When I was working at the Jam Factory multiplex about a decade ago, there were rumors that cinema four was haunted. Everyone on the staff talked about it.
There were two ghosts: a little girl who laughed, and an older man wearing a hat and smoking a cigar. Even those who didn't see the old man could often smell the cigar smoke wafting through the cinema after midnight.
Even as a devout sceptic who put zero stock in tales of the supernatural, I'd still pause on nights when I'd have to clean popcorn off the floor, by myself, at 2 AM. Scoop. Glance around. Continue scooping.
I never saw anything in the time I was there, but I always think about it when I return to the cinema as a patron.
So I thought I'd ask some old workmates about the haunted cinema four in the Jam Factory. Someone told me cinema four at the Nova was also haunted. "A friend of mine saw a ghost in cinema four at the Rivoli," someone said.
OK, that got my interest. Haunted cinemas is one thing, but why was it always cinema four? This had to be investigated.
Stories of ghosts in Melbourne cinemas are nothing new. John Pinkney's Haunted: The Book of Australia's Ghosts, published in 2005 by Five Mile Press, describes a rainy night in July of 1999 where Jeff Jacklin, the technical manager of the Classic Cinemas in Elsternwick, was finishing up his shift. Alone in the building, he slipped some paperwork under the door of his boss's empty office, only to have someone on the other side violently pull the papers through.
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After a number of other incidents, the Classic's owner Eddie Tamir, who still operates the cinema, called in two clairvoyants to try to explain the phenomena. One said it was caused by a small man from the 1930s who loved to pray pranks; the other said a small group of ghosts had decided to make their home in the theater.
The book goes on to outline a series of reported hauntings at the old Metro in Malvern one suburb over, which saw numerous people seeing an apparition of a long-deceased projectionist who had once worked there.
"For one thing, cinema four is definitely haunted," says Harry Thompson, former manager at Cinema Nova. "A lot of customers would tell us stories—the recurring one was of a pale little girl running about —and a couple of regulars straight up refuse to go to their film if it was in four. They would just see something else."
Harry never experienced anything personally in cinema four, but saw something else that shook him to the core.
Around the time that the Nova's cinemas 13-15 were being constructed, Harry was a night manager who would often work until 2 AM on Friday and Saturday nights.
"I hadn't seen any of the construction yet," he says, "and took the deserted building as my opportunity to see what the new cinemas were coming along like. As I had already turned all the lighting off for that section, I relied on a shitty little torch as my guide. I walked through the building zone into what is now cinema 13, and scanned the room with my torch from left to right.
"As the torch reached the right-hand side, it went out, but not before I saw the image of a person hanging from the roof by their neck. I freaked out and smacked the torch to come back on—such a horror film cliché!—and when it did, the person was gone.
"Whatever it was scared the shit out of me, and I didn't sleep that night and I didn't go back in those construction zones until it was all done. I'm not a super ghosty person and don't scare easily, but it was seriously whack. Whenever I go into cinema 13 I never sit on the right hand side at the back because the image of the person hanging is pretty well etched into my brain."
I asked the Nova for a response. "Honestly, I have never encountered anything of the spiritual kind at the Nova, not in the seven-plus years I have been here," says Nova's General Manager Kristian Connelly. He says he's heard the stories, but never anything as specific as Harry's encounter. "I'm afraid that the Nova is not haunted. I think it is just stories spread by staff wanting to get out of cleaning auditoriums at the end of a shift, when it all feels a little dark and spooky."
Kristian, like everyone else, points me to the Rivoli. That one, everybody says, really is haunted.
I meet up with Eden Porter for a coffee at a café directly opposite the Rivoli. Eden worked there for ten years starting in 2003. There are two stories, he tells me. One that happened to his manager and one that happened to him.
The one he heard, and the one that has become the stuff of legend around Melbourne, was what had happened to Aaron and Meaghan at 2 AM one night. They're closing up, and Meaghan goes upstairs to turn off the light in the mezzanine. She doesn't come back.
Aaron calls out to her. Nothing. He heads up the stairs. As he climbs them, he becomes very, very cold. He can see his breath. He reaches the top and sees Meaghan standing in the middle of the foyer, completely still. The light is still on. Aaron says her name. Nothing. He shouts: "Meaghan!"
The light switches off.
Meaghan snaps out of it and runs over to Aaron, pulling him own the stairs and out of the building. Outside, she asks him if he also felt cold as he ascended the staircase.
She told him what had happened: when she'd reached the top, she couldn't move. In the mirror she could see a strange outline of a person. She froze to the spot. She didn't see Aaron until he was right in front of her, shouting.
Eden heard the story directly from Meaghan. I ask if she's the sort of person who would readily believe in this sort of thing. He says she is. I ask if Eden is.
"Not really," he says. "I like the concept of it, but I don't really believe it. I think people either exaggerate or misremember." He pauses, reflecting on his own story. "But something definitely happened."
It was back in 2003, around the time I was across town cleaning the Jam Factory's cinema four with trepidation. Eden was standing in Rivoli's cinema four, his head down as he scooped up the popcorn.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the outline of a person. He didn't think much of it; it was probably another worker. He glanced up, but nobody was there. He looked back down and it reappeared in the corner of his eye. It was standing near the fire exit. Eden kept his head down, staring peripherally at it as best he could. He eventually lifted his head.
"Hello?" he said. "Anyone there?"
The curtain at the front of the cinema began to move. This is a thick, heavy curtain, and there's no breeze coming in.
Eden leaves the cinema and tells his manager he saw something. "Was it near the fire exit?" his manager asks. "It was probably the ghost."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Eden says.
The manager tells him it's been going on for years. But in the following ten years at the Rivoli, Eden never sees anything like that again. He does hear the stories.
The staff uses the cinema's reputation to play pranks on new employees. Mobile phones are given ghostly ringtones and hidden in seats. We try to figure out if Eden's encounter could have been a prank, but he doesn't think so.
The one question no one seems to have any answer for is why it's always cinema four. Are ghosts just drawn to that number?
I look up a numerology website—in for a penny, in for a pound, I figure—and try to find some significance to the number. It tells me "four" relates to Taureans (I'm a Taurus!), Wednesdays (I interview Eden on a Wednesday), and the color green (Christine Milne, leader of the Greens, announced her retirement that very morning!). I'm enjoying this nonsense, but it's not helping me out much.
"Four is the number of fate," the website goes on to tell me, "so it must be remembered that there will be many things that happen over which you have no control."
That's good enough for me. Maybe I'll let it stay a mystery.
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