Whether you’re a believer in the supernatural or not, you cannot deny some historical places and buildings in the world radiate a certain ‘energy’. What this energy is we don’t know, but stories of unexpected reactions to this invisible force field are experienced daily the world over.
As a run my fingers slowly across the handmade clay brick remains of once imposing structures built on the blood, sweat and tears of convicts at the notorious Port Arthur historical site, I feel this energy, a deep melancholy and unexplained sadness.
The unease contradicts the view I’m drinking. The day is warm and peaceful with the leaves of broad ancient oaks and gum trees chattering in the breeze. Bumblebees hover over colourful flowerbeds and cherry and apple trees are bursting with fruit. Port Arthur is serenely beautiful and I can’t explain the goose-bumps rising on my neck. Involuntarily I whisper, “I feel you,” acknowledging someone, something, nothing? I don’t know.
It’s been more than 140 years since the Port Arthur penal colony shut after 44 years of brutal slavery and punishment of the ‘worst of the worst’ sent from the motherland, some as young as 10 years.
Most were hardened criminals, others insane or just unlucky. Some made it out. Thousands did not.
Perhaps my melancholy can, in part, be attributed to my knowledge of the history of Port Arthur, both recent and past. This was not a happy place for many and as an adult, I’m empathetic to events and situations I’ve not personally experienced. What I didn’t account for however was the intense reaction my seven-year-old son had during our visit.
Not yet of the age at which I thought it necessary to provide a detailed history of Port Arthur, as far as he was aware we were just looking at a bunch of old buildings.
At first, he was inquisitive, happy to skip beside us as we explored the old church, and government house and gardens. His mood changed dramatically however when he refused to cross the threshold of the ‘Parsonage’, reputably one of the most haunted buildings in Australia.
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Over the next 30 minutes, my son’s emotions intensified as he became teary and extremely difficult, his fists clenched by his side as he unwillingly moved from site to site, refusing to enter any structures.
He was unable to articulate what his problem was other than saying, “I’m just angry” over and over again. Thinking this was a rare and, by his usual standards, a particularly odd tantrum we persisted with our visit.
We could not, however, ignore him when he began pacing in a circle near the chilling Separate Prison, intermittently growling under his breath. Built for the physical, mental and sensory isolation of unruly convicts, this place was truly hell on earth for those unlucky enough to wind up there.
My son was now attracting the attention of others with his distressed growling and pacing. I bundled him in my arms imploring him to tell me what was wrong. His forced response was stilted and chilling “I. Am…..Trying. To. Keep…The. MAD. In”.
This was enough for us to finish our visit and head for the exit at the newly opened, state-of-the-art Port Arthur Visitor Centre. Our little boy wracked with grief, holding back tears and growling all the way.
Rather exasperated our day had been cut short by what I thought must have been a tired, hungry or bored child, I certainly was not expecting and cannot explain what happened next.
The moment we stepped through the doors into the centre I immediately felt my son’s vice-like grip release in my hand as he halted, closed his eyes and let out a huge sigh that made him slump forward.
Bent over with hands on his knees, he took a few more deep breaths then looked up and said, “I feel better now. All the mad has all gone away”. And that was it. In a blink, my gentle, happy and amicable child was back.
Had his sudden recovery occurred anywhere else I may have not made a connection to a possible emotional haunting, however my fears were realised when a Port Arthur staff member mentioned accounts of similar reactions from visitors, along with visual, physical and sensory encounters.
It rocked us to the very core when we also discovered the patch of ground our son was anxiously pacing around was the very spot of a brutal solitary confinement cell for the worst of the worst tortured souls.
Spirits of broken men whose legacies remain in the physical ruins and the unsettling energy cloaking the otherwise exquisite setting that is Port Arthur. We feel you.