08 February 2017

Kentucky Fried Ghost-Hunts at Boggo Road

The end product / of Guddia law is a viaduct / for fang and claw,
and a place to dwell / like Roebourne's hell
of a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.
He's there - where?
there in their minds now / deep within,
there to prance / a sidelong glance / a silly grin
to remind them all / of a Guddia wall
a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.
(from 'John Pat', by Jack Davis)
This memorial in front of the prison walls of the historic Fremantle Prison was was erected in 1994 after the death of prisoner John Pat, and was placed 'in memory of all Aboriginal people who have died in custody in Australia'. It was erected after the death in custody of prisoner John Pat. (Creative Spirits)

In April 2015 the Queensland Government announced a decision to prohibit further 'Ghost Hunts' at Boggo Road.* This came after the previous government had overturned an earlier ban on these activities, a ban that was in place due to the disrespectful and non-historical nature of 'ghost hunts'. This u-turn was sadly typical of the disastrous Campbell Newman approach to Boggo. An approach that will hopefully be dumped once Boggo reopens properly.

These 'ghost hunts' are - in my opinion - offensive to both science and spirituality, and hopefully we'll never see them inside Boggo ever again. The whole incident, however, has been very instructive in showing that 'paranormal industry' businesses can not be trusted to run places like Boggo...

In late 2012 I was sat in Brisbane with three senior Public Works officials discussing the controversial short-term reopening of part of a Boggo Road cellblock. They assured me that future site interpretation at the old prison would be both historical and respectful. They said that activities such as ‘ghost hunts’ were neither of these and would continue to be banned.

I also raised issues of certain protocol regarding Indigenous cultures, as Public Works was allowing ghost tours (telling dubious stories as opposed to 'hunting' with dubious gadgets) inside a place where there have been deaths in custody. I was told (sincerely, I believe) these things would be taken care of.

A few months later I made an enquiry to Public Works after seeing online chatter about new ghost hunts at Boggo Road, and was told that they were still banned. All good.

12 months later there was a sudden backflip. Ghost hunts could now be held at Boggo Road, Public Works said, because they had received ‘assurances’ from Ghost Tours Pty Ltd that they would be 'respectful' and 'historical'.

The primary problem with these hunts in a place such as Boggo Road is that they are inherently disrespectful - and here's why:

Boggo Road was the scene of a number of deaths in custody, many within living memory and involving both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Some of these people were named in the 1991 report of the ‘Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’.

These people died while in the custody of the Queensland Government. Is it therefore appropriate or respectful for the Queensland Government to sanction - and possibly even draw indirect revenue from - ‘ghost hunts’ at the scenes of these deaths in custody?

The opinions of people who matter...

What do people personally affected by all this think about it? A relative of one of the deceased prisoners contacted me and had this to say:
‘Family members have varying views on the afterlife but the one thing they all agree on is that if seeking an audience and commercial gain is the ultimate goal, this type of sensationalist ‘ghost hunt’, especially when the poor miserable man's children still live, seems completely insensitive and unethical.’
I was also contacted by a man who was a prisoner there during the 1960s:
‘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.’
Former officers who were first responders in these incidents and continue to be affected by those experiences are also unhappy. As one said to me:
‘None of the c---s 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.’
An officer, Bernie Ralph, was bashed to death in Boggo Road in 1966. At a recent officer reunion there was emotional discussion about the alleged sullying of his character during tours at the prison. I do know that he is named in ghost tours. Here’s what a member of his family had to say about it:
‘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.’
Professional historians have also voiced their opposition to these hunts. As a historian myself, I have previously made my own views known in the book The Haunting Question. This short extract refers to the fundamental issue of significance in cultural heritage:
‘The pursuit of a quick dollar can damage the long-term cultural heritage values of places that have more important stories to tell. In the case of Boggo Road, there are also essential lessons to be learned, lessons that cannot be learned if children are too afraid to go inside it, or are distracted by schlocky ghost stories.’
Is Boggo Road a historic prison with an important social history, or a novelty haunted house?

The sadness of 'pop paranormalism'

You have to look at who is running these things. What is their track record, ‘respect’-wise? Ghost hunts run by Brisbane 'Ghost Tours’ and ‘Queensland Paranormal Investigations’ were banned from Brisbane municipal cemeteries in 2009. A promotional video for the hunts prior to that ban featured smoke machines, ‘Ghostbusters’ music, and ‘investigators’ passing 'ghost-detecting equipment' over war graves in the South Brisbane Cemetery. To make things worse, one of the lead investigators in that segment was exposed on the ‘Australia and New Zealand Military Imposters’ website as a military imposter.

Ghost Tours also tried to run - without permission - 'hen's parties' in Brisbane cemeteries. Brisbane City Council also had to intervene to stop pseudo-occult rituals being performed during tours in Toowong Cemetery, and to prevent people wearing horror-themed fancy dress during those tours. I understand that ghost tours and hunts were also not allowed in Ipswich cemeteries.

All of this indicates to me that when it comes to choosing between 'respect' and a dollar, Ghost Tours have a proven record of commercially exploiting sensitive historical places until they are pulled into line over issues of disrespect. So clearly there are issues with respect here.

If there was such a thing as the continued existence of human consciousness beyond bodily death, the subject should be a thing of awe and wonder. Understanding it would be an epochal triumph of science. Anybody truly serious about the paranormal would be doing the hard yards, studying areas such as the link between the supernatural and psychology. The work of Professor Richard Wiseman in this field is notable. Unfortunately, what we get with ghost hunts is Kentucky Fried Ghosts. People abusing the memory of someone else's loved one. Important heritage sites being reduced to the status of fairground haunted houses.

