Visitors from the other side or pure bunkum? Georgina Jerums tries to get in touch with some of Melbourne's ghosts. Pictures by Jaime Murcia and Jessica Shapiro
Alone at night, a door closes unexpectedly, a chill hangs in the air and through the dark you glimpse a flicker of movement. Or was it just your imagination? Forget Humpty Doo - Melbourne has its own buildings where things go bump in the night.
Lena Condos has conducted tours at Como House in South Yarra for almost two years. It can be a sinister place to work. "When you do guiding through the house, the history of the Armytage family, who lived here for over 90 years, comes alive in your head," she says, "and perhaps ghost stories become more believable."
Condos describes herself as a bit of a sceptic. She lives in a modern home where the windows and doors don't mysteriously shake, but her experiences at Como have occasionally left her rattled.
"One Tuesday I was by myself at about 9pm. When I put the alarm on and left, I walked up the path, turned back and there was one master bedroom with a light on and the blind cord was swinging. That light wasn't on when I left and the blind cord certainly wasn't swinging. I just bolted. I thought, 'it's windy, maybe it's a draught in the house'. But I'm not too sure. Sometimes these things can't be explained. They say there's nothing there in the night that's not there during the day except fear."
There were 10 children in the Armytage family and the youngest daughter, Ethyl, died at the age of seven from diphtheria in the master bedroom, where Condos claims she saw the light and the swinging cord. So is she spooked? "Oh definitely. We're all scared to work here late at night by ourselves."
Pat Holdenson agrees. She has been the functions co-ordinator at Como for eight years and occasionally feels a twinge of apprehension as she climbs the staircase. "I was here hundreds of times at night on my own and never worried, and then someone started telling me about a ghost. Now, every time I get to the top of the stairs I feel the hair rising. I feel there's a presence."
Martin Zarb has felt a presence of his own, across town at Melbourne University. Zarb has had several encounters of the ghostly kind in a house in Tin Alley. "I've been working here on and off for about 10 years and I was always the last person in the building to lock up. On a landing outside a room about five metres away I've seen a young child figure with short dark hair, wearing shorts and a tailored collar, bouncing a ball. There were noises of what seemed to be a rubber ball being bounced and a young boy's voice."
As Zarb approached, he claims the boy - who looks about 10 years old - always vanished. "I could feel this movement on my shirt, like walking past a curtain. I've seen the child about 15 or 20 times. I've never felt scared, just uneasy."
"When you talk to people in the building, some say it's true and others laugh it off. But the ones who laugh it off don't work at night."
One place you'd expect to find ghosts is the Old Melbourne Gaol. Manager Amanda Baker recalls leaving the staff room - a former cell - one night six years ago and bolting the door behind her. She was the last person in the room. Returning the next morning, the sugar bowl had been moved and a neat circle of sugar poured onto the table. "None of us had done it," she says.
Tour guide Bob Foulkes also can't explain the cold sensation he experiences at the back of his head when he stands under the trapdoor where people were hung. "There are no open doorways near there," he says.
Some ghost stories venture beyond spoken testimony. On January 20, about 50 relatives of past owners gathered at Tasma Terrace, the East Melbourne headquarters of the National Trust. One of the participants got a lot more than she bargained for. She was a descendant of George Nipper, the original owner. After everyone else had left the building, she walked down the stairs to the darkened boardroom, which is usually locked. Entering by herself, she took a photo. When it was developed, a shadow could clearly be seen on the wooden door leading into the room. It seemed to be cast by a plump figure dressed in a peculiar suit and a large hat. No one on the tour was wearing a hat.
"She doesn't feel that it's George Nipper, her forebear," says National Trust historian Celestina Sagazio, who led the tour group that night. "But she feels it might be Joseph Thompson, the bookmaker who took over Tasma Terrace from Nipper in 1887. Joseph was a bit tubby. George was wiry."
Steven Roberts from the Australian Skeptics - an organisation which conducts scientific investigations of pseudo-science and the paranormal - has seen the photo. He claims the flash is from an object on the mantelpiece. "To the left of the flash is another object, very probably a candlestick or a vase, and the ghost is in fact a shadow of that object on the door. It's a pity because it's a great "ghost" photo, one of the best I've seen. Usually you only get a sort of white fuzz. If you photograph into a spotlight or into the sun, the light is so intense, it can bounce around inside the lens of the camera and get onto the film. You end up with a distinct bright object. When you're taking the picture, you're often unaware of the bright object."
True believers may wish to turn their attention to 293 Church Street, Richmond, an imposing Italianate mansion built by Eureka Stockade leader Peter Lalor in 1882. Lalor lived there until his death in 1887. Judging by incidents at the mansion, his family were an unhappy lot. In three years, Lalor and his wife both died there of illness, his daughter jumped to her death off the balcony and his son, a doctor, hanged himself in the downstairs surgery.
