Horror Writers Association Blog

Halloween – Haunted Places of New Zealand by Dan Rabarts & Lee Murray


In our Underworld Gothic blogpost last year, we pointed out that Halloween isn’t really a thing down under in New Zealand. It’s true: hardly anyone goes trick-or-treating, you don’t see plastic skeletons propped up in our front yards, and, in fact, most households don’t even buy candyin preparation for the holiday. In that post, we summarised our thoughts on why Halloween is such a non-event here, including the observation that ghosts and the supernatural are an everyday thing in Aotearoa. In fact, when it comes to ghosts, New Zealanders are spoiled for choice. So, instead of making excuses about why we don’t celebrate Halloween, we’d thought we’d introduce our HWA colleagues to some of our local ghost haunts and the ghosts who inhabit them, beginning with Dan’s local movie theatre in New Zealand’s capital city.

The St James Theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington

1. St. James Theatre, Wellington

Dan: In a former life, I worked in the film industry, and as such I knew many people who swapped hats between the sound-stages of Peter Jackson’s Stone Street Studios and Wellington’s many theatrical venues, large and small. One rigger in particular always loved the chance to do a job at the Saint James Theatre, affectionately known as The Jimmy. When asked why he liked the theatre so much, he could reel off a raft of technical reasons: easy to pack in and out, great grid to move around in, amazing acoustics. But step a little bit sideways, maybe over a beer or three, and he’d admit it’s because of the history of the place, the sense of grandeur that survives to this day in a building which has weathered many storms, faced the threat of demolition at least once, and remains one of Wellington’s—indeed, New Zealand’s—premiere performance venues. A bright, self-consciously gaudy gem in the middle of Wellington’s night-life district.

Now, add a whiskey to that beer, and the truth, or something like the truth, starts to show beneath the surface of the convenient lie. The chance to work at the Jimmy is a chance to brush against Yuri.

Who’s Yuri? And he gives you a look over the top of his glass, suddenly sharp as a hawk. Yuri, the Russian actor, who died when he fell from the grid to the stage below? How have I not heard of him? Have I never worked a show in the dark backstage of the Jimmy? Not seen his shadow slip and slide between the curtains, not heard his footsteps echoing on the metal grid?

Yuri, they say, was in love with one of the dancers in his troupe, but his advances were rejected. He fell from the fly-floor, high above the stage, though it was never discovered if he fell, or if he was pushed, or if, indeed, he couldn’t bear the pain of rejection and ended his own life in a dramatic exeunt so powerful it bound his spirit to the stage forever thereafter.

2. St. James Auditorium

He sips the whiskey.

Wrap the show, clear everyone out, turn everything off, grab your jacket and head for the door. Pause with your hand on the latch. Give everything one last look before leaving the theatre for the night. Is there still a light on back there? Walk back through the dark, cluttered backstage only to find the stage washed in light. Swallow hard and grin. Yuri is feeling nostalgic. Yuri wants to look upon the place he loved, and lost, and died.

Goodnight, Yuri. Turn the lights off when you leave.

But he will never leave.

Yuri is just one of the ghosts said to haunt the Jimmy, though he is the one whom the most people report having touched up against. From footsteps in the fly-floor, to lights coming on after everything has been turned off, to a spectacular tale of a projectionist on the stage when a beam overhead collapsed, and he and his son were lifted and carried three metres in the air by an unseen presence to land safely out of harm’s way, to a photographic image of something vaguely human up in the grid caught by paranormal investigators, Yuri, real or not, is very much a part of the weft of the Jimmy, and those who work it know him well.

3. Paranormal investigators’ image of Yuri

Stories have also been told of a ghostly choir, dating back to the Second World War. The boys in the choir sang their last song together there, before being shipped off to the front. Their ship never arrived, and none of them were ever heard from again. Perhaps they have found refuge from the terror of whatever fate they encountered on the waves back in that last place they felt happy.

Famously, the Jimmy is home to the ‘Wailing Woman’, the ghost of an actress who was booed off the stage and who then took her own life by slitting her wrists in the dressing room. Many have heard her voice, and it is she who is suspected of causing many unfortunate incidents and accidents among other actresses who perform at the theatre, including twisted ankles, broken legs and inflamed throats.

