The Queen Mary Is Not Haunted (But I Understand Why You Think She Is)
The RMS Queen Mary, a ship of enormous historical import, has been transformed into a roadside attraction whose owners profit off the allure of “ghosts.” Her glorious factual history has been brushed aside in a bid to pander to eager ghost-hunting tourists who aren’t thinking critically about the claims.
“For me, it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
—Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World
I’ve had a fascination with classic ocean liners for most of my life. In particular, I have had a sincere awe for the RMS Queen Mary (QM) since I first stayed on board in the early 1980s—well after her retirement in 1967 and subsequent conversion into a hotel. She is a thing of beauty—a near-perfect expression of the industrial design aesthetics of the era (conceived in 1929, launched in 1934, maiden voyage in 1936). To say that we don’t make them like we used to is an insulting understatement.
Anytime in the last few years that I have even mentioned the Queen Mary, the immediate reaction from people within earshot is, “Ooh! I’ve heard that she’s really haunted!” My first reaction is a kind of amusement: how could one even tell the difference between something being really haunted as opposed to fakely haunted? My next reaction is usually a sigh of, “Here we go again,” and my final reaction more recently has been a kind of offense taken on behalf of the ship. I suppose that since an entire generation has passed since the Queen Mary was in service, the popular understanding of her has morphed into something a little weird and otherworldly rather than something that was a practical means of (elegant) travel. I write this article to express my own dismay but also to try to piece together why the QM has this persistent aura as the “haunted ship” and to make a plea to emphasize the real history of the ship as part of her future.
What Is a Haunting?
I suppose the first thing to do is to make a concise case for the problem of claiming that anything is “haunted.” No, I do not believe in ghosts, and at the same time a truly skeptical position must concede that this is not an outright rejection of the possibility that ghosts might exist, only that they haven’t been discovered yet. The problem is that there is no agreement among ghost believers as to what they actually are. If I had to aggregate just from popular ghost-hunting stories, I could paint a picture that ghosts are: sound-producing, light-producing, simultaneously corporeal and noncorporeal representations of “energy” (Electric? Chemical? Nuclear? Magnetic?) that can manipulate electronic devices, temperature, and physical bodies—except for when they don’t. There are so many definitions and assumed qualities of ghosts that it is impossible to come up with a working definition. In science, I would call that a “hypothesis.” Once there is a hypothesis or a working model explaining the properties of ghosts, then one could go about controlled experimentation. No one is at that stage though—because, again, ghosts have no known properties. So, no, the things that are claimed as “evidence” of ghosts (orbs in photos, mysterious sounds on a tape, a creaky door) can’t hold up as scientific evidence until a working hypothesis is established.
Furthermore, of course, anecdotes are not evidence. An anecdote is a personal story of a personal experience. It’s not a reliable way to make a judgment about the validity of a claim. Our minds are subject to bias, misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and conflation. The more anecdotes that accumulate don’t lead to the credence that the claim is true; it’s simply more “noise.” Personal experience is usually the absolute worst way to make a judgment about the veracity of any claim.
So that’s a little taste of why I don’t buy it when people make the “ghost” claim, but there are far better sources to brush up on your scientific understanding, such as Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, and 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True by Guy P. Harrison. While you’re at it, check out Brian Dunning’s excellent (and short!) dismantling of ghost claims in “Do Ghosts Exist?” on his blog at www.skepticblog.org/2012/08/30/do-ghosts-exist. There’s much more that can be said here, but I want to get back to the Queen Mary.
The Queen Mary was one of the crowning achievements of the art and industry of shipbuilding. She was created and sailed in an era after the Edwardian opulence of ships like the Titanic and Lusitania and just before the jet age had arrived. She’s a blend of old hand-craftsmanship with the speed and technology of modern industrial achievement. To put it in twenty-first-century terms, she was a marvel of art and design in the way that the space shuttle amazed onlookers thirty years ago or the 787 Dreamliner and Airbus 380 do today. She held the speed record for crossing the Atlantic for nearly two decades and carried more troops at a single time than any other vessel during World War II.
After an exceptional service history (and with the speed and economy of air travel relegating ocean travel to vacation cruising), the QM was set for retirement in Long Beach as a hotel/conference center/tourist attraction. Since 1967, tourists have visited her in dry dock and gotten a small taste of what travel was like when the “Queens” ruled the seas.
Retirement, sadly, would be anything but peaceful. As soon as she pulled into port for the last time, the Queen Mary was subjected to numerous “renovations” and conversions that would forever mar her interior. Entire sections have been gutted, rooms and artifacts lost to history, artwork destroyed, and other blunders of huge proportion. The ship’s operations and ownership have changed hands numerous times in the years since, and she has struggled economically. In many respects, the experience has been “dumbed down” with subpar restaurants (with some notable exceptions), chintzy events, and history taking a backseat to exploitative tours—the most prominent and most egregious of which is the “ghost” tour.
