Humpty Doo, one of the best documented poltergeist cases of all time, began 20 years ago this month.
The Cropster was one of at least 30 witnesses to the strange happenings that took place in the small blue house in McMinns Drive, Humpty Doo in Australia’s Northern Territory. Humpty Doo is an Australian slang term meaning ‘everything topsy-turvy, or turned upside down’ – a perfect description of what poltergeists do.
To anyone unfamiliar with the story, I’ve included a link to a piece that my great friend and fellow Fortean Tony Healy wrote in November 1998. You can also read the long chapter that Tony and I included in Australian Poltergeist (Strange Nation, 2014) if you want an even more detailed backstory. Great book, by the way.
The most common question I get asked is – was it real?
Yes, it certainly was.
I remain convinced that what I observed over 4 days in April 1998 was a poltergeist. Twenty years later, I’m no closer to understanding what a poltergeist is, even after investigating cases in Australia, Turkey, Malaysia, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. Guy Playfair once mentioned to me that after decades of investigating cases, he was still was none the wiser as to what they might be. Poltergeists are probably the most accessible and yet the most puzzling of all paranormal phenomena.
The second most common question I’m asked is – were you scared? Well, I don’t recollect being scared until after I arrived back home in Sydney. Then every unexpected noise in my apartment made me spontaneously levitate. I clearly remember how strange, intense and exciting the whole experience was. It was like watching a great magician; you were seeing things that you couldn’t explain, but you wanted to see more so you could work out the trick. But we never did work it out. At Humpty Doo, there wasn’t a trick.
Tony and I had been working on an article on historical Australian poltergeists for Fortean Times when we heard about the case and ended up in Darwin, Northern Territory a few weeks later. This turned out to be shortly after a national current affairs TV show had called out the whole episode as a hoax after filming what appeared to be a reflection of one of the housemates throwing an object across a room. That particular episode still remains controversial.
Tony and I arrived at an angry household where the residents assumed all of Australia saw them as liars, cheaters and hoaxers. Anyone linked to the media was likely to be lynched on sight. Fortunately, we managed to convince the five housemates that we weren’t from the press, just genuinely interested, so they agreed to let us drop in and talk. We ended up staying for four days. At the end of that week all the residents moved out. They’d had enough of the poltergeist, the media and everything.
A few of my experiences at the house still puzzle me 20 years later. The first occurred as I was sitting at a table facing two of the female residents as they washed up at the kitchen sink only a few feet away. They were still talking when I heard two sounds; the first a handful of gravel stones (from their driveway) hitting the corrugated tin roof of the house and then the kitchen floor where they scattered. Two loud, distinct and separate sounds. Neither of the women had thrown anything and the stones had fallen between me and where the girls were standing. It appeared that the stones had come through the both the roof and the plaster ceiling.
While the ceiling fan in the kitchen was switched on, the stones had dropped straight down and not scattered until after they hit the floor, so it was clearly not the source. Similar rains of gravel took place throughout the house during our investigation. Some of these occurred when the fans were switched off and others took place in rooms without ceiling fans.
The next truly puzzling episode was when Tony, Andrew and Kirsty (two of the residents) and I were sitting at a small round table in the main room. I was seated a small distance out from the table edge when when an empty bullet casing bounced off my knee and onto the floor. The contact was strangely soft given the metal of the bullet casing. Andrew said he had seen the object materialise above my shoulder and then fall. No-one at the table had moved or thrown anything.
The weirdest incident of all was when was a slow steady rain of tiny gravel stones fell on my head one morning as I sat alone at the same table. They seemed to drop slowly from the ceiling right above me. Plink, plink, plink. The stones weren’t tossed from outside the room.
If the TV people were right and the whole situation was a setup, then why continue the ‘show’ just for Tony and I over the last few days before everyone left the house? We weren’t reporters, and there was no money or publicity involved, yet the activity continued for the whole time we were there. At least thirty-seven incidents according to my notes. Tricky stuff too, like the shower of gravel I saw in the kitchen and the slow drizzle of stones on my noggin.
Another intriguing aspect to the Humpty haunting was the fact that the TV crew had engaged a thermal camera operator, Brendan Gowdie, to join them in the house. The plan was that Gowdie would use his camera to identify evidence of human contact on the objects being thrown about. As an example of how that works, I’ve used my own FLIR One thermal camera to show how handprints can be identified on an object. The thermal image below shows a small knife on my kitchen bench.
Here is the same knife after I’ve picked it up and held it in my hand. As you can see, the heat from my hand has created areas of differential temperature on the handle that display as colour variations on the thermal image.
While some of the thrown items were too small to register hand prints, Gowdie’s camera did revealed something unexpected on the larger objects. They appeared to have been evenly heated across their entire surface. In addition, there there was no sign that the objects had been handled at all. The image below shows a large shard of glass that Gowdie photographed shortly after one incident.
The heat is spread evenly across the glass and then dissipates in less than a minute, as shown by the images below. Brendan later admitted on camera he was baffled. He half-heartedly stated that it could be explained if the objects were heated in a microwave and then thrown using tongs. Right.
Here is another object, a bullet casing, showing a similar heat effect across its surface.
News coverage from 1998 shows more of Brendan’s involvement in the case:
The claim that objects thrown by a poltergeist were unusually warm or hot has appeared in many other other cases in the literature. In the recent Turza Wielka, Poland incident covered in this blog, one of the witnesses stated:
“I keep some set of cutlery in the attic, for the special occasions, so he took the spoons even from there to throw them at us. And those spoons were so hot like they were baked in the oven.”
Would the residents of the house been aware of this obscure element of the poltergeist literature and then bothered to incorporate it into their hoax? Brendan told Tony and I that the residents were never told he was using a thermal device so he could more easily catch them out. I assume they thought Brendan was using a normal video camera.
I do look back at Humpty Doo with some regret. I wish I had taken more photos and videos. Cameras in the late 90s were film-based, not digital, so it wasn’t so easy to take lots of shots. I never thought of keeping a tape recorder running continuously. In 1998 we were still using rather expensive cassette tapes.
One small segment I did record in the house is a personal favourite. Kirsty, Andrew, Tony Healy and I are in the main room talking and you can hear Kirsty in the background saying “… you don’t know what its going to do, its just does what it wants to do…”.BANG. A knife ricochets off a wall, and everyone talks excitedly. Nobody in the room threw anything.
One thing about the Humpty Doo polt – its timing was perfect.
Some readers will still believe the case was a hoax. After all, I had a propensity to believe, given my interest in the subject. They will say the residents were all in on the game. They setup the ceiling fans to scatter rocks, used sleight of hand and heated up objects before they threw them. All the other 30 plus witnesses were fooled too. Believe that if it helps you sleep at night.
To me, the best explanation of the facts is that for a few months in early 1998, a poltergeist had decided to infest the small blue house in McMinns Drive, Humpty Doo.
UPDATE: After finishing this piece I was looking through some of the footage taken by the Sydney current affairs show at the house when I came across one incident they recorded. Kirsty is talking about the poltergeist; “…it will just (do) it when you friggin’ least expect it…”. BANG. A spanner hits a cabinet. Similar excited voices. Kirsty’s comments – and the polt’s reaction – were almost identical to the audio I recorded later.
Perfect timing indeed.