Some places are more likely than others to elicit ghostly experiences. The former Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station, or Bels, in Canberra was one such place.
Bels was the most powerful radio transmitting station in the southern hemisphere. It operated 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year for 66 years, from 1939 to 2005. When Bels started, the district of Belconnen was very isolated from the rest of Canberra. For the navy personnel, it was like living on a sheep station, and Canberra was just a big country town.
The Transmitter Building was near the centre of the Bels site, around 500 metres from the guard house and surrounded by open grassland dotted with aerials. At night it was completely dark. In the Transmitter Building, Radio Electrical Mechanics set the requested transmitters and frequencies, and connected the transmitters and aerials to enable messages to be sent around the world.
An ideal setting for ghosts
Imagine working in this isolated place at night. Cyril (Doc) Rice worked there in the 1960s. He recalled:
It was a pretty noisy place because the big Carrier air conditioning used to make a fair bit of noise, and out in the back hall, which at night-time was always in darkness, you’d get the humming sound of these big mercury-filled rectifiers, vacuum rectifiers, and they’d give this eerie glow. You know, it’s quite an eerie sort of a presence, particularly in the wintertime when the winds come down howling out of the Snowy Mountains and straight up the ducting where all the aerial cables used to go outside. You’d get this howling wind coming up the – real eerie, oorie noise, you know: ‘oo-oo-oo-oo’, you know. And of course it’s not hard to picture that the place was damn well haunted.”
This strange sound-and-light show in the transmitter hall, combined with possible sleep deprivation due to long shifts, may contribute to the large number of ghost stories told by oral history interviewees. Mick Wellings recalled from his time at Bels in the 1970s:
There were times when I was working in quiet areas of the station, you’d get the feeling someone was watching you, just a weird feeling up your back and think, ‘Something going on here.’ I personally would get up, leave the area, go for a walk, maybe have a coffee, go back and continue on what I was doing. But that happened all the time.”
Casper the friendly ghost
Gordon McDermott was posted to Belconnen three times during the 1960s and 1970s. He recalled the ghosts:
Casper was the name of the poltergeist that we believed lived in the station. We’re not really quite sure how he came to be there, we’re not sure if there was any deceased people there that had re-emerged as Casper. We were all of the belief that there was some supernatural thing there. Oftentimes we would go out into the transmitter, in the hall… making those changes to the links… We would then, before we returned back to the control room, we would energise switches so that when we got to the control room all we had to do then was to remote feed and it would go straight through. When we got back to the control room, we would find that those switches or the breaker had in fact been placed at the off position. And it wasn’t just me, it was nearly every one of us had experienced an event like that. And at times, particularly in the middle of the night, you were on your own, you were out there tuning up these transmitters or preparing them for tuning, and you would hear or feel or sense a presence, and you would look behind you, although there was nothing there, but something was. And to this day we still don’t quite know what it was, but we are convinced that there was some form of supernatural being there. And the name ‘Casper’, because it was current at the time, stuck. So we called the friendly ghost Casper.”
The ghost didn’t just interfere with switches in the control room. John Connors, who was posted to Bels in the 1980s and 1990s, remembered:
Yeah, there is ghost stories. I’ve never experienced it, but some of the watches swore that there was someone of a night-time, early hours of the morning, walking around or a door would shut or whatever. Tom Laws they thought, his ashes were sprinkled from the top of the mast [the 600 foot mast that supported a transmitter aerial], they felt it was him – he was an ex-technician here, here for a long time. Everyone put it down to him. But, as I said, I never experienced it, but certainly there were stories. And from the civilians as well that worked for me, when Boeing were running the site [from 1995], there was a few of them that had some stories as well. Never vindicated. It’s very hard to prove that sort of thing. But certainly it happened so much and so many different people said it, I feel there was some warrant there of something happening in the site, anyway, whatever it was.”
Possible origins of the Belconnen ghosts
Neil Dagnall, Ken Drinkwater, Nolan Moore, and Tracey Wilson report on some of the scientific explanations for ghostly phenomena in articles for The Conversation, Gizmodo and HowStuffWorks. Several of these explanations are likely to have applied to the Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station:
1. Infrasound is sound with a frequency less than 20 Hz; it cannot be heard by humans but is felt as vibrations. In some people, frequencies below 20 Hz can cause a sense of unease and panic. With all the equipment operating in the Transmitter Building, there may well have been low frequency vibrations.
2. Drafts and convection currents. The Transmitter Building was not a perfectly sealed building, so drafts were common, particularly in winter. Together with all the equipment that generated heat, there would have been convection currents that could give the impression of cold spots, or swirling air.
3. Electromagnetic fields. Studies have found that applying electromagnetic fields to particular parts of the brain (in the temporal lobes) can cause subjects to hallucinate, for example perceiving a ‘presence’, having a feeling of being touched, seeing people, or hearing voices. In some buildings reported to be haunted, researchers have measured magnetic fields that are stronger than normal or exhibit unusual fluctuations. It’s possible, but not yet conclusively demonstrated as far as I know, that strong, fluctuating electromagnetic fields in a building might cause hallucinations such as those reported in the controlled experiments. With all the equipment in the Transmitter Building at Belconnen, one would expect changing electromagnetic fields. Perhaps these contributed to the ghostly sensations.
4. Suggestion. People are more likely to report strange experiences when they are aware that others have reported unusual phenomena there in the past. Stories about ghosts at Bels were told regularly, so most new arrivals were probably aware of the possibility of strange phenomena.
A memorable place
Regardless of the ghostly experiences and their causes, Bels was a memorable place to work. As Gordon McDermott summed it up:
I think that it’s the isolation of the place, the fact that we all had to look after each other, we all made our own fun…. And I think that there’s this esprit de corps was probably one of the strongest there that I have experienced anywhere in my time in the Navy. It was just wonderful. We made our own fun, we enjoyed what we were doing, we believed in what we were doing and most of us couldn’t wait to get back. It was that sort of place.”
Neil Dagnall and Ken Drinkwater (2016) The top three scientific explanations for ghost sightings. The Conversation.
Frank McAndrew (2015) Why Some People See Ghosts and Other Presences. Psychology Today.
Nolan Moore (2014) 10 Scientific explanations for famous ghostly phenomena. Gizmodo.
David Robson (2014) Psychology: The truth about the paranormal. BBC Future website.
Sally Stephenson (2007) Belconnen Naval Transmitting Station, 1939-2005. Department of Defence.
Tracy V. Wilson (2006) How Ghosts Work. HowStuffWorks.com.
Extracts from oral history interviews with John Connors, Gordon McDermott, Cyril Rice, and Mick Wellings used with the permission of the Australian Government Department of Defence.