14 April 2011

Boggarts & Boggo

'Farmer Griggs and the Boggart'
Having been involved in the production of two local history books on the subject of the paranormal, I have been asked a few times if I actually believe in ghosts. The short answer is no, and as an advocate of the scientific method I would say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

However, as Hamlet said, 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy'. I have an Anthropology degree and well understand the extent and importance of belief in the supernatural in small-scale cultures. My experiences with the Fijian community in Brisbane taught me that elements of supernatural belief that were part of everyday cultural life back in the island villages had been transported to the suburbs of the River City.

There have also been incidents involving Aboriginal people that suggest cultural backgrounds produce different perspectives and experiences.

In a different way, ghosts were a part of my own cultural background. I was born and raised in Heywood, Lancashire, and just like anywhere else we kids we had our fair share of local ghost stories. These included Ernie Potter, supposed to haunt the derelict cotton mill near where we lived; the White Lady, who rode her horse off a high cliff at Ashworth Valley; the headless horseman of Hopwood woods; and two lovers who are said to haunt Ashworth Chapel.

The reputedly-haunted Ashworth Chapel.
Ashworth Chapel.

Historically, locals called ghosts 'boggarts', and the writer Edwin Waugh wrote of some of these stories in his account of Heywood in 1855 (it was so tempting to call my book The Boggarts of Boggo). One that he mentioned was the 'Gristlehurst Boggart', which is interesting as we lived very near to Gristlehurst Wood and spent a lot of time over there as kids, but nobody ever mentioned anything about any ghosts there. In this sense, the historical value of recording ghost stories is clear, but what happens when the actual process of recording and disseminating those stories come into doubt?

This is a question taken up in parts of the Inside History books 'The Haunting Question: The Phoney Phantoms of Boggo Road' and 'Ghosts of South Brisbane Cemetery'. It is one thing when the supernatural is an important part of cultural beliefs, or even just a playful part of local folklore, but what happens when it is commercialised? What happens when people actively 'market' places as being haunted, in an attempt to drum up more business?

The modern 'paranormal industry' is entirely unregulated, unchecked, and open to all kinds of manipulation. For every individual with a genuine and ethical scientific interest in the subject, there are a hundred charlatans and suburban arsehats who are doing little more than play-acting. That is not to say I don't understand the appeal of the subject matter. In my early teens I read Colin Wilson ghost books and briefly entertained thoughts of going to study at a place like the College of Psychic Studies in London. And then I grew up a bit. However, I still find it to be an interesting subject when approached in the right way, which for me would be focussing on the histiographical and cultural perspective on the phenomenon of ghost stories.

Unfortunately, modern technologies have facilitated the spread of so much unadulterated nonsense that there is an increasing need to sort the wheat from the chaff. This is what The Haunting Question was an attempt to do.

At the moment there seems to be a concept of quantity over quality at play with ghost stories, in which a story is held to be true simply because it pops up on so many websites. There is a snowball effect created by lazy writers and bloggers just cutting and pasting already-regurgitated material from other websites. What I want to do is apply a bit of contextual analysis and ask some previously unasked questions. Where and when did this story originate? Who is spreading it? Do the historical details check out? WHY is it being told - is there money involved? Also, what is the effect of this on the heritage values of that place?

Significance is a very moveable feast, and the significance of heritage places needs to be protected as much as the bricks and mortar. It may not be to everyone's taste, but by looking at the story BEHIND the stories, The Haunting Question is a serious attempt to protect heritage from marketing spin.

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