A Week with the Humpty Doo Poltergeist
A Week with the Humpty Doo Poltergeist
By Paul Cropper and Tony Healy
In 1998 a Northern Territory household claimed they were being terrorised by an unseen entity which displayed all of the traits of a bothersome poltergeist. Paul Cropper and Tony Healy spent a never-to-be-forgotten week in the "Humpty Doo House".
It began as an ordinary Yowie hunt, but soon turned decidedly weird.
In December we taped a telephone interview with a woman who told us of a close encounter with a screaming, stinking 7-foot tall orangutan-like creature on her mango farm near Acacia Gap in the Northern Territory. Although the location was thousands of kilometres from the regions which normally produce reports of yowies (damnably elusive yeti-like apemen) she seemed a very good witness. So, when she phoned again in April to say the creature had returned we decided to don our yowie-hunting hats and fly north.
No sooner had we made that decision than a striking instance of synchronicity occurred. At the time we were working on an article for the Fortean Times about a couple of classic Australian poltergeist cases. We were up to our elbows in those weird old stories when we heard a Father Tom English speak on radio about levitating crucifixes and showers and stones which he had just witnessed in a house at Humpty Doo, NT – only 20km from the yowie site. Most fortuitous!
Once in the NT we documented the yowie story as planned and collected a footprint cast, but the beast itself, as usual, remained elusive. The polt, however, was much more accessible: for five days it obliged by showering us with pebbles, knives, bullets and anything else which came into its ectoplasmic grasp.
The haunting was focused on a four-bedroom house set on 5 acres just south of Humpty Doo, beginning in late January 1998. By the time we arrived on 26 April it had become Australia’s most-publicised polt case since the "Guyra Ghost" outbreak of 1921.
When Jill Summerville, her partner Dave Clarke and their mate Murph moved into the house in August 1997 they noticed nothing strange, but after a second couple, Andrew and Kirsty Agius, arrived with their 11-month-old toddler Jasmine, all hell broke loose.
During that monsoon season ("the Wet") the area witnessed several of the loudest, wildest lightening displays anyone can remember. After one such ripsnorter the group was sitting on their front verandah at dusk when small pebbles began landing among them. Tiring of what they assumed was a mate’s practical joke, they moved inside, only to have the pebbles follow them: in classic polt-style, showers of half-inch diameter stones – all apparently from their long gravel driveway – landed on floors, tables, beds and heads after apparently materialising just under the ceiling. Though the property was entirely saturated from the monsoon, all the pebbles that fell inside were bone dry. To their increasing dismay, knives, batteries, spanners, broken glass and other objects also began to drop or hurtle across the rooms.
To the occupants – very tough, hard-working young men and women – all this was weird but bearable, but when messages began to appear on the walls and the floor the group began to get a little nervous. The words were spelt out in scrabble tiles, scrawled on floors or formed extremely neatly using scores of pebbles. The most upsetting aspect of the first series of words: "FIRE", "SKIN", "CAR", "HELP" and "TROY" was that they clearly referred to their good mate Trouy, who had been incinerated in a road accident in January. A large cross and trident – both made up of hundreds of pebbles – also appeared. Fairly freaked, they called the clergy.
Father Tom English of Humpty Doo arrived at the scene to be greeted by a pistol cartridge, which fell from nowhere to land at his feet, and by a medicine bottle flying out of an empty room. Although inexperienced in such matters he gamely blessed the place and doused it in holy water. The polt reacted in the time-honoured way: it went ape-shit, smashed several windows, hurled Father Tom’s crucifix and bible around the house, banged and scraped on and inside walls and kept the occupants awake and thoroughly spooked all night.
Two other priests tried to pop the polt. Father Stephen of Darwin’s St Marys cathedral had seen several similar infestations in his native India. After witnessing a knife fall – apparently straight through the ceiling – he warned that polts are often very hard to exorcise.
A Greek Orthodox priest went the full Monty: setting up an altar on the kitchen table, blessing each room and reading arcane passages from a large black book. As the shell-shocked residents looked on, he was assaulted by an invisible force that repeatedly tried to wrench the book from his grasp and to twist his right arm behind his back. Ashen-faced, he finally sat down, declaring his adversary to be tougher than the average spook.
The local Litchfield Times was soon tipped off; its editor jack Ellis and two reporters visited the house, observed a polt-pelting, and in no time the story went ballistic: the sleep-deprived hauntees were soon fielding phone calls day and night from radio stations and newspapers from as far away as Scandinavia. They soon signed a contract granting exclusive rights to the story for a week to Sydney’s Channel 7. Although the promised $5000 would be most welcome, they signed mainly in the expectation of being protected from other media harassment and in the hope that video evidence would validate their story.
