With phantom companions never far away, Julie Miller searches the nation for its most haunted locations.
DUSK is falling over Port Arthur and a group of shivering tourists is gathering to explore the historic penal settlement under a cloak of darkness. I'm sitting quietly on a bench as lanterns are ignited and safety is discussed, when a woman sidles up to me and whispers: "Did you know there's a bunch of people hovering around you?"
I turn but there's no one there. I look back at the woman quizzically; she nods her head sagely. "They are really curious about you. Your aura is incredibly strong - I can barely talk to you."
Oh, THEM! I suddenly realise what she's talking about. My eyes widen in disbelief - never in my life have I been accused of possessing mystical powers. But this woman is convinced that the spirits of convicts past are following me around, watching me watching them on the Port Arthur ghost tour.
I dismiss the suggestion with a shrug but am a little thrown by her psychic observations. Having spent many a night wandering through allegedly haunted locations researching a book about the paranormal in Australia, I am fairly immune to spooky presences, my sceptical mind dismissing them as entertaining yarns or, at worst, just negative energy.
Now I'm starting to think differently. What if the phantoms know what I'm up to and are following me around? What if they are latching on to me, coming along for the ride from location to location?
For six months, I've explored some of the creepiest places in Australia, sometimes on my own, sometimes on a group tour such as this one. The most infamous haunted locations capitalise on their reputation, cashing in on the public's insatiable desire to be scared. Teenagers, in particular, love a good ghost tour - fear, after all, produces the same endorphins as love, making a spooky night out the perfect first date.
So if you're looking for a spine-chilling, hair-raising and entertaining exploration of some of Australia's scariest places, here are good places to start.
Penitentiary Chapel, Hobart
If there's a prize for the gloomiest and downright nastiest haunted location in Australia, Hobart's Penitentiary Chapel wins hands down. Don't let the innocent facade of a church fool you - this was a grim and gruesome place of incarceration, its history as a place of torture and death evident in every crumbling stone, every creepy dark passageway and the ominous swing of a noose hanging over a bloodstained deck. Now managed by the National Trust of Australia, its ghost tours are devoid of theatrics and embellishments, the deadpan demeanour of tour leader Brendan suiting the bleak location. Just being in this foul, oppressive chamber of horrors is enough to conjure the injustices of the past. penitentiarychapel.com.
Picton, a quaint town south-west of Sydney, has the reputation as Australia's most haunted town, a label officials reluctantly admit brings in much-needed tourist dollars. Its ghost tours attract about 35 out-of-towners every Saturday night and every second Friday, promoting weekend trade and giving locals something to do when the pub closes - taunting tour groups with a ghostly "whooooo!".
The highlight of the tour is the infamous Redbank Range Tunnel, a disused railway tunnel where, it's said, the spirit of a woman mown down by a train in 1916 resides. Certainly, strange things happen here - barely a night goes by without someone witnessing strange lights, apparitions or inexplicable rushes of wind. lizvincenttours.com.au.
Belying its peaceful harbourside location, Sydney's Quarantine Station was a place of isolation, suffering, loneliness and death. It was the first port of call for ships bringing new arrivals to the colony, with more than 13,000 people suspected of carrying infectious diseases such as smallpox and Spanish influenza interred here during its 150 years of operation. And it appears some of those miserable souls chose never to leave. According to the site's resident medium, there are at least 55 entities wandering the hospital, dining halls and the infamous shower block - a place even hard-as-nails me refuses to enter on my own. I also dare you to stomach the morgue, where an ominous mannequin lies under a sheet and the stench of death ignites the imagination. qstation.com.au.
Old Melbourne Gaol
Pity the poor drunks or vagabonds in colonial days - chances are, they would have ended up incarcerated behind the bluestone walls of Old Melbourne Gaol, sharing tiny cells with murderers, thieves, baby killers and rapists. Conditions in this so-called "model jail" were unimaginable, with prisoners locked up for 23 hours a day and with only a thin mattress protecting them from the icy chill of the slate floors. I can empathise - I spent one of the coldest nights of my life in here, participating in a paranormal investigation conducted by local group GhostSeekers Australia. One for hardcore ghost enthusiasts, this monthly tour employs gadgets and monitoring equipment, with the aim of collecting statistics on paranormal activity. I suggest you bring a thermos of something warming - it's a long cold night, accompanied by ghoulish presences of prisoners past, including Ned Kelly. oldmelbournegaol.com.au.
