ReadingRoom

There used to be ghosts in New Zealand

An essay by Wairarapa author John Summers on our faded belief that the dead come back to haunt us

Ghosts hang around old cemeteries, old houses, our one castle. They haunt the ruins of lunatic asylums. They are suicides and jilted lovers. They are the victims of murder. They are common in old theatres it seems: Auckland’s Civic, Wellington’s St James and its Opera House, Christchurch Court Theatre – all have their ghosts. These are the usual places. London’s Drury Lane is crowded with ghosts. Old buildings need to be haunted. Once enough time has passed, they come with a figure in Victorian dress at the end of a hallway, something tap-tapping on the walls. A ghost is patina, it is a marker from Historic Places. The oldest buildings still standing here, Mission House and the Stone Store, are among our most haunted.

But there is another kind of haunting, one that feels particular to these islands. The kind that feeds on the loneliness of our spaces. These ghosts haunt forestry towns and windswept coasts, farm houses and whare out back of beyond. They are in the bush and empty clearings. The presence of Cedric, the ghost of a hunter lost in the Tararua Ranges, can be felt within the tramping hut he never returned to in life. They are drowned men walking the length of a West Coast beach. They are a dog that wanders sand dunes when someone has died, a fire on a beach at night, an aging interisland ferry possessed of the need to turn back for Wellington while struggling against stormy seas.

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I have been reading of these, possessed myself by a whim. I went to my local library and took out the few books they held about New Zealand ghosts. It was a slim selection, mine was an incomplete survey, and in this it mirrored a childhood attempt to create a compendium of ghost stories. I was a nerd for the supernatural then and so were my friends. I borrowed the books they had on the subject of real-life ghosts and tried to copy them out long hand in an exercise book. My own ghostipedia, except that I only got as far as painstakingly transcribing an article about actor Telly Savalas’ claim that he’d once hitched a ride with a stranger who spoke in an eerie falsetto – the ghost of a man who’d shot himself in the throat. “I’ll give you a ride,” he’d shrieked, and Kojak hopped in. 

This time I had no grand ambitions, and nor was I believer. I read simply for the chill of a good ghost story, and had little interest in attempts at giving shadows and muffled sounds the hard edges of fact. This distinction made much of this reading hard going.

The writers of the ghost books I found attempted explanations, they offered evidence. To read Julie Miller and Grant Osborn’s Unexplained New Zealand was to learn that a speck of dust on a camera lens was in fact an ectoplasmic orb, and that grainy black and white images of reflection or shadow were all open to the wildest possible interpretation: a demented skull face in a shower stall, a woman’s head on the body of an insect, a ghost coming through the wall. I have looked at these pictures till cross-eyed without seeing these things, but the fault here is not theirs but mine.

There was a time when I would have lapped this up. Behind that boyhood attempt at a ghost compendium was the desire to be a ghost hunter, a seeker of such proof. Once, back then, I discovered a book on this subject in the library and shared key passages with my Nan when staying over one night. It was British, this book, a large hardback by some fusty chap with a beard, and, like Miller and Osborn, he included advice on ghost hunting methods.

“If someone says they’ve seen a ghost, you need to make sure they’re not drunk,” I told Nan from my grandfather’s bed, the twin to hers – he had been demoted to the spare room.

“Is that right dear,” she said from beneath a candlewick counterpane.

I remember too that this book held a chapter on tools of the trade, the necessary equipment of the ghost hunter, but only one item stuck with me, the suggestion of a carpet bag for lugging the rest of the gear and, as a result, for the longest time, the words ‘carpet bag’ carried an aura, they hinted at the dark mysteries of the occult.

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To read this type of thing again now was to discover that the ghosts themselves are the anti-climax, they punctuate, create the ending, but the story is in the setting: those empty beaches, those whare. In Grant Shanks and Tahu Potiki’s Places where Birds don’t Sing, the titular story has no ghost at all, just a remote valley in the Fiordland bush that holds a sense of dread, is so unsettling that a deer would rather take its chances with a hunter’s gun than enter. They appeared to working people these ghosts, to rural people. A skim of Shanks and Potiki’s book finds reference to the freezing works and a fruit processing plant, a timber mill and an army base. Worlds of beer by the jug, of bring a plate and borrow the trailer. These were the ghosts of old fashioned, provincial New Zealand, a place that often gets viewed, if at all, through the rear-view mirror.

Photograph by Peter Black taken from The Shops by Peter Black and Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books, 2016)

We like to think of ourselves as an urban people now, with flash jobs, sophisticated tastes. The beach, the bach, the bush have become clichés, sanitised, the subject of advertising campaigns. As haunted spaces though comes a way to see them again, to remember the old tradition of New Zealand gothic, our infamous unease. What is a ghost but loneliness amplified? They never appear to crowds. They are uncertainty too, the sense of something gone before, something bad, reminders of those New Zealand deaths: drowning, staggering lost and hopeless as the bush grows cold, suicide and violence.

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Shanks and Potiki begin their anthology with a description of Māori spirituality, of concepts like mana and tapu, and pre-colonial burial practices. ‘I offer this background as introduction to the stories that follow, not as an explanation for them,’ Potiki writes, but many of the apparitions and happenings that follow are explained, often vaguely, in terms of a pre-European past. A family is cursed after building a house near a burial site, another spots a fire on a beach at night but in the morning there is nothing to show for it – the spot, it is suggested, was once a gathering place for Māori war parties. In a piece for the Paris Review, Jennifer Wilson writes of American ghost stories as counters to ‘national historic amnesia’, and refers to tales of haunted slave plantations and that hoary old trope of the Indian burial ground. About the latter, she quotes author Colin Dickey: “The narrative of the haunted Indian burial ground hides a certain anxiety about the land on which Americans – specifically white, middle-class Americans – live”.

And so it goes here too: these ghosts are Pākehā angst that this land has a longer history, had earlier owners and occupants, meanings now unknown. The vagueness with which the stories are explained is appropriate then, the usual national state of blithe ignorance about this past, revealed in twilight moments, as cover for our fear.

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I see now that for me, reading these stories has also been an exercise in nostalgia, an attempt to revisit a time when ghost hunting seemed a viable career option and Nan was still around to encourage me. The world promised mystery and I had yet to learn that what you see is what you get: home to work to home again, putting the rubbish bags out, waiting for the jug to boil. Closing the book, the ghosts disappear. Stepping out of the library, back out into small town streets, I leave them behind.

And yet, when at night I hear the floorboards creak, I know it’s just what floorboards in old houses do, but still I find myself thinking about the old man who lived here before me, struggling alone as the grass grew high and his mind went soft until finally they took him away and he died soon after. From the windows you can see, as he must have, the mountains where I sometimes go tramping, and where, stepping into the bush at night, everything a shade of black, looming, empty and lonely, I hurry back to the hut and my tramping companions. I don’t believe in ghosts. I do believe, though, in this land of ghosts.

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