Although the entire TV crew quickly became fervent believers after dodging flying objects, they also became frustrated as the polt took to playing hide and seek with their cameras. Operators with hand-held cameras were invariably facing the wrong way when objects landed right next to them. With the house empty and locked, five constantly running fixed cameras recorded a whole lot of nothing until the battery-expired signals went off. Then, as the duty cameraman walked to the house with new batteries his exasperated but amused mates, drinking on the patio, would hear a tattoo of whacks as objects careened around the interior. Messages: "NO CAMERAS", "NO TV" and "PIG CAMERA" appeared on walls and floors to taunt them.
After 24-hour work days and great inconvenience to the residents the crew managed to record only three objects in motion: a baby’s bottle inexplicably falling from the top of a microwave, a pistol bullet in the last foot or so of its fall and a plastic lid flying from behind a cupboard.
Channel 7’s Today Tonight, one of the country’s least ethical tabloid television shows, nevertheless used the story to great advantage, achieving very high ratings. Finally, to the horror of the hauntees – and to the dismay of their own cameramen – the program’s sceptical, city-based producers, having owned the story for a week, decided to scuttle it. Using a doctored video with misleading voiceovers they attempted to prove they had caught Kirsty in the act of throwing an object. The polt story, the declared, was over – dead.
The polt, however, seemed not to have heard its own obituary: it continued its pesky pranks while the tenants, feeling used, abused and betrayed – and still awaiting the balance of their money – vowed to disembowel any other "fucking media vultures" who dared to darken their door.
At that auspicious moment Healy and Cropper arrived.
We were received by two very tough-looking, unsmiling hombres. Shaven-headed Andrew guarded but polite; glowering, heavily tattooed biker Murph didn’t bother to hide his disdain for "youse media bastards".
Fortunately we had with us our material on earlier Aussie polt cases. As they eagerly scanned it, finding many similarities to their own experience, and as they realised we were genuinely interested, they began to lower the barriers. After Dave and Jill, both quiet and easy-going, and the more intense but friendly Kirsty arrived, things became even more relaxed and we were invited to stay the night. Far from being a bunch of drunken layabouts, as some of the media tried to portray them, the residents struck us as being strong-minded, competent people. It was clear that above all else they simply wanted to be believed.
Well it didn’t take long to convince us. Nothing happened as we slept on the loungeroom floor that night, except for a sudden staccato cry from a gecko – which resulted in Paul having to carefully peel Tony off the ceiling – but during the next five days, often with only Kirsty in the house, about 30 objects fell on or about us.
Usually we heard a sharp whack as a missile hit, and then caught sight of it as it ricocheted off a wall or settled on the floor. Most of the objects were familiar household items but some, like a yellow light bulb which fell beside us on the concrete patio – without breaking – had not been seen before. We gathered the material and stashed it in a drawer on the patio, only to have the items appear - one by one - back inside the house. After some of the episodes we found Dave and Jill’s bedroom trashed: the mattress askew and sometimes gravel strewn about.
On one occasion Paul heard a rattling sound on the tin roof an instant before 13 pebbles landed on the kitchen floor beside him – having apparently teleported through both roof and ceiling. Stones later fell on his head and a skinning knife narrowly missed Tony’ s ear.
The more we saw the more we understood the residents’ fury at the smug, ill-informed sceptics who offered patently unfeasible explanations to the press from their homes in Darwin or Sydney. One such idiot seriously suggested that the group – with an 11-month-old toddler in the house – placed gravel, sharp knives and broken glass on top of their ceiling fans so the material would fly out in all directions at the flick of a switch.
Many of the incidents could - if one or more of the residents had been skilled conjurers - have been faked but several, such as when a pistol cartridge dropped vertically onto Paul’s leg as we sat facing the only other people in the room, seemed almost unfakeable.
Two incidents in particular were very convincing. A small crucifix left at the house after Father tom became a frequent flyer: several times a day it would disappear from the mantlepiece and later crash into a wall somewhere. When it landed on the rear patio beside Paul – with the only other people 30 metres away and plainly in sight – he became a near-total believer. When Tony saw a little brass plug fall vertically onto a table between he and Kirsty, who was holding a newspaper with both hands while reading a polt story aloud, he too had to admit that a hoax was almost out of the question.
It would be natural for sceptics to question the judgement of people like us – people who chase Yowies and Bunyips and who, like X-Files Agent Fox Mulder, obviously want to believe – so I hasten to mention that all six journalists we met who visited the house also came away firm polt believers.
Northern Territory News reporter Nikki Voss and her cameraman had their "extreme scepticism" jolted when they were greeted by a beer mug which shot with great force and uncanny accuracy through a very small hole in a window pane. Shortly afterwards, as they stood with their backs to a solid wall, they were hit in the nape of the neck with a shower of gravel.
Tracey Farrar of ABC Radio, Darwin, who had collected small brown shells at the beach only the day before, watched an identical shell land on the table in front of her as she interviewed Kirsty. She received an inexplicable shock from her microphone and, most tellingly, saw a remote control unit lift off a table next to her and fly into the air. Though thrilled, she was, like Nikki Voss, plagued by bad dreams for several nights afterward.
