases were examined as part of the 1987 'Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody'. The Commission decided that the material it had gathered should be made 'as publicly accessible as possible', but:
'...was aware that most of the material was less than 30 years old. It acknowledged that privacy and Aboriginal cultural sensitivities would need to be considered (eg it decided that the details of individual cases should not be released on the ground that they were too distressing to the deceased's family and friends).'Some of the Boggo deaths are still less than 30 years ago. Unfortunately, this was not a concern when the Boggo ghost hunt ban was overturned in 2014 by the Newman government. There was a public backlash and a petition (see the Courier-Mail's 'Stop this sick Boggo Road sideshow and leave those who died in that prison in peace') but the politician's decision stood. The hunts were only banned again after another change of government in early 2015. With the changes planned for Boggo Road to become an arts, heritage and dining hub, it seems unlikely they will ever return.
I have written before about these Boggo ghost hunts, and I quoted a number of people who had contacted me. This statement came from a family member of someone who was murdered at the prison in the 1960s:
‘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... 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, Bernard Ralph, is still a very large part of some people’s lives.’The relative of a person who committed suicide in the prison back in the 1940s was equally upset. A former prisoner from the 1960s also wrote to me:
‘It is sad that people do not realise how offensive it is to trivialise the deaths of people in Custody. You may recall that I remembered a person who died in F wing while I was at No.2 (Suicide) I also was in the cell that Jimmy B------- died in (Pneumonia). Both men were Aboriginal. Mervyn T------- (Suicide) was Caucasian. He was quite seriously mentally compromised. Yet he was in mainstream Gaol. Have the people who are running round at night in the Gaol no sense of decency or sensitivity. That place drove people insane. It will bring them no joy to do this. Despite the crimes that Jimmy and T------ committed they were my friends and I feel a sense of outrage over what is taking place.’Then a former officer had this to say:
‘None of the ----- who run this shit ever stepped foot in the place, they don’t know what it was like. They don’t know what death is. And now they’re making a fucking mockery of it.’There were many similar statements from other people with various backgrounds (see here), so this was not just me who thought the Boggo ghost hunts were offensive, there were plenty of others.
I'd argue that ghost hunting should not occur when it is likely to offend the loved ones of the deceased. This applies especially to commercial ghost hunts, where the intent is merely making quick money. It applies even more especially in cases where those loved ones have asked you not to do it.
It is also not a valid argument to suggest that ghost hunts should be allowed in place x because they are allowed at place y somewhere else in Australia. Wrong is wrong wherever it happens. Commercial ghost hunts are an unethical rip-off and have no place in a rational society. They certainly have no place at Boggo Road, where a meaningful marker of remembrance to those who died there (such as the marker at Fremantle Prison) would be much more appropriate than using their death beds for shoddy ghost hunts and haunted houses in the name of cheap profit.