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New Zealanders have long loved a good ghost story

The supposed UFO sightings dominated the front pages at the end of 1978.

We New Zealanders are known for being down to earth and no-nonsense, but there's a surprising number of Kiwi stories with a supernatural element. 

He wanders the Old Coach Road, between Arthur’s Pass and Cass, a spectral presence beside the old railway tracks, swag on his back.

It’s the famed and reputedly friendly Otira Tunnel Ghost, the spirit of a Scotsman killed when the 8.5km tunnel was carved through wet shale and rotten rock a century ago. He’s always glimpsed heading east, trying to get to Lyttelton to catch a ship home.

Welcome to our land of haunts, where fairy creatures lurk in the misty mountains and phantoms hide in the wings of dusty old opera houses.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

We can even claim a biological dimension to our spooky stuff. Some argue our native fauna are still profoundly connected to the “ghosts” of long-extinct birds, such as the moa and the haast’s eagle, with its three-metre wingspan.

Māori have long had a healthy respect for the spirit world. One had to be especially careful of the patupaiarehe hiding in mountaintops and forest glades. Light-skinned, with red or fair hair, they played on bone flutes sweet music that made women swoon – and fall into their clutches.

These mythical beings were also known as pakepakehā, and some believe that the word gave rise to the term Pakeha. Scholar Martin Wikaira notes that “to Māori, Europeans resembled the pakepakehā or patupaiarehe, with their fair skin and light-coloured hair”.

The “Ghost Chips” television advertisement for the New Zealand Transport Agency in 2011 updated the look and feel of the great New Zealand apparition, throwing in a pinch of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The advertisement, a poignant response to the high number of deaths of young Māori males on the roads, struck a chord and attracted more than a million views on YouTube within a short time.

Patupaiarehe, or forest spirits, inspired a 2000 postage stamp.

Bumps in the night

Europeans were quick to pinpoint spooky spots: ghosts usually took up residence in older hotels, theatres or hospitals, where groans emanated from dark cupboards, kettles suddenly started whistling and bumps were heard in the night.

The historic Waitomo Caves Hotel, for example, is touted as our most haunted hotel. Guests staying in the 1908 building or the art deco wing built 20 years later claim to have heard the creak of a maid’s trolley in a faraway hall, and there are wild tales of bathtubs dripping blood.

This is grisly territory. A depressed architect is believed to have hanged himself in the century-old Opera House on Manners St in central Wellington. Self-proclaimed experts in the paranormal insist that people have since had nasty accidents there.

Along the road at the iconic St James Theatre, a Russian ballet dancer named Yuri has a more benign reputation. Former staffers claim this tall, thin, black-suited spectre, who is known for turning the lights on and off, once saved a projectionist from falling from the edge of the stage.

In recent years, frightening the punters has become big business as ghostly locales have cashed in on their spooky reputations. Kingseat Hospital, a former psychiatric institution at Karaka, on Auckland’s southern outskirts, closed in 1999 after a troubled 67-year history, including accounts of psychological and physical abuse.

Now, its old nurses’ hostel is a tourist attraction. Since 2005, the hospital, which claims as many as 100 sightings and a host of unexplained phenomena, has operated successfully as a haunted theme park: a team of actors in full terrifying makeup and costume conspire to frighten the wits out of paying customers.

Visitors learn about the spectral former staff member known as the Grey Nurse, one of the many prowling shadows glimpsed in the linoleum corridors. The chilling entertainment has drawn criticism from former Kingseat patients, but last year, a documentary called Spookers explored what it called “the most successful scare park in the Southern Hemisphere, which is run by a close-knit New Zealand family who try to face their own fears in order to make others face theirs”.

Guests leave the Waitomo Caves Hotel to visit the caves, 1901. Photo/Getty Images

Alien arrivals

Alleged sightings of visitors from space, cautiously named Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), have their own history here. Our most famous multiple sightings, made near Kaikoura in 1978, are still rated internationally as among the best documented of all time.

A few days before Christmas, nine months after the release of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, crews on board two slow-flying cargo aircraft observed a series of strange lights. A radar operator said it looked like “Father Christmas doing a practice run with Rudolph in front”.

Nine days later, an Australian TV news crew on board a Wellington-to-Christchurch flight witnessed more lights in the sky. Some were said to look like helicopters scouring the ground with searchlights. Journalist Quentin Fogarty said that from the plane, pinpricks of light became giant globes.

Ray Waru’s superb 2012 history of Archives New Zealand, Secrets and Treasures, investigates the official documents held on paranormal phenomena of this kind. He records how “a huge squashed light appeared ahead of the plane [and] objects followed the plane almost until it landed”.

“The dazzled observers said they sensed that the lights were toying with the slow-flying Argosy like dolphins; Fogarty and the crew felt as though they were in a UFO playground.”

Waru notes that in 2009, the Defence Force released its massive cache of UFO files, including an analysis of the Kaikoura “visitation”. Bureaucrats agreed that the phenomenon was unusual and suggested explanations ranging from a bending of light rays from a fleet of squid boats to a huge flock of muttonbirds and a rain of giant hailstones.

The official version was that it was the light from Venus rising. Fogarty’s title for his book on the Kaikoura lights – Let’s Hope They’re Friendly – probably sums it up.

Terrifying nights

No local ghost history is complete without the tale of Cedric the Ghost. In the rugged Tararua Ranges outside Wellington, hunter Cedric Wilson vanished in the misty hills in 1945. Later parties swore they sensed his presence, with several groups experiencing terrifying nights in iconic Powell Hut.

Old tramping hands couldn’t, however, resist using the story to frighten young Scouts, as Chris Maclean relates in his 1994 book Tararua: The Story of a Mountain Range.

“[Tramper] Don Millward, dressed in [a] sleeping-bag liner, hid beside the track … and waited for the Scouts to return. When they loomed out of the mist he drifted across the track and disappeared, and quickly returned to the hut by another route.

“Soon after, the shaken Scouts arrived and told Millward and his friends the story of Cedric the Ghost.”

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.