If it's an out-of-this-world experience you're after, there's no need to leave home: Melbourne is positively teeming with ghosts. By Lorna Edwards.
When the meeting place for the Australian Sceptics Society is haunted, you know your city has a ghost problem on its hands.
Pugg Mahones Irish Pub in Hardware Street, the sceptics' once-a-month watering hole, is enemy territory, but the spookily attired leader of the group I have joined for the night is undeterred. The sceptics are more interested in diviners these days, he tells us.
At any rate, we're here to see the resident ghost, which likes to hang out in the kitchen. Here taps turn on by themselves, and pots and pans are mysteriously relocated. Our leader mischievously begins to read from a 1975 article by broadcaster, columnist and arch-sceptic Philip Adams, which tells of a ghost sighting witnessed by Adams' wife and his mother. A pub patron obligingly gets into the spirit of things and begins to open and close a door while doing his best ghostly moan.
We're on the Haunted Melbourne Ghost Tour. Our host for the evening (or "g-host" as he introduces himself) is Drew Sinton, owner of the Haunted Bookshop in McKillop Street. Sinton is an occultist, and has been running his ghost tours for just over a year. He has been fascinated by the supernatural since childhood, and the anecdotes he unfurls at various haunts around the city are the product of his research for a book on the city's ghosts (he's still looking for a publisher).
His files are growing each week: Sinton has located more than 60 spooked addresses in the inner city As he guides us to a selection of these, dressed in a black hat and long black coat, with his long tresses flowing over pale skin and his theatrical voice booming, he certainly looks the part; He has been likened to a vampire, a Catholic priest and a Dominican monk but he says his garb matches that of most of the ghosts seen in Melbourne. Casper-style white sheets are not in this season or any other. Melbourne's spooks apparently prefer black, not unlike the living.
The vivid among us on Sinton's tour are eager to meet some ghosts, and not just to swap fashion tips. Tonight's gathering is made up of members of the Astro Network, a forum for the discussion and investigation of, among other things, spirituality, ancient mysteries, UFOs and alternative technology.
Sinton breathes a sigh of relief when the group explains its broad-minded charter. His tour attracts its share of sceptics, Christian fundamentalists and others out to give him a hard time, as well as the witches, Satanists, self-proclaimed vampires and other Gothic types. Then there are the overseas tourists, among them, he proudly announces, the next door neighbour of spook author Stephen King. He reckons tonight's crowd will be an easier lot than the Monash University physics students he hosted two nights earlier.
On this dark but not quite stormy night, our motley bunch of ghostbusters is puffing its way up towards the Victoria Market when our black-clad leader suddenly brings us to a halt in the middle of the empty car park. All eyes are fixed eagerly on our host as we expect the unexpected. Have we got one?
Well, yes and no. Sinton tells us that we are, in fact, standing on the bodies of 9000 or so of Melbourne's earliest inhabitants. For added effect, he stands on a grate - a logical exit point, one presumes, for any ghosts seeking less crowded environs. Sinton tells us that Melbourne's second-biggest tourism attraction, the Queen Victoria Market, was built on the site of the city's first cemetery. Of the 10 000 bodies there, only 1000 of the best-connected were reinterred. The rest? We're standing on them. And who could blame them for being peeved?
Sinton points out the original cemetery wall in the market's J shed. He also explains that the shed's pylons were mounted in concrete blocks above the ground in a bid to avoid disturbing the dead below. We move through the market - with forklifts whizzing by at menacing speed, music blaring from their cabs at even more menacing volumes - and come to the northern end of the former cemetery. Here were buried those Victorian society thought of as undesirables: criminals, the unbaptised, paupers, suicides and Aborigines.
Not all of them rest in peace. We hear of a market security guard who one night saw three people run, then vanish before his eyes. We also hear that, on Tuesday and Friday nights, there have been reports of bagpipes and corroboree music.
Sinton has a couple of theories. He believes the "runners" are the ghosts of three bushrangers hanged last century. The corroboree music has its own otherworldly explanation: two Tasmanian Aborigines were buried here last century after their execution for the murder of a whaler at Port Fairy. But tonight is not a good night for paranormal activity at the market. Perhaps the noisy forklifts discourage any appearances.
Sinton tells us the nearby Flagstaff Gardens were also a cemetery and are currently haunted by the ghost of a nurse. The headstones were removed; the bodies were not. Sinton wickedly reveals his amusement at seeing city workers Iying on the grass during their lunch break, unaware of on whom they may be Iying.
