Capital haunts

It's misty and cold. A heavy dew has already settled on the ground and a mid-spring frost is well on the way. As I clamber up the roadside embankment on the western side of William Hovell Drive near its intersection with Drake Brockman Drive in Holt an occasional car speeds past. At this late hour it's probably a shift worker coming home or someone returning from a late dinner.

With shoes well and truly sodden from the moisture-laden long grass, I carefully open the appropriately creaky gate and wander into the historic Weetangera Methodist Cemetery. I'm the first to admit that it's not the most normal place to conduct an interview, but my subject J.G. Montgomery is no ordinary interviewee. The 40-something, long-term Belconnen resident has spent the best part of the last 20 years fossicking through moss-encrusted tombstones and other likely haunts for ghosts around Canberra and across a number of continents.

I eventually find him huddled over one of the 30 or so gravestones in this forgotten cemetery, clutching a copy of his recently penned book, A Case for Ghosts, which after reading could just as easily have been called A Case against Ghosts.

''At least 80 per cent of every ghost story I've investigated can be explained by something logical,'' reveals the somewhat sceptical ghostbuster. While some visitors to this particular cemetery have experienced ''dark and foreboding feelings'', Montgomery puts it down to its eerie atmosphere rather than anything supernatural. However, he's not so dismissive about every case he has considered, and in his book even details some unexplainable occurrences of his own, including a hooded shadow, which appeared before him at the Dragon Hotel in, of all places, Montgomery, in Wales.

So often books investigating the paranormal are set in faraway places. However, a decent chunk (probably a third) of the paranormal protagonists in A Case for Ghosts lurk in the bounds of the ACT. It makes it a more enjoyable read when you can relate directly to many of the locations (and visit some of them to boot).

So after half a lifetime in search of the truth, does Montgomery believe in ghosts? Well, I don't want to spoil his conclusion for you, but while crouching among the lonely graves of old Weetangera Cemetery, he was happy to share his top five Canberra haunts.

1. AIR DISASTER MEMORIAL

The haunting: On August 13, 1940, a Lockheed Hudson bomber plummeted into this hill, burst into flames, sadly killing all 10 people on board. In the decades since, the crash site has established a reputation for being Canberra's most haunted location. Tales abound like the one about the teenager who fled the forest screaming, claiming she was being followed by images of an airman on fire and young couples (prior to the access road being closed to the public, it was once a popular ''parking'' place) catching a fleeting glimpse of a ghostly figure dart across the road. There are also stories of people claiming to hear a phantom plane crashing, and also strange flashing lights in the old dirt car park adjacent to the memorial.

Scare factor: High - stories of people running from the forest in the dark of the night vowing never to return doesn't exactly instil a high level of comfort in those planning to visit.

JG's verdict: Without doubt one of Canberra's most haunted sites, however, a lot of the stories about the site are simply urban legends.

Access: A 2.8-kilometre return walk on forest roads from the entrance gate to Fairbairn Pines on Fairbairn Avenue, Pialligo. Note: signage for this walk is far from adequate. If exploring the site under the cloak of darkness, I strongly suggest you first visit the memorial by day to familiarise yourself with the route.

2. NATIONAL FILM AND SOUND ARCHIVE

Haunting: This art deco building once housed the somewhat gory Institute of Anatomy from 1931-1984 and is home to a bevy of unexplained ghost and poltergeist activity. The downstairs corridor is one of the major hot-spots for poltergeist activity, and it's little wonder, given it was once lined with hundreds of human skulls. In the early 1990s, security and administration staff were called out to the building at about 2am as the sensors in this ''corridor of death'' had detected movement. No logical explanation for the movement was uncovered. Other paranormal phenomena reported here include a poltergeist that hurls the circular metal containers of the old fashioned film strips, a Petri dish-throwing poltergeist in an upstairs darkroom and the ghostly vision of a child looking up through a grill in the old cinema.

Scare factor: Medium - although try telling that to the contractor who, several years ago, claimed to have been pinned up against the wall in the basement by an unseen force.

JG's verdict: The site of an extremely strange and hard to explain haunting involving a sighting of more than 100 ghostly figures in the foyer all at the same time.

