Inside the dark heart of Australia's scariest city
A Halloween special feature
ABC Open gets a gory makeover to go undercover in the nation's Deep South.
Why do all the best zombies, goths and ghostbusters live in Hobart?
We asked five people to tell us what makes their hometown so horror-fying.
Since the early 1800s when convicts first began arriving in Van Diemen's Land, Australia's only island state has been thought of as a dreaded hell-hole at the 'end of the world'. The real life horror of convict life (yes, there were cannibals) and violence against the Indigenous population have left deep trauma.
The legacy of the past still haunts Tasmania today. Add in formidable weather plus dark, dramatic natural landscapes, writes academic Emily Bullock, and the scene is set to assure the island’s dark side is never far from the surface.
Somewhat ominously, locals of Hobart know kunanyi or Mount Wellington as ‘the mountain’. A dominant presence over city-dwellers who are constantly reminded of their insignificance in the face of the looming giant, the mountain seems to determine our lives. Dark, dramatic natural landscapes are never far from the Hobart view, their intensity matched by the reminders of sinister pasts that lodge within them.
Tasmania is renowned for its brutal colonial past and has an enduring reputation as a land set apart from the rest of Australia.
Imagined as a dreaded hell-hole at the end of the world since the beginning of convict transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in 1803, the historic legacies of convictism and Indigenous violence have weighed heavily on Tasmania. So heavily, that its name was changed from Van Diemen’s Land – a title evoking demons – to Tasmania in attempt to forget this past.
Since at least 1976, when author Patrick White wrote in Cynthia Nolan’s obituary that her Tasmanian birthplace, Mount Pleasant, was a place of ‘Gothic gloom’, increasing mention has been made of what has come to be known as ‘Tasmanian gothic’.
The gothic developed as a popular narrative form in late eighteenth century Britain, with the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796). As a literary form, the gothic bears the hallmarks of ruined and wild locations, feudal societies, disjointed characters, murderous plots, and the return of cruel pasts.
Having since spread to a number of geographical locations, the gothic has adapted to articulate a range of localised cultural anxieties. As a particular way of imagining Australia’s only island state, Tasmanian gothic is a broad vision that encompasses all that is mysterious, strange, abject, secret and forbidden, and grotesquely humorous in Tasmania, much of which is palpable in its landscapes.
Tasmanian gothic arguably began with Marcus Clarke’s novel, For the Term of His Natural Life, which has been adapted into two films and a mini-series. The text depicts the grim penal settlements of Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour as places where convicts are brutalised as much by prison guards as by the extremities of weather and topography.
A persistent cultural vision, the Tasmanian gothic has continued to permeate a range of contemporary art forms. It is evident in the contemporary writing of Carmel Bird, Richard Flanagan, Chloe Hooper, Julia Leigh, and Favel Parrett; in the work of visual artists Kim Kerze, Damon Bird, and Helen Hopcroft; and in the music of The Green Mist and Transcription of Organ Music.
Tasmanian gothic has gained popular notoriety through a contemporary wave of cinematic attention to the island, shown in films such as Van Diemen’s Land (Jonathan Auf der Heide, 2009) and Dying Breed (Jody Dwyer, 2008), both of which use the real story of escaped convict cannibal Alexander Pearce, who ate several of his companions during two stints on the run from the remote penal settlement in Macquarie Harbour in the early 1800s.
The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim, 2011) centres on the search for the presumed-extinct thylacine and, more recently, Little Lamb (Heidi Lee Douglas, 2013) re-tells the story of Bluebeard in early Van Diemen’s Land. Both continue this dark filmic imaginary.
The continued popularity of the underground bunker-like Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and its mid-winter festival Dark Mofo, the annual Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival and the crime drama TV series, The Kettering Incident (Rowan Woods), currently in production, attests to the enduring but ever-changing power of Tasmanian gothic which both reflects and shapes the complex ways in which myth and history meld in Tasmania.
