Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Parnell Ghost - part 2 of 2

Advance warning - This blog gets fairly heavy by the end.

Okay, I need to give a disclaimer and say I don't believe in ghosts or the supernatural.  I don't take this Parnell Ghost story "seriously" in the literal sense, but, saying that, I want to look at how this kind of story is repeated, recycled and re-whatevered over the years.

How does this relate to ghosts?  Well, think about 'urban legends'... Is the most important thing about the urban legend getting to the bottom of whether the "hook man" was a real account or why so many people believe a story about a serial killer under someone's bed?  

Of course not.  It's because the importance of urban legends is the context they're told in, the reasons they're told and the common themes that speak to shared culture and world views, not the details of what is actually said - which after all changes every time you tell the story.

It's clear by the tone and content of the news articles that most of the people involved in the Parnell Ghost story actually believed there was a ghost as much as you believe "hook man" was going to get you.  As I said in the first post, this story as it was originally told was a way for people to start to acknowledge a shared history.  It was also a good excuse for a cheap night-time thrill (which is the main reason for 'urban legends') and a way for some of the political figures at the time to get some free column inches.  

So the last thing you should focus on when looking at a ghost story is the ghost...?  Well that goes completely against human nature doesn't it.  Of course you should look at the "ghost" part but don't assume the most important thing you are looking at is the ghost.

So how many ghosts are there in Parnell?

Lets give in for a second and embrace the supernatural.  It's fun after all, right (?).  What are we looking for?  A female figure and/or a young girl ghost dressed in white.  There's not much more to go on.  One of the reports says the ghost was of a young girl who disappeared "very suddenly some years ago [from the well-to-do Parnell house] and the mystery surrounding whose fate has never been cleared up."  Surprisingly I can't find any newspaper record of something like this happening in Parnell in the 1870s or 1880s - you'd think a story like that would be fairly widely reported.

Although one of the original articles said the owner was planning to pull the house down, I kept on looking for reports of ghosts in Parnell - on the off chance.  Ends up that there's two apparently "haunted houses" in Parnell at the moment - Kinder House which is apparently haunted by a scary ghost, and Ewelme Cottage where the reports are that it was haunted by a family friendly ghost, maybe even by children. 

Great, big bonus! 




It's easy to forget what you're ultimately looking at when you talk about these "ghost stories" - that is, in this case, dead children.  However they pretend to be 'sympathetic' to these cases in ghost hunting shows, ultimately they're cashing in on and cheapening human tragedy...

...which segues neatly with "Ghost Hunt", the TVNZ production in 2005 that seems to be the source that is set to continue this ghost story into the 21st Century.  In fact, in the Wikipedia entry about Kinder House and Ewelme Cottage, the only reference given about the claim either house was haunted is to the promotional book written to accompany this tv series.  

But wait... the Wikipedia entry states that reports of the haunted house date back to (only) 1945!! and that the young female ghost was seen near the oak tree by the house - a ghost who according to a local clairvoyant (... see my comment above about "cashing in on and cheapening...) was of a young female who was mentally insane.  

Even coming with a skeptical eye to all this, it's easy to get caught up in the mystery of it, and to "look at the hits while ignoring the misses".  Yes I am a skeptic but one thing most skeptics would agree on is that they'd love to be proven wrong.  I'd love to see definitive proof that ghosts exist, and how cool would it be if I could get a scoop to show sightings fifty years earlier that also uncannily align with reports of a young (insane and/or murdered) spirit!! ... especially since Ewelme Cottage is very close to the Manukau Road part of Parnell - the hinted location of the house in "The Spectre Bride" that borrowed heavily from the 1893 incident...

... it's pseudo-scientific enough to make some kind of spurious and spooky correlation and that's all we're after... right!!

Well, going down that track is an all to easy habit for people to fall into, and much too far down the Ghost Hunt-ish "... cheapening human tragedy" end of the rabbit hole for my comfort.

Still, I've got to give some space here to "debunk".  A quick check shows that although Ewelme Cottage was rented or left empty from 1871 to 1882 while the family was in England, it was occupied by Reverend Vicesimus Lush's wife (Blanche (nee Hawkins)) and her children from 1882 till 1968

1863-64 - Ewelme Cottage built
1865 - Family moved in, name 'Ewelme Cottage' first used by Reverend Lush.
1871 - Family joined Reverend Lush in Thames
1871-1882 - House rented/empty
1882-1968 - Wife, children & descendants returned to house when Reverend died in 1882.
1969 - House purchased by Auckland City Council, opened to public in 1971.

I hope I'm not going out on a limb here by saying that much as the Observer and Auckland Star were trying to fill column space with a 'fun' story, I doubt they'd stoop to writing a story about a house owned & occupied at the time (& for the previous 10 years) by a widow & children of a well-known Reverend.  It's also unlikely they'd repeatedly make the mistake that the house was frequently rented before & during 1893 & early 1894.

But of course now the fog of history has started to descend on the house it can be considered 'fair game' </sarcasm>, enough so that our national television station can run a breathy & excitable episode (complete with hyperactive graphic design and no actual evidence cited) about the house and the insane girl ghost.  I'm sure "Ghost Hunt" viewers will be disappointed to hear that although Blanche lost four of her children when the family was in New Zealand, three were from scarlet fever in 1854 (before the house was built) and one to scarlet fever in 1876 (when the family was in Thames).  

What is so hard about looking at New Zealand history as a historical record?  Does a historical story need to be given a 'hook' (excuse the pun) by attaching a ghost story to it, and if you discard the history and the real information for the sake of the ghost, is there anything substantial left? (I don't excuse that pun, that was kind of good)

What I'm starting to see is that we (post-colonial New Zealanders) seem to crave the mythical - probably because we have so little of our own mythos to look to.  That's why we borrow from Maori legends (a la Tarawera eruption), why 'real' ghost and psychic shows are so popular here, and why - despite everyone roundly despising Ken Ring - he gets more and more space in the news cycle for his crazy comments.

But this habit destroys what is actually valuable about the history.  Yes the Ghost Hunt story made people aware of a valuable historical house - probably the highest profile coverage this place has had for the previous thirty years - is that coverage worth the price?  Especially when the Ghost Hunt show didn't even make passing reference to the Lush family that contributed so much (including their long-standing family home and around 95% of its contents) to the Auckland public.  

That's the difference between getting thrills (and a production company or a psychic making $$) from these stories as well as from ghost hunt or psychic detective shows, rather than making a good, fun, honest show about "hook man".  You can't have it both ways when you're watching these ghost hunting shows.  You can't have a trendy, funny, exciting show about a 'real' ghost story without acknowledging that what you're subscribing to is someone cashing in on and cheapening real human tragedy.  

Does that make you uncomfortable?

Maybe it should.

Because these shows and websites are trash.

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