Ghosts of Australia’s Past

Before you take your first step into Monte Cristo, “Australia’s most haunted house”, you’re confronted with the homestead’s grim past. There’s a prominent bleach mark on the second step up to the stately veranda. Its cause is well documented: an Aboriginal maid fell from the upper floor veranda and cracked her skull open on the unyielding stone. Her life ebbed away on that very step, and to make the scene more macabre, in the aftermath, her fellow maid was forced to clean up the blood. It left a mark on the house in more ways than one. But the motive – whether the maid flung herself off, or whether she was pushed by the wealthy owner, Mr Christopher William Crawley, because she carried his bastard child – has been lost to history. Either way, it’s just the first and most obvious of the many tragedies that cloak the Victorian-era country manor in its insidious reputation.

The Monte Cristo homestead is perched high on a hill on the fringe of Junee, a handsome rail and farming town about half an hour out of Wagga Wagga. Built in 1884 by Mr Crawley, Monte Cristo and its history parallel that of colonial Australia. Crawley was born to colonial settlers in Sydney, and he became a wealthy landowner and one of the founding fathers of Junee. By 1876, he owned more than 500 acres of prime grazing land rough-hewn out of the Aussie bush, and with his toil came wealth, and ultimately, Monte Cristo – a symbol of his colonial power.

Given the parallels between Crawley and colonial Australia’s fortunes, and their treatment of Aboriginal people, it’s hardly surprising the first death – and therefore, the first ghost – of Monte Cristo is that Aboriginal maid whose name is lost to history.

Monte Cristo homestead, Junee. Credit: Wiki Commons

No rest for Aboriginal ghosts

Before climbing onto the veranda, I nearly place my foot on that notorious blemish which marked a woman’s death. I hesitate, then do it anyway, wanting the full experience. I doubt the dead would mind, but perhaps it was me challenging the spirits as well? As a ‘dark tourist’, I want to see a ghost, even an oppressed one, and if the tales are to be believed, it’s not often a spirit will appear without provocation. Like the Aussie larrikins of old, I want to stir a pot, even to my detriment.

The legendary bush poet, Henry Lawson, himself an icon of colonial Australia, opens his story “We Called Him ‘Ally’ for Short” by stating “I don’t believe in ghosts; I never did have any sympathy with them, being inclined to regard them as a nuisance and a bore”. It was this spirit, a “scepticism which permeates the Australian self-image” as Barrett says in The Ghosts of Henry Lawson, I channelled. I reckon Aussies want to be shocked, want to see a ghost, but will shake their head and mutter “Nah, didn’t think so” when nothing materialises.

It’s the Australian way, but as I stride through Monte Cristo’s open front door, the nameless Aboriginal maid haunts me in another way.

Australia’s indigenous peoples don’t have ghosts in the modern sense. Haunted houses? The First Fleet brought permanent dwellings to Australian soil. Until the white man’s arrival, haunted houses weren’t in the Aboriginal vocabulary. Even as I find myself in Monte Cristo’s cramped but elegant hallway, jammed with kitsch from the 19th century, my mind is filled with the open spaces of Leonora in the Western Australian goldfields. It’s red, dusty, and sweltering there, near enough to the edge of the interior you could call it the middle of nowhere. My in-laws once lived there, and when I visited them, the burnt out husks of houses standing like rib-cages in the sun were an ever-present eyesore. These were government houses given to the local Aboriginal mob. Their customs dictated that whenever one of their family members died in a house, they burnt it down and moved on, often to another overcrowded house or into the dry creek bed. That mob cremated their ghosts before they had a chance to take root.

