Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A skeptic's guide to a ghost tour

About half an hour into a ghost tour through one of Australia's most prominent historic sites, I'm adjusting my gloves as my sister sneers "are you a little bit scared?"

Her predatory sarcasm seems to be designed to scare me if I'm not already, but it fails.

"No, I'm just cold" I reply.

"On a scale of one to ten, ten being the most scared, I'm about minus five" she whinges.

"I'm as chilled as when I'm watching Grey's Anatomy. Which is more bored."

I've revisited the home island of Tasmania for the first time in over a year, but it's the first time I've seen it through the eyes of a tourist.

Port Arthur is hailed as one of the most haunted sites in the country, with stories of people being touched, pushed, scratched and grabbed in many of the 1830's cottages. I am genuinely excited about the prospect of going on this tour, but I still know it's unlikely to alter my wildly skeptical mind.

At the halfway mark, I've come to realise a journalist and a psychologist may not have been the best combination of people to go on a ghost tour. There's also a more open-minded nurse rounding out our trio.

Our guide is knowledgeable, theatrical and a little bit alternative. Several of her stories are punctuated by an evil snicker. "I've got the best job in the world" she boasts.

At the beginning of our tour, the group is told the number one rule is no running. If 'something' happens to you, you're to stay where you are. An exception applies when the guide herself is running, and it becomes a case of every man for himself.

I scan our group of about fifteen people and estimate that I can outrun all but one or two. If the translucent poo hits the translucent fan, I'm covered.

Our guide informs us that during her eight years working at Port Arthur, she's had 17 'experiences.' 

That's about two a year. I'm going into this with the view that unless a ghost extends a powdery hand for me to shake, I'll continue to be a skeptic. My shoulders slump when she tells us there are no guarantees.

The guide carefully points out an 'experience' does not involve the ghosts we see in the movies, with chains and moaning, but it could involve our sense of sight, hearing, touch or smell. 

I begin to wonder what ghosts taste like.

"The stories I'm going to tell you are all true and have either happened to visitors or to staff" she says, before addressing those on my own train of thought.

"If you're a skeptic, that's cool. I'm not here to convince you of anything, I'm just here to entertain you."

We weave through the site on pebbled pathways lit by four volunteers wielding lanterns. The air is icy and crisp, and the night clear enough to see a speckling of what is undoubtedly a handful of different constellations.

At each cottage or building, the guide recounts a mix of historical information about convicts and residents who met with an unfortunate end, as well as encounters involving people on the tours themselves.

We gather in the foreboding shell of the unfinished church to examine its walls, where a worker apparently cracked his head open during a fatal fall, spilling blood down the bricks and onto the ground. 

We're told after the construction was abandoned, the walls became overgrown with ivy, but it never grew on the space that was splattered with blood.

I begin to ponder all the possible logical explanations as we make our way to the Parsonage, which carries the ominous title of Australia's second most haunted building.

We're told a story of a six year old girl who was too petrified to enter the building during the day, telling her mother she was scared of 'the big man in the window.'

"Her description of the man was amazing," the guide explains, inferring it was the ghost of Reverend George Eastman, who died in the upstairs bedroom.

Reverend George Eastman and family.
Source: State Library of Tasmania

"Not only did she have grey flecks throughout his beard, but the 'thing' [she described] around his neck was his clerical collar."

My journalist brain kicks in. A six year old is a terrible source. Children have overactive imaginations at the best of times. 

We're told stories of guides who've had things thrown at them, had ghosts walk towards them angrily, even poltergeists with sticky fingers and penchant for mobile phones.

In the basement of the senior surgeon's cottage, we're told of secret, illegal dissections performed on sandstone slabs, using a primitive understanding of anatomy and lanterns.

The room is small, and as a lantern flickers on the slab, I begin to consider how the power of suggestion may provide at least a partial if not full explanation for many of these stories.

We're told of a woman who, upon visiting the dissection room, had a sensory hallucination of blood on her face and raced outside screaming.

My journalist brain continues to interfere with my enjoyment of the stories. I have no way of knowing whether this information was verified by a second or third witness, which renders it useless to me.

It appears my psychologist sister is having a similar problem.

"Where's the evidence-based stuff?"

Flash photography is encouraged, no doubt in the hope some will end up on the trophy board featuring more blurred, skewed, and flare-affected shots than a year six photography exhibition.

I'm snapping away taking photos on my phone, and am disappointed there is a distinct lack of ghostly features in all of them. But then again, maybe I wasn't smudging the lens enough.

Our guide has dismissed the Hollywood version of ghosts, yet as I consider the stories we've been told as a collection, I can't help but think they all involve the same situations we see in the movies. 

Someone hears footsteps behind them, but there's no one there.

Someone hears children laughing and running from one room to the next.

Someone is stalked by an invisible entity and chased out of a building before the door slams shut.

Although I'm thinking about alternative explanations that don't involve ghosts, there seems to be an equal number of times where I consider what it is about my mind that's completely closed the door to this possibility. 

In many ways, my job requires me to be skeptical and question everything. It's how we test the strength of stories. But I'm convinced I was already closed off to the possibility of an afterlife prior to choosing a career.

I'm framing this whole thing as a joke, but I should be clear: it's in no way a reflection of the guide or the company. She said she aimed to entertain us, and she did. 

It's a reflection on my brain and its stubbornness to accept the possibility of things existing outside my understanding. 

That's the real joke.