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01 July 2020
BY DYLAN DE JONG
An author’s fascination with the history of Ararat’s infamous Aradale Asylum has sparked a deeper examination of the implications of a rising ‘dark tourism’ industry in Australia.
Historian and Federation University anthropologist David Waldron has teamed up with his mother, psychologist Sharn Waldron, and Eerie Tours manager Nathaniel Buchanan to write Aradale: The Making of a Haunted Asylum.
David Waldron has a background in studying the origins of folklore. This will be his fifth book, having also explored sightings of the black dog, the legacy of witch trials in Britain and the foreboding mythology of Victoria’s big cat.
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In his latest book, Waldron studies the brutal history of Ararat’s Aradale Asylum and why it has become synonymous with pop culture.
Opening in 1867, Aradale has been home to thousands of people society labelled ‘lunatics’ before it closed down in the 1990s.
The site is now deemed a tourist attraction and more than 20,000 people visit each year.
Waldron said his fascination with the way society had dealt with hard truths of happenings within the asylum’s walls inspired him to write the book.
“Living in Ballarat now for 20 years and visiting and seeing the asylum and hearing the stories about it, it just became a natural area I wanted to explore,” he said.
“We have an obligation about the history of that place and how we manage these sites.
“But it’s important for the community as it generates an income for the Ararat community.”
Waldron said the ghost stories that were intrinsically tied to the 19th century institution were at the core of the asylum’s popularity.
“This site has become a significant centrepiece for the dark tourist industry,” he said.
“There are a lot of profound ethical questions that need to be dealt with regarding the pressures from public and pop culture on one hand and paying respect to the past on the other.
“Those stories and the idea of the place being haunted is a reflection of traumatic experiences in the community.”
Waldron said in the 130 years of the asylum’s operation came a series of poor management, which led to allegations of patient abuse and ultimately its closure in 1993.
Waldron said looking at how public perception of mental illnesses had changed over the past century was another significant theme for the book.
“In the 19th century many of the people who were classified as lunatics – are people today we would regard as ordinary people,” he said.
“This was long before the days of contemporary psychiatry where we started to develop a better understanding of brain chemistry of people involved and have an arguably better way of defining what we regard as mental illness.
“I think we’ve developed significantly better skills in what we mean by mental illness and are far better integrating people into the community, in saying that, so many people still fall through the cracks in the institutionalised system.”
Aradale: The Making of a Haunted Asylum will be available for purchase in book shops or online from July 16.
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