Access: McCoy Circuit, Acton. There is hope that the archive's popular ghost tours of a decade ago will soon be reintroduced to allow ghost enthusiasts to once again explore the haunted bowels of this Canberra landmark.

3. DUNTROON HOUSE

Haunting: Built in 1833 by merchant shipper Robert Campbell, Duntroon House is the oldest building in Canberra. These days it is primarily used as the officer's mess for the Royal Military College, but it's not just our top brass that wander its stately corridors and around its dark corners. During the 1970s, residents of the Royal Military College started to report glimpses of a glowing ghost of a young woman in 19th-century period costume. Soon after, some residents also complained that a bed, freshly made in the morning, would be found as if it had been slept in later in the day, with pillows hurled around the room. This room, on the first floor, once belonged to Sophia Susanna Campbell (Robert's granddaughter), who, on May 31, 1885, aged just 28, died after falling from the room's window. Her death certificate states that Sophia died of apoplexy (cerebral haemorrhage). Speculation to this day remains as to whether she was pushed, fell, or jumped. It has been reported that on many occasions windows mysteriously open in her locked room, and in the mid-1970s a distressed mother complained of seeing a ghost standing in front of her four-month-old child. In recent months the vision of a lady in a white dress has been seen wandering aimlessly through the gardens.

Scare factor: Low. Although one of our city's most well-known ghosts, no one has ever felt threatened by her presence.

JG's verdict: Definitely something strange going on here.

Access: Duntroon House is off-limits to the public except during open days (usually held in September) and other special occasions.

4. BLUNDELLS COTTAGE

Haunting: The apparition of a teenage girl playing in the English gardens around this historic rubblestone cottage is thought by paranormal investigators to be the ghost of Florrie Blundell who died in 1892 at the age of just 16 as a result of burns sustained following an ironing accident. Some visitors to the heritage-listed cottage - now a museum - report being overcome with the ''disturbing odour of burning human flesh''.

Scare factor: Low-Medium. The ghost of Florrie has never harmed anyone. In fact, some psychic mediums claim her ghost enjoys visitors, especially those of a similar age and gender (teenage girls).

JG's verdict: It's grisly and tragic past may explain the ghostly happenings in this quaint rubblestone cottage.

Access: Wendouree Drive, Lake Burley Griffin. Florrie is usually only ''encountered'' in the cottage's front verandah or surrounding garden, but if you do want to check out the inside her former home, it is open 10am to 11.30am, noon to 4pm on Thursdays and Saturdays. Entry is free.

5. HOTEL KURRAJONG

Haunting: Rather than bunk down at the Lodge, Ben Chifley (our prime minister from 1945-49) called room 214 in this hotel (which was little more than a basic hostel back then) home for the best part of six years. Unfortunately for Chifley, he not only ran the country from this top floor room, but he also died here, suffering a fatal heart attack on the evening of June 13, 1951. In recent years, some hotel staff and visitors have even claimed to have seen his ghost. It apparently manifests itself in the form of a ''grey-suited man'' pointing towards Old Parliament House.

Scare factor: Medium. The sight of an apparition in your hotel room, even if just harmlessly pointing out the window, would be an unnerving one.

JG's verdict: Does the ghost of Ben Chifley gaze down upon the serene grass courtyard of this most elegant of hotels pondering unfinished business?

Access: 8 National Circuit, Barton. Although you can request a night in Chifley's old quarters, it is almost always people unaware of stories of the ex-PM's ghost who encounter it.

Other haunted Canberra locations featured in Montgomery's supernatural expose include Old Parliament House (home to several spooks of the paranormal kind), the Hyatt Hotel (the spirit of a young girl who allegedly burned to death in the boiler room in the 1930s), the National Museum of Australia (the former Canberra Hospital, and more poignantly its morgue) and Lanyon Homestead (the poltergeist that mischievously moves cutlery around in the old dining room).

Have you had a ghostly encounter in Canberra? If so, I'd love to hear from you at the address at the end of this column.

A Case for Ghosts: a personal journey into the often unexplainable world of ghosts and the supernatural by J.G. Montgomery ($27.50) is published by Ginninderra Press.

CONTACT TIM

Got a comment on today's stories or an unusual photo? Email: timtheyowieman@bigpond.com or Twitter:@TimYowie or write to me c/o The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie Street, Fyshwick.

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