Paranormal Investigation: Aradale Insane Asylum
Welcome to Aradale
Photo: Aradale Asylum.
"It's not overstating to call it a disturbing report Doug."1
Because I can't resist an ultimate, in July 2018 along with my Scooby Gang I booked the six hour ultimate overnight paranormal investigation at Aradale Asylum. It became obvious we were onto a good thing when the Eerie Tours phone menu was done in this FANTASTIC Vincent Price voice. These are my kind of people.
Excited, I decided to dig into a little reading. I've not covered the notorious state of early mental health care and asylums in general, as by being here you're probably already across all that. The horror films don't have it far wrong.
The Aradale high points are:
1864 Construction kicks off on the brand spanking new Ararat Lunatic Asylum (later renamed Aradale by public competition). This is one of a trinity of new Victorian asylums built to deal with the colony's "lunatic" problem.
It was built to accommodate 250 inmates. More buildings are added over time, but inmate numbers stack up VERY quickly.
1881 Yarra Bend Asylum closes. Aradale inmate numbers increase to 423.
1887 Aradale assumes control of the old bluestone Ararat jail, built in 1859. This becomes J-Ward, and remains Victoria's maximum security facility for the criminally insane until its closure in 1991.
1966 Aradale opens a training centre for those living with an intellectual disability, swelling inmate numbers to 810 by 1967. Later documents divvy the mentally ill and those living with a disability into "patients" and "residents," separate from convicted criminals who were incarcerated; but as lip service alone was paid to human rights I'm simplifying by calling them all inmates.
1977 Inmates drop to 641, but with a higher proportion of those living with a disability. Already serious problems are brewing, beyond inmate crowding or the treatment standards of the time:
Aradale has come to serve two masters. Two different Government departments are responsible for psychiatric and intellectual disability care. Their policies and guidelines are in conflict. At Aradale there is no clear division, and nobody claims oversight.
1977-1991 The ratio of staff to inmates increases dramatically. There is no corresponding improvement in inmate outcomes. Just more people being employed.
1991 Health Department Victoria receive an anonymous tip off regarding how badly things have soured at Aradale.
Allegations include sexual and physical abuse, unprofessional medical procedures, unprofessional nursing practice, fraud, and theft of both inmate and Government funds and property.
A task force is formed, investigating between May and September of that year.
The report was damning, and the scandal hit the papers. The only way Aradale had changed since last century was into a pitiless, soulless machine for perpetuating itself. Delivery of any standard of inmate care had been subsumed to this one goal.
It turned out inmates had been deliberately, systematically disenfranchised in stunting, humiliating ways to reduce them to an institutionalized state and keep them there.
Treatment included but was not limited to public contempt, mental stultification, communal underpants, lack of privacy, denial of basics of care such as dentistry (many inmates were missing their teeth), being locked up for the convenience of staff, insufficient and boring food (plenty of food was purchased but staff brazenly took it home for themselves, with up to 50% of some choice items walking right out the door), and overall denial of inmates' right to be independent fully expressed humans.
"The average length of stay at Aradale for psychiatric patients is 23.3 years, or 54 times the acceptable WHO International Standard of 150 days."1
"... the majority of staff at Aradale have an unacceptable attitude that patients and residents are 'different' and that the ordinary rights of citizens in the community do not apply to them."1
1998 Aradale is closed as an asylum.
2001 Melbourne Polytechnic establish a campus on the site. At the time we visit, Victoria Police are also using the grounds for training.
Of course, I spent the night before watching Grave Encounters.
Before you start in, yes, it's not a perfect film. But the effects are neat, and the casting is stupendous. I 100% enjoy watching this small TV paranormal investigation crew, manufacturing their own scares yet hopeful ... faintly, secretly hopeful that THIS might be the time they encounter a real ghost.
Image: Promotional image from film Grave Encounters
Aradale Asylum is a solid two hour drive from home. A whole landscape of subtle bistre and pale olive, laid out under a watery sky. Flat, flat, flat. Occasional stubbled hills on the horizon. Watching the temperature gauge flicker between 8-10 as we clicked the heater on and off. Also it's lambing season, so the adorable little buggers were everywhere.