This two-and-a-half-hour walk of the city's spooky side is not confined to the streets. When we arrived at the haunted Hotel Francis on Lonsdale Street, the nightclub is opened for us and we stumble our way up three flights of stairs. This pub is said to be buzzing with supernatural activity: third floor, ghosts; second floor, poltergeists. Tonight, we start at the top. We negotiate our way around the darkened, cavernous halls of what becomes the Collision nightclub at weekends.
The current female manager of the nightclub not only encountered a ghost here but walked through it and claims she then felt pushed down the end of the hall. Another strange phenomenon is the padlocked laundry door, which is often found mysteriously opened.
We are encouraged to go through a "psychic development exercise" and walk single file through the hallways and then report any oddities we encounter.
This is a good chance to test our abilities: clairvoyants see things, the clairaudient hear things, and the clairsentient feel them. As we gather in the front room, Sinton asks us to describe our experiences and, looking at the pool table before him, offers as an aside that Melbourne's first autopsy was performed on a billiard table at a pub in Collins Street. We have a possible clairsentient among us: one woman reports feeling nauseous and motions to her chest where she felt a pain. Others talk of walking through warm and cold spots. But no sightings, sadly.
We move on to meet the second-floor poltergeists. A high staff turnover at the hotel is attributed to their naughtiness, which includes knocking shakers out of their holders above the bar, taps that won't turn off, ashtrays that disappear and mirrors that fog up. The walls around the empty dancefloor and stage are neatly lined by chairs; staff once re-entered the empty room to find them strewn across the floor.
In the kitchen we hear of a kitchenhand who had an obsession with a female manager and with heroin. The frustration with both took their toll, and one night he embarked on a destructive smashing spree in the kitchen, which culminated with his fall into a vat of boiling water. He is a strong suspect as the ghost who haunts the current manager on the third floor.
There have been numerous deaths since the hotel was built in 1842 but the night is short and we have many more haunts to visit. Everyone crowds close behind Sinton as we make our way out the door; no one wants to be the last person left alone in case the poltergeists are feeling feisty.
The tour takes a frightening turn on Little Lonsdale Street, once home to Melbourne's red-light district. We walk past derelict buildings, including the Cobb & Co building and its neighbour, which was once the Department of Forensic Medicine and later a squat until the police cleared out the illegal inhabitants. As we approach the abandoned and decrepit buildings, the tour's most successful ghost-spotting location to date, the eyes that follow us from the allegedly abandoned structures suggest the eviction was less than successful.
Inside the vast Cobb & Co building, we are encouraged to walk around after Sinton has pointed out the positions of previous sightings. Eyes scour every centimetre of its high roof and black corners; every flickering of a distant car headlight is considered suspect. There will be no appearances tonight, although as the group emerges from the darkened building, two inebriated homeless men express their bewilderment at seeing us.
We move on to yet another ghostly site, near the former Salvation Army home for men. As Sinton relates the tale of a drunken man who was crushed to death in a dumpster, the group's attention is diverted by three seedy-looking characters who, oblivious to the group, use milk crates to climb the wall behind us into a vacant lot. Nervous questions are asked. The living are proving as scary as the dead. Sinton has a unique take on all this. How, he asked earlier, do we know that the people we pass on the street are not ghosts? "We are ghosts with bodies," he suggests, "just as there are ghosts without bodies".
Everywhere we turn, there is another haunted building with a resident apparition. Government buildings, corner pubs, residences - they are all over the place. The roll call of restless souls seems to feature an unusual amount of cleaners who just can't let go (perfectionists to the last, one assumes). One of the city's most active ghosts is that of founding father John Batman.
Our g-host keeps his audience captivated throughout the entire tour, the group scrambling to keep pace so as not to miss a single spook. Still, Sinton doesn't claim to be able to explain all he has seen or heard of; rather, he says the more he learns, the less he knows. "If you want answers, you should have come when I was a teenager," he quips.
Sinton puts forward the views of science as well as those of the true believers. He wants to let those on the tour make up their own minds.
The typical tour group is fairly evenly divided between sceptics and believers. Sinton cites a Bulletin magazine poll that claimed 46 per cent of Australian women, and 34 per cent of men, believe in ghosts. But still, he knows those on his tour will only see what they want to see. As he tells the group: "To a believer, no proof is necessary; to a sceptic, no proof is possible."
The Haunted Melbourne Ghost Tour starts at The Haunted Bookshop, 15 McKillop Street, Melbourne, on Saturday nights. Adults $20; concession $18. Bookings necessary, tel: 03 9670 2585.