P O R T A R T H U R, Australia, Sept. 12, 2000 -- In the pitch black of a winter’s night, tourists huddle together in the sprawling ruins of Australia’s most notorious penal colony, Port Arthur.
You can hear a pin drop as tour guide Dianne Briggs narrates past horrors of the 19th century site, which locals on Tasmania, an island state off southeast Australia, believe is haunted.
The twice-nightly historic ghost tours are the highlight for visitors to Port Arthur but were almost scrapped after gunman Martin Bryant went on a rampage there in April 1996, killing 35.
After the worst mass shooting in Australia’s recent history, Port Arthur abandoned the ghost tours for six weeks, halting the most lucrative aspect of the historic site, and it was touch-and-go about restarting them.
“After the massacre there was a big uprising of people saying the ghost tours were not fitting because people would think it was a ghost tour … to bring back ghosts of people just recently killed,” tour supervisor Paul Cooper told Reuters. “So we actually changed the name from ghost tours to historic ghost tours to define that, and then we basically restarted, changing the scripts, changing the routes.”
Now the tourists have begun to come back. Four years after the shooting, ghost tour attendance is inching back up near 50,000 a year, just under 1996 levels, with adults happy to pay $8.40 and children $5.20 for a late-night adrenaline rush.
Guides Quick to Revive Fainthearted
The 90-minute tours avoid the ruined cafe where most of the shooting took place, tracing a path through a church built by convicts, the parson’s house, doctor’s office and morgue hidden in hills about 60 miles from the Tasmanian capital Hobart.
Here, five or six century-old ghosts are said to reappear to tourists and locals alike and some blurred specters captured on film are displayed for the skeptical. Add a few spine-chilling stories on a moonlit evening and it is hardly surprising tour guides have become adept at reviving tourists who faint.
“We’ve even had people leave the tour before the first stop because it has freaked them out. … Imagination is a wonderful thing,” Cooper said.
Australian historian and author Robert Hughes called the penal colony’s dramatic stone ruins “our Parthenon,” the most visible reminder of the nation’s convict past. It was also the birthplace of Tasmania, a compact green island, which was settled just 15 years after Sydney in 1803.
Described as “hell on earth,” Port Arthur became a self-sufficient prison settlement where convicts worked in chain gangs producing clothing, furniture and vegetables. Conservative estimates say one in four Tasmanians, who number 470,500 of Australia’s 19 million population, are descended from the 12,000 men, women and children who passed through Port Arthur between 1830 and 1877 as convicts from England.
“For many locals, this is their sacred place,” said University of Tasmania history professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart.
A Gutted, Vandalized Touchstone
When the prison finally closed in 1877 some of the buildings were pulled down, others gutted by fire and vandalism. But the site remained a touchstone for many and visitors trekked to Port Arthur from across the state for a century until gates were erected and an entry fee imposed in 1987.
Local resentment of the commercialization was eased by the revenues, which poured into the impoverished region as 200,000 people a year filed through Port Arthur’s turnstiles.
Ghost tours began in 1989 as a bit of “light entertainment” to amuse staff, Cooper said, and were a hit from the start. By 1996 60,000 visitors a year came to hear stories of giggling ghost children, a phantom attack on a construction apprentice, echoing footsteps and slamming doors.
Many locals were not so enthusiastic.
“While the ghost tours were phenomenally successful from the moment they were introduced, there’s always been a feeling that they deflected from the important story of Port Arthur, that they are, if you like, the most commercialized aspect of the site,” said Maxwell-Stewart.
The stories were rarely about convicts but about staff and post-convict-era settlers who came to an unseemly end in the spectacular, gothic wilderness that is the Tasman peninsula.
The 1996 massacre by Bryant, who was imprisoned for life for the murders, fueled some locals’ dislike of the tours. “But to have stopped the ghost tours would have cut off one of their principal means of generating money,” said Maxwell-Stewart, who helped develop some of the site’s exhibits.
“It’s part of a deliberate marketing strategy to try and get people to stay overnight on the peninsula … [to] stay in local bed and breakfasts, eat meals down there.”
So the ghost tours are careful to focus on historic content. Guides do not mention the massacre. For a while, a sign was posted asking visitors not raise the issue.