Eventually a few reluctant mountains showed their face. Including Mount Ararat, from which the town takes its name.
I'm a city girl, so I'll give you a quick rundown on Ararat.
Ararat first started to take off in 1857, which seems early unless you belong to the Djab wurrung/Tjapwurong Indigenous peoples, whose oldest currently known occupation site dates to 22,000 BP. For reference to my overseas readers, the British started really large-scale hauling convicts off to Australia around 1803.
During the Victorian gold rush the town boomed until the 1980s, after which population declined until the 1990s. Several infrastructure and tourism projects are now resulting in a small but steady turnaround.
And it's worth driving out just for the scifi epicness of the windfarms.
We arrived and checked into our motel where I immediately found evidence Ararat is from a simpler, more innocent time.
Photo: The Ararat "Eating Out Guide," photocopied from the look of it. Available in all good motel rooms.
On a tight schedule we packed our gear (including a little baggie of rock salt because how embarrassing if hostile ghosts turned out to be real and I wasn't prepared), snuck in a quick glass of wine, girt our loins and headed out.
Photo: Emergency rock salt, for all-purpose purification and safety barriers. Pink, because we are fancy.
Meet the Team
I know I've written before about the importance of the paranormal investigation mandigan, if you ever want to be taken seriously as a ghost hunter. After trips to several op shops without finding anything good I was starting to panic; but look at this great ghost hunting hat I found! I feel it conveys everything that a good mandigan should.
Image: ghost hunting mandigan, as seen in the film The Conjuring.
The Aradale site started getting cold and dark very quickly, as all good haunted evenings will. Mist creeping in. The baying of some monstrous hound on the moors. Cars pulled up and other attendees piled out, to assemble in their cliques and wander the front lawn. Some of them looked like they'd gotten lost on their way to McDonalds.
Soon Eerie Tours staff arrived to impose some sort of order. To our relief, the majority of giggling herberts were herded off for the shorter ghost tour. They were off to enjoy a bit of a historic walk, not too strenuous, with the host charmingly decked out in full historical gear (or an interpretation of such).
Those of us doing the paranormal investigation separated from the main group to meet M, our tour guide for the night. No dressups in sight. Just a couple of lanterns, cases of equipment, and an open mind.
A horror film couldn't have been cast better. Our group was made up of:
Two late-middle aged men who immediately began strapping their own expensive-looking equipment to tactical vests, while tossing veteran ghost lingo back and forth.
I'm going to call them Tex and Mex because one of them had this amazing hat. Tex and Mex had arrived straight from an overnight lock-in at Beechworth Lunatic Asylum and may even have been on their honeymoon.
They were there to get some hard scientific proof.
Two young, good looking well dressed girls who were there to commune with spirits, and had apparently been touring sites to do so for some time.
Let's call them the Ghost Girls. They seemed happy, gentle, and just wanted to talk to some ghosts.
And my trio of reprobates. Not a lot of paranormal experience between the four of us.
Photo: Reprobates in front of Aradale Asylum
Let's Meet Some Ghosts
Aradale is a mournful place. The buildings we investigated were falling to bits, and police bounding about pinging each other with practice rounds hasn't done the plaster any favours. The layout is bewildering by design: tiny miserable rooms open into tiny rooms into tiny rooms, doglegging around random corners and into narrow dank corridors.
M warned us not to run, and under no circumstances to wander off into the dark alone. This seemed pretty good advice.
Spoiler alert: Ahren took every opportunity to ignore that advice. My arteries were rubbery by the end of the night from the continual shocks of turning around and him being missing from the tail of the group. Aradale echoed to bewildered cries of:
"Where's Ahren? Ahren? Tell us where you are!"
We plonked the gear down and M got us acquainted with our fancy new toys. Tex and Mex had their own versions of most of these.
