Ghost Stories

Said to be haunted Addington Lodge, New Norfolk (W.L. Crowther Library, SLT)

'Of all the Australian states Tasmania is said to be the most haunted'

A short legacy of European settlement in Tasmania has generated an abundance of ghost stories. Their contribution to a concept of Tasmanian cultural identity belies their long undervalued place in our oral history tradition. Numerous ghost stories circulated within Tasmania between the late 1820s and 1850s, the height of the convict era, but almost none were recorded. In a popular oral narrative, the ghost of George Grover, a brutal flagellator reportedly killed by his convict charges, was said to appear on misty nights around the Richmond bridge.

While this and other stories appeared from the 1830s, it was not until the 1870s that popular, written accounts of ghosts and hauntings emerged. Port Arthur was a prominent source and, in the 1890s, George Cruncel published an account of strange events at the Parsonage building, initiating a long and popular association between ghost stories and convictism. From the late nineteenth century ghost stories became an established element of Tasmania's popular folklore. Tales evoking the terror and cruelty of the convict days were reported in newspapers and prominent stories, such as the legends regarding Garth near Avoca (reputed to be Tasmania's most haunted house) contributed to a 'gothic' image of Tasmania.

Folklorists saw Tasmania as a fruitful field of research: Bill Beatty explained that 'Tasmania probably has more ghosts to the square mile than any other state in the Commonwealth'. Why? Most authors have attributed Tasmania's 'hauntedness' to the 'suffering and cruelty' experienced by thousands of past Tasmanians, black and white. Certainly, patterns of haunting seem to correspond with convict sites and the pastoral and mining frontiers. However, the cultural backgrounds of the colonists, convicts and miners also influenced the development of a Tasmanian ghost story tradition. Strong supernatural narrative traditions imported with Irish/Celtic and Chinese immigrants contributed to the emergence of vibrant ghost story cultures in some parts of the state, such as the Tasman Peninsula and the North East mining districts where 'many Chinese ghost stories still circulate'. A more formal ghost story model, imported from an established English gothic genre, influenced fictional works such as Jessie Couvreur's The Rubria Ghost. Similarly, the growth of the romantic and spiritualist movements between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fueled interest in ghost stories amongst the urban middle class. Finally, Tasmania's isolation and 'family-centred' society have helped to ensure the survival of an 'old world oral tradition' through which ghost stories are transmitted.

Ghost stories constitute a mythology which links Tasmanians to 'their' island and its past; a way of bridging the gap between place and history, time and space. As Gelner explains, they articulate a feeling of 'settledness' in a new land. Yet they are a mythology that reminds us time and again of the wrongs committed in our shared history. They are tragic, frightening tales that evoke a sense of 'unsettledness', a discomfort about our relationship to place and history.

Further reading: J & B Emberg, Ghostly tales of Tasmania, Launceston, 1991; M Giordano, Tasmanian tales of the supernatural, Launceston, 1994; K Gelder, The Oxford book of Australian ghost stories, Melbourne, 1994; J McCulloch & A Simmons, Ghosts of Port Arthur, Port Arthur, 1992; F Cusack (ed), Australian ghosts, London, 1975; R Davis, The ghost guide to Australia, Sydney, 1998.

Will Mooney