But there are Aboriginal ghosts, I later found out – just no Aboriginal haunted houses. The most famous of them is Oolana’s story. Oolana, from the Yidinji people up near Cairns, married a respected elder from her tribe. Soon after, she met a handsome young man named Dyga from another tribe, and sure enough, illicit love blossomed. The lovers tried to flee, but Oolana’s elders caught them beside a waterhole. Despairing, Oolana broke free and threw herself into the water, crying out for Dyga to follow. Instead, the Yidinji men dragged him away, and Oolana’s cries and thrashing churned the water and threw up huge boulders. Oolana disappeared, and this place is now known as Babinda Boulders. Legend has it that her spirit guards the waterhole to this day, and that her calls for her lost lover can still be heard.

Her call must be alluring because 15 men have died at Babinda Boulders over the past 50 years. Had I known Oolana’s story during my visit to Monte Cristo, I may have trod more respectfully.

Babinda Boulders, Queensland. Credit: Wiki Commons

Babinda Boulders, Queensland. Credit: Wiki Commons

Waltzing Matilda through the homestead

Ghosts, and especially ghosts around water, are so ingrained in the character of post-colonial Australia that they feature prominently in our de-facto national song.

Every true-blue Aussie knows Banjo Patterson’s ballad of the nameless swagman camped by a billabong and how his stolen jumbuck found him trouble with the law and ultimately led to his drowning in that famous billabong.

“And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:

“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

Australia’s colonial history stares me in the face as I enter the first room in Monte Cristo. There are no billabongs here. Although only a few metres from the front door, the room is dimly lit, and the air is cold and dry. The exact opposite of the swagman’s billabong, but no less rich in ghostly presence. It’s a sitting room of some kind, but it’s hard to tell. By modern standards, it’s too small for a lounge room, too large for a study, but the room is filled to the brim with bric-a-brac. I guess it’s to make the experience more authentic, but my cynical head already knew, from a conversation with Olive Ryan, the owner of the home, that her husband Reg rebuilt the home from ruin only fifty years earlier. The detail is extraordinary, but the external bricks dispel the illusion – but only if you’re perceptive enough to spot them. The exterior is painted ruddy and white lines have been painstakingly hand-drawn to make those bricks appear – at first glance, anyway – like mid-19th century originals. Knowing that little detail undoes some of the magic of the interior. It means most of the furniture, the ornate tables replete with faded doilies, the polished dark wood chairs, the lead lamps, and the rest, is not from the original Crawley residence. Instead, the Ryans must have spent countless days scouring antique shops for whatever they could find from the period.

Who’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me…

The first heart flutter in Monte Cristo comes when you glance into the corner of this first sitting room. A life-sized mannequin arranged in a dark period dress looms ominously in the corner. It’s an Uncanny Valley type of shock, and for those predisposed to fright, the first trigger they are entering a world where anything could happen.

I step back into the hall and glance up the stairs to the first floor. Instead of the customary portraits and paintings that line the walls, various framed mirrors hang. They’re designed to trick your peripheral vision into seeing movement.

I poke my head through the doorway to the double-sized room on the right and get another flash of movement. Wherever I step, the house feels alive, and it’s cold, so very cold. Surely that’s a sign of the supernatural manifesting? That’s what pop culture tells me. But no, above the expansive mantel, a huge mirror reflects the entire room and the doorway. I catch the familiar sight of my own face, and beside it, another mannequin in period dress, this one in rich blues and blacks. For the weak of heart, it would be a double shock.

The mannequin. The mirrors. It’s all a contrivance. An inspired one to be sure, but fakery nonetheless. If ghosts are actually here, I’ll need to look more carefully, beyond the theatrics.

My mind immediately jumps back to Henry Lawson, that other legendary bush poet, and his noted scepticism of ghosts. Barrett says of Lawson’s ghost stories, that they are “generally (in a) non-urban setting and (have) a tendency for the ghost to turn out to be a ‘non-ghost’ – either a false interpretation, an impersonation, or the product of some form of ‘weak-mindedness’, although this last is often open to interpretation.”

