11 March 2014

Ghost Hunting & Me: Even Atheists Want to go to Heaven

A funny thing about atheists is this: most of them want to be wrong. Given the choice between absolute non-existence and some blissful eternal afterlife playing harps in another dimension, most people would choose Heaven every time. Who wouldn't? And I say that as an atheist myself. Thing is, we don't believe there is eternal afterlife so non-existence it is, which is fine by us. Que sera sera.

Some background thoughts on my strange experiences over the years with Queensland ghost-hunters.
I'm also a skeptic. Same thing there. Like Agent Mulder, I want to believe, I want there to be an afterlife, but I've seen nothing to make me believe there is one. I think it's something a lot of people in the 'paranormal industry' don't get about skeptics. We're not cynics, we just set a very high bar as far as proof goes because deep down we want this stuff to be true. As I've written before, understanding the supernatural - if it it was to exist - should be a thing of awe and wonder, and understanding it would be an epochal triumph of science. Skeptics are just not prepared to accept the laughable Kentucky Fried Ghosts play-acting that too many in the paranormal industry are currently engaged in.

This opinion has been reached after more than a decade of personal dealings with the 'paranormal industry'. One of several prospective publications I'm working on now is something of a warts-and-all memoir of that relationship. It's been an eye-opening experience to say the least, and over that time my opinions have evolved considerably. There have been times in the past when I gave tentative support to a couple of paranormal investigation projects planned as not-for-profit heritage fundraisers, and it was during those times that I had to confront ethical questions about 'ghost hunting', questions that I am still working through.

That is, putting the pseudoscience aside, where and when is it appropriate to do ghost-o-meter-type paranormal investigations?

Back in 2009 the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery were approached by a woman who suggested doing a not-for-profit paranormal investigation fundraiser for cemetery heritage. The group agreed and planning commenced. It was a very strange time indeed. 'Queensland Paranormal Investigators' and the 'Brisbane Ghost Tours' business co-ran commercial 'ghost hunts' in the cemetery and did what they could to stop this fundraiser. They didn't want any 'competition'. Phone calls were made, emails were sent, and I won't go into here but court intervention was required to stop the persistent harassment of this woman.

Of course all this only strengthened the resolve to do the fundraiser, but along the way this involved practical on-the-ground planning, and it was during that time that I came face-to-face with ethical questions. Was it right to run paranormal investigations in a place where people were placed by their loved ones to 'rest in peace'? I was uneasy but the group planned away.
In the end it never happened anyway. Once the staff at the Brisbane City Council discovered that commmercial ghost hunts had been conducted in the cemeteries they stepped in to ban them all. And quite rightly too. More than that, they overhauled the whole ghost tour thing, charging a fee for the first time and regulating tour content and marketing, which was getting more and more disrespectful.

After a long period of squabbling, it was something of an acceptable ending.

During this time I was also involved with the 'Greater Brisbane Cemetery Alliance', a coalition of heritage volunteers associated with various cemeteries, who among other things lobbied the council to crack down on nocturnal trespassing in cemeteries and ban all night tours. I pushed for language that a total ban was the 'preferred option'.

The ban never happened, and so the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery decided that if for-profit ghost tours were going to be held in cemeteries anyway, then let's offer the public a respectful alternative that focussed on real history, and so the not-for-profit Moonlight Tours were born (once again there was private-sector opposition to this 'competition').

Was this 'hypocrisy', as was alleged? Not really. To us, the night tour bans were had always the preferred option. If council was going to allow ghost tours in cemeteries anyway, then the next best approach for FOSBC was to do night tours properly. Merely a change of tactic.  

Something of the same process took place at Boggo Road. In November 2012, during negotiations for the interim management of Boggo Road, a Public Works official gave us three days notice to produce a business plan (!) for something we had never contemplated before - running Boggo Road ourselves. It was a request more suited to a reality TV show ('we gave the contestants three days to come up with a business plan from scratch - can they do it?') than best practice planning. But it was the kind of rushed, chaotic process than led to the interim opening of Boggo Road and all the subsequent problems.

Three days from scratch. That's not how business plans work. Especially as we were highy skeptical of fair consideration. We said we'd put together an outline, that was it. Established ideas were included, but some new things were sprinkled in too, such as the monthly not-for-profit 'paranormal investigations' as suggested by one of the organisations interested in being part of the set up.

As with the South Brisbane Cemetery paranormal fundraiser, it seemed reasonable enough without giving it too much thought in the rush to get the document together. Thinking about it afterwards, the problems became clear. There had been deaths in custody at Boggo Road, including Aboriginal men committing suicide. I have studied Aboriginal culture enough to know there were spiritual issues here.