In the early 2000s, the “Ghosts and Legends Tour” was installed. It makes use of some very interesting (and otherwise off limits) spaces of the ship. Fantastical tales of the paranormal are woven into the ship’s actual history and presented with a theatrical flair and some low-rent special effects. Tourists see the magnificent first-class pool area but not in any state resembling its days at sea. This version is fading, cracking and filled with fog. The real-life accident with the Curacao—in which 239 sailors perished—is played out for maudlin drama in a former mail hold that plays the part of the “bow.”
The Problem with the ‘Haunting’
On any night at the Queen Mary, groups of tourists who are interested can also take a guided tour from a “paranormal” expert guide. They bump around waving electronics of dubious utility in the air hoping for some “evidence” of an apparition. They can explore otherwise off limits sections of the ship and really take their time exploring while asking each other, “Did you hear something?”
If you’re more interested in learning the true history of the ship, your options are a bit more limited. There is a “behind the scenes tour” (which seems to be confused at various times with the “Golden Age” tour and others) as well as a self-guided audio tour, which is in desperate need of renovation itself. Depending on the guide you have for the “behind the scenes” tour, you may have a dramatic interpretation of events on board or a rote telling of facts and figures. Much of this can be gleaned by a read of any Queen Mary books or the Wikipedia page about her.
So let’s think about this. The Queen Mary is actively promoted as a “haunted” attraction (and I’m sure they are making a decent amount of money from that), but a serious, concerted effort to preserve her factual history is somehow pushed to the wayside. At best, it’s an annoyance to those of us who want to understand and appreciate this vessel from her service and the stories of the people on board. At worst (and this is what is happening more often than not) the “haunting” is such a priority that it leads to actual damage of those historic areas, preventing further and future preservation. One historian points out that on this massive vessel only about six public rooms remain intact (though without much of their original art or furnishings). Others were ripped out entirely, reconfigured or converted for other vaguely defined uses.
The First Class Pool is “ground zero” for the alleged paranormal activity so many ghost enthusiasts are seeking. (The Second Class Pool has been utterly destroyed in one of the many “conversion” episodes.) At the time, the pool was a stunning room at sea with gleaming tiles and art deco style. Today, the ghost tour trades on the pool’s decrepitude, profiting off of the “creepy” allure of cracked tiles, warped floors, and broken fixtures. What is the incentive to restore this magnificent space to its original condition when a quick buck can be made off of ghost tours? When the pool finally falls through (the lower supports have been removed), maybe that will just add to the narrative for the cynical exploitation of the space.
But I Get It...
I can’t get enough of the Queen Mary. I’ll stay on board at every opportunity and sign up for any tour, event, or promotion they have. Unlike so many other historic relics, the Queen Mary feels very much alive, not like a stuffy museum piece that can only be experienced at a distance. It is immersive, impressive, and totally consuming. This, to me, is why we can’t get enough of those ghost stories and why people are utterly convinced that their own experiences (anecdotes based on misinterpretation, strongly held predisposition, and the excitement of fantasy) are proof positive of the supernatural.
The Queen Mary was built to be in motion. She feels like she is in motion even when she is standing perfectly still in dry dock. The extreme shear of the decks (the curve that is apparent in the longest stretches of corridor) plays with your normal perception of space. We’re not accustomed these days to being inside structures with such tight compartments, such detail in wood and metal constructed with an artistic eye but, underneath, all machine. Its power—even with the engines now long dormant—is palpable through the deck plating. Every rivet, every section of carpet, every porthole was witness to the widest variety of intensely human experience. From the builders who put her together to the crew who stayed with her in extreme circumstances to the celebrating passengers, every square centimeter has been a part of a pageant of history. One can’t help but stand in a room onboard and immediately conjure up the images of the hundreds of thousands who occupied the same space years, decades before. She makes great noises, even sitting still, as the metal skin holding her together expands and contracts and pieces jostle around after seventy-five-plus years of settling. We don’t get that in our daily experience in the interactions we have with architecture. We don’t stop to think about who came before us when walking into a conventional building lit up by fluorescent glare.
I really get it. When I’m on board, my imagination is firing at full steam. If I’m quiet, I can’t help but hear what the ship must have been like when operating on the Atlantic. If I look closely enough, I can see the throngs of people who populated her decks during decades of heroic crossings.
I draw a line, though. It’s a priority for me to draw a sharp distinction between fact and fantasy. I want to honor the people who built and sailed on this magnificent vessel by remembering who they really were and what they really did. There are plenty of stories there to entertain and educate. I don’t want to taint that memory by confusing their actual lives with a creepy “ghost” story traded for the value of a ticket to a roadside tourist attraction.
I’m disappointed to think that the Queen Mary presents an either/or proposition. Through mismanagement and the chase after a quick buck, the fantasy-prone among us have won out with the tourist attraction to the demise of historic preservation. Ghost stories are fine when they are presented as such. The confusion of science and history with fiction, though, gets us further and further away from the ability to relish in and truly explore our own recent history.