Something spooky this way comes. Simon Plant previews Melbourne's first ghost exhibition
OFTEN, in the dead of night, he wakes with a fright and has a vision.
A vision so vivid and alarming that Simon Gregg feels his heart beating a little faster.
Is this an apparition he sees? A visitation?
No. Gregg's fitful awakenings are stirred by fear: the worry, deep in his bones, that he might be inadvertently upsetting people.
As the curator of Spooks: Stories of Haunted Melbourne, at the City Museum in Old Treasury, he has discovered ghosts inflame opinion like nothing else.
Hard-core believers have welcomed Gregg's initiative to lift the lid on Melbourne's 20 most haunted sites.
Drew Sinton, of The Haunted Bookshop, reckons Spooks will be a landmark show.
Sceptics, on the other hand, have mocked the exhibition as spurious at best and tasteless at worst.
One reluctant lender wrote to Gregg saying she thought the theme of "Spooks" was "revolting".
Another described any interest in the paranormal as being "slightly deranged".
Gregg, an experienced arts curator, admits: "I've never encountered such venom before."
There's even been resistance within the City Museum itself, with one volunteer guide declining to take visitors through the exhibition.
Gregg is philosophical.
"Ninety per cent of the people I've dealt with think it's a good idea and can see what I'm trying to do," he says.
"Others have been less willing to look beyond the more sensational aspects."
Of most concern to Gregg have been the descendants and relatives of deceased people featured in Spooks.
"Preparing this show has reminded me just how young this country is," he says.
"Do a ghost exhibit in Britain and you go back centuries. Do one here and you're talking about recent history. Dealing with those sensitivities has kept me awake on more than a few nights."
Spooks may be the first exhibition of its kind in the world. And it all started with a simple proposition: that the past is never fully gone and that an alternative history of Melbourne might be constructed through places inhabited by people "who may or may not be still with us".
In his catalogue essay, Gregg explains: "Just as Melbourne's original inhabitants - the Kulin people - employed the 'dreamtime' as a means of keeping their stories alive, so too do we indulge in our ghost stories.
"Whether or not they have any truthful basis, the mythic folklore surrounding these stories is very, very real and as much a part of the fabric of the city as the buildings and streetscapes."
Melbourne has long been a ghost town. The National Trust operates Ghost Hunts in the Old Melbourne Gaol.
Werribee Mansion hosts Haunted Mansion Night Shows.
And Sinton's Haunted Melbourne Ghost Tours of the CBD are now in their 10th year.
"In the early days, when I set this up, there was a lot of hostility towards anything ghostly," Sinton says.
"In fact, there's no way you could have put together an exhibition like Spooks in the '90s. But the climate has changed."
Many paranormal investigators are also out in the field, desperately seeking evidence of the afterlife.
As Gregg says: "There is no shortage of haunted-property owners extending invitations to these modern-day ghostbusters."
Spooks taps into this phenomenon. Ouija boards and divining rods are displayed in the exhibition alongside instruments for measuring atmospheric pressure, vibration and magnetic fields.
Close by is historical ephemera: leg-irons and tombstone fragments, colonial-era costumes and claypipes embossed with skulls and crossbones.
Gregg has even got his hands on ghostly films, photographs and audio.
"We're creating a very atmospheric, otherworldly mood," he says.
"But it's not scary. We hope people will feel this is a family show."
MORE Addams Family than anything else, Spooks is ultimately about ghost stories.
Gregg left no creaking door unopened in his quest for spine-tingling tales � and uncovered some of the strangest in seemingly ordinary places.
At a cinema in Elsternwick, an RSL office in Ivanhoe, a church in Queenscliff.
"Some people gave the stories freely," he says. "Others were more cautious for fear of being doubted."
A few hotels refused point-blank to even discuss their "ethereal guests", lest it frighten potential customers.
But as Gregg says: "A ghostly resident can be good for business, all part of maintaining a healthy and robust urban mythology."
THE Princess Theatre has long traded on its association with the phantom opera singer Federici.
But he's not the only musical ghost in town.
Spooks draws our attention to a piano prankster in the National Gallery of Victoria's Great Hall, and a strange presence that haunts the Melbourne Town Hall organ.
Poltergeists are also believed to be swarming over the Block Arcade, the Queen Victoria Hospital site and the State Library (librarians and security guards have reported seeing a woman in period dress in Queen's Hall).
Even the Old Treasury has a resident spook. Former City Museum curator Helen Stuckey encountered this "shadowy figure" late at night when she was working alone in the building.
"He was quite the ladies man," she recalls: opening doors, summoning lifts before they were asked for, and whistling "strange tunes" on the staircase.
Stuckey suspects the Old Treasury ghoul is a former public servant with a territorial regard for the colonial-era building.
Others say he is the ghost of a live-in caretaker who died in the 1920s.
To help solve the mystery, Gregg agreed to let some paranormal investigators conduct tests in the vaults.
The exercise was "frankly, a bit nutty," he says, "but from day one, I've tried to keep an open mind".
Gregg values the City Museum's "free atmosphere of inquiry" and suspects he would have had a hard time convincing other institutions to support Spooks.
