Fancy learning some horrid Highlands history and giving yourself the Heebies to boot? This one is for you then, and your brave teenagers!
It’s 8pm on a Friday when we arrive at Berrima Court House. Paranormal presences apparently prefer the dark.
Such as ghastly 177-year-old tenants Lucretia Dunkley and her lover Martin Beech. This grisly duo was tried and sentenced here in 1843 after Dunkley enticed Beech to dismantle her sleeping husband with an axe. After the murderous couple went to the gallows at the jail across the street, their heads were sent to the University of Sydney for study. They were buried upright in the jail’s graveyard so they could never find eternal rest. Or perhaps tonight we’ll hear from bushranger John Lynch, who was hanged in 1842 for murdering 10 people he happened upon while out pilfering and cattle-duffing. Not a happy chappy, he, too, is said to haunt this historic sandstone building, opened in 1839. Or so Peta Banks believes. A Sydney civil servant, Banks is also a paranormal investigator and founder of APPI Ghost Hunts and Tours. She often operates her ghostly goings-on here.
“I’ve always been one of these people who has had a dark side,’’ Peta says. “Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved ghost stories and scary stories.’
I, however, am a wuss from way back. But I have come on tonight’s Interactive Ghost Tour with an open mind and a secret weapon; my fearless 15-year-old daughter. There are eight of us on the tour this dark and rainy night and as Peta guides us through the judges’ robing room and the prison holding cells, she begins to set the scene.
““There were trials of 12 convicted murderers held here in Berrima Court House,” she says. “Six offenders met their death by hanging at the jail across the road and we believe that some of them are still here today.”
Gripping tightly to my teenager’s hand, I follow the crowd until we come to the court room. This building, commissioned by Governor Richard Bourke, is colonial Georgian with iconic Doric columns and was designed by architect Mortimer Lewis.
“Lucretia Dunkley is our most frequent ghost and she loves the men. She’s not terribly fond of us ladies but she will charm the pants off you if you are a male,’’ she says, adding that instances of men having their face, leg or even bottom touched are not uncommon.
The wooden pews are hard and the wind is howling outside. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I imagine a cold hand touching my face. The room is in almost total darkness but I catch my daughter’s pitying look as I inch closer to her. At the front of the court room, there is a television screen and recording equipment and I have the nasty realisation that at any moment Peta will start asking for volunteers. I sink down lower.
I’m right. The Ganzfeld experiment is a sensory deprivation experiment favoured by paranormal pursuers. Cameras record any visitations from a lifeless lurker. The way it works? Four minutes, alone in a holding cell. Pitch black. Doors closed. Volunteers? Not on your Nellie. My brave teenager acquiesces but like others, reports nothing odder than a trepidation of what might happen.
The next of the night’s undertaking is electronic voice phenomena, or EVP. It’s a process that records sounds, possibly spirit voices, electronically. We are each asked to send a question out into the blackness.
“Hello. My name is Jac. Are you guilty or innocent?” “Hi. I’m Stephen. Did you murder anyone”?
The silence that comes back is deafening, and although playing back the audio reveals no garrulous ghost, I’m beginning to feel quite unnerved.
“We call it getting the scares,” says Peta.
“It’s when you really start to feel anxious. I wish you could have come last month, because activity here off the charts. The door stopper on the court room door went flying with no one anywhere near it so the door slammed shut, and every single person took part in the Ganzfeld experiment and they all reported being touched on the leg or the face.”
The only person to opt out of the Ganzfeld experiment tonight, I give the last experiment my full attention. This involves using a so-called Ghost Box Portal to try and pick up any high range radio frequencies, apparently favoured by apparitions to communicate.
“This portal is a ghost box that continually scans through its frequencies like a car radio searching for a channel,” Peta says.
“But unlike a car radio that stops when you hit a channel, this one keeps going. The theory is spirits talk to you through the white noise and will use the radio voices to try and communicate. We are going to try and reach someone now,” she says taking a breath and projecting her voice up and out.
“Is there someone with us tonight”
Her question floats above us until unexpectedly a screeching, shocking violin chord pierces the blurring white noise of the court room. We collectively jump.
“Give us a nice clear answer please,” commands Peta. “Is there someone with us.”
“Brad,” comes a voice back through the static. I hold my breath.
“Brad?” Is your name Brad? Were you in the jail here Brad?”
Muffled static again followed by another startingly loud, far-off violin shriek.
Can this be right? We are all holding our breath now and my hand is tight in my daughter’s. If I could shrink down any more into the floor, I would disappear
“What town are we in Brad,?” says Peta.
“Berrima,” comes the clear reply through the faraway static.
An audible gasp runs through our group. We all stay stock still as Peta tries to entice the monosyllabic Brad to converse some more. But he is no longer in the mood to chat and suddenly it feels like it’s getting colder in here by the second. Time to leave and take the teenager home to the land of the living.
Escape Southern Highlands was a guest of AAPI Ghost Hunt & Tours.