Finally, perhaps most disturbing of all, is the nameless figure who is sometimes seen backstage, outside of performance hours, a tall tin man of about thirty years, who simply stands in the shadows and watches, but is gone when approached. This ghost has no name, no story. No reason.

The thing we all love about ghost stories, he says, setting down his empty glass and fumbling for a cigarette, only to remember he can’t smoke inside and will have to go out there, into the cold Wellington winter to enjoy it, is that we feel the need to give them reasons. Unrequited love this. Rejection and suicide that. Solace from the horror of war. Redemption.

He likes to brush by Yuri, to remember the drama, so fitting in a place like the St James, to have his own small part in the narrative that stretches back decades and which may never find its denouement.

But the man in the shadows. That tall, thin man with no purpose, just his watching presence. Watching, then gone. Is he waiting for something? Will a time come when his footnote at the bottom of the gloried tales of hauntings at the Jimmy becomes a horrific anecdote all its own?

He doesn’t know. He’s never seen the rumoured watcher. Hopes not to. But there’s always that chance, that the next ghost story of the Jimmy… just might be about him.


The Buried Village of Te Wairoa, near Rotorua

4. The Phantom Canoe: A Legend of Lake Tarawera by Kennett Watkins 1888

Lee: A thirty-minute drive from my home in Tauranga, over the Mamaku ranges, is the Buried Village of Te Wairoa, the site of one of New Zealand’s most deadly natural disasters. These days it’s a common day excursion for local students, although the area has attracted attention since the late 1800s when visitors from Europe would travel here to see the famous Pink and White Terraces on the edge of Lake Rotomahana.

Once considered the Eighth Wonder of the World, there were two silica cascades: the larger white terraces, Te Tarata [the tattooed rock], which covered three hectares (seven acres), and the smaller and tepid pink terraces, Otukapuarangi [fountain of the clouded sky], which resembled Disney’s teacups and were where people bathed in the silky waters. Visitors, including the then Duke of Edinburgh, novelist Anthony Trollope, and the artist Charles Blomfield, all admired the beauty of the terraces. Lieutenant TM Jones of the HMS Pandora described them:

“No wit could possibly conceive or execute anything half as beautiful. The constant pouring of the water over [the basins’] edges has rounded them off in the most graceful curves: the incrustations resembling in many places plumes of ostrich feathers in high relief or the beautiful arabesques to be seen on a frosted window pane.”

As well as being beautiful, the site had an eerie mysterious quality as Blomfield pointed out:

“It was a most uncanny experience,” he wrote of boating on the moonlit lake. “The mysterious shroud of vapour, the absolute solitude, the strange weird sounds on every hand, hissing, gurgling, muttering, moaning, sighing, seemed like some unknown world, while every few yards a wild duck would rise from the water with a startled cry, and vanish in the gloom . . .”

5. The White Terraces, by Josiah Martin c1880s

All that ended, when on the night of 10 June 1886, Mount Tarawera erupted, throwing rock and mud into the air, destroying the terraces, and burying several villages, including the village of Te Wairoa. One hundred and fifty-three people, including children, are known to have been killed, and many more displaced. Since then the village has become a monument to those lives, a cautionary tale about showing respect for the land and the unseen forces that mould and shape it. You would think that would be the end of the story, that those souls buried alive by the hot ash and rubble are the reason for the region’s reputation as a ghostly haunt, but as it turns out, the ghosts came before…

Sophia Hinerangi, a respected Māori tourist guide of the day, had been taking a group of fifteen people on a customary canoe trip across the quiet morning waters of Lake Tarawera, when everyone on the craft witnessed another canoe on the lake. The New Zealand Herald reported Sophia’s account via Mr H Fildes. She said:

“We pulled away [from the shore] about a mile and a half, when I looked round and saw a small canoe with one man in it come from under a Christmas tree. We thought it was someone going to catch koura [NZ crayfish], and the men said, ‘Look, there is someone going to catch kōura’, but as we looked the canoe got larger and shot out into the lake, and from one man the number increased to five; they were all paddling fast, fast, but to our horror they appeared to have dogs’ heads on the bodies of the men… Then the canoe got larger till it looked like a war canoe, and then we saw thirteen in all, paddling faster and faster. While we were watching astonished and terrified (for the boatmen had stopped rowing), the canoe got smaller until only five men were left and at last there remained but one very big man. The canoe got still smaller, and then with the last remaining man, disappeared into the waters of the lake.”

