The owner of the mansion looks at me with round sincere eyes. “I was drawn to this place,” he says. “Something supernatural wanted me to be here.”
At this statement, the normal reaction is sad head-shakes, orders to up the dose and not let the speaker near anything electrical. But this is Monte Cristo, the most haunted house in Australia.
I am here because I really really want to meet a ghost. This homestead in Junee NSW is my best chance. Built in 1863 by a rich bastard called Christopher Crawley, Monte Cristo was the standard Victorian nightmare of insanity, murder, suicide and misery. The real-estate agent mentioned all this to Reg Ryan when he and his wife bought it in 1963, but forgot to add that none of those involved had actually left.
With about 10 of the deceased clogging up the place, the Ryans say they’ve endured 40 years of footsteps with no people, piano music with no piano, the occasional ghostly hand on the shoulder and the death or desertion of endless pets. When one kitten managed to survive past five months, it was found in the breakfast room with its eyes gouged out and stomach unzipped. Something got into Reg’s locked chicken coup and strangled all the chickens without disturbing the lock. Sometimes the original owner, Crawley, is seen, still wearing his beard and brown suit.
Spooky, eh? Spookier still is the collection of weirdos also spending the night here. Ghosts attract lulus like a kelp trawler attracts seagulls. At the dinner table I am surrounded by a cross-section of spirit-botherers and raving crazies.
“Know what I do if I see a ghost?” asks Wayne, to my right. “I stand my ground. Them or me, them or me, them or me.”
Next to him is Ed, a man of about 60 with a face like a rotting crab-apple and a terrible loose cough, as though his lungs are filling up with swamp water. Ed is the most cross-eyed person I’ve ever seen; they’ve practically swapped sockets.
Opposite are two country girls and their boyfriends. The boyfriends look bored out of their minds. The girls have returned because they felt “cold spots” last time. On the table in front of them are ambient thermometers so they can test for ghostal activity.
Best of all, we have not one, but two psychic mediums. Medium #2 is already grumpy because she’s being outpsyched by Medium #1.
“I do clouds,” says #1.
“Oh, I love clouds,” says #2.
“No, I said cards.”
“Oh, I love cards.”
Without embarassment, #1 says she became a medium when she was collected by angels.
Excuse me, I say. What does that mean?
“I was sat there one day when 11 men appeared in the room and asked me to come with them.”
Maybe you were behind on the rent.
“They were angels. They asked me to do important work. I am also a ghostbuster.”
Wayne, who has been humming quite loudly, suddenly taps me on the shoulder.
“Do you do this often?”
I look at him. Do what often?
He looks at his roast potatoes. “Them or me. Them, or, me.”
Medium #1 is talking about all her out-of-body experiences. “I had one too,” says #2, irritated. “I flew past Saturn.”
It is clear that many at the table have a squidgy brain. I could suggest anything and they’d believe me. They already know they’re going to see ghosts – it’s just a question of how many.
This is the trouble with new-agers: they’ve removed their shit-filter. At the far end of the table, a woman who has already admitted to a long stream of emotional traumas, says, “Time only exists in the brain.” Someone else says, “Yes, that’s right.” One of the thermometer girls asks if I’m worried about being possessed.
After dinner, Ryan shows us around the house he has spent years restoring to its 19-century state. He tells stories of people unable to enter rooms, or getting upset and running out.
The thermometer girls walk around with their thermometers held up. “I’ve got 27.9,” says one.
“Wooh, I’ve only got 26.5 here.”
Perhaps it’s because you’re taller, I suggest.
“I can definitely feel something,” says Medium #2
“I just got patted on the head,” says #1.
I feel nothing at all. I sit on the bed where the boy got murdered: nothing. I stand on the balcony where the pregnant servant girl was pushed to her death: nothing. In one room I get a nasty turn when Ed has a particularly long coughing fit. Wayne sings “Waltzing Mathilda” under his breath.
Outside is the haunted cat that won’t ever come in. It follows us towards a small outhouse, where a retarded man was chained to a wall for 40 years before starving to death (cutting-edge Victorian medical treatment), and in which a nutter from the village once shot dead a caretaker.
We stand in the musty room breathing quietly. “Can’t you feel the pressure on top of your head?” asks Medium #1.
No. All I can feel is the haunted cat head-butting my ankle.
In the stables an unseen person once tried to force the door shut against a bloke in a stall. Photos taken in here show mysterious beams of light or flashes of light above people’s heads. I wonder if the photos came back from Woolworths with stickers on them saying, “Light too poor for photography.” Perhaps Woolworths has the answer.
I walk through rows of dusty restored carriages. Come on, ghosts, I think. Now’s your chance. Scare the crap out of me.
“There is no evil here,” says Medium #1.
There is nothing here, I tell her.
Sometime in the dead of night, I wake up. There is no sound: no footsteps or piano playing. I get up and open the door of my room. The landing light is on and an eerie pattern shifting on the wall. I freeze solid. Something is definitely moving.
Screwing up my courage, I step out on the landing, armed only with a pair of boxer shorts. There in front of me is a fringed lampshade, revolving slowly in the airconditioning. In the next room, Ed starts coughing again.