SPOILER ALERT: I’ve omitted many specific details but, if you intend to experience Old Tailem Town for yourself, please don’t read on.
There are thirteen of us, crammed into three cars. We’ve eaten schnitzels at the Riverside Hotel, Tailem Bend, and now we’re going ghost-hunting. We were warned not to have too many drinks before the experience but we laughed it off. A few locals at the bar were in on the act; one warned us to go to the ladies’ toilets in pairs.
We pull up in the car park of Old Tailem Town and layer up with jackets, scarves, gloves. Our hostess, who’s turning forty, has forgotten to mention to some of us that we’d need to bring a torch. I shrug it off. I don’t scare easily. It’s an obliging moon tonight: high, bright and ringed with blue-ish halo, a phenomenon apparently caused by light refracting through ice crystals in the atmosphere. It’s freezing cold already. I’d passed this place many times before, believing it to be a kitschy old-colonial tourist attraction, but I’d never been inside. I’d assumed it was a bit like Sovereign Hill, a collection of faux-buildings made to look old. It’s not.
We’re greeted by a couple of men dressed like undertakers (saw that one coming) who both have unnaturally cadaverous cheekbones (or was it a trick of the torchlight…under the chin?) and speak in low, respectful-of-the-dead voices. Those of us who don’t have torches are given one because they’re mandatory and we’re offered Aeroguard spray to fend off the mosquitos that breed in the swamp behind Old Tailem Town. We ruin the undertakers’ ambience by sniggering, jostling and spraying our armpits. They have their revenge by ushering us into a room, making each of us sign a disclaimer form and performing a rather dramatic head count.
Here’s where my Sovereign Hill theory gets thin: Old Tailem is a relatively modern town of some one hundred old buildings, each relocated in its entirety, stacked and racked with their secrets and histories intact. I like the idea of its owner, a farmer with a passion for history, adopting unwanted buildings destined for demolition and replanting them in his paddock. It’s extremely authentic, dusty and unkempt. This history lesson creeps me out. Everyone knows ghosts go with the building.
We stop sniggering and link up in pairs. I’m not sure who is going it alone but my friend Fi’s arm is linked with mine. First stop: the toilets. I don’t need to go. Uh-uh. Nope. We’re told that these toilets are friendlier, that the block at the other end of the town is more likely to give you an experience with your pants around your ankles. Nope. Still don’t need to go.
Our guide, Ash, is a part-time paranormal researcher who also makes documentaries. Ash says this town is one of the most active sites he’s ever experienced, a hive of concentrated energy. He throws in a few teasers about what is to come and assures us that our final destination, the old Wollesley Church, is the last stop for good reason. The other guide brings up the tail and takes photos, often disappearing and materialising in another spot, but not in an obvious trying-to-frighten-the-rednecks way. He just seems to be intensely interested in other things. The undertaker act ends at the induction; Ash is jovial, except for the times when he’s noticeably nervous. He’s always in motion, shifting his feet, twitching about. This, combined with his delivery, winds us up more than any stagey shocks could. We wait for the expected set-ups but they don’t happen.
My reader-brain kicks in and I’m transfixed by his storytelling. I also sniff out the narrative direction early—he over-stresses some points and I already know they’re going to slot into place later—but it doesn’t matter. I’m having frightful fun (aargh).
We file into an old theatre, sit down and switch off our torches. It stinks of death in here. In the dark he tells us about a man’s body, found on this site and never claimed, about other deaths associated with particular buildings and tales of paranormal experiences on tour. Despite our layers of clothing it’s freezing, and it’s barely winter. I try to type notes about the presenting symptoms of escalating fear but I give up, deciding that documenting the experience will kill it.
At the train station we’re told about a guy who died on the floor, just inside the entrance. Found three days late, they had to cut the linoleum where his body had melted clear through to the floorboards.
Ash says, ‘Go on in. Take a look.’
We do, clutching each other, dancing a hesitant hokey-pokey in the doorway. In the end it’s not the stain on the floor, it’s the mannequin behind the door that makes us jump. There are mannequins everywhere, but this one catches the torchlight on the last pass, after you’ve already decided there’s nothing frightening about this sad, dusty room.