It wasn’t only the Māori in the party who witnessed the canoe, a Mrs Louise Sise (37) stating:

“After sailing for some time we saw in the distance a large boat, looking glorious in the mist and the sunlight. It was full of Maoris, some standing up, and it was near enough for me to see the sun glittering on the paddles. The boat was hailed but returned no answer. We thought so little of it at the time that Dr Ralph did not even turn to look at the canoe, and until our return to Te Wairoa in the evening we never gave it another thought.”

Another tourist group on the lake also saw the canoe, and artist Josiah Martin even sketched an image. What seems certain is that numerous people, both Māori and non-Māori, all witnessed the same thing.While the European visitors paid the canoe little heed, to the Māori eyewitnesses, the occupants of the canoe heralded an ominous warning: the paddlers, whose hair was adorned with huia and white heron feathers, were a sign of pending death, departed souls heading for the mountain. The Māori knew there was no war canoe on the lake, that no such vessel existed.

Without the European’s testimonies perhaps reports of the canoe would have been dismissed as the overactive imaginings of the Māori, as Alex Wilson described in his book Maoriland (1884):

“There is a strange fascination about this curiously truncated mountain [Tarawera]. It looks bare and scarred, its steep walls rising up black and terrible as if blasted with lightning—the very sublimity of desolation. No wonder that the Māori imagination invests this spot with a sacred horror. It is to them a city of the dead, and may not lightly be approached; and when clouds gather round its summits, and roll in heavy masses along its sides, driven by the fierce winds that play about the crest, it requires no active imagination to people it with weird and spiritual terrors.”

Whether imagination or ghostly portent, the story of the phantom canoe has been told and retold in New Zealand history, its ghosts as real today as they were a century ago.


We explore some Kiwi ghosts in our newest book, TEETH OF THE WOLF, releasing today from Raw Dog Screaming Press (cover art by Daniele Serra).

TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Dan and Lee are giving away a print copy of Teeth of the Wolf. Comment below or email membership@horror.org with the subject title HH Contest Entry for a chance to win.”

Here’s the blurb for Teeth of the Wolf:

Scientific consultant Penny Yee has barely drawn breath before Detective Inspector Tanner assigns her another suspicious death, with Matiu tagging along for the ride. That’s fine as long as he stays outside the crime scene tape, but when one of Matiu’s former cronies turns up dead, Penny wonders if her brother might be more than just an innocent bystander. While she’s figuring that out, the entire universe conspires against her, with a cadaver going AWOL, her DNA sequencer spitting the dummy, and the rent due any day. Even the weather has it in for her. But that’s not the worst of it; Penny’s parents have practically announced her nuptials to Craig Tong!

Still spitting the taste of sand from his mouth, Matiu’s back on the case with Penny, and wouldn’t you know it, his big sister is in over her head again, not that she has a clue. There’s a storm brewing dark through the heat-haze on the horizon, and Makere isn’t the only one of Matiu’s friends from another life dogging his steps. Is this all because of what Mārama was trying to tell him earlier? About his heritage?

Meanwhile, Cerberus is only making things worse by losing his rag every time they cross paths with the elusive killer. Can the dog taste the hot sour reek of something trying to push through the veil and run its tongue and teeth across this world? What’s calling them? What has changed? Matiu should probably check that out, if only his probation officer would quit calling…

Excerpt: Here’s an excerpt Teeth of the Wolf: The Path of Ra Book Two for you to download and read at your leisure.

