Ever seen a ghost in daylight? Try harder and look at night. Lots of believers are defying the sceptics and seeing them, as MELISSA HEAGNEY reports. Pictures by PETER WEAVING.
IT WAS a Friday night 20 years ago. A full moon bathed the Returned Services League office in Studley Road with an eerie light. As Ivanhoe RSL president Fred Cullen walked towards the offices to finish some club reports, he could hardly believe what he saw. Two RSL members were fleeing the building in panic. The men - a barman and a patron - told Cullen there was a ghost inside.
For a moment, Cullen wondered if he was the victim of a practical joke. But the men were genuinely perturbed. He asked them to stay near the rear office door while he investigated.
What he saw confounded him. There in the hall, he swears he saw a ghost.
"I saw a luminescent light and quite clearly it was a woman in a nightdress; she was just floating above the ground.
"The light was fading as I saw it was just there for a minute or so."
It was Cullen's first experience with the afterlife. Although he had faced death on the battlefields of Papua New Guinea in 1943-44, he had never seen anything like it.
The woman hasn't appeared again, but Cullen says there have been times in the office, a homestead built in 1910, when locked doors have suddenly opened.
He says he had also heard loud, inexplicable knocking in the building. And he says he has been with other RSL members when the room has suddenly filled with cold air for no apparent reason.
He says it always happens on a Friday night when there's a full moon.
Cullen's is not the only ghost story in the Heidelberg area. The problem is that the stories tend to harden opinions: the believers become more fervent and the non-believers become more sceptical.
Australian Sceptics Victoria member Lynne Kelly is one of the latter. Her book, The Sceptic's Guide to the Paranormal, offers alternative explanations to alien abductions and UFO sightings, astrology, numerology and (of course) ghosts and hauntings.
Kelly doesn't want to be seen as negative about people's ghostly experiences.
"A sceptic is just someone who loves reality," she says.
Although she is adamant that ghosts don't exist, she says there is no definitive proof they don't.
"If anyone's got the proof I would love to see it," she says. Kelly believes people lean towards a paranormal explanation for the things they can't explain.
"For a lot of people, it's a reassurance that there's an afterlife, some people need that," she says.
Kelly has a rational explanation for ghostly encounters. She says cold spots usually occur in renovated houses. New materials may change the temperature of a certain part of the house.
A house with new materials may also create noises as metal and wood scrape together. Older houses can create similar noises, she says.
Kelly says poor peripheral vision can be blamed for people seeing blurred, unexplained figures, as can a condition known as "night terrors".
She believes people can wake to see a figure in their room but what they see is a figment of their imagination.
"They believe in them for a number of reasons - it's fun, it's exciting - some people have boring lives and, let's face it, no-one's ever been hurt by a ghost," she says.
But ask ghost hunter Drew Sinton and he'll tell you ghosts have hurt people.
Sinton owns the Haunted Bookshop and runs the Haunted Melbourne Ghost Tour most Saturday nights.
He says he's had many ghostly experiences. He claims some of the spookier ones happened in Heidelberg and Bundoora, and those who were haunted suffered nasty attacks.
In 1993 Sinton visited a house in Heidelberg. The resident, a man in his 40s, was being haunted by the ghost of an old woman who had apparently died at the house.
It seemed the woman had taken quite a liking to the man and had reappeared to tell him he could stay as long as he wanted. When he made plans to move away, the woman began to attack him.
Sinton says the man told him a dark figure would stand over his bed at night. He saw long scratches on the man's chest and torso and believes it would have been impossible for the man to have done it to himself.
"I would have found the whole thing difficult to believe had I not met a woman who was 26 and had been attacked by a similar entity in Carnegie," he says.
That same year Sinton investigated an apparition at a house in Bundoora.
The family had dubbed their ghost Crocodile Man because it had the head of a crocodile and the body of a man. The home was close to Darebin Creek and Sinton believes the ghost may be linked with the Aborigines who lived there centuries ago.
"The first thing I noticed when I turned up to the house was a big For Sale sign out the front," he says.
Unnerved by Crocodile Man's sudden appearances, the family was selling up.
Sinton admits he didn't see Crocodile Man. But he says he is "clairsentient" and could therefore sense its presence.
Sinton might sound like a true believer, but he says he usually investigates ghost stories with some scepticism because many are hoaxes.
He says he is usually the last port of call for those who have tried everything else and cannot explain strange happenings.
Bundoora Homestead staff have investigated the ghosts that are said to haunt it.
The homestead, built in 1900,is now an arts centre but has had previous lives as a horse stud, convalescent farm and mental repatriation hospital.
Bundoora Homestead director Jacky Healy says the ghosts haunting the homestead and Bundoora Park are a wonderful connection with the past.
"All heritage houses of integrity have ghosts," she jokes.
The homestead has two ghosts. One is George, who was a World War I veteran and a patient at the convalescent farm in the 1920s.
Healy has never seen George but says she has heard stories that defy explanation. She tells stories of nurses at the Mental Repatriation hospital seeing all the doors in the upstairs wing closing simultaneously.
A builder at the homestead who was helping to renovate a few years ago also had what he believed was an encounter when the electric kettle turned on by itself.
Ghost hunter Sinton says there's also the story of the ghost horse at Bundoora Park, which used to be the grounds of the homestead. Apparently the ghost of a horse named Lurline, the stablemate of champion thoroughbred Wallace, still wanders the park.
Lurline was accidentally shot dead by the stray bullet of a rabbit hunter.
Sinton and Healy both say people sometimes hear the ghost hooves of Lurline, who is said to visit the graveside of her beloved Wallace.
There are no ghost horses in Ivanhoe but a story that has been told to RSL members could explain the woman in the nightdress seen by Fred Cullen.
Years after he saw the woman, Cullen heard some history that made sense to him. One of the homestead's owners had a wife who was accused of having an affair with the gardener. When her husband confronted her, she hanged herself from a staircase balustrade in the home.
The story is hearsay, but Cullen reckons it is true. After all, he saw the ghost.