Surfing on the massive wave kicked up by the craze for things paranormal is Dunedin’s spookiest entrepreneur, Andrew Smith – host of Dunedin’s Hair Raiser Ghost Walk. Is it all nonsense, or is there something mysterious afoot?
“Hair Raiser Ghost Walk: See you there if you dare,” taunts the advertisement in the Yellow Pages. I’ve never been one to turn down a dare, so on a cold Friday evening I found myself in the Octagon with seven other ‘ghost tourists’, ready for a spiritual experience hosted by Andrew Smith. Smith says he got into the spook business through his interest in local history; his research uncovered “ghost stories and strange tales.” He announces he’s been doing tours for three years, and although he started out as a sceptic, ‘things happened’ and he became a ‘believer’. He has since appeared as an expert on Ghost Hunt, a TV series that purports to investigate hauntings throughout New Zealand.
Our entire tour is done on foot, at a relaxed strolling pace. This is quite convenient since the central city is packed with mysterious old buildings in close proximity. At $20 per person, it seems to be a lucrative business, and in fact Smith has started similar operations in Oamaru and Queenstown, making himself a veritable magnate of supernatural sightseeing.
6:01pm – Haunted Corner
It’s a suitably sombre evening: chilly, misty and grey. The tour group gathers, as instructed, outside the Information Centre in the Town Hall – which, we are quick to learn, is haunted. Yes, this was the site of Dunedin’s first hospital, now frequented by an apparition known only as the ‘Grey Lady’. Little is known about her, but there’s speculation she was a nurse, or a patient who went insane after losing a child. To this day, says Andrew, some staff in the Information Centre feel uneasy when they’re alone in the staffroom or basement. I look around curiously, but see nothing out of the ordinary.
Municipal Lane, the narrow alleyway between the Town Hall and public library, is apparently better known as the ‘Corridor of Death’ to Dunedin’s spectrologist community. It is said to be the coldest spot in Dunedin, a fact highly suggestive of ghost infestation (I was unable to confirm this with the local MetService office). Personally I think it is more to do with some sort of windtunnel effect, but that is too boring to be right.
After the tour I return to speak to Roy, an employee in the Information Centre, who claims he’s “never heard or seen anything” remotely ghostly. He pauses for a moment, then volunteers there had been a “bad smell out back,” but that just turned out to be clogged grease traps.
I nod sagely. Without doubt, this was no ordinary drain-clogging; it was the work of the Grey Lady. Ghost story #1: Confirmed.
6:08pm – Security Building
We walk a short distance east, and find ourselves at the foot of the impressive Security Building on Stuart St. This is the site of one of Dunedin’s most mysterious unsolved murders. James Ward, a popular lawyer, was killed by a letter bomb in his first floor office here in 1962. Does his restless spirit, torn with violence from the physical world, still wander the cold stone corridors? According to our guide, no one was ever arrested for the murder – and the room where Ward died has been subject to bizarre phenomena ever since. It was so bad, says Smith, that nobody would rent the room for years.
Later, I return to speak to Dick Young, the landlord of the building. He laughs and says the room where Ward died is as ordinary as any other room in the building, and has always been in use. The ghost stories are silliness, he chuckles.
Smith offers a counter-explanation for such inconsistencies: “often people are careful [what they say about ghosts], perhaps out of embarrassment … or fear.” As Young smiles and laughs at my ghost story, I swear that, for the briefest moment, I glimpse a look of pure terror in his eyes. Is he hiding a terrible secret? My head says no but my gut feeling is … yes! Ghost story #2: Confirmed.
6:17pm – Regent Theatre Back Lot
The tour group moves south and heads down a dim alleyway. Here, Smith tells us the story of one of Dunedin’s biggest disasters, the ‘Dunedin Holocaust’. Few people now know of the huge fire that destroyed much of the Octagon in 1879, killing at least 12 people. Putting aside for a moment whether ‘holocaust’is an appropriate term for the accident, it was really interesting to hear about the local history, the old fire brigade system and the demise of the chief arson suspect shortly after he escaped criminal charges. Our guide points out some of the remaining brickwork of the original building where the fire started – now part of the Regent Theatre. We’re told that the Regent Theatre and the nearby Ra Bar have been subject to many ghostly phenomena – especially the Ra Bar wine cellar, where a waitress once saw a floating ghost surrounded by a ring of fire.
Everything seems to add up, and we all know anecdotal evidence is infallible, so … Ghost story #3: Confirmed.
6:27pm – First Church
We cross the road to the First Church, and Smith tells us the story of the apparition who supposedly stalks these hallowed grounds – a ‘silkie’, the tormented spirit of a jilted bride-to-be who committed suicide. This is a Very Special part of the tour, because not too long ago, a tour group actually sighted this ghost. Yes, apparently they saw a woman standing in the car park (60 feet away), who then walked off. When the group investigated, the woman could not be found.
