Sceptics are having none of it but, as MELISSA HEAGNEY discovers, believers in the northern suburbs refuse to give up the ghost. Pictures by Peter Weaving
IN July 1993 ghost hunter Drew Sinton was called to a house in Bundoora to investigate some strange occurrences. It was dark when he arrived at the home and he was greeted by a massive For Sale sign on the front lawn.
He was also greeted with the story of Crocodile Man. According to the story, Crocodile Man was an apparition with the body of a man and the head of a crocodile, and he had been terrorising the family that lived in the house.
Sinton says he usually investigates ghost stories with some scepticism because many are hoaxes. But this one seemed genuine.
"The family (including a man, his wife and young son and daughter) seemed straightforward enough," Sinton says.
"The man who contacted me even had a science degree from Melbourne University hanging on the wall.
"Yet what the family encountered seemed beyond science. Strange twinkling golden lights had been seen in the house, usually above the heads of the man, his wife or their young son.
"The crocodile man, who the family said stood only five feet tall, would be seen standing next to the boy as he slept ... or as he played.
"The last straw came when Crocodile Man was seen going in and out of the family's new nursery, where a 14-month-old girl slept," he says.
Sinton is usually the last port of call for people who have tried everything else and cannot explain strange happenings.
He didn't see Crocodile Man but says he could feel his presence.
He found himself and the family chasing the presence of Crocodile Man into the backyard. He says the apparition jumped the fence and was never seen again.
His is not the only ghost story in the northern suburbs. The problem is that these stories tend to harden attitudes. The true believers become more fervent; the non-believers become even 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 says she doesn't want to be seen as negative about people's ghostly experiences.
"A sceptic is just someone who loves reality," she explains.
Although adamant that ghosts do not 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 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 says cold spots usually occur in renovated houses. New materials, for example, can change the temperature in a certain part of the house.
She 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 Sinton and he'll tell you ghosts have hurt people. Sinton, who owns the Haunted Bookshop and runs the Haunted Melbourne Ghost Tour most Saturday nights, has had many ghostly experiences.
Some of the spookier ones happened in Bundoora and Heidelberg, and he says those who were haunted suffered some nasty attacks.
The same year as the Crocodile Man appeared, 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.
The woman was said to have taken a liking to the man and had re-appeared 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.
Bundoora Homestead staff have investigated the ghosts that are said to haunt it.
The homestead, built in 1900, is now an arts centre but had previous lives as a horse stud, convalescent farm and mental repatriation hospital.
Bundoora Homestead director Jacky Healy says the ghosts that haunt the homestead and Bundoora Park are a wonderful connection with the home's past.
"All heritage houses of integrity have ghosts," she jokes.
The homestead has two ghosts. The "human" one, George, was a World War I veteran and a patient at the convalescent farm in the 1920s.
Although she has never seen George, Healy says she has heard stories that defy explanation, including accounts 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 a ghost horse at Bundoora Park, previously 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 told to members of the Ivanhoe Returned Services League members could explain a strange sighting at their offices.
On a Friday night 20 years ago, as Ivanhoe RSL president Fred Cullen walked towards the offices to finish some club reports, he was greeted by two RSL members fleeing the building in panic.
The men - the RSL barman and a patron - told Cullen there was a ghost inside the offices, which used to be a homestead.
For a moment, Cullen suspected 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. When he went inside he stood dumbfounded in the hall.
"I saw a luminescent light and quite clearly it was a woman in a nightdress, she was just floating above the ground," Cullen says.
"The light was fading as I saw it was just there for a minute or so."
A few years later, Cullen was told that one of the home's owners had a wife who was accused of having an affair with the homestead's gardener.
When her husband confronted her, she hanged herself from a staircase balustrade.
The suicide story is hearsay but Cullen reckons it is true. After all, he saw the ghost.
As for Bundoora's mysterious Crocodile Man, Sinton believes he may be linked with the Aborigines who lived there centuries ago.
For him, it is another strange experience to add to the list.