It's October, which means we're going somewhere creepy, and I'm not just referring to the snakes Down Under.
Australian has no shortage of brutal convict history, but there’s a tangible creep factor visiting the cells of the Old Melbourne Gaol. It's unnerving as hell standing before the same gallows that dispatched notorious criminals like Ned Kelly, Frederick Bailey Deeming, and 131 others. Especially at night, when the lights are dimmed, the daytime tourists have cleared out, and writer Trevor Poultney is leading a group of two-dozen tourists. He reassures us that he doesn’t need to make up any silly ghost stories, since the jail has plenty of real-life stories to do the trick. In fact, the jail’s consistent paranormal activity inspired Trevor to start the ghost tours in the first place. Of course, nothing has been proved and there’s no guarantee you’ll actually see anything. I ask two couples in my group why they feel it is a good idea to spend Saturday night in a dark, haunted 19th century prison block. Both reply that it is a birthday present. Price of a Ghost Tour: $38. Scaring the crap out of your spouse: Priceless.
A purple early evening glow still permeates the cellblock when Trevor begins.
“It’s dark in here, and it’s going to get darker. Keep in a tight group, as it’s less likely you’ll be picked off.” He’s joking of course, but he’s also a great storyteller, adding just enough bite to his words to keep everyone on edge. It’s a ninety-minute tour, mostly conducted outside the cells since they are too small, too dark, too claustrophobic and too damn spooky to spend much time in. Trevor begins with the tale of a site supervisor locking up the museum for the night. Suddenly, she felt someone kick her in the leg. Heavy doors began banging, chains rattled, and she heard groans and screams. Apparently, much of the weirdness tends to emanate from Cell 17 on the second level, although no particular record exists as to why this would be the case. Trevor tells us that prisoners were often moved around, documentation has vanished, but conditions were notoriously horrific. At the rear of the first level, we sit around the lit-up death mask of Ned Kelly, the most infamous bushranger in Australian history. Alongside replicas of the handmade armour Ned wore during his famous shoot-out with the law, Ned’s head is the museum’s most famous attraction. Gad is it creepy!
After the lifeless bodies of the condemned were removed from the gallows, it was common practice for prison officials to shave their heads and cast their death mask for research. It was part of a discredited 19th century practice called phrenology, which believed science could physically determine the motivations of criminals and lunatics. Ned’s head looks peaceful enough as Trevor whips out his tablet to show us the three types of ghost photos the jail receives from visitors. There are the fakes, easy to spot and silly to attempt. The second are from people seeing things that simply aren’t there, an easy but sincere mistake given the numerous shadows and effects of using a camera flash.
“You paid good money. It’s an atmospheric building. We’re very suggestible. Of course we want to see a ghost, why else would we be here?” he explains. Out-of-focus blurry zoomed-in photos do make great ghost photos, but the apparition is just about always in the eye of the beholder. But, as my own photo from Savannah testifies, not always. The third photos are the anomalies, the ones with no feasible explanation. Trevor shows us the spectre of a man with a hat standing outside Cell 17. We see the wraiths of a woman and child that can be seen hovering on level three. Other visitors, who have not taken a ghost tour, claim to have physically encountered these people during the day, with some even asking them for directions. At the gallows on the second level, the very spot where 129 men and four women took their last breath, Trevor shows us the one photo that continues to freak him out. His own feet appear at the top of the photo beneath the demonstration rope…only, he was with the visitor who took the photo on the other side of the cell.
“I think it’s a peaceful building,” he whispers. “Do I believe in ghosts? Things happen here, and that’s as far as I’ll go.”
We have fifteen minutes to roam about freely before closing. We’ll enter cells to gaze at the haunting death masks of dispatched prisoners, feeling an icy chill lick our necks. We’ll read about the torrid history and conditions of the prison, which operated between 1842 and 1929. Not many visitors will go as far as to enter Cell 17, because Trevor has done a bang-up job spooking us about it. This is where the belligerent man with the hat appears. Where guests feel something pushing on them. Where breath gets laboured, and electronic devices go on the fritz. This is the one cell where guide dogs refuse to enter. With nervous giggles, a few of us still walk into Cell 17. With our imaginations in overdrive, a sense of dread in the cell is unmistakable. I took plenty of photos, of course, and I’ve poured over them in search of an apparition. As much as I want to believe beyond the shadows, I did not strike ghostly photographic gold in the Melbourne Gaol. I did however encounter a fascinating cultural and architectural history, entertaining stories, unforgettable characters, and a true one-of-a-kind experience. What more could you ask for on a great night out in the city?
Click here for more information about a Melbourne Gaol ghost tour, although as with many other activities in Melbourne and elsewhere, this is something to consider in your post-Covid plans.
In less haunting news, you can read my latest Bucket Listed columns for Can Geo Travel which adds 11 new experiences to my ever-expanding Canadian Bucket List, and reviews the incredible Arctic landscapes in renowned artist Cory Trepanier's new book.
Travel safe, stay inspired, and don't turn into a pumpkin.
Fresh and rotten in time for Halloween, here’s a gallery of the places that blasted chills down my spine. Haunted, sinister, evil or just plain weird, for those that dream about travelling the world, welcome to your nightmare.
