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By Nathan Bernfield

Way out west of Sydney’s wonderful Writers Festival, past the Blue Mountains and south of Blackheath, are the Jenolan Caves. Classically known for attracting young Aussie families and foreign tourists to frolic amongst the ancient limestone and subterranean rivers, one of the largest popular sites is Devil’s Coach House. Self-guided tours are available every day in a number of different languages, and one of the options even includes Aboriginal cultural commentary. Night tours are also a popular way to explore Devil’s Coach House, including a tourist-favourite tour: ‘Legends, Mysteries and Ghosts’.

It all sounds pretty fun and entertaining, and if you were in Juanita Ruys’ lecture this morning at the Sydney Writers Festival, you would have heard some very compelling and competing stories for how Devil’s Coach House received its diabolical name. The real story, though, as Juanita reveals, is far more disturbing and discomforting than these ghostly and demonic stories could ever be.


Juanita Ruys is one of our senior researchers at the University of Sydney and also the Director of the Sydney Node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Her recent study delved into demonic stories and tales created by early colonial European settlers in the Jenolan Caves. She found that there were multiple conflicting stories which raised the idea that “something [must be] wrong”.

“[There must have been a] colonial sense of dis-ease with the land”, says Juanita.

And there was.

Throughout the 1800s, the Frontier Wars and Massacres expanded westward from the Blue Mountains, such as the Battle of Bathurst of 1824. On the front page of the Bathurst Newspaper stood the moral question of the time: “Do we kill the natives in self-defence or let them kill us with impunity?” A large number of men, women and children of the Wiradyuri people were murdered. Later, after the Myall Creek Massacre of around 30 Indigenous people in 1838, 11 white men were found responsible and acquitted on first trial and 7 were sentenced to hang on the second trial.

“The European people were confronted with a sense of fear,” says Juanita. And what do societies usually do when confronted with fear? Blame the other. Events like this were the 'feed' on social media of the day and "strongly influenced emotional responses towards the landscape". In this case, the European people identified the 11 white men as outcasts and misfits — not ordered by their colonial supervisors, but rather influenced by the Devil.

The other stories surrounding the Devil’s Coach House are an “attempt to silence the [real] stories” and repress a collective memory. The result is a night tour on every night, except Sundays, where you can go hear about ghosts, mysteries and legends, and nothing about the Indigenous people who lived and died throughout NSW.

You can find out more Juanita’s research at:

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