We stumble out, laughing. This building is closest to the swamp—we play our torches over the haze of mist obscuring the land behind the town. I notice our tailgating guide, doing his thing, photographing the shadows behind the station. He reappears at the side of the building and we have our best scream of the evening, a full-throated blood-curdling one (the tour could have ended there and we would have been happy).
In the milliner’s shop Ash specifically asks for a blonde girl to stand in a spot with her back to the wall. No reason is given. The other blondes in the group titter (there are a lot of them). Today my hair is almost black. Ha-ha. We turn off our torches again. Another piece of Ash’s story tumbles out. I want to reach for the blonde girl’s hand to reassure her but I’m positive it will have the opposite effect. The power of suggestion is more terrifying than what actually happens to her, which is nothing. I have a sudden, nasty cramp in my side and I press it until we’re allowed to turn our torches back on.
Outside, Ash tells us that, often, when a blonde girl stands in that place, she will have the sensation of having her skin caressed. The girl is chalk-white but won’t admit anything. As an afterthought, as we’re walking away, he mentions that the most common experience in the building is the sudden onset of abdominal pain that passes as soon as you leave.
He’s very good.
We are standing in the middle of the road, exposed on all sides, corralled by four or five buildings. I don’t know if this is strategic, but I would much rather have my back to a wall. Ash regales us with more details of sightings of a shadowy entity whose personality is still sketchy, but rapidly taking on form and nightmarish power as the tour begins to wind up. By now, we’re all eyeballing the quaint, white church at the end of the street.
Ash takes us to a home with a family history of several generations dating back to the late 1800s. ‘Here is a happy house with loving entities,’ he says (or something like it). When we file out he says some people feel unbearable grief followed by the sensation of being hugged, or held, when they’re inside. I’m starting to see his pattern, then realise he never tells you before, only after.
We’re flagging now. Many of us are complaining that we can’t feel our fingers and toes. Ash is even more agitated and it’s catching. We approach the church and linger outside near a cluster of relocated headstones. Ash’s tale of coincidence about a newspaper article and one of the headstones and is a nice touch and (again) if the tour had ended there I would have called it a cheap thrill (at thirty-five bucks for two and a half hours)and meant it sincerely.
We enter the Wollesley Church, giggling and jostling, albeit nervously. Ash has fully-prepped us all for this finale by leading us with carefully-placed suggestions. He does not break character, if he is playing a character; if anything he’s more subdued. Those suggestions come back to us now in the form of shrill phrases: staring and unresponsiveness, ran out screaming and vomited in the cemetery, an absence of feeling, gentle people exhibiting extreme anger and my personal brain-spike, welts. Most disconcerting of all, there are paranormal gadgets set up around us to measure and record any occurrences.
I have an overwhelming urge to sit down, shut up and listen but Ash is moving his chesspieces again. He seeks another blonde and asks that she be someone who has her partner with her. They’re directed to sit in the front pew. He wants somebody to sit alone, second row from the back. He needs two people to be seated directly across from a doorway leading to the room behind the pulpit and the rest of us can sit wherever we wish. Fi and I are still attached at the elbows.
Ash’s story comes to its inevitable conclusion. I silent-clap. This is performance art; a very good story. At the same time I’m crossing my legs because of all times now I need to go, and I’m cataloguing the sounds in the space and making sure they’re of this plane. Fi’s phone whistles to signal a message and we snicker. She lets go of my arm.
Something is playing with my hair.
There is nobody sitting behind me.
I try to talk myself out of it.
I don’t scare easily.
It keeps happening.
I move forward, fidget restlessly for the duration and swat at imaginary mosquitos until the torches are on and everybody is chatting. I laugh too loudly and make stupid jokes. I use the unfriendly toilet. I’m unsettled, but there are no sounds of scratching coming from the supposedly haunted cubicle next door.
In the car park, we hand over our loaned torches and shrug off our coats. We are all united in jokey scepticism.
But I completely understand why Ash can’t keep still.
Note: many of my photos didn’t turn out. Read whatever you want into that. And I know the final resting-place of the old Pie Cart.