But come on, a car park? People, let’s get one thing straight. If you die and decide to become a ghost – presumably you have some choice in the matter – please select an appropriately spooky venue. Churches; old mansions; castles: yes. An asphalt car park: no. Well, it was a church car park, so I suppose she gets partial credit.
I was about to write the First Church apparition off as a load of rubbish – until I spoke to Russell, a respected senior member of First Church who had been a regular parishioner since 1966. He emphatically denied even hearing of the silkie. It was only then that I remembered the words of Prussian Statesman Otto von Bismarck, who remarked in 1815, “Never believe a ghost story until it has been officially denied.” Thanks for your ‘denial’, Russell. Verdict, Ghost Story #4: Confirmed.
6:36pm – Old Butcher’s Shop
We walk further along Moray Place, to another enclosed alleyway. Moisture drips from the roof and paint crumbles from the brick walls. This was the site of an old butcher’s shop. Graffiti on the wall here includes a picture of a ghost, helpfully announcing, “WOO, I am the ghost.” Andrew offers a convoluted story about butchers, burglars, a demon dog and a tragic death “right where we stand.” While he is talking, a car drives up the alleyway and some attractive young ladies get out. “Just ignore them, they’re the Dunedin Ghost Tour,” one remarks quietly, with a mix of amusement and exasperation. I was no longer paying attention to Andrew’s story, but the ghostly graffiti (a poltergeist self-portrait?) convinced me that whatever he said was true. Ghost story #5: Confirmed.
6:49pm – Carnegie Centre
We continue the clockwise walk around Moray Place until we reach the Carnegie Centre, the site of Dunedin’s first library. Smith lights a candle and leads us indoors. He tells us the story of “Mr Carnegie’s ghost” who stalks this building and who has a penchant for walking through walls.
We are led deep into the bowels of the building, descending several flights of stairs into the dark basement. The atmosphere is musty and oppressive. We enter a small square room. This, says Andrew, was a World War Two air raid shelter; it was also the site of a gruesome death when a homeless man died and wasn’t found for several days (“they called him the ‘liquid man'”); and the sacrificial chamber of a group of Satanists (“who looked just like regular people”). It is also the origin of an “underground river… concentrating spiritual energy.”
Strange, it looks like a concrete storeroom to me; but then again, I am not attuned to the spirit world. There are some interesting theatrics as the candle flickers and Andrew symbolically offers one of the tour group as a “human sacrifice.” If this isn’t totally legitimate, then I don’t know what is. Ghost story #6: Confirmed.
7:05pm – It’s Over
Andrew finishes with a sombre warning: people who have taken the tour have later suffered mysterious injuries. One person even suffered an unexplained black eye after taking the tour. He warns us to take care, “respect the spirits,” and contact him if we suffer any bizarre injuries in the next few days.
We share a few personal stories, mostly about haunted cemeteries and ghost photographs, before climbing back out of the basement. I gulp down the sweet fresh air. The tour is over. Afterwards my fellow tourists agree the trip was worthwhile. One family group say it was “very convincing” and “well done,” while a young couple tell me the tour was “a good look around… even if you’re [a local], it’s a good experience.” I feel disappointed (though unsurprised) that I didn’t see a ghost myself. At least all the stories have been confirmed; and by “confirmed,” I mean… “oh well, at least it was entertaining”.
OK, perhaps I’ve been a little dismissive. Seriously, I ask, is there anything in this ghost tourism? I turn to our esteemed chair-entity Vicki Hyde, who said, ex cathedra:
“Ghost tours, haunted pubs and such tales have been a mainstay of the cultural tourism scene for hundreds of years. Few people – operators and visitors alike – take them particularly seriously. Although there’s always a frisson of excitement that perhaps this is the night that the ghost really will appear, the most common result is a bit of entertainment, even a bit of education, but no ethereal existence manifesting itself …
“[We] are not particularly worried about such light-hearted entertainment. We’re more concerned about the highly lucrative and exploitative industry fostered by mediums, channellers and psychics who prey on the most vulnerable people in our society – those who have been recently bereaved or who, for some other reason, desperately want reassurance regarding the afterlife. It’s that industry we think deserves closer scrutiny.”
So, there you have it: ghost tourism is even OK with the mean old NZ Skeptics provided you don’t overcharge or exploit desperate people. (The exploitative ones – psychics like Jeanette Wilson who charge large amounts of cash to “communicate” with dead relatives of the vulnerable – deserve our unreserved scorn. While I’m ranting, I also demand that all of the actors, writers and producers associated with the TV show Medium be shot out of a cannon into the sun.)
The Dunedin Ghost Tour, by contrast, is good harmless fun, and relatively cheap for a personally guided tour of central Dunedin. If you’re a skeptic like me, it’s good for entertainment and educational value; if you’re a believer, who knows – you just might be rewarded with a ghostly visitation.
Hair Raiser ghost tours depart from the Dunedin Information Centre daily at 6pm and last for about an hour. Bookings are essential.
A version of this article was first published in the Otago student magazine, Critic.