“Am I haunted? Am I haunted?” Dean Winchester, Supernatural
This week I’m sharing a ghost story from Port Arthur in Tasmania, Australia. Firstly, because it continues my recent series of blogs about the Tasman Peninsula (see Fortescue Bay and Cape Pillar) and, secondly, because I’m about to go to a Supernatural convention in Vancouver. If ever there was a time for a good spooky tale, it’s now.
For those of you who are clueless about what a Supernatural convention is, feel free to check out my blogs on How far would you travel to for a convention, festival or special event and Supernatural, Twitter and the reluctant groupie.
Port Arthur – Spectres of a troubled past
Dressed in period costume, the old lady sat quietly on her antique rocking chair. She looked at home surrounded by elegant furniture and bric-a-brac in the Commandant’s House at Port Arthur Historic Site.
Seemingly oblivious to the visitor who had entered the room she stared straight ahead, but then whispered, “Get out of my house”.
Nothing moved, other than the rocking chair, repetitive in its creaking motion.
“Excuse me?” The visitor was surprised but not certain she had heard correctly.
“Get out of my house!”
Later, the tourist spoke to staff in the visitors centre. While appreciating attempts to make Port Arthur interesting she was disappointed that an employee would speak to her in such an abrupt manner. Bemused, the staff member told her they did not have an old woman working in the Commandant’s House or staff dressed in period costume.
Caitlan, our tour guide on Port Arthur’s Historic Ghost Tours, related this tale as we stood in a darkened room in the Commandant’s House. Lanterns provided the only light, flickering and casting weird shadows on the walls. All was quiet. People on the tour looked around the room, anxious, expectant – not even sure if the person standing beside them was real.
Caitlan built the tension slowly, but surely, then screamed, “Get out of my house!”
It worked! We were out of the house in record time, by now laughing at the absurdity of our own nervousness. It was a dark night with mist rising from the water and an occasional bat flying overhead. We were standing in the perfect place for the next story.
On this pathway there had been numerous sightings of a little girl with blood streaming down her face.
Some of the group looked pale. Perhaps they were thinking they had heard enough. Instead, we huddled close together nervously awaiting the next creepy tale.
Port Arthur was established as a secondary penal settlement in 1830. Governor Arthur chose the site because the peninsula was only connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land. It was a natural penitentiary.
About 12,500 convicts served sentences here until 1877 when the settlement was closed. Many of the buildings were torn down, gutted by fire or covered over by the new settlement of Carnarvon.
In 1970, the Tasmanian Government handed the site to the care of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and in 1987 the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority was established. It became responsible for the maintenance of the site, which includes an ongoing archaeology program.
There are some who believe when a building is disturbed through restoration or archaeological work, a spirit can also be disturbed, which may be the case at Port Arthur. There have been many strange occurrences and unexplained sightings here since the 1870s.
There have also been strange reports of sudden drops in temperature in one building and of visitors inexplicably bursting into tears.
For many convicts Port Arthur was a living hell. Prisoners were flogged, often for minor offences, such as having their hands in their pockets, and after 1852 many were sentenced to the Separate Prison.
Also known as the Silent Prison, this place was a harsh form of solitary confinement and considered the most effective way to reform a prisoner. Based on deprivation of the senses, through silence and separation, the punishment replaced lashings. In many instances it was worse, with convicts driven to insanity.
Crowded into one of the cells we extinguished the lanterns and stood in silence – for a long moment. It was creepy, even without ghost tales.
Caitlin began to whisper. She was telling us about a tour guide, a sceptic, who had been sent to lock up the Silent Prison one dark night after the tours were over. She needed to lock two doors, one at each end of the building. The best way was to lock the first door from the inside, walk through the building and lock the second door from the outside.
She heard a noise just as she entered the building. Thinking it was a lost tourist, she called out to say she locking up and they should leave. No answer.
She locked the first door and began walking through the corridor towards the exit. The noise came again – this time closer. Startled, she called out again, restating it was time to leave. Still there was silence.
By now she was nervous, and quickened her pace. Footsteps sounded behind but she couldn’t see anything. She started to run down the corridor, finally reaching the exit and slamming the door behind her. Just as she turned the lock someone began pounding on it from the other side.
Silence. Then footsteps, voices and laughter. The next tour group arrived, breaking the carefully woven spell. Our tour was over. As we followed the lantern-bearers across the lawn towards the visitor centre I half expected a ghost to appear from behind a tree, but luckily it was an uneventful walk. As Caitlin told us – no one really enjoys seeing a ghost.
A version of this article was published in The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Australia)