27 April 2018

The Royal Mail Hotel and a 'Daily Mail' Fail

The Daily Mail website continued its tradition of bringing you pseudo-news clickbait last week with a 'ghost story' constructed around nothing more than an unconvincing photograph. We've seen this before with their ridiculous 'Is Toowoomba the Most Haunted City in Australia?' story in 2015. This time the action moves to the historic Royal Mail Hotel in Ipswich, Queensland.

A photograph was taken inside that pub in March this year. It looked like this:

Daily Mail, 18 April 2018.

Basically, there appears to be some kind of a smudge or smoke in the upper right part of the photo. This kind of thing is often presented by paranormalists as evidence of ghosts (for example, this photo I had a fight over some time back). Seeing ghosts in such photos is usually the result of pareidolia (the brain perceiving patterns in otherwise random imagery), but it seems that some people have a greater capacity for pareidolia than others, which I think might be proportionate to their desire to see something.

This photo is a great example of this phenomenon. I've shown it to several people (believers and skeptics) and none of them could perceive anything resembling a human form in the 'smudge'. I really tried to make something out of it myself - and I usually can if I try - but couldn't see anything vaguely recognisable there. And judging by the comments under the article, I was not alone in this.

And yet, the article presents the photo as containing 'an apparition of a figure wearing a hat'. The reporter contacted Kellie Wright (who runs weekly psychic nights at the pub), who said 'In the photo, you can actually see an apparition of a woman', and that 'the figure in the picture... was more likely that of a woman who was the hotel's licensee during the early 20th century, called Mary O'Reilly'.

Disclosure - I know Kellie, I like her, and she might unfriend me on social media for this (please don't Kel!), but I really have to disagree with this assessment. The general consensus seems to be that the smudge in the photo is not identifiable as a human form, and certainly not to the extent that it can be assigned a gender. I accept that photos can sometimes contain 'ghostly' imagery that can be interpreted as having some kind of human features, but not this one.
I'm also skeptical about attempts to try and attach a historical identity to alleged ghosts. Even if we were to accept that anomalous phenomena can be attributed to the spirits of deceased people, is it possible to then identify exactly who the deceased person is? Without any evidence, I'd say not. In fact, this only distracts from the actual science of trying to explain any anomalies. Yet it is very common for these cases to feature 'guessing games' of who the ghost might be, with lists of people who died in the vicinity being presented as possible suspects. This happened with this story as well:
'The death toll includes heroin overdoses in an upstairs room during the 1980s and an employee who died in a fight outside the front of the pub in 1986, after hitting his head on a kerb. An 11-year-old boy was also shot on a horse during the 19th century.'
Identifying the alleged ghost as being Mary O'Reilly seems rather unnecessary, especially with such weak evidence. In these cases I think it's more productive to focus on investigating what is happening rather than engaging in baseless speculation over names.

The article does mention other incidents said to have occurred inside the pub, including the old 'feeling like I'm not alone' (easy enough if you've convinced yourself the place is haunted), as well as creaking floorboards (not unusual in a 150+-years-old timber building), and posters falling off walls (gravity/draughts?) None of this seems to be particularly strong evidence in its own right, but snippets in a news article like this don't really provide detailed information to work with.

What I did find interesting was the contrasting attitudes of the two people running the pub, a father and daughter named Andrew and Addie Cafe. She seems to be more affected by the atmosphere, finding the 11 pm closing time 'particularly creepy' and claiming that 'At night time it seems to change. You do get their weird vibe.' On the other hand, Andrew - who has run the pub for 32 years - was more skeptical and said that he 'might have felt a presence years ago, I don't feel that anymore. I'm not in fear of anything.'

Based on those statements, I'd suggest that this case probably provides genuine researchers a good opportunity to look into the psychology of hauntings more than anything else. It would certainly be time better spent than trying to visualise a face in a photograph.

Royal Mail Hotel, Goodna, 1940s. (Queensland Times)