Articulating Tasmania’s anxieties about its shameful histories and geographic isolation, the gothic speaks the language of a past that is unwilling to go away… and a landscape too harsh to tell all of its secrets.
WE ARE NOT AT EASE
Briony Kidd is an award-winning director, screenwriter and playwright with a particular interest in the horror and thriller genres. She’s also the director or the annual Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival in Tasmania, which is now in its third year. Here, Briony admits loving Hobart’s graveyards almost as much as she loves films.
My interest in horror film goes back to early favourites like The Innocents, the superb 1961 British film based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Closer to home, there’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I could go on about at great length, as I have before.
Later, I discovered and enjoyed other incarnations of the genre – the slasher film, zombie stories, the stylistic excess of Italian horror, the complex worlds of Stephen King and Clive Barker. But, fundamentally, they're all about the same thing: the mystery of mortality.
Horror is about coming face to face with our deepest fears. It’s about not dispelling them.
There's no dispelling death. It can't be overcome with pluck or clever strategy. Horror, as a form of storytelling, is about recognising the darkest aspects of our human experience – that we will die but also that we will suffer, that there is pain, that there is madness and fear – and moving through these trials (psychologically at least).
It's about raging against the 'dying of the light', yet respecting the darkness and, sometimes, embracing it.
But all this is to intellectualise something that, for many of us, is instinctual. I've always been interested in graveyards, for example, and not because I'm of a particularly macabre inclination – I don't think – but because they are our point of contact with an unseen world.
Graveyards are full of people who once existed and now do not. They're full of people who read romance novels, who took two-and-a-half sugars in their coffee, who prided themselves on knowing so many swearwords, who wouldn't wear white because they thought it made them look fat.
Graveyards are full of people who were as real and imperfect and solid as we are right now... and they're gone. Forever. There's something both terrifying and exhilarating about that... because we are part of an unending chain in which the individual life is all and yet nothing.
This, to me, is the uncanny part of the truth.
In Tasmania, it's harder to ignore the unseen. History is more present here, and the violence and injustices of the past close to the surface.
Our landscape is nothing like that of the rest of Australia and, as we grew up watching Australian films about the “wide brown land” and the desert and endless sky, we knew that this was not the whole truth, not our truth.
The place we know is of mountains and rivers and deep wilderness.
The shape of things here is different, more angular, more unexpected. That sense of unease we feel standing on a quiet country road at dusk is a complex blend of nostalgia and solitude. Solitude, for all that we're all connected with the world in so many ways, remains at the heart of Tasmanian identity.
So much of what has been known and experienced here over the centuries, over millennia, has gone unremembered and remains largely unexplored by writers and artists. So many extraordinary lives have come and gone, unknown to history.
But, their spirits live on... and we are not at ease.
RAVENOUS was made for the 2013 48-hour Tasploitation Challenge, a film-making competition held in Hobart, Tasmania, judged by Jennifer Lynch.
Director Carmen Falk says the inspiration for the film came from the children's rhyme, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.
Duration: 7 minutes
I WALK WITH THE UNDEAD
Freya Langford-Sidebottom is a veteran of Hobart’s annual Zombie March, held every August through the busy Salamanca Markets. She took out a prize for best female costume on her very first march. Her secret, she writes, is toilet paper. Plus, loads of latex.
I am an artist, so I have always had a vivid imagination and a deep love for fantasy creations.
Some people like mermaids, some like unicorns, some like aliens. I love all of those things too, anything other-worldly. Zombies are simply another facet to that but one that also involves my love of the horror genre.
I adore watching how film-makers create their amazing make-ups and special effects. To see something spring to life (or back from the dead, as it were) is fascinating to me.
About 300 people come out to Hobart’s Zombie March every year. I heard about it a few years ago and was devastated no-one had told me sooner.
I didn’t have anyone to go with, so I went by myself and I still had an amazing time and made lots of new friends as a result. I planned for a whole year and took out the best female costume award on my first march!
