Inside SA’s most haunted site
Cape Town - If you’re still secretly enamoured with the cult-classic 1980s supernatural comedy Ghostbusters, where men in overalls brandishing plasma ray guns and ghost-sucking vacuums say proudly “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts”, you’ll definitely want to know that real-life “ghostbusters” exist – right here in South Africa.
As for “who you gonna call?”, that would be the team of paranormal investigators at the South African Society for Paranormal Research (SASPR).
Society founder Marius Nienaber says he grew up in a house where paranormal happenings like “hauntings and such” were not seen as strange. In his family, experiences with hauntings and spirits were commonplace, and open communication was encouraged.
He believes there are many people who have strange things happening to them, or around them, but that without anyone to talk to, the information is lost.
So it was with that in mind that he founded the SASPR in 2006 so those with a sceptical audience would have somewhere and someone to turn to.
He says he wanted to “help people understand what may be happening around us”, and “knew (what) it must feel like to have these things happening to you and not have anybody to talk to, or to go to for help”.
The team is based in Gauteng, but is happy to help anyone in South Africa with any paranormal experiences.
Not everyone is up to the task of being a paranormal investigator, as the job can be quite gruelling, with one investigation lasting up to eight hours of searching for evidence. After that, combing through the audio and film footage can take a further eight hours. And Nienaber said most investigators work solely over weekends as they have full-time jobs during the week.
Other than being willing to log long hours on the job, the only requirement the society has is “a keen sense of adventure, and passion for the paranormal”.
The society gets around three calls or e-mails from the public every month, which it says keep it very busy on weekends. It also conducts investigations in museums and is attempting to follow the route that the Kruger millions are believed to have travelled.
The investigators gather information for each case by researching a site, interviewing tenants and neighbours, and staying at the site overnight to record any sounds or sightings with infrared cameras and electronic voice phenomenon recordings. After their investigation is complete, they offer house cleansing and spiritual help.
The most haunted venue in South Africa, Nienaber says, is in Cape Town – the Castle of Good Hope – which has a long history of suspected sightings and strange occurrences.
Investigators from his society have in the past heard “blood-curdling screams” within the castle walls, as well as “voices and many many footsteps and shadows”.
“Cape Town Castle is well known for the fact that it is the most haunted venue in South Africa, followed by the Kempton Park Hospital,” Nienaber says.
Weekend Argus visited the castle with Willem Steenkamp, former journalist and expert on the history of the castle and its other-worldly inhabitants.
Volunteer ghost hunters Ashleigh Wichman, 17, and Zoë Frantz, 16, came along in the hopes of seeing a ghost, but Steenkamp explained that it’s not what you see, but rather what you don’t see.
“Very late at night when it’s very quiet you can hear the Castle groaning,” he said, adding that these sounds can be easily explained by the fact that the building “settles” into the ground. But what he can’t explain away is doors and windows quietly opening themselves, dogs barking, or sightings of people who appear only to vanish moments later.
His connection to the castle dates back to an ancestor who was a soldier there in 1696. And Steenkamp served with the Cape Town Highlanders, who were closely associated with the castle.
Captain of the Castle Of Good Hope, Francois Morkel, says he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but rather in the “spiritual side”.
“My experience was about 15 years ago, while doing duty at the castle.
“It was a pleasant summer evening in December and I was doing my rounds between the Leerdam and Buuren bastions, when I suddenly felt as if I walked into a cooler in