Lawson’s story “The Ghostly Door” springs to mind. Although set in New Zealand, two Aussie swagmen stop for the night at an abandoned house along a remote track. Despite their best efforts, they find the door keeps opening by itself, which is enough to convince them to leave the house in the rain to shelter in a tent. The next morning, the intrepid bushmen return to the house, determined to learn the secret of the ghostly door. The men find the house was poorly made, so when the wind picked up, the door frame would shift in a way that the latch would come loose and the door open of its own accord. Mystery solved. Yet, with a shiver, one of the men, Dave, says, “No Australian Bushman cares to camp in an abandoned homestead, or even near – probably because a deserted home looks ghostlier in the Australian Bush than anywhere else in the world.”

Truer words could not be said about Monte Cristo.

Billabong in Queensland. Credit: Wiki Commons

Billabong in Queensland. Credit: Wiki Commons

Haunting reflections

I’ve always been attracted to the dark. I write dark fiction, and my tastes lean to the gothic, which is why visiting Monte Cristo has long been on my bucket list. My very first ghost encounter was when I was at school camp in the Blue Mountains. Boys being boys, we stayed up late and told scary stories. One of my mates was on the top bunk bed, and he happened to peer out the high slatted window. He jumped back, his fear palpable, and he exclaimed he’d seen a floating head. The rest of us freaked and dived for our covers. After a few wracked minutes, we decided he must have mistaken one of the lamps outside for something sinister, but that encounter, and the powerful dread it wrought, stayed with me, even decades later.

There are a lot of emotions I’d expected when signing up for a tour of Australia’s most haunted house: tension, anxiety, excitement, maybe a little dread. I never expected the sadness to be so overwhelming.

I fondly remember the emotion of that first ‘ghost’ as I climb the Monte Cristo staircase to a barred and curtained door. I had learned when purchasing my ticket that this closed section was where Olive Ryan, owner of Monte Cristo, lived. I think back to our meeting just half an hour before.

She was alone and bored in the tiny museum that guards the homestead grounds, an ancient woman teetering behind a till. Olive and her husband Reg bought the estate in 1963. Back then, it had fallen to ruin; its history predated their purchase by 80 years. Olive’s subsequent decades living in a haunted house, and her husband’s death only a few years earlier, had transformed her into a shuffling cliché. Around her, the space was lined with cheap-looking memorabilia that hadn’t been dusted in years. There were tacky trinkets laid across glass tops, and the obligatory portraits and smudge-blurred photos of supposed ghosts on the walls. In one corner, film posters for Muirhouse, the story of a ghost hunter who became one of Monte Cristo’s victims. On the other wall, there were bright blue posters of a bloke on a motorbike, a stuntman named Lawrence Legend. One of his stunts was jumping a ramp over the homestead – I later learned he was Olive’s son. Obviously Larry Ryan wasn’t a cool enough stuntman name. His memorabilia was a jarring contrast in tone and colour to the rest of the place.

There are a lot of emotions I’d expected when signing up for a tour of Australia’s most haunted house: tension, anxiety, excitement, maybe a little dread. I never expected the sadness to be so overwhelming. Fragile Olive was its embodiment. Her hair was a wiry shock of white, and her jaw had shrunken with the loss of teeth. The perfect scary lady for a haunted house.

But given the chance to tell her story, the cheap gimmickry and rehearsed speech for the tourists fell away. It was with pride she swelled when she talked of Reg and his handyman skills. How he’d dragged her and the kids into the husk of once-proud Monte Cristo with a dream to restore it to its former glory. The photos on the wall she pointed to were not those vague suggestions of a milky phantom but of the house in the 1960s, derelict and broken before she and Reg gave its ghost a second life. The pride was unmistakable, but in a room full of kitsch she sells on behalf of her adult children and grandchildren, it was the absence of family that stirred my heart.

“I have four children and eight grandchildren,” she’d said, “but none of them want anything to do with this place when I’m gone.”

