Ghost Writer: The Humpty Doo Poltergeist

In an earlier post I covered my own experiences with the Humpty Doo poltergeist in Australia in 1998.

Two Australian journalists who also visited the Humpty Doo house wrote positive pieces about the case; Frank Robson in the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Good Weekend’ magazine and freelance writer Max Anderson for The Australian Weekend magazine.

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Journalist Max Anderson at the Humpty Doo house in 1998. Copyright: Max Anderson.

Max’s article appeared in May 1998 and he has graciously allowed me to reprint it here. Check out his great blog. 

Enjoy a different perspective on probably the best documented poltergeist case of all time.

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GHOST WRITER

When writer Max Anderson hitched a ride with Today Tonight on the recent ‘Humpty Doo’ ghost scoop he knew he had a scorcher of a yarn. Camera-toting TV journos chasing ghosts in Australia’s most haunted house? He couldn’t lose. Only he reckoned without one thing…

I couldn’t believe it. I’d found someone who cheerfully admitted to being a professional ghost buster. True story: Stephen Bishop will rid your home or office of unwanted entities for up to $50 a room. He even teaches apprentice psychics in his 150-strong Chiara College of Metaphysics in Sydney.

“It’s a big industry,” he said over beers one evening in Balmain’s Exchange Pub, “Sydney’s huge for it. I ghost-busted a Woolhara brothel last week. It was affecting business.”

Intrigued, amused, deeply sceptical, I scribbled a pad-full of notes while his conversation went merrily bump in the night. Then I secured a promise he’d take me on his next bust.

Two weeks later, events took a bizarre twist. On 3 April I learned that Channel Seven’s current affairs program Today Tonight had stitched up a deal with residents of a ‘haunted house’ in a Northern Territory town called Humpty Doo. Local media had been reporting ‘a ghost’ going berserk, until Seven signed a cheque for an exclusive report. I called Today Tonight reporter Greg Quail and did some horse trading: he could have my ghost buster if he’d take both of us to Humpty Doo – I, of course, being free to scoop my own story.

Sixteen hours later, I was on a plane to Darwin with Bishop, Quail and a film crew. Angry ghosts and ratings-hungry current affairs? Truly, Christmas had come early.

Saturday 4 April

Up close, TV is scary. Ten minutes out of Darwin airport and already there was stuff flying around – namely money. Hotel rooms, hire cars, extra video tape, even a thermal camera flown up from Brisbane. And Quail had quickly quarantined my ghost-buster in the Darwin hotel lest he “scare any spirits away”.

Speeding south, story details were materialising on ‘Australia’s most haunted house’. There’d been six weeks of supernatural aggro inflicted on five residents including ‘flying objects’ and words appearing on floors in gravel and Scrabble letters — FIRE, SKIN, CAR, HELP, and the name TROY. Troy and his friend had been incinerated when their Ute, loaded with thinners, pancaked into a nearby tree two months ago. He was best mates with a resident at the house called Murphy.

But there’d also been talk by the Seven team of an elaborate hoax. The Humpty Doo (Humpty Don’t?) story had broken on April Fool’s Day. Most chilling of all was the spectre of ‘The Great Carlos’, a hoax psychic set up by 60 Minutes in 19xx. Competing shows had swallowed Carlos like mullet.

Certainly, driving through the torpid NT flatlands with its spiky pandanus trees and creaky cottage industry (“4 SALE, STUFFED CROCKS”) it was hard to imagine a setting less like the moonlit imaginings of Stoker and Shelley.

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The Humpty Doo house in McMinns Drive.

Number 90, McMinns Drive sat behind a high cyclone fence, down a long gravel driveway. It was surrounded by five flat acres, studded with mango trees and wrecked vehicles.

We parked beside the single storey house painted a curious eggshell blue, and walked to the back where an extension of the baking roof formed an outdoor ‘breezeway’. Under this stood a long galvanised steel table, chairs, a fridge and a Harley Davidson.

The Harley’s owner Dave stood to meet us. “Gidday, how are ya?” He was heavy and bearded, wore t-shirt and stubbies, and spoke quietly. “Yeah, we’ve had stuff moved, thrown, broken, smashed…”

“But we’re hoping it’s gone,” said his girlfriend Jill, a thin woman with tousled blonde hair and lit cigarette. “A clairvoyant rang from Brisbane today, said she’d got rid of it. And it’s been quiet all day.”

Inside, the house was sparsely furnished. The dining area was empty save for a large cabinet, its three windows held together with starbursts of orange tape. The violence of the image surprised me. Beneath the cabinet, a crucifix and Bibles with pages ‘torn during a priest’s visit’. The kitchen window was smashed, ‘by a flying beer mug’. CDs and stereo had been ‘toppled in the lounge’.

