On my 11th birthday, my father took me with some friends to see The Return of Count Yorga in an old cinema in town. Yorga was vintage '70s Hammer horror, with blood-red drapes and hideous dead ladies in negligees and a melancholy count who, when he wasn't necking people, loved to play the piano. Laugh? I nearly died.
From then on, I hated horror movies, yet was hooked on them. I saw them all. And at night, those cackling crones stalked my dreams. Like the boy in The Sixth Sense - though mercifully only in my mind - I saw dead people.
As I grew up, the images faded and I now look back fondly on those films. The creepy paintings, the cobwebs, goblets and candles - it all spoke of an old, cold, luscious world that was alien to sunny Australia. I often wondered why this country didn't seem to have a ghost culture. I went on the Haunted Melbourne Ghost Tour to find out.
The drapes are deep blue and sepulchral music plays as we step into the warmth of the Haunted Bookshop in McKillop Street in the city. Owner Drew Sinton is dressed in a black cassock and flat hat. He looks like the priest from The Exorcist his favourite movie, but he says the outfit also honours Melbourne's most sighted spirit: the dark figure that up to 10 people have reported seeing in the depths of night, leaning over their bed.
Nearly 50 people are here. Last week, it was 90, after a big group from Paranormal Australia showed up. In seven years running the tour, Sinton says he has hosted all kinds of groups: cops, funeral directors, gravediggers, men from the morgue. He has been picketed by fundamentalist Christians and heckled by sceptics. Once he had both on the same tour: the sceptics stood with arms crossed while the believers knelt in prayer. There was the young man who thought one former prime minister was called Goth Whitlam, and the man whose shirt said: 'I see dumb people'. Sinton sees them all.
Outside, he jumps onto a bench and the tour begins. "Enter freely and of your own will," he often tells the crowd - Dracula's words as he welcomes victims at his door. Sinton has a stagey delivery, pregnant pauses and a few hammy jokes: horror is never far from humour. He doesn't usually let children on the tour - they tend to scream and play chasey - but tonight, he has accepted a party for a girl who has had a heart transplant. "You're turning 13," he declares. "That's the sweetener for me."
For two hours, we trail Sinton through the west end of town. We stand outside the Mitre Tavern, where people claim to have seen the ghost of Connie Waugh, mistress of 19th century pastoralist Sir Rupert Clarke. We stand behind Lonsdale Street's Francis Hotel, reputedly haunted by the spectre of a chef. "He walked straight through a security guard, who resigned on the spot," Sinton says.
In a pitch-black car park, he tells about the axe murder here in the '50s. There's a ghost at the Windsor and at the Princess Theatre (the famous Federici) and as many as 20 spirits at the State Library, "a brilliant place, very, very active with ghosts". We hear about brothels, burial grounds and botched hangings. It's a tour rich in history - and that, I felt, was the problem.
Looking up at the brightly lit skyscrapers towering above us, it struck me that you never hear about their ghosts, Spirits have aristocratic taste: they seem to prefer dark, stately homes of stone to shiny, steel condos. If that's true, what happens when an old building goes down for a new one? Are Melbourne's ghosts being evicted?
A few days later, Sinton and I talked in a tiny room behind his shop, where he does tarot readings and seances. While his black cat, Pazuzu, named after the demon in The Exorcist glided past my leg, Sinton discussed the trials of running a serious occult bookshop.
He grew up in Adelaide in the '70s, big years for the supernatural, he says. There was Deadly Earnest on TV and the Hammer films, and Truth newspaper regularly staging stoushes between psychics and sceptics. His father, a seaman, brought home ghost stories from his voyages.
Soon the boy was obsessed. He prowled through dark cemeteries with an infra-red camera.
"You're a kid, you're trying to work out life, you know?" he says. After school he went into journalism, then advertising, then threw in a safe career to study theology in Melbourne. He studied exorcism under two Christian priests; he joined the Spiritualist Church. He went to Transylvania, where he was anointed Australian ambassador of the Society of Dracula. He became a Grotto Master of the Church of Satan. He has a CV in the dark arts to die for, but it all clicked seven years ago, when he realised his childhood dream to run an occult bookshop.
But while the tour has done well, the shop has struggled. Visitors want to talk, argue, harangue: anything but buy. He has had his books plastic-wrapped because he tired of people running in to smudge the pages or nick an idea for a tattoo. Books and ouIja boards sold well around the millennium and September 11 but now most occult book buyers go to amazon.com.
The internet has had another impact. Occult groups "don't meet any more", he says. "The witchcraft community all sends emails to each other. You go online to talk to some priestess and it turns out she's a 15-year-old schoolgirl".
Even the Church of Satan has lost its way. Founded to champion revolt and progress, it's now "full of yobs".
"Some guy comes in here and says: 'I wrestled with the demon last night.' And I think: 'What would his Infernal Majesty want to be doing with an unemployed wharfie like you?'"
I raise my theory about the city's vanishing ghosts. Sinton agrees. He wonders what happened to the ghost in the old La Trobe Street 3AW building, now demolished. The Francis Hotel has a shiny new restaurant, and a 60-storey tower is planned for his city comer. "The rents will go up and I'll be out," he says. Another burden is public liability insurance for his tour, and even his tarot readings, "in case I pull out the death card and they have a heart attack".
The unknown remains his passion. His father said the old maps always put the dragon in uncharted waters. "I'm drawn to anything that's old and mysterious and sinister. I've always felt sorry for the vampire."
Has he found the mystery? No, he hasn't, and that's fine. 'As I've grown older, I have preferred to sjmply observe the mystery rather than question it away. The paranormal people come on my tour with their meaningless little ghost busting boxes that go beep. I say: 'Leave the ghosts alone. Let them be.'"
Our tour ended at Victoria Market, and tales of the old cemetery that lies under the car park. Sinton talked about paupers, criminals and Jews buried in unconsecrated ground, but it was hard to hear above the roar of the street sweeper.
We left and walked through the city, "the only cemetery that is lit up at night", Sinton riffed. We were chilled to the bone, if not the soul. Can mystery survive modernity? The vampire, of course, withers before the bright sun of reason.
In the dark, we saw a strange carriage coming towards us. Light poured out, but it was empty. We ran, it drew closer, closer - it pulled up at our feet, and a door swung open, guided by an unseen hand. We stepped out of the dark into the glare and warmth of a new tram.