Olive was fated to suffer the life of the Monte Cristo women, outliving their husbands and dwindling away, confined through self-imposed exile to the estate’s grounds. The original owner’s wife, Mrs Crawley, was likened to old Queen Victoria herself; she lingered in black for three decades after her husband’s death, only leaving the homestead twice in that time. Mrs Crawley’s ghost, all decked out in black, is one of the most famous and often spotted in the bedroom, but Mr Crawley in his stately suit and beard is sometimes seen there, too. People have already started saying they’ve encountered the spirit of Reg Ryan on their tours. How ironic that the great showman who profited from ghosts would eventually become one.

The Monte Cristo history is full of classic Aussie character. Irony. Lies with a hint of truth. Pulling the other leg but flirting with danger. Or to echo Barrett again, “scepticism which permeates the Australian self-image”. The one thing that felt truly unAustralian when talking to Olive was the lack of family support. I’d thought an Aussie family from the bush could muster more kindness for their matriarch, but Lawrence and his siblings had too much of the 21st century in them, I suspect. Those classic colonial values that Patterson and Lawson romanticised must have died somewhere out the back of Bourke.

Beechworth Asylum. Credit: The Border Mail.

Beechworth Asylum. Credit: The Border Mail.

Contemporary Australian darkness

I couldn’t understand why Olive’s family would turn their backs on their parents’ haunted house. It was such a rich experience that had haunted so many lives, so why not theirs? Was it modern Australian life? Was it the morbid nature of ‘dark tourism’? I turned to a man who had some experience in the field.

Geoff Brown operates ghost tours at Beechworth Asylum in Victoria. He reckons the dark tourism industry has really grown in the last decade.

“Ghost tours and murder tours, and other tourism features based on the darker side of life, have seemed to become much more mainstream and noticeable,” he said.

That growth, he believed, has come at a cost. The typical Aussie larrikinism, that heroic-tragic swagman or star-crossed lover is now drowning in a billabong alongside the romance that created their legends. Stretching the truth to make a myth has become lying for merchandise or media space.

“A lot of it is done for the shock value, with the very darkest stories possible being told (whether true or not). I see people making outlandish claims, such as Lantern Ghost Tours of Pentridge Gaol in Melbourne claiming to have seen the ghost of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read in the cells there. Why the hell would he haunt a place he hated and certainly didn’t die in? I see a lot of people with obvious mental health issues taking advantage of other people with obvious mental health issues, too. Mediums are everywhere, and most of them have little to no talent except being able to talk fast and do a bit of research on customers beforehand so they can sort of hit the mark with some of their outlandish suggestions.”

Talking to Geoff is like the chalk to Olive’s cheese. Their passions are genuine, but where Olive is mired in her personal history and that of her house, Geoff is newer to dark tourism and is haunted by different experiences.

“There are some that are passionate about ghosts,” Geoff agrees, “but a lot that are passionate about getting as much money in the bank as they can, and very few who are truly interested in the historical aspect of the buildings they run tours through. Really, a short description would be the vast majority of ghost tour operators are greedy bastards with little to no belief in what they sell to others.

“It’s the same as every other industry, I guess.”

At last, a glimpse of that Australian cultural scepticism! Spoken like the cynical ghost of Henry Lawson.

But the bad experiences Geoff talks about are not in my thoughts as I stand on Monte Cristo’s grand top floor veranda – the very spot where that poor maid fell (or was pushed) and became the first soul trapped by the homestead’s myth. The view of Junee and its rolling hills is stunning, and ghosts are the farthest thing from my mind. It’s the view Olive must take in every morning when she wakes.

In this tiny island of unchallenged Australiana, despite the kitsch and trickery I imagine Reg Ryan must have thrived on, I glimpse the ghost I realise I truly came here to see. The ghost of an Australia long past, a colonial paradise where, for a short time at least, the magic of Patterson and Lawson still holds sway.

*   *    *

By Shane Jiraiya Cummings

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