And on the bathroom floor, Scrabble letters read ‘NO TV’. Someone in our group sniggered.

The man Murphy arrived home. He was short and powerfully built, tatts on his mahogany shoulders. “What do all youse fuckn vultures want?” The guy’s hostility caught me off guard and I stood feeling awkward in my long pants, already wet with sweat. Quail tried to placate, assuring him we were there to take a look and hopefully expel any spooks.

“How y’gonna get rid of it?” he snapped. We talked about Steve. “Well where is he? And when can he come? I’m sick of the fuckn thing.”

The remaining residents showed up, Burnie a muscular driller, and his wife Kirstie [Cropster: It was actually Kirsty!]  with their baby, Jasmine. Kirstie was thin, dark haired, tired and scowling.

For the fourth time, Jill said, “I reckon it’s gone with that clairvoyant woman. It’s been quiet all day. I’m sure it’s gone.”

Jill cried out around 4pm, came running from a bedroom, hugging her arms through her thin dress. “It’s happened again,” she said, “Murph, your bedroom – yer mattress is up in the bedroom.”

Cameras, people, all there in a flash, peering into Murph’s small room. A foam mattress stood upended, thrown with bedding against a dressing table. We murmured, unsure. An operator carried his thermal camera into the lounge, looking for unusual heat activity, finding nothing. I followed him, Jill talking all the time: “That’s how it starts, nothing for hours, then…”

Standing in the lounge, there was a smart ‘CRACK!’ on a cabinet — and I saw an AA battery land on the floor, just half a meter away.

Jill chattered: “There? See? See that? It’s happening!”

I glanced to where it might have been thrown from. No-one. I heard myself yell — “GUYS! IT’S HAPPENED!” — only it was a silly voice, over-dramatic, stoked. Striding figures came into the room to see me pointing dumbly.

“I don’t know where it came from,” I said.

Three rational men were sitting at midnight in a hotel bar, trying to explain what we’d seen.

And not only the battery’s sudden appearance. I couldn’t account for the steak knife which bounced off the steel table onto the floor at Kirstie’s feet. Or the heavy glass lid which fell into view while Kirstie was looking inside the fridge. The sound recordist couldn’t account for the spanner he saw crash into a kitchen cupboard, hurled with such force from the empty lounge that it shook a video camera mounted in the kitchen. Both cameramen were baffled by another knife that struck the hire car while they were stowing their cameras, no-one behind them.

Steve Bishop urged us to recount events in detail, amazed at so much activity. “But I don’t think it’s connected with Troy,” he said. I sat up, listened to him. “It’s too soon after his death. And if Troy was a friend, why’s he causing trouble? No, it’s bigger than that.”

I decided that descriptions of objects being ‘thrown’ or ‘flying around’ were inapt. No, our objects had appeared in our peripheral vision; we only saw them upon or after impact, followed by any movement on the rebound which gave us clues of origin and trajectory.

Still, since these objects were obeying physics (and the angle of incidence does indeed equal the angle of reflection) then maybe we could determine who was throwing them.

“And God help whichever one it is. Burnie and Murph are at the end of their rope. Burnie said if they caught someone throwing stuff, they’d kill ‘em.”
That night, I slept with the light on.

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The Humpty Doo house in 1998. Copyright: Max Anderson.

Sunday 5 April

Palm Sunday. The NO TV message in the bathroom had changed to NO CAMERA.

I watched with Kirstie while a Seven man recorded the Scrabble letters in Hi 8. In an instant we heard a scratching noise at ceiling height, all spun around to see a piece of glass the size of a playing card fall at Kirstie’s heel. Again the rush of adrenalins, the excitement of seeing something utterly, inexplicably fantastic.

Minutes later, in the dining room with Kirstie there was a sharp SMACK! on the wall, a meter above my head. A small chunk of glass rebounded at my feet.

“Jesus, it’s going off!” I walked into a bedroom empty except for piles of clothes and toys and for some reason the skin shrank on the back of my neck. I retreated and announced, “That room gives me the shivers!”

“What room? What fuckn room?” Murph was quickly in my face, eyes wide, yelling, pointing. “Look you don’t know nuthn! You’re guessin’ like all the fuckn rest of ‘em!”

Then Kirstie started up: “Leave the bloke alone! He’s got an opinion! No-one really knows, Murph! Leave the bloke alone!”

