Do you believe in ghosts?
I’ve been sitting firmly on the fence for decades, but after a fascinating late night ghost tour of one of the country’s most haunted buildings—right here in Canberra—I’ve teetered a little further to the believer side.
Behind the sandstone-clad walls and columns of the rather grand National Film and Sound Archive building, just beyond the city centre, lies a web of mystery and paranormal events.
It’s not just one mysterious story that’s been reported, or even two or three. It’s dozens of them: different stories or various iterations of the same story. I can’t give too much away, but the stories are rather compelling. Reports of a pesky and persistent poltergeist who throws objects around an office, and a string quartet that plays in the night, for example. Things that go bump in the day as well as the night.
In fact, there’s a story for almost every room or space in the building, too many to be told in the two hour tour that takes you into the bowels of the building into places you can’t normally access.
Many stories come from staff members who have worked or still work in the building, or from visitors, like the group of school children in the front row of a presentation who laughed uproariously at the little girl they saw under the stage pulling faces at them through an air grate.
The building itself has rather a surprising history. Originally designed as the entrance into a planned zoo, it was repurposed after the depression hit and the funding government coffers ran dry. A reimagining saw it begin life in 1931 as the Institute of Anatomy instead. It housed a collection of rather unusual and sometimes macabre items—human skeletons, a mummified body, mutant animal bodies, foetuses in formaldehyde, and famously beloved race horse Phar Lap’s heart—most from the personal collection of Dr Colin MacKenzie, the institute’s first director.
The institute was used for the dissection and scientific study of bodies and body parts, including those of soldiers and others acquired by dubious means, and even housed a morgue, Canberra’s first. Until the 1960s and 70s, it was a major tourist attraction where people would come to gawk at its gory collection. The building’s morbid history can possibly explain a lot.
The ghost tour is led by Tim the Yowie Man, local researcher, guide and gifted story teller. He’s fascinated by the mysterious and has a penchant for interesting facts, and knows a lot of them. He’s been doing these ghost tours for about four years and is ably assisted by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Jeremy from the Archives, who provides the historical research to add into the mix of facts and stories presented.
Tim tells us that about often during tours someone feels very unwell and many have had to leave. No one left on our tour, but as we stood in a corridor upstairs known as a hotspot for paranormal activity, two women in our group reported feeling a touch on their shoulders. In the dark, with torches glowing, of course. I must admit that as I stood in that corridor, my heart beat was a little more pronounced than it should have been. There was definitely a bit of tension in the space. And then there were two electromagnetic field meters that simultaneously went off as we were all gathered quietly in the morgue, listening to tales of its past.
Incidentally, that same morgue is the place you may well go to for a job interview if you ever apply to work at the National Film and Sound Archive, and work meetings if you get the job. It’s a heads-up that working there might be just a bit out of the ordinary. The people who work there seem to accept that and just get on with the job.
Even if you’re not into ghosts and all things paranormal, the tour is a fascinating insight into the history of this gem of a building and its art deco interior and unique architectural features, including Australian flora and fauna-inspired skylights and a specially-created writing font all of its own. You also get to see a couple of pieces of archival film footage that tie into the mysteries presented.
The whole thing may have got into my head. I woke up that night as I rolled over in bed, feeling a clear double tap on my left shoulder to help me on my way. I think it was a dream, but then again …
What about you? Have you got any ghost stories to tell? I’d love to hear.
Ghost Tour Details
National Film and Sound Archive, McCoy Circuit, Acton ACT
More information: shop.nfsa.gov.au/event-tickets/ghost-tours
First published at HerCanberra