Monte Cristo, Junee
With 10 ghostly entities to its credit, Monte Cristo holds the dubious reputation as Australia's most haunted private residence. This imposing Victorian mansion overlooking the town of Junee in NSW is a veritable house of horrors, with Psycho-style murder, suicide, torture and insanity all part of its dark history. From the moment current owners Reg and Olive Ryan moved into the then derelict house in 1963, they were aware of their other-worldly housemates, with strange lights appearing in windowless panes despite the electricity being disconnected. Many a medium has since run screaming from the premises; claims of pure evil belying the beautifully renovated and decorated interior. By popular demand, the affable and unflappable Ryan now runs tours of his home, happy to spin a yarn and share its fascinating past. montecristo.com.au.
The nation's capital has long fought its reputation as being boring, drab and bland - and it's certainly an unlikely contender for a scary night out. But the Canberra Ghost Tour, led by Australia's face of unexplained phenomena, Tim the Yowie Man, is one of the most popular of its kind in the country, booking out weeks in advance. And with good reason - the tour is loads of fun, great theatre whether you are a believer in the paranormal or not. On board the cobweb-strewn Destiny Tour bus, TTYM and his mate Tinny share stories of floating coffins, vicious murders and havoc-wreaking poltergeists in buildings ranging from seats of power through to pubs. Locations include the National Library, said to be inhabited by a pilot who crash-landed during a ceremonial fly-by; and the National Film and Sound Archive, said to have high levels of poltergeist activity. Even Old Parliament House has several ghosts ... which leads to the inevitable jokes about politicians being stabbed in the back. Poor Kev. destinytours.com.au/canberra.
The oldest cave system in the world open to the public, Jenolan Caves in NSW has more than 250,000 visitors a year, with daily tours through 20 kilometres of chambers. Dark, dank, silent and evocative, it's little wonder that a steady flow of ghostly stories has emerged over the years, with security gates rattling for no reason, display lights turning themselves on and off and phantom figures appearing mysteriously. Many of the tales are connected to James Wiburd, Jenolan's third caretaker, from 1903, and a passionate adventurer. It's said that Wiburd so loved the place that he chose never to leave, lingering to keep an eye on things. Lantern-lit tours are popular with guests staying overnight at Caves House, where creaky floors and peeling wallpaper add weight to its reputation as Australia's most haunted hotel. jenolancaves.org.au.
That this tranquil site in Tasmania was once called "hell on earth" seems unthinkable; that it was the scene of one of the most violent crimes of recent memory and in Australian history even more incredible. But, in reality, Port Arthur has arguably witnessed more horror than any other location in the nation, its very name holding overwhelming connotations of evil and sadness for many Australians.
The injustices of the past are the focus of its hugely popular ghost tours, its ruins resonating with the souls of convicts, military leaders and free settlers who are buried on the aptly named Isle of the Dead. The tour is a mix of fascinating history and theatre, entertaining as well as a little hair-raising. And the statistics don't lie - in the 20 years that the ghost tours have been running, more than 1800 apparitions have been reported, with records of the events carefully stashed in 14 folders in the managerial offices.
I, of course, have undertaken this tour accompanied by several watchful spirits; and, for the first time as I leave a spooky location,
I actually ask my supernatural companions to stay behind. After all, it is their eternal choice to remain in their former homes, to share their tales of life and death, of struggle and pain.
They may have left this mortal coil but their legacy endures, a permanent and precious gift for future generations. portarthur.org.au.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Tasmania, Monte Cristo, Old Melbourne Gaol and Canberra Ghost Tours.
Something Is Out There, by Julie Miller and Grant Osborn, is published this month by Allen & Unwin.