Maybe it was being confronted by very real human stress, but I began listening to the residents and that morning, (while Scrabble letters hit the roof, Murph’s mattress up-ended twice and gravel fell from nowhere), I tried to ascertain exactly what was bugging them.

Safety wasn’t a concern. It was rare that anyone had been touched by an object, let alone hurt, and for the most part, damage had been inconvenient rather than costly. They were jumpy but only occasionally terrified, and they liked the place. “Buggered if we’re gonna be shifted by a ghost!” they said.

No, I decided they were freaked by not knowing whether it was connected with the death of Troy; they were tired from mentally wrestling with their reality of esoteria; and they were utterly frustrated and upset to the point of fury that Humpty Doo, Darwin and soon the rest of Australia thought they were liars, druggies or mentally unstable. From their perspective, they were experiencing what US Vietnam veterans went through: no understanding and no sympathy while shit rained down all around them.

The afternoon turned into a waiting game. Quail, yet to witness anything himself, suffering from flu and desperate for pictures, had set five video cameras rolling inside.

So of course the action shifted outside. When the local priest, Father Tom, crunched up the driveway in his car, a .44 magnum bullet flew onto the steel table with a resounding CLANG. I felt my gut hollow: knives, glass and now bullets. The dilemma of live ammunition slamming into steel wasn’t lost on me, either. The Priest, who’d seen it all before while blessing the house, and now quite media-shy, departed minutes later.

An hour passed, the sweat thickening to waxy grime, the talk punctuated by the ‘crack-crush’ of chilled beer tins and scrit-scrit-scratch of disposable lighters. Then a cameraman yelled in frustration: “Come ON!” At which a stone flew at great speed from the empty driveway, CRACK! onto the table. Quail’s eyes widened. “I’ve seen it! My God!”

The cameraman called out again: “At least show us on camera so we can go!” Within minutes, the crew had an incident on three cameras: a baby’s bottle being toppled from a microwave in the kitchen. But conclusive evidence? On tape, Dave’s leg occludes a clear-shot camera the split second the bottle leaves the microwave, throwing the whole incident open to question. The timing is not just excellent: it’s work of genius.

Monday 6 April

On the morning of the third day, the NT News tabloid reported the builder of the house as saying his energy was stalking the property because the banks had forced him out. Elsewhere a friend had accused Murphy of “only being in it for Channel Seven’s money”. And the ABC had reported a five-figure payout from Seven. (I can tell you the five residents came away with nothing like it.)

But by now my cynical ‘ghosts and media’ reportage story was an irrelevance.

In the quiet of the day I found myself stalking the hot blue walls of the house, my t-shirt hanging in the humidity. I was hungry for more incidents, not least so I could assuage an angry crowd of sceptics gathered in my head. I wanted – demanded – 100 per cent proof or disproof, or even a 50:50 doubt:certainty for a conclusive “Who knows?”. But the persistent 95 per cent “I can’t explain” accompanied by a five per cent “just maybe” drove me nuts.

By the end of the day, despite seeing scissors appearing in the pool, a coin hitting the roof and another bullet landing behind me, I was plagued with sensory denial. I dug up grounds for doubt on every incident, convinced that Kirstie was somehow culpable. The appearance of the Scrabble letters ‘GO’ on top of the sound recordist’s fluffy microphone made me laugh. “Only three points?”

That night, a cameraman and I slept over. As I lay melting on the living room floor, I reasoned that our witnessed ‘unexplainable’ events were as reliable as reports filed on accidents. Cloudy re-tellings of fleeting moments poorly perceived.

I slept fitfully as the house lay quiet.

Tuesday 7 April

4pm, on the fourth day; and as ghost buster Stephen Bishop came through the gates of Number 90, I was confident of two things: (1) if anyone was pulling stunts it was Kirstie and (2) Kirstie wasn’t pulling stunts.

My sceptic bubble had been burst that morning.

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Kirsty from the Humpty Doo house.

The other four residents had left for work. Jasmine was crying in the bedroom. I went to quieten her with Kirstie. The mother hoisted her child into the crook of her left arm, then turned and walked with me, smoking a cigarette with her right hand. I passed Murph’s bedroom door on my right with Kirstie on my left. I spontaneously checked the room. I opened the door, saw it was empty and undisturbed, began to close it and heard a sudden BANG. I was confused, heard Kirstie say, “That came from in there.”

Opened the door again to see a piece of broken glass against the far wall. The fact is she could not have thrown that glass. After re-enacting the event on camera, I quietly declared for the record: “Poltergeist”.

But now the cameras were rolling for Steve who’d emerged from his car at the gates. “How’re you feeling?” I asked him.