I believe that there are two basic questions that anybody who supports ghost hunts should ask themselves. Firstly:
‘Would I allow commercial ghost hunts in the place where my own loved ones have passed away, with customers being told that the spirits of my loved ones haunt that place?’
And secondly:
‘Where do we draw the line? If ghost hunts are allowed in places where people died in horrible circumstances in living memory of their loved ones, should the government approve commercial ghost hunts at the scenes of recent murders and suicides?'
So my basic arguments as to why the Queensland Government needed to immediately reverse this decision and guarantee that such activities would not be allowed at Boggo Road in future were:
  • ‘Ghost Hunts’ upset living relatives of the deceased. 
  • Governments should never sanction 'ghost hunts' in ‘deaths in custody’ locations (or any other place, for that matter). 
  • Where does the government draw a line between where ghost hunts are and are not allowed? Over-focussing on the paranormal demeans the real history of a place. 
  • Can the business involved here be trusted to conduct themselves in a respectful manner?
  • Charging people to use electronic gizmos can cannot 'detect ghosts' could amount to fraud.
These were some of the arguments I put to Public Works minister Tim Mander in 2014. Unfortunately he took the position that the Ghost Hunts could somehow be ‘respectful’. In light of the previous interference at Boggo by premier Campbell Newman, it was clear our concerns would be dismissed, despite a petition on the matter getting reasonable support.

A new low point was reached when the TV show 'Haunting: Australia' charged customers over $100 per head to use fraudulent equipment to play-act ghost hunting inside Boggo Road.

When Newman’s government was surprisingly thrown out in the 2015 election (in part for ‘not listening’ to Queenslanders) we wrote to the new Public Works minister Leanne Enoch, making much the same arguments about ghost hunts as before. This time we received a positive response and were informed that the Ghost Hunts at Boggo were stopping. Hopefully never to be seen again.

When people talk about ‘A Better Future for Boggo Road’, it is not just an empty slogan. This is precisely the kind of inappropriate greed-driven activity that happens under the wrong management, and that is why better management is needed to make sure that all interpretation and use of this important historic site is respectful and appropriate.

The Boggo Road story should be told in many ways and by many voices. ‘Ghost hunting’ is not one of them.


The following quotes are taken from some of the early signatories on the 'Queensland Government: Please stop allowing commercial ‘ghost hunts’ in places where deaths in custody took place' petition.

Kingsley Pocock
I think this is a gross invasion by a money hungry so called entrepeneaur who is desecrating this place. I served at the road for 4 years and never, never saw or heard a ghost'

Brian Black
As a former First Class Prison Officer at HM Prison Brisbane I am concerned about how the history of an important part of Queensland is being handeled. This may be lost if not processed correctly. First there are no ghosts, anywhere. Although there may have been some vile mean evil people serving time in Number Two Devision they were humans and when one of them died by whatever means it did effect all in there both inmates and staff. We former officers are getting older and our experiences and memories may be just going to dissapear. These so called 'Ghost Tours' are nothing but mockery of people who were once living and they are being treated with disrspect. This is purely in the cause of profit. To have people look for something on false emotional terms because someone has died or taken their own life is a discrase. Get the facts and revive the truth and the history of Number Two Division.

Anne Warner
Deaths in custody ought not be remembered as some kind of fun game. Before we get accused of being "killjoys" just consider the fact that deaths in custody still happen and they are no joke. People are placed in intolerable circumstances and are found dead for one reason or another. If the Government continues it's inhumane strategy of mandating solitary confinement for certain prisoners then watch the death in custody figures increase. Again this is no joke no occasion for ghoulish behaviour.

Ronald Bulmer
Respect should be shown to the dead

Sonya Pearce
This is disrespectful pure and simple.

Neville Buch
Respectful history is important for the mental health in the society. Credible historians with training in the discipline don't turn persons from the past into ghosts.

Kerry Guinea
I worked for Corrections for over 39 years, 10 of which was at Boggo Road. Making fun (and money) out of the misfortunes of those who had their lives ruined in there is not on as far as I am concerned!

Leeann Crawford
Let the dead RIP have some compassion for relatives and friends.

Robert Johnstone
As a former inmate and having been in the Gaol from 1965 until 1967 during which time suicided in F wing and one Prison Officer was murdered (Mr Bernard Ralph ) Also two other prisoners I knew died while in Boggo Road one suicided and the other from Pnuemonia. I feel a sense of outrage that people who have no idea what it was like to be in Goal are allowed to roam through the prison without any consideration for the people who died there.

James Atherton
Our work there was serious, and should not be cheapened and made a mockery of.

Gabrielle Ricketts
Ghost hunts being held in an area where Indigenous deaths in custody have taken place is disrespectful. And on the whole in very bad taste!

Margaret Dakin
I want Boggo Road to be preserved as an historical site, not as a commercial venture for thrill seekers

Rob Pensalfini
While 'ghost-hunts' may seem like an innocent frivolous bit of fun, to hold them in a place that has been marred by deaths, some under questionable circumstances, including aboriginal deaths in custody, murders by guards and prisoners, and suicides is disrespectful in the extreme to the memories and families of those who died under these conditions.

Maureen Young
Deaths in custody are a significant part of Queensland's dark history. They should not be made light of and commercialised because it is disrespectful to those that died and those that remember them.

* This has been abridged from an article originally published in February 2014.