I've listed equipment here in order of what I was most excited to get my hands on, to least:
A parabolic microphone. My personal favourite, and a treat I want to buy myself when I'm rich. Basically it looks like a radar-dish-gun with a set of headphones.
Pull the trigger, and the ambient noise is boosted (and you suddenly realise your natural hearing is rubbish). This is for catching ghosty whispers that are below the range of human hearing. In a horror film this would be when you filter the levels of an audio recording, and suddenly find that spiritual voices have been screaming and threatening you in the background the entire time.
Infrared goggles, which were great.
As soon as you put them on you wanted to duck into a combat crouch and finish every sentence with "ten-four". In that tiny maze of rooms buried in the middle of buildings, with no windows to the outside, I cannot overstate the pitch blackness. It was dark as a haunted asshole.
Night vision cameras were set up in another building.
I'll get to them later. Weird that they weren't recording any of the footage.
EMF (electro-magnetic frequency) meters.
This seemed to be your standard ghost hunting kit, and work on the assumption of ghosts being residual energy left over or translated after someone dies. There was no power to any of the buildings we were exploring. Everyone (except M) put their phones on airplane mode to avoid false readings.
Yes. Everybody measured everybody else. In the crotch.
What we were actually supposed to be looking for were cold spots, indicating thermal energy being pulled out of the air by a ghost "powering itself up" to manifest. We did find a few zones where passing through was like dropping into a plunge-pool. Which could mean a) you've just walked through a ghost (ew). Or b) the building is leaky.
Motion sensors and shadow detectors.
Assume a ghost has physical presence. Incredibly useful for sticking to stairwells to provide safe lighting when people troop up and down them.
The intriguing spirit box/ovilus.
This claims to extrapolate fragments of "ghost speech" from scanned radio waves. We didn't see a lot of this one, as it had just been repaired and the battery seemed wobbly.
The ghost meter pro.
Given M's instructions, seems to require a ghost to actively engage with it to light it up when present, and then blink the lights to answer questions.
A battery that M invited ghosts to "borrow from" if they needed to charge up in order to manifest.
M invited any ghosts who might be present to join us and interact with the equipment we brought. M also warned us not to use "aggression techniques" (i.e. trying to antagonize spirits), as it's disrespectful, potentially dangerous, and really just an asshole move whether you believe in ghosts or not. Really. Don't ruin the experience for everyone.
Jo tentatively adopted a ghost meter pro and it lit up like fireworks. Now supposedly under a ghost's eager attention, we stood there with our mouths hanging open, not knowing what questions to ask. It was like a job interview, only worse. M came swooping in to our rescue and modeled some basic yes/no questions. I couldn't help thinking of the Turing Test.
While Jo was holding it, the ghost meter lit up relentlessly. Like a crowd was following her around. She just stopped picking it up, because if something invisible is staring at you, sometimes it's less awkward not to know.
I'll let you do your own research as to the ghost meter pro's legitimacy, but the Ghost Girls loved it. In every new location they immediately settled themselves in the darkest, eeriest corner they could find with instruments and ghost meter all laid out, and earnestly plied the spirit world with questions.
It became increasingly difficult to not trip over them when entering a space guided only by a penlight, and my team spent a lot of time backing out of rooms and apologizing awkwardly.
M told us this was the building they educated kids in.
There weren't supposed to be young children at Aradale, but ... you know.
Lucky for the children kept there, there was always screaming underwater Santa to comfort them.
While we moved from building to building, we could hear the trainee police dogs kenneled nearby going absolutely batsh*t crazy. They didn't sound close enough that we were setting them off, but the barking added a nice ambience. Especially in the chapel where they suddenly sounded a lot nearer.
M used the ghost meter to ask a ghost, who she claimed was a priest, if it was one of his colleagues setting off the dogs. But we got two blinks for no, so sadly chalked it up to a possum instead.
Below Ahren (during one of the rare occasions he was in eyeshot) correctly demonstrates EMF meter use. The only time we got a ping on these was when we pointed them at M, whose phone wasn't off.
The carpet in some areas was just magical.