Like us, the journalists could not see how all of the phenomena could have been faked or why the group would do it. The money from Channel 7 was not significant, the group clearly did not relish the public attention and the flying objects were potentially dangerous – particularly to the toddler. A hoaxing individual or clique within the group would have risked "murder" by the others if discovered. We don’t believe hoaxers were at work, but if they were they were not only first-rate conjurers but first-class actors as well.
The origin of the Humpty Doo polt is unclear. Stavros Kanaris, who built the place in 1972 and lived there happily for 20 years thinks the polt is a result of his family’s anger at being evicted after his business failed: "The bank took my blood, 30 years of hard work." The family still dreams of returning: "Every night I’m there in my dreams. My wife is always there too. It was our life".
As she was forced from their home on the last day, Maria Kanaris did not curse the beloved house. She did however, put a heartfelt curse on the bank. (Although moved by the story, it occurred to us that if a polt appeared every time someone cursed a bank then every home would have one!)
Irene Winters, who cleaned the house before the group moved in, recalled that it seemed spooky, unnaturally cold and that doors seemed to open and close of their own volition. Andrew, however, thinks the polt, in a weaker form, may have followed he and Kirsty for some time.
Two years earlier at Bachelor, NT, they’d had stones thrown with great power and accuracy through their front door. Although they assumed their assailants were black teenagers reacting to Andrew’s unconcealed anti-Aboriginal views, they never so much as glimpsed them. Later, when he and Kirsty worked at a construction camp, coffee cups and other objects went missing in odd circumstances. Everyone seemed to agree that the Great Humpty Doo Weirdness began only when they moved in.
Having been told by a learned friend that Aboriginal "clever men" or sorcerers have sometimes plagued their enemies with showers of stones, we wondered if Andrew and Kirsty had been cursed in that manner. An incident that occurred a few days before we arrived seemed to hint that such was the case.
Kirsty, at home alone, noticed two very dark "bush Aborigines" digging a hole next to the house, which is 70 metres from the road. When challenged they walked silently away. Leaves had been cleared in a 6 by 2 foot patch around the foot-deep hole. After that mysterious visit all polt activity ceased for four days – the longest break they had had.
Despite all the references to his terrible death, the residents strongly rejected the notion that their mate, Trouy, was haunting them. Having noticed that the polt attempted to play on some of their fears and concerns – after apparently listening to their conversations – the group threw a challenge right back at its ectoplasmic face. Walking through the house they shouted such non-Vatican-approved invocations as "You’re not Trouy, you piss-weak bastard. Why don’t you just FUCK OFF!"
Thereafter all references to Trouy ceased and the residents, though never relishing it, slowly became used to living with the polt and at times even deliberately provoked it into tantrums. Andrew successfully stirred it up for us a couple of times by reading out psalms from Father Tom’s bible.
We admired the group for the way they refused to be driven from the house which, with its spacious grounds, large garage and pool-side bar, suited them perfectly at the time. Finally, however, in early May, after surviving the onslaught of the polt, the scrutiny of the nation and a curious, unjustified eviction attempt from their landlord, they walked away on their own terms, leaving the house – and hopefully the polt – behind them.
The Humpty Doo case seemed to have almost everything we have come to expect from a major polt outbreak: showers of stones, rappings and scratchings, dangerous objects thrown with great force but without causing injury, threatening messages, mind games, violent reactions to prayers and religious paraphernalia, resistance to exorcism, ill-informed pronouncements by sceptics and a half-arsed, contrived expose of supposed hoaxing.
The suggestion that a curse – Greek, Aboriginal or otherwise – is capable of conjuring up a polt is not entirely without precedent: in 1980 two South African teenagers were reportedly plagued by stonefalls after annoying a witchdoctor.
But two things observed at Humpty Doo have, we believe, not been recorded elsewhere.
After a wild night in February which left a thick covering of pebbles on their car roofs and outdoor bar, the residents noticed long shallow troughs in their gravel driveway – as though the pebbles had been vacuumed up in their thousands. Shortly afterwards Brett Styles, a mate of Murph’s, may have caught a unique glimpse of a polt "re-loading". One evening he observed a strange object flying from the driveway, under the patio roof and away at tremendous speed. It appeared to be spherical, jet black and smaller than fist size – and it had a two-foot long stream of gravel behind it. Freaky.
Read Paul Cropper's Diary of a Polt Chaser.
Or was it all a hoax? Read what the Australian Skeptics have to say.
(1) The Litchfield Times – 2, 9, 16 & 30 April 1998
(2) Northern Territory News – 3, 4, 6, 7, 16, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23 April 1998, 3 May 1998
(3) The Australian Magazine – 9 May 1998
(4) Sunday Times, South Africa – 20 July 1980, noted in Fortean Times 35
Paul Cropper and Tony Healy retain the sole copyright © 1998 for this article.