I like to use a lot of liquid latex and toilet paper for my creations. That involves many layers and many hours of drying time.
I usually go into it with a rough idea of how I want it to look, and what wounds are going to go where, but it evolves during the creating process. It means I can pre-prepare everything and just apply it on the day without having to worry about getting paint everywhere.
I also like to tear clothes (Vinnies is a great source for cheap clothes) and roll them in the mud and dirt and cover them with whatever I can find – soy sauce, acrylic paint, honey. There are no rules. Anything can go towards making a great zombie get-up.
YouTube is a great source for how-to guides to make all types of props and prosthetics for very little cost.
It’s hard to explain the appeal of the Zombie March to people who don’t enjoy cosplay but, when you’re truly passionate about something and when you are a naturally creative person, there is nothing better than becoming the thing you love.
My favourite part of the walk is seeing all the small kids get involved and get dressed up and have fun with it. It’s always a great day and the tourists especially go crazy taking photos at what looks like an endless parade of walking dead shuffle past.
I find that I literally end up on at least 200 people's cameras by the end of the day. Many of them want to be in the photo with you, so lots of smiles and laughs and thank you's.
Some of the little kids laugh and wave, some cling dubiously to their parents, but I like to appease their nerves by going up to them and showing them it's not real. Doing the Macarena for them usually helps!
I am naturally a very introverted and shy person. I hate being the centre of attention but, when I dress up and get into character, I love and feed off the attention. Acting like a zombie in public is a very fun and liberating sensation.
I highly recommend it.
FINDING BEAUTY IN DARK PLACES
David Thorne is one of the stalwart members of Australia’s longest-running goth club night, The Coven. He was hooked after his first night, ten years ago, and has hardly missed one since. Goth culture, he writes, finds beauty in the darkest corners.
I got into the goth subculture when I was 22 and in my second year of university.
I met my now good friend Eliza through my involvement with a university society and she told me about this nightclub called The Coven which played alternative music, had lots of alcohol, dancing, and everyone wore black.
To be honest, I was nervous. I was fairly naive but it appealed to me, so I decided to go and check it out.
To this day, I still remember what I wore. I went to a surf shop and bought what I thought was the most goth-looking shirt they had. It was black with red gothic-style lettering. I think it was for a skateboard deck company.
To complete the look, I wore brown cargo pants and white sandshoes. Goth as f#ck. I was sure I was going to stick out, or even not get let in.
I was wrong.
The thing that became quite apparent very fast was the complete contradiction to everything that I had predicted. These black-clad "miserable goths" were the nicest, least judgmental people I had ever met.
As the night progressed, I started to notice that the club was full of the same people you would see at the pub any other day of the week. Some dressed up to the nines, some had thrown a black shirt and some eyeliner on, others wore what they'd wear every day... and no-one batted an eyelid.
After that night I was hooked. I reckon I could count on one hand the number of Covens I have missed in the last ten years. Happy to say that my dress sense has definitely improved. But there still aren’t any goth clothing shops in Hobart.
I'm not always dressed in black, so the purists would call me "a weekender" I suppose. I just don't like to be restricted to one thing. I listen to all types of music. I wear colours.
Goth culture is an alternative to the mainstream. It’s influenced by alternative literature, music, art and fashion. Goth is inclusive of all, regardless of age, race, or sexuality.
It’s a culture that takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary... that finds beauty in the darkest corners.
CARNIVAL OF LOST SOULS
Todd Darling is a Ghost Tour Guide at Port Arthur Historic Site. He says he has seen ghosts for most of his life and therefore has the perfect job. Some refer to him as a "ghost whisperer". And Hobart, he writes, seems to have its fair share of lost souls.
The first question I am most often asked is 'What are ghosts?'