The mansion was a boarding house until the Mortons bought it in 1962. Margaret Morton says it has had the reputation for being haunted for years, fuelled by the Lalor incidents. Schoolchildren used to cross the road to avoid walking directly past it, and Margaret Morton's sister, who also lived there but has since died, claimed she was touched by a ghost in the house 30 years ago.
"She said that somebody grabbed her ankle when she was sitting in the hall on a rocker," says Morton. "She reckoned it was her husband having a joke on her, but he said: 'Look there's no way I could put my hand under a rocking chair'. She also used to hear the tinkle of bells. She wasn't scared; she said it was a friendly ghost."
Now, whenever anything odd happens, poor old Peter Lalor is blamed. "One day, we were walking into the lounge room and a glass light fell down from the wall and we said, 'Peter's still living; he's here'."
Arts Library within the State Library of Victoria
Three years ago, one of the nightshift workers heard a note struck on a piano and saw a shadowy figure in the Arts Library, says the manager of the Public History Centre, Sue Hodges. Another security guard saw the chandelier in the same area swinging one night, even though all the windows were closed. The ghost is described as a female dressed in white clothing from the 19th century.
Room 1002 on the tenth floor, Rydges Melbourne
Every time you call reception at Rydges Melbourne the number of the room is displayed on the phone. About four years ago, someone ordered a meal from room 1002. The meal was delivered but the room was not being used. It gets stranger. "The lift has been reported to stop on the 10th floor and when the doors slide open, there isn't anyone there," says concierge Harry Nicolaides. "It appears the elevators are in perfect working order.
"The account of the man who committed suicide on the 10th floor about a decade ago is substantiated," adds Nicolaides. "The gentleman is probably still around. We like to think he liked the service so much he didn't want to leave."
Greater Union Cinema One in Russell Street
Usher Samantha Dean says a ghost may be lurking in Cinema One. "An old cleaner, George, used to work down in Cinema One about a decade ago. The story goes he recommended one of the cleaners to take his position, and told him if he didn't do his job properly he'd come back and haunt him one day. Apparently, this particular cleaner saw George [who had died] in Cinema One and swore never to work there again.
Bevan Leviston, from The Haunted Bookshop, hosts ghost tours of Melbourne's CBD
"I have not seen anything myself but numbers of people on the tour standing next to me swear they can see things and hear things that I can't. In one of the alleys in Chinatown, they can see winged forms flying over their head. They're definitely not bats. Some have heard phantom horses and carriages in Little Lonsdale Street.
"There's a deep-seated human need to be scared from time to time," he adds. "It may well be part of our survival instinct. Maybe it was part of the tribal storytelling; without the bogeyman out there, how can we hone the flee or fight response? It could be that, psychologically, if we didn't have ghosts, we'd need to invent them anyway."
Medium Drew Sinton says he isn't in it for the money. He's always been fascinated with the paranormal and thus set up The Haunted Bookshop with Angelica Danton.
"Angelica gave up a law degree and I gave up a six-figure salary to set this place up. We encourage people to learn how to conduct a seance so they can contact whoever it is without becoming dependent on anyone else." (Such as phone psychics who charge substantial fees.)
"It's like sex, people are going to do it anyway," he adds. "The concept of spirit communication has been around ever since Adam was a boy. It's the most natural thing. We have regular spirits who come through.
"The ouija board was designed by a Methodist minister 15O years ago," says Sinton. "It was bought by Parker Brothers and in the 1960s it outsold Monopoly. Kids could get hold of it and cause strife.
The bad press started when the movie 'The Exorcist' came out - that's when the Christians started thundering from their pulpits. We're the only people who sell ouija boards in this State, apart from internet sales. We teach people it's not a toy."
"For us, it's like listening in on someone at the next work station conversation talking to someone they haven't heard from in years. The areas which people deal with are career, relationships and money. We don't make any claims to the public.
We tell people to come and experience it for themselves."
We were ushered behind a red velvet curtain into a room with black walls, illuminated only by a red and green candle. Sure enough, a black cat was curled up on a chair.
Five of us took a seat at a round table and the session began. Frankincense and myrrh were lit and we held hands, left hand up, right hand down, to complete the circuit.
We were asked to relax, close our eyes and imagine spiralling white light surrounding us. After Psalm 23 was read out, each participant placed one finger on the ouija board pointer, the planchette.
"'Are there any spirits there who wish to communicate with us tonight?" asked Drew three times in a matter-of-fact voice. A minute of stillness elapsed.
Then the planchette started to move.
Our fingers skidded around the board from letter to letter; the speed was startling. Everyone hunched over the board, amid some nervous giggling.
"Who's pushing?" was the first thought, followed quickly by "Are we moving the planchette subconsciously?"
A guide came through and provided the name of the business one participant will be working for in three years time. Another person contacted an ancestor who lived 300 years ago.
The mood of the room changed and the planchette slowed down when questions about the deaths of certain friends were asked. After the 90-minute session, our arms ached but it felt as if time had sped by.
So was it for real? As Sinton says: "Believe it, or not."