And this one is for my friend Sven, who works at WorkSafe and would be DELIGHTED to see a metal power point cover. This made me very glad none of the buildings had electricity.
We journeyed on through the staff quarters. For power-play reasons, these were much fancier than what the inmates stared at day in and day out.
M gave us a rendition of which staff had died in which room in which way, which felt a bit like reverse Cluedo.
The matron's office also had this genuinely amazing wallpaper. Crimson velvet on bone silk stripes ...
... which got louder when you listened to it.
Because M was into her history and up for anything, we took a brief off-road trip across the grounds. Either we were incredibly lucky, or the police had been scrupulous about cleaning up after their K-9 trainees. We visited where Garry David had been incarcerated.
It was so cold you could feel your nipples trying to drill their way out through your clothing to start a new life somewhere else.
Garry David was considered such a risk by the Victorian Government that they introduced the Community Protection Act 1990 for the sole purpose of keeping him locked up indefinitely, sparking a heated debate about human rights versus public safety.
A notorious self-mutilator, Garry David died in 1993 after swallowing razorblades. M was aware of allegations that staff did not rush him with all haste to the nearest medical care.
And while out there, M walked us a hundred meters more to a giant red steel cage enclosing a courtyard. This thing was great (assuming you're on the outside), looming there in the slick icy night. It had these massive clunky gates, and looked like Jurassic Park meets Thunderdome.
M nicknamed this the "cannibal cage." A bit of digging once I got home turned up that Aradale did house cannibal David Philip, although he was housed at J-Ward. In 1989 David Philip stood trial for the murder and subsequent cannibalization of Kyung Eup Lee.
He severed Mr Lee's penis and left it to be discovered in a female toilet at Flinders Street Station (which would still not be the worst thing I've seen in those toilets), and Mr Lee's scrotum was discarded on South Melbourne tram tracks.
In the big concrete block of the nurses' quarters, a series of night vision cameras were stoically monitoring the crumbling hallways. Whole families were housed here, and residents fought to get off the top floor where "weird things happened."
M gave us a quick run down of things she's personally seen via the cameras, including a head leaning out of a room to peek down the hallway.
It doesn't show up well on the image below, but the bottom right hand image had some weird distortion. A dark, restlessly scrolling vignette around the image. The camera's motion detector was also constantly triggered. M thought it might be equipment failure.
Next we moved on to the male ward. This space certainly felt the most unsettling, and was where I had my first unnerving experience (aside from my caution over police dog poop). I was walking sort of in the center of the group. If we were going to be attacked, I wanted plenty of red shirts around me.
As I passed an empty cell, a male voice whispered from inside, right in my ear. Something indistinct, like "hey." Nobody else reacted. Nobody else heard it.
It was weird, but keep in mind we were getting on toward midnight and auditory hallucinations are super common when fatigued. Also, although I'm not sure where he was at that time (or any time) Ahren has a habit of muttering when thinking, which makes EVERY day in our apartment a terrifying experience.
M walked us on and explained that the deeper you penetrated into these hulking buildings, the worse the inmates would get. Mild, easy to control people scored prime position near the doors. Violent inmates got buried as far from daylight as possible.
We stopped at the end of a loooong dark corridor. M laid down the rules: it wasn't safe to proceed beyond this point due to structural issues, but concentrate your efforts looking down that corridor without crossing the threshold. It's a known hot spot for manifestations and sounds.
I was up for that, and got my hands on that sweet sweet radar-gun to point down the corridor. Also I wanted to physically block Ahren from sneaking off past the point of no return. I've invested a lot of food in him over the years.
At first there was just that undersea rushing sensation you get when ambient sound is amplified. The footsteps, coughs, and rustling of other members of our group on the same floor.
Then I caught something very faint and distant. A female voice, singing, but it didn't sound like a live voice. More like a recording. Something old. I asked if anybody else had heard anything but once again, just little old me.
The Ghost Girls also experienced some weird stuff in this area, including moving lights and doors. M called up the only other people known to be on site, the historic tour which was just wrapping up; but they were nowhere near the building we were in.