"There has been some resistance in the museum world to this exhibition," he says.
"People have told me, 'Don't go there, it's not appropriate'. But as long as a subject is treated sympathetically, there really is no limit to what you can legitimately present in a museum. I've certainly applied that ethos to this exhibition."
Interview over, Gregg invites me to inspect the vaults � for a first-hand appreciation of Old Treasury's eerie calm.
So we take the lift down below street level and step into semi-darkness, our shoes scraping on flag-stone pavers.
The long bluestone corridors are painted a spectral white and only illuminated by a couple of green exit signs.
Vaguely, I can hear some machinery whirring and a distant tram. Otherwise it's dead quiet down here and very cold.
"Really, I don't mind being alone in the building at night," Gregg says.
"There's something comforting about knowing you're in the middle of the city and able to shut the world out."
Has he ever felt he might have company?
"No. If ghosts do exist, then other people are more attuned to seeing those things than I am."
Spooks: Stories of Haunted Melbourne at the City Museum, Old Treasury Melbourne, Spring St, from next Wednesday until August 26.
VIEWED from a distance, it is the archetypal haunted house on the hill. So when Jacqueline Healy first visited Bundoora Homestead in 2001, to manage its new incarnation as an arts centre, she was not all that surprised to hear the place was haunted.
"One of the workmen would not enter one of the upstairs rooms," she says.
"I thought nothing of it until one night, working back, I felt someone walk into my office and touch my shoulder.
"I didn't look around. said, 'I am friendly, I hope you are'."
Healy believes she encountered the ghost of a World War 1 veteran named George who was admitted to hospital at the High Victorian homestead when it cared for returning soldiers.
George did not recover from his wartime wounds. He died at Bundoora.
And though there are no more clues to his identity today, Healy still feels his presence.
"I was presenting a lecture one night and mentioned there was a ghost named George.
"As I went to change the next slide, it went flying across the room � a George moment."
WHEN the lights dim at Elsternwick's Classic Cinema, all sorts of strange things go on in the dark.
The 1880s building, one of Melbourne's oldest movie houses, has up to 10 "resident ghosts", including a prankster who rattles the front door, an elderly gent who tinkers with the projectors, and a group of dancers who jive in the stalls.
Head projectionist Jeff Jacklin confirms: "They seem to live on site. As time goes on, I'm quite comfortable with that, but it can be tricky for new members of staff."
Clairvoyants suspect this paranormal activity is linked to the cinema's early days as a dance hall and skating rink.
But that does not explain Jacklin's strange experience a few years ago when he filled out a time-sheet and slipped it under the manager's door only to feel an unseen presence tugging the papers from his hand.
"I wish I could describe the strength of that feeling," he says. "The papers started moving on their own, with me holding them, and the pull was like a magnet. I don't mind saying, I ran straight out of there."
More recently, Jacklin has tangled with a poltergeist who hovers near the bio-box and adjusts lenses.
"I'm told he isn't a former projectionist. He's just someone who loved coming here and wants to be noticed."
Do you talk to him?
"Yeah - seems to work for me."
AMONG Queenscliff's many houses of worship, the Methodist Church is especially esteemed for its barrel-vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows.
One particular rose window interests church proprietor Russell Davis because it was the site of his encounter with a ghost. "I was walking towards the church one day and carrying an armload of artwork," he says.
"As I approached the front, I felt an invisible presence that pushed me from the side. I straightened up but felt pushed back again. That's when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up."
About a week later, Davis's son-in-law was working alone in the 1888 church and painting at the top of a ladder propped near the rose window.
Hearing footsteps behind him, he turned to look but no one was present.
Strangest of all are the stories told by mother-and-daughter caterers who once managed the Colonial Arcade Tea Room at the rear of the church.
Unlocking the doors early in the morning, they would sometimes find drawers and doors thrown open and plates strewn about the floor.
Both women also reported seeing shadowy grey figures - one male, the other female - in a corner of the room.
Could these shrouds perhaps have a connection with the Queenscliff church when it doubled as a makeshift morgue for shipwreck victims?
HISTORIAN Celestina Sagazio is yet to encounter a ghost at the National Trust's Victorian-era HQ in Parliament Place.
"I've been alone in this building many times and I've never seen or sensed anything," she says.
But as official minder of the trust's expansive "ghost file", Sagazio takes other people's descriptions of paranormal activity seriously.
Staff at Tasma Terrace have reported seeing doors opening and closing of their own accord. Visitors have seen a buxom woman in the records office.
And accountants, occupying space at the rear of the building, have been spooked by strange goings-on.
"It all adds to the mystique of the place," Sagazio says.
Ten years ago, a descendant of George Nipper (the building's original owner) joined a group tour of Tasma Terrace and stayed on to take a photograph in the darkened boardroom.
When her picture was developed, a shadow was visible on a door leading into the room. It took the shape of a plump figure in a large hat.
"I've seen the photograph," Sagazio says, "and no one on that tour was dressed with a hat or anything like it."
As for the buxom woman - trust tales suggest Tasma Terrace might once have been a brothel and she was the madam in charge.