03 July 2015

Why Ghost Hunting Should be Banned - Part 2


Memorial for John Pat and Black Deaths in Custody, Fremantle Prison.
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)
In the first part of this article on why commercial ghost hunting should be banned, I gave a basic outline of how unethical it is charge customers to use gadgets such as electromagnetic field detectors in the guise of detecting paranormal activity. Bogus ghost-o-meters. You are basically flogging a fake product.  

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.

Cover of Indigenous Deaths Report, 1989-1996. Story on Ghost Hunts.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.

Why Ghost-Hunting Should be Banned - Part 1

Dana Scully would want Boggo Road Ghost Hunts banned too.
Agent Scully would agree with me.
(Part 2 of 'Why Ghost-Hunting Should be Banned')

It looks like we have finally seen the back of 'ghost hunts' at Boggo Road. And good riddance to them. The old prison has now joined Brisbane municipal cemeteries as a place where ghost hunts are officially banned, and listening to the complaints coming from ghost-hunt quarters, it's all my fault. I sincerely hope it is.

I would actually go further and suggest that ghost hunting should be banned outright. Not all forms of 'paranormal investigation', but more specifically commercial ghost-hunting with fake ghost-o-meters. The kind where customers are charged money (usually quite a lot) for a self-proclaimed 'paranormal investigator' to take them around an allegedly 'haunted' place with electronic gadgets that are claimed to help them detect ghosts.

If you are part of a group that enjoys paranormal investigations out of personal interest and don't charge people to join you, that's a different thing. If you are using ghostometers I would dispute the science behind your methods, but it's your time and your money.

Also, if your investigations focus more on the 'psychic' approach instead of using gadgets, that's something else again. The mediumship field is clearly open to all manner of fakes and charlatans, but my concern here is with selling the use of gadgets.

Ghot hunting device.I should also make it clear that this is not about the existence or otherwise of ghosts. I am a sceptic, which means I have an open mind and draw my conclusions based on the best evidence, according to how I understand it. I don't know the meaning of life nor the nature of the universe. As Hamlet says, 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' I don't believe in ghosts at all, but I majored in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Queensland and understand that many small-scale cultures have a supernatural element that is treated within those cultures with genuine respect. On the other hand, the current 'Kentucky Fried Ghosts' fad in western culture is a complete and superficial sham.

I have had my own evolving relationship with this kind of ghost hunting. Several years ago I 'tolerated' it and - as a committee member on historical societies - tentatively supported specific proposals for 'paranormal investigations' as heritage fundraisers. However, my doubts emerged during planning, initially regarding the 'respect for the dead' issue and then later with the scientific integrity of the whole enterprise.

I came, I saw, I changed my mind. And if that's good enough for prime ministers of this country, then it's good enough for me.

Anyway, here is the first of two basic reasons I would like to see commercial ghost-hunting banned.


Thanks to the advent of ghost-chasing Reality TV shows, the electromagnetic field (EMF) detector has become the gadget of choice for many new ghost-hunting enthusiasts. EMF detectors do actually have a place in an actual scientific examination of the natural background environment of a place where paranormal-style activity has been alleged to occur. As academic researchers Tony Lawrence and Vic Tandy explained in this excellent paper
'The ways in which normal earthly events might conspire to convey an impression that a house is haunted... are numerous. Thus, all of the following may well be the more mundane cause of an ostensible haunt; water hammer in pipes and radiators (noises), electrical faults (fires, phone calls, video problems), structural faults (draughts, cold spots, damp spots, noises), seismic activity (object movement/destruction, noises), electromagnetic anomalies (hallucinations), and exotic organic phenomena (rats scratching, beetles ticking). The exclusion of these counter-explanations, when potentially relevant, must be the first priority of the spontaneous cases investigator.' ('The Ghost in the Machine', Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol.62, No. 851, April 1998)
Unfortunately, instead of taking an academic or scientific approach, it now seems to be common practice for ghost hunters to attribute unusual spikes in EMF readings to a supernatural presence. Commercial ghost hunts - which sell a 2-4 hour thrill-seeking experience as opposed to serious investigations - also seem to use EMF detectors as ghostometers. One Brisbane business advertised their guides as using 'scientific paranormal investigative techniques to detect activity' (my emphasis). A guide on this hunt was filmed in a marketing video passing an EMF detector over a cemetery headstone and announcing he had probably just detected a ghost. 

Electromagnetic field detectors are being passed off as ghost hunting devices.
The K-II Meter. Pretty lights = dead people.
A variation on the EMF detector is the 'K-II Meter', the uselessness of which was amply demonstrated in experiments conducted by the Randi Educational Foundation.

These gadgets are real enough, but the use of them is completely misplaced and based on an assumption that ghosts emit an 'energy' that can be detected and measured (to be fair, not all ghost hunters believe this). This implies a scientific understanding of what a 'ghost' is comprised of. Of course the mere existence of ghosts has not been proven in any way, so it follows that any theory as to what they are 'made of' is as scientifically baseless as saying 'Venusians have yellow blood'.

In fact, with statements like 'ghosts emit an energy', you could replace the word 'ghost' with 'invisible time-traveller from the future', or 'leprechaun', and they would be just as scientifically valid. Yet this is the stuff that current ghost-hunting is built upon. I recently wrote about the 'Haunting Australia' TV show, in which one ghost hunter claimed that ghosts 'have an amount of mass' that might be detected if they walked through his contraption, which looked something like a disco-light ball with a smoke machine. As you might expect, nothing was detected.  

Other common gadgets include audio recorders for capturing 'electronic voice phenomena' (EVP). Ghost hunters have played these recordings for me in person (and there are plenty of examples on YouTube and TV), but in almost every case it is either explained to me first what the indistinct noise is about to say, or there are subtitles on related videos. The 'seed' is planted in your mind, distorting the listening experience. In reality they are usually undecipherable noise - just try listening to one without someone else telling you what it says first. 

The article 'Electronic Voice Phenomena: Voices of the Dead?' goes into better detail. EVP are also very easy to fake, and there seems to be industrial amounts of fraud going on judging by what is available online. 

The big question is, it is ethical to to advertise these useless gadgets as being capable of 'detecting ghosts' and then charging customers money (sometimes well over $100 per head) to use them? Especially without a disclaimer explaining that these things don't actually work for the advertised purpose? In my opinion, it is hugely unethical. 

Think of it this way. If I told you that my microwave oven was a leprechaun trap and I offered to let you stand under a tree with it for three hours in the dark, and that the tree was a known haunt of leprechauns, would you pay me $130 for the privilege? Because when the ghost-hunt marketing is stripped back, that is effectively what you are paying for.

The issue becomes more serious if the commercial ghost-hunt operator knows the gadgets do not do what they are advertised to, it looks like outright fraud. Of course, it is difficult for an outsider to know what the operators might really think about their products. 

So, on the basis of selling the use of fake products alone, I think ghost hunting should be banned, especially in any government-owned site. There is, however, another valid reason to restrict them, and that is covered right here in Part 2 of 'Why Ghost-Hunting Should be Banned'.

Is there a better way?

Yes there is, and it already exists. It involves exploring potential 'natural' causes for alleged paranormal anomalies, and I will cover that soon in another article here.