“I was pretty nervous this morning,” he said. “That’s partly the cameras, but my energy is being disturbed. I can tell you this is the most extreme case I’ve ever come across. I’m not even sure I can deal with it.”

Dressed in white t-shirt, baggy shorts and cap, he began moving among the mango trees in the front acreage, closing his eyes behind his spectacles, putting palms out, taking breaths. “The land’s dead, lost its soul,” he pronounced to the camera.

I swallowed, suddenly feeling horribly responsible for setting him up as a ‘ghost buster’ in front of TV land. He answered Quail’s questions with confidence– “Steve, tell us what you’re doing now,” – but I feared he sounded preposterous.

As darkness fell, he met the residents in the breezeway (the house was quiet) and asked them about their feelings, dreams, the baby’s reactions, like a doctor probing for symptoms.

“It seems to be connected with the energy of the earth and the land around here. If that’s the case then there’s nothing I can do. It also seems to have intelligence which means it could be very dangerous.”

Inside, he found the house “oppressive” while in some rooms he perceived a ‘residual’, like grey slime. He teamed with Dave, the Harley rider, who professed to feel it strongly as Steve mentally cleaned and re-set each room. The entity was squeezed using ‘psychic seals’ into a single room, where Steve, in faith healer’s voice, suggested it was going away, and all would be right. Everyone was running with sweat, cooking under the camera lights.

Later that night, I watched the baby Jasmine collecting up a bunch of fibre pens once arranged on the floor to spell ‘FIRE’. I thanked Steve for his help and patience, for his good faith, which seemed to give some of the residents strength. “I look at it like psychic science,” he said. “If you’re religious, then it would work just as well because you’re focussing your energies into that.”

“And you think it’s gone?”

He looked over his glasses. “I don’t know.”

Sunday, 12 April.

Writing these events, I’m still sure of what I saw. What’s more, I realise that like it or not I now belong to a minority group which wears a number of labels including Fraud, Pratt, Dreamer and Liar. None of them good for a writer/journalist.

“Tell me about it,” said Greg Quail, returned to Sydney after a full seven days in Darwin. And guess what?”

“What?”

“It’s back. Came back Friday. And worse than before.” Quail described a vase of flowers being smashed in the empty lounge room. “Shit everywhere.”

“I believe it,” I said.

Friday, 24 April

Quail’s show rates well on Monday night after a media blitz. Today Tonight allocates a huge 15 minutes to the story. More witnesses are scheduled for the “Story of the year” on Tuesday, then Bishop will bust on Wednesday.

In the interim, the residents are threatened by the owner of Number 90 with eviction for damage caused to property. Court action proceeds.

On Sunday, a freelance cameraman based in NT was commissioned by Seven for extra shots, who captured a flying object on tape. Quail rejected the shot for Monday’s show because it could not be cross checked with other camera angles. On Tuesday morning a tape editor notices a glimpsed reflection of a figure apparently tossing the object over the head of the cameraman.

Quail is in shock. Two seconds of tape will trash two weeks of investigation involving some 30 incidents and 18 witnesses. We think the figure is Kirstie, and after the fanfare of Monday, her timing is terrifyingly bad.

“I was called into the bosses office, this morning” groans Quail over a beer. “He played me the tape, demanded an explanation. I just wanted to run out of the building.”

“What are you going to do?” I ask.

“You know there’s something in there, I know there’s something in there, but what can I do? With that one incident, she’s blown their whole story.”

“But what about – “ Once again, we painfully pick over the incidents of the four days, dividing them into ‘suspect’ and ‘sound’. But none of it is of consequence. Quail has to make a decision quickly: TV management doesn’t believe in ghosts and TV Land will ultimately judge haunted Humpty Doo on this single clumsy piece of fraud. “The story’s a turd,” concludes one TV veteran, “and you can’t polish a turd.”

The ghost busters of Today Tonight must become hoax busters. Bishop’s story never gets made; sceptics are interviewed; furious phone calls are exchanged between Quail and the residents.  Kirsty admits she threw the object for the sake of being believed but on Wednesday denies everything. The residents circle the wagons and say “Enough”.

On Friday, anchor Peter Luck can barely keep the contempt off his face as he says they’ll be revisiting Humpty Doo, “Hopefully for the last time”. A two minute end-piece on TT tells why.

Part of me too, is relieved. I’m back in the land of the rational-thinking, albeit wearing my ‘Pratt’ label for falling victim to the thin woman with the baby. But if I sit down and really think through those four days?

Then I’m certain a poltergeist somewhere is laughing its head off.

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