The vast majority of ghosts are lost souls – just ordinary people who, for whatever reason, did not pass over to the other side when they died. Instead, they remain on this side of the veil. Many people refer to the reason that a ghost stays behind as "unfinished business" – and there as many versions of unfinished business as there are ghosts.
There is a Red Coat (a convict-era soldier) that haunts Port Arthur. It once explained to a guest in the penitentiary that it couldn't die because, if it did, its wife and children would starve in the streets back in England without it earning a living. So, it continues to haunt the area, simply doing its job – trying to earn money to support the people it loves.
I grew up in a house that still has a ghost or two. The story went that one of them drowned in the nearby river. She was very fond of appearing in doorways at night.
One night, she shook my father awake with a panicked look on her face. When she disappeared, my father smelt smoke and realised there was a fire. He swears the ghost woke him up to save the family.
A friend of the family who lived close by explained that her family ghost was fond of moving things around. At one point, her children were playing with a ball in the corridor. They said that the ball bounced up into the air and just didn't come back down.
About a week later, when the mother was alone in the house, the ball appeared from nowhere and bounced along the corridor towards her. I can only imagine that perhaps the ghost wanted to get her attention.
It's been my experience that a great many ghosts seek attention. I'm told that ghosts can see and hear people as easily as we see and hear other human beings. So, imagine what it must be like to die and refuse to accept it – to find yourself in your home – but your family gone.
Strangers move into the house and ignore you when you tell them to get out. In fact, everyone ignores you.
A friend living interstate had an out-of-body experience and was drawn to his grandmother’s home in Hobart. She had passed away some years before but she was still there in her old home.
He hadn't seen his grandmother for many years before her death – and she didn’t recognise him. At first, she was angry and demanded to know what he was doing in her house. When he explained that he was her grandson she became very animated and told him that, as he was now a big strong man, he could throw the people who had moved into her house and stolen of all her possessions out of her house.
Knowing that his grandmother was dead and her seemingly unaware of that fact, he wasn't sure quite how to handle the situation. He told me he did his best not to traumatise her.
He gently led her through a series of questions about the time of her final illness and death until she reached the realisation that she was dead. He said that, at that point, the most beautiful light he had ever seen appeared above them. It felt like he was being flung by a catapult towards this light – with a sensation of immense speed.
At the same time, he had a feeling of being completely loved and accepted – beyond anything he had ever before experienced in his life. He saw that his grandmother, who was next to him, had an expression of immense joy on her face.
Right then, he had a sudden realisation that he wasn't dead and he wasn't meant to be going into the light! He did everything he could to return to his body… and woke up in his in his chair in front of the TV.
It would seem that some lost souls have complicated unfinished business – like the Red Coat, whereas others are just lost and confused. They just need to know that they are dead so they can move on.
Regardless of why, Hobart seems to have its fair share of ghosts.
SPOOKY HOBART is the first crowdsourced online magazine feature from ABC Open, the ABC's digital media platform where real Australians tell their own stories in their own words.
This feature was a collaboration between more than a dozen ABC Open contributors from Tasmania with our producer in Hobart, Lara van Raay and Supervising Producer Ian Walker. Many thanks to all who gave their time, output, permissions and creativity.
Hope you enjoyed it.
Lara van Raay & Ian Walker
Francisco Flores & Janine Googan
Emily Bullock | Briony Kidd | Freya Langford-Sidebottom
David Thorne | Todd Darling
Cascade Brewery – Andrew Gosling
from Snapped: Buildings
View of Hobart from Mt Wellington – Anroda
Writer Portraits – Lara van Raay
Graveyard – Lara van Raay
Zombie with chainsaw – Victoria Prensky
Hobart Zombie March photo gallery – Eric Graudins
Zombie portraits photo gallery – Josh Vince
Winter sunset from Fern Tree – Isla MacGregor
David in ring of candles – Antony Lucas
Port Arthur historic site – Mel Brackstone
from Snapped: Buildings
Ravenous by Carmen Falk