Australia is a scary place. But despite what visitors think, spiders, sharks, jellyfish, snakes, and riptides don't keep us up at night. Australians' fears are buried deeper and permeated by isolation, desperation, and the sick knowledge that you're alone at the end of the world. With one of the lowest population densities on earth it's easy to feel abandoned here.
Our anxieties are fed by our murky past. The European population descended from terrified castoffs, sent to an unknown place where the only certainty was that the land would eventually kill them. People regularly wandered into the bush, desert, or billabongs and were never seen again. With a population haunted by the possibility of a lonely, unseen death, it's no surprise that during colonial times we boasted the highest rate of lunatic asylums per capita in the world.
In the centuries since white settlement we've only added human terror to our ominous landscape, brutalising the Indigenous population with acts of cruelty and violence.
Ken Gelder has spent his career exploring what we're afraid of. A professor of English at the University of Melbourne, he edited The Horror Reader and works across genre fiction, Australian literature, and Colonial and postcolonial issues.
Speaking with him, you're reminded that while our day-to day-lives appear sun-drenched and idyllic, we are all aware of how easily that calm could be undone. Tourists fear the animals that live on our forest and ocean floors, but we fear the hereditary violence lingering in each other.
VICE: Looking at the scary stories Australians have written or performed over the past 200 years, do themes emerge?
Ken Gelder: Yes, one is that colonial Australia had more lunatic asylums per capita than any other place in the world—many people saw the end of their days in asylums. We also had a lot of quarantine stations and mission institutions. These are places you expect to find spectral forces, because traumatic lives and deaths make ghost stories.
I'd imagine in the future we'll have ghost stories about offshore asylum seeker stations. They're places where lives have been traumatised and deaths have occurred—traumatised lives tend to resonate after death.
What can you learn about Australians from what we fear?
Outside of institutions, what haunts Australians are massacres and killings. Australia has a history of that kind of thing going back to colonial massacres of Aboriginal people, repercussive killings of colonial families, and then the trials of Aboriginal people for those murders. That goes right through to the backpacker and Snowtown murders.
That's interesting to hear, I feel Australians like to see this as a pretty safe place.
It's like asking why Adelaide produced the most grisly murders. It isn't in line with this image of the stately, ordered, city of churches. South Australia was settled in a different way to Victoria, New South Wales, and Tasmania—it didn't have a convict population. It didn't have the trauma that went with convict life.
But while it has a more settled life, if you look closer it still has deep traumas. It had an English immigrant population (of children) who were taken away from their families and brought over during the wars and put in orphanages.
Ghost stories say the more orderly your life, the more likely you are to be haunted.
A lot of what we've spoken about relates to Colonial horror stories—a sense of isolation, being taken away from your home, parents, country, and finding yourself. But have you noticed any new themes develop in the 21st century?
We're more colonial than we think. That struck me reading about the Stuccos, who everyone calls "modern day bushrangers", they're a relic. We have so many relics in Australia, we even called Tony Abbott a relic. One thing ghost stories do is remind you you're not modern. Ghosts come from the past to re-inhabit the present, and I think the colonial re-inhabits us constantly.
How do you mean?
The missing bushwalker, the lost child, they're colonial stories. The isolated figure in the bush who has lost all connection to anything settled or civilized is a powerful colonial experience.
I guess that is still so present, from Picnic at Hanging Rock to our obsession with the Gabe and Tina Watson case. We've really focused on European culture but I want to talk about Indigenous stories too.
We're supposed to only have one truly Indigenous ghost story—the Bunyip. Although, some people speak about the bunyip as it's real and I don't discredit that.
It's usually tied to settlers and waterholes—probably relating to the massacre of Aboriginal people at waterholes—and described as a white cow-like creature. That's not an Indigenous image.
It was also absorbed by settlers, as a way of scaring kids to keep them away from the bush. It's interesting that the seed of settlers' fear is the landscape, and the seed of Indigenous fear is what the settlers brought, and did.
There might even be an argument saying Indigenous people didn't originally have ghost stories because they were connected to the land, and the spirits they interacted with were benign and structured their connection to the land.
The spirits settlers connected to were spirits that displaced and disconnect you. They reminded you that you're out of place. That's the difference between ghosts and spirits, I think they're two different things.
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