Download Teeth of the Wolf excerpt here

Dan Rabarts is an award-winning short fiction author and editor and podcast narrator, recipient of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best New Talent in 2014. His vocal talents have been heard on such podcasts as StarShipSofa, Tales to Terrify, Crime City Centraland Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His science fiction, dark fantasy and horror short stories have been published in numerous venues around the world, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, StarShipSofaand The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.Together with Lee Murray, he co-edited the anthologies Baby Teeth – Bite-sized Tales of Terror, winner of the 2014 SJV for Best Collected Work and the 2014 Australian Shadows Award for Best Edited Work, andAt The Edge, in 2016, a collection of Antipodean dark fiction. He also received the Australian Shadows Award for long fiction in 2016 for his novella, Tipuna Tapu. With Lee Murray, he co-authors the crime/horror series The Path of Ra, which starts with Hounds of the Underworld and continues in 2018 with Teeth of the Wolf (Raw Dog Screaming Press). His grimdark-yet-madcap fantasy series Children of Banekicks off shortly with the first book, Brothers of the Knife (Omnium Gatherum).Find out more at dan.rabarts.com.

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (Australian Shadows, Sir Julius Vogel). Her titles for adults include the acclaimed Taine McKenna series of military thrillers (Severed Press) and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra co-authored with Dan Rabarts (Raw Dog Screaming Press). Among her titles for children are YA novel Misplaced, and best-loved middle grade adventure Battle of the Birds, listed in the Best Books of the Year 2011 by New Zealand’s Dominion Post. The first book in a series of speculative middle grade adventures, Dawn of the Zombie Apocalypse, will be published by IFWG Australia in 2019. Lee is a regular speaker at workshops, conferences and schools. Lee is proud to have co-edited nine volumes of speculative fiction, including six by New Zealand school students. She lives with her family in New Zealand where she conjures up stories for readers of all ages from her office overlooking a cow paddock. Find her at leemurray.info


7 comments on “Halloween – Haunted Places of New Zealand by Dan Rabarts & Lee Murray

  1. I love a good ghost story, and that tale of the haunted theater really does the trick, particularly the mystery surrounding his death. Thanks for taking us on a tour of haunted New Zealand!

  2. Always fascinating to read about the ghosts of other lands, & I love theatre ghost stories! Thank you.

  3. Sailing past your beloved New Zealand on MV Munin I couldn’t help but be awestruck by natural mysteries of the area. I saw from my vantage point the mountain that inspired Tolkien and other great artists.

    I did not know but I’m definitely not surprised by the volume of ghost stories in New Zealand.

    I venture to say the number of ghosts exceeds even New Orleans. Though we still have the Loupe Garou, that voodoo queen, and those vampires to keep us awake across the pond.

    Thank you for sharing!

  4. October is always a great time for a good ghost story. While there are many stories of haunted theaters, the buried village is an especially striking tale.

    Thank you!

  5. Fascinating reading, thanks Lee and Dan. I wonder if the story of the canoe bears any relationship to the story told by Algernon Blackwood… ‘The Empty House’ set in another corner of the globe (Canada).
    “As I looked, I saw a canoe glide into the pathway of light, and immediately crossing it, pass out of sight again into the darkness. It was perhaps a hundred feet from the shore, and it moved swiftly. I was surprised that a canoe should pass the island at that time of night, for all the summer visitors from the other side of the lake had gone home weeks before, and the island was a long way out of any line of water traffic.”

    Also interesting is the canoe trip experienced by the narrator and his friend in Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’ – a weird tale favoured by none other than Lovecraft, this one was set in a sandy island off the Danube in Austria, and committed to paper in the early 1900s.

    No direct correlation, but I suppose it’s possible for Blackwood to have heard the Maori tale?

  6. Fascinating to read, thanks Dan and Lee 🙂
    On reading about the canoe, I was reminded of two of Algernon Blackwood’s weird tales – ‘The Willows,’ of course, which is narrated by two friends on a canoe trip through the Danube. The other is ‘A Haunted Island’ … I wonder if Mr. Blackwood (writing in the early 1900s) might have come across the Maori tale you cite above?

    “As I looked, I saw a canoe glide into the pathway of light, and immediately crossing it, pass out of sight again into the darkness. It was perhaps a hundred feet from the shore, and it moved swiftly.

    “I was surprised that a canoe should pass the island at that time of night, for all the summer visitors from the other side of the lake had gone home weeks before, and the island was a long way out of any line of water traffic.

    “My reading from this moment did not make very good progress, for somehow the picture of that canoe, gliding so dimly and swiftly across the narrow track of light on the black waters, silhouetted itself against the background of my mind with singular vividness.”

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