This next room was my favourite. It's the men's block bathroom of ultimate beige. The last place in the universe anyone with a choice would want to get naked.
In this room, and no other, the same roiling black vignette that happened in the malfunctioning night vision camera came up on my phone camera.
It didn't record, or (as you can see below) come up in the still photo. But when I held the camera up to frame for a photo, it was like seeing thick ink or smoke roiling across the ceiling. Nowhere else in the image. Just the ceiling. This was very different from the white motes drifting around the air in all the buildings that would light up and rush by as a flash went off (I tried not to dwell on asbestos).
Ahren came over and saw it too, which was an improvement on the auditory phenomena that could have only existed inside my head.
If any of you know about image processing and want to contact me to explain this is just some kind of artifact, please do and I'll update this blog post.
I won't cover off everything M shared during our tour, as there's a lot of fascinating history and it would be great for you to do the tour, leave a review and support her work. But we visited the ha-ha wall and the morgue where Jo got up on the dead body tray because she's hardcore and not wracked by superstition like a normal person.
Later in the night everyone's eyes were getting fairly droopy, so we switched to black and white which is clearly much scarier.
Nobody else in my foursome reported experiencing anything they would call "paranormal," but everybody really enjoyed the night and I'd say each group found what they came for.
Unless somebody puts some serious cash into repairing these buildings they're not going to be around forever. And then where will all the ghosts go?
Because of who we are, over breakfast the next morning my Scooby Gang analyzed how everyone would have died in a horror scenario:
The Ghost Girls in all innocence would end up inviting some ominous evil entity to join us.
Tex would be the first to go, because the hat singles him out. His imitated voice, calling from the darkness, would then lure Mex out to meet his fate.
Jo would be trapped inside the morgue freezer with the door shut, when M standing guard outside is murdered. She would slowly perish while tapping on the thick shiny steel to be let out. Her only comfort the rapping coming back from outside, which is clearly now the evil entity and not M at all.
Ahren would straight up die from wandering off. His body falling out of a closet would impede my later escape and lead to my untimely fate.
I'd meet my maker while trying to help Ghost Girl A free Ghost Girl B from the evil entity. Plus, the moment I saw the Cannibal Cage I blurted out, "Holy shit, how big were these cannibals?!" so by cracking wise I clearly have to die.
The Ghost Girls would perish re-sealing the rift between worlds they had opened.
Which would leave Tim as our final girl
Thankyou for joining us on this adventure!
Research and interesting further reading:
'All to blame' for Aradale, Clients 'underfed, abused,' Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), Thursday 21 November 1991, page 15, courtesy of Trove.nla.gov.au.
Ararat, Victoria, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ararat,_Victoria&oldid=846988582 (last visited July 27, 2018).
Aradale Mental Hospital, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Aradale_Mental_Hospital&oldid=842682625 (last visited July 27, 2018).
Aradale to close, Canberra Times (ACT: 1926-1995), Monday 20 July 1992, page 16, courtesy of Trove.nla.gov.au.
The case of the cannibal killer David Philip accused of eating murder victim Kyung Eup Lee, Mark Dunn, HeraldSun, January 21, 2013 12.00am.
Djab wurrung, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Djab_wurrung&oldid=826851983 (last visited July 27, 2018).
Former Ararat Gaol, Victorian Heritage Database.
Garry David, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Garry_David&oldid=850172448 (last visited July 27, 2018).
1. The Investigative Task Force's Findings on the Aradale Psychiatric Hospital and Residential Institution (1991), The Health Department Victoria, courtesy of the State Library Victoria collection.
The Doug note was scribbled on the back.
J Ward, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=J_Ward&oldid=828554050 (last visited July 27, 2018).
One man facility built for special detainee, Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), Saturday 25 May 1991, page 6, courtesy of Trove.nla.gov.au.
Victorian psychiatric patients' grim fate in hellish 1800s hospitals, Mitchell Toy, Department of Internet, Herald Sun, December 9, 2014.