The Bone Church of Kutna Hora
Some time in the 13th century, a monk brought sand from Jerusalem to this small ossuary in central Europe. Suddenly everyone wanted to be buried there, but soon enough, space ran out. The monks collected and stored the bones. Several hundred years later, a local woodcarver decided he’d get creative with the surplus skeletons. Using the bones of some 40,000 people, he created wall art, columns, even a chandelier made with every bone in the human body. Today you can visit this small bizarre church, marvel at its morbid creativity, and literally stare death in the face.
San Franciscan Monastery
Sticking with the bone theme (“the hip bone’s connected to the…thigh bone”), the 17th century San Franciscan Monastery in the Peruvian capital of Lima is high on most visitors list. It looks amazing from the outside, but head inside and below to the narrow, creepy catacombs. You’ll find carefully geometrically arranged skeletons of some 25,000 has-beens. Built using bricks of guano, the air is dense, lit with a distinct atmosphere of spookiness, as opposed to the intended religious devotion. One catacomb is piled head-high in skulls. With the low ceilings, you might want to watch your head too.
The Killing Fields
There is creepy and there is spooky, and then there is just plain evil. Nothing makes your hair stand up, your throat parch, your nerves collapse and your faith in humanity shatter like the physical site of genocide. And yet, sickening places like the killing fields of Cambodia, the Nazi death camps in Europe, and the Kigali Genocide Museum in Rwanda are vital to understand the horrors of the past, and make sure they never happen again. It is beyond comprehension to picture mass graves, murdered skulls piled 30ft high, or pools of human ashes. It is also beyond the tone of a column of this nature. And yet I’ll continue to draw attention to historical acts of genocide, the importance that travellers acknowledge them, and the fact that even today, the horror of mass murder continues to exist.
The Museum of Medieval Torture
My head is on the chopping block. This actual piece of wood above was used in dozens of decapitations, which believe it or not, is one of the kinder punishments you’ll find in this gruesome collection of authentic medieval torture instruments. This bizarre museum, located off the main square of Tallinn’s old town, has wooden, iron and spiked contraptions that date back to the inquisition. Accused of being a witch? They’d lower you on a giant wooden spike and split you in two. Spanish Tickle Torture was a device used to strip flesh from bones. You can see the genuine rack, used to split a body in in two, thumbscrews, and iron contraptions designed to expire the victim in unbelievable agony. I’m not sure what’s sicker: The wicked contraptions, that someone has actually collected them, or that I paid good money to visit the museum in the first place.
Transylvania is the birthplace of modern horror. At least in books and movies. Fictional Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler, a ruthless leader who enjoyed the sight of his Turkish enemies being skewered. “Dracula’s Castle” is in Romania, but it’s a renowned hokey tourist joint. Hang on, aren’t the hills of Transylvania perfect roaming grounds for werewolves. Nobody has seen one of them in ages, in fact, nobody has ever seen one outside of a movie theatre. What you will see in Transylvania are small villages alive with traditional music and cuisine. You’ll visit the capital of Cluj Napoca (above), full of cool bars, frequented by hip students listening to dance music or reggae. There’s nothing particularly creepy about Transylvania at all, other than the fact that, hey, it’s Transylvania. I’m not walking alone in those woods, pal.
Lamanai Mayan Ruins
Most ancient ruins up the creep factor, which is why they frequently feature in horror movies. Some Mayan ruins have the added bonus of having been the setting for human sacrifice, where decapitated heads echoed off the jungle as they bounced down the steps of temple pyramids. Found throughout Central America, the fate of Mayan civilization remains steeped in mystery. Why and how did one of the most powerful empires in history suddenly disappear? It is uncertain if human sacrifices took place here in Lamanai as it did in other later Mayan temples, although blood-letting sacrifices almost certainly did. I walk up the blackened stairs, soak up the mystery, with silence so spooky it could break my fall.
Chernobyl and Prypiat
Site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, it didn’t feel that weird standing outside reactor number 4. That’s because radiation is a silent killer, and sure enough the Geiger counter was reading levels dozens of times higher than in the nearest major city of Kiev. The true creep only sets when you visit the nearby deserted city of Prypiat. Residents had just hours to leave, abandoning everything, including their pets. A quarter century later, the city is a post-apocalyptic nuclear nightmare. Dead silence, school books flapping in the wind, buildings cracking with time. Since everything inside the 30km Zone of Alienation is considered nuclear waste, there they will remain. Including this haunting doll, one of many to be found in an eerily silent school.
The Kataragama Festival
Hang on, there’s nothing creepy about the Katharagama Festival! It’s an incredible, peaceful and unforgettable celebration of faith, as three major religions congregate in worship and respect. Still, when I stumbled on this unique Muslim ceremony, I witnessed a spectacle soaked in blood and wide-eyed fear. Holy men had gathered in a circle, and to demonstrate the intensity and extent of their faith, proceeded to stab themselves with knives and spears. To the chant of voices and the beat of drums, the holy man pictured jammed two knives deep in his skull, slashed his tongue and chest, but seemed to recover perfectly with a dab of ash on the wounds. Filming an episode of Word Travels, the reaction of our sound guy Paul (look right) speaks volumes.
Bonus: Introducing The Creepiest Guy I Ever Met. In Ethiopia's Southern Omo Valley. Oh, he was holding an AK-47. I believe I complimented him on his hair style, maintained eye contact, and backed away, very, very slowly....
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.