Consequently, at a meeting with Public Works officials in December 2012, I voiced my concern about paranormal investigations at Boggo Road in relation to deaths in custody. The officials were of the same opinion, and no 'ghost hunts' were to be allowed. At the same meeting I also suggested it might be appropriate for the Indigenous community to conduct whatever ceremony was felt necessary to spiritually 'cleanse' Boggo Road if there was going to be ghost tours in there. Again, there was agreement. If we had managed Boggo Road, such a ceremony would have been a prerequisite to the place opening again.

When 'ghost hunts' were again held at Boggo Road, I again voiced my opposition. This opposition is the result of careful consideration of the issues over time. What might seem harmless enough at first can be, with further consideration, disrespectful. Political interference led to these ghost hunts proceeding, but they stopped after a change of government restored some dignity in 2015.

So, in short, opinions evolve over time. Tony Abbott supported a carbon price before he opposed it. 'Ghost Tours' once ran commercial ghost hunts in Brisbane cemeteries, now (after they were banned) they label them as 'disrespectful not only to the people that have passed, in their final resting place, but also to the living families of those that have passed as well'.

Of course, this opinion was only expressed some time after Brisbane City Council banned ghost hunts in their cemeteries. Before then, 'Ghost Tours' had fought tooth-and-nail to run the hunts, and promotions for them even involved smoke machines and Ghostbusters theme music.

The questions is; is this change of opinion on cemetery ghost hunts the result of genuine reflection on the subject, or is it just hypocrisy?

  1. Great article, Chris. Once I have some spare time, I intend on writing something about the recent Boggo Road goings on so will keep this comment brief.

    Firstly, it's not always the case that atheists (too many people who have beliefs as unfounded and ardent as religious folk label themselves such these days...) and skeptics wish they are wrong. In many cases, it's a matter of accepting that one could be wrong and revising your views accordingly as new evidence comes to light.

    Speaking of evidence, where is the proof that any of the popular forms of "ghost hunting" equipment actually serve to establish the presence of a spirit? Items such as EMF detectors et al get liberally cited as means of detecting the paranormal but one wouldn't know unless one already had a definitive ghost and could test how the instruments react around it. The whole enterprise is based not just on pseudoscience but on faulty reasoning and a complete absence of critical thought.

    Finally, there is a basic difference not taken into account by any simplistic equating of nocturnal tours run by a certain local business and historical societies respectively. History, which in my opinion is either tangential or absent from the commercial example, should be the most important thing. While ghost tales might be suitably called cultural heritage, one would actually have to show that the stories are accurate and genuine pieces of local folklore. I'm not saying that the tales sold by commercial enterprises are in any way fabricated by them. But the fact remains that there are different versions of these stories, fabricated and unverified stories disseminated by mouth and on the internet, and (to my knowledge) purely anecdotal and conflicting evidence of some cases such as Toowong's "spook hill".

    Now, about the whole disrespect thing. I think that dressing "ghost hosts" as vampires and dead governors speaks for itself there. I don't personally know if any dead personas are adopted at Boggo Road, but wouldn't be surprised if that was the case. Also, I am sure we both recall the "Murderous Maynes" moniker. Not only is that label employed on tours, it also headlines a chapter of Sim's Ghosts of Toowong Cemetery book. What is that besides historical inaccuracy and disrespect? It's too bad no members of the Mayne family remain to take offense. Actually (in the spirit of 'wishing the paranormal was real') it's too bad ghosts aren't about and a little pro-active. From what I've read about Patrick Mayne, he didn't take kindly to even perceived offense.

    1. Thanks for your well-considered comments Steve. Point taken in your first paragraph, especially as skepticism is a process and not a position and therefore can't be 'wrong' as such.

      As for 'ghost hunting technology', that would be an entire article in itself, of which there are already plenty around the Web. The use of these gadgets is based on accepting each link in a string of unproven assertions as being true - 'ghosts exist' - 'ghosts emit electromagnetic fields' - 'When an EMF readers detects an EMF it is therefore detecting a ghost'. Using scientific gadgets does not equate to doing science.

      I now believe there are serious questions to be asked about allowing commercial ghost hunts anywhere, given that they have such a fraudulent basis. It's one thing to do it 'for fun'. It's another to charge customers top dollar to walk around with pretend ghostometers.

      As for the tours, the historical aspect is notoriously poor, as you point out, and we have to question the distorting effect of the commercial pressure to provide a paranormal slant to otherwise non-paranormal history.

      And I've no problem with guides dressing in historical costumes, such as a governor, but dressing as vampires etc just mocks the dead and the significance of the cemetery as a place where we remember/honour the dead. When the current tour license system was introduced a few years back, the Brisbane City Council actually made an effort to stamp that kind of thing out because it was getting to the point where tour groups were turning up in fancy dress too. When the council is still selling grave plots and the cemetery is still being used for new burials, respect is even more of an issue.

      Oh, and if Mayne descendants were around, they'd no doubt get the same short shrift as other descendants of ghost tour subjects who have complained. Basically, too bad, too sad, I have money to make.