Thursday, 28 January 2016

Ghost Hoaxing Down Under

Here is a fascinating account of spooky social history in  the Australian state of Victoria. It seems that, from the late Victorian era onwards, an awful lot of blokes pretended to be ghosts. It's a sober, academic article by one David Waldron, who has certainly done his research. I was genuinely surprised to find that there was an upsurge in debate and controversy about the supernatural in Victoria in late Victorian times. (Yes, I'm trying to avoid the term 'Victorian Victoria'.)
Ghost hoaxing or ‘playing the ghost’ was rife through newspaper reportage between the 1860s and early twentieth century. People in costumes would leap out, assail, scare and throw things at people late at night, often with quite dramatic hollers, calls and mysterious displays of lights. Many of these ghost figures would wear quite elaborate costumes with theatrical flourish and, as a result, gained nicknames through the local press as they played cat and mouse games with police and local vigilantes...
Was this sort of thing going on in Britain and America, too? Well, it certainly happened here.
Historian Mike Dash, in his history of the British legend of ‘Spring Heeled Jack’, discusses the enormous proliferation of ghost and monster hoaxing in Victorian England. He cites, for example, the story of the Peckham ghost where a young lady was assaulted by a man pretending to be a ghost. He was dressed in a long overcoat with white lining, a white waistcoat and a dark hat with a plume of spectacular feathers to hide his features. Another story featured a man engaged in monster-related pranks at a police barracks in Newport dressed in a sheep-skin costume with a tail.
Waldron points out that ghost hoaxing became easier after the invention of luminous paint in the 1880s (bearing in mind the absence of modern street lighting). Folk beliefs - brought to the Australian gold-fields by immigrants - combined with religious revivalism to play their part. And often the hoaxer was not a mere prankster. Waldron remarks that 'in many of these cases the reportage indicates that the camouflage of a ghostly costume served as a vehicle to cover sexual assault and robbery, particularly directed at young women'. Needless to say, vigilantes were not inclined to treat ghost hoaxers gently.

On a lighter note, there is something timelessly wonderful about people reporting the ghost of a headless animal, which turned to be a cat with its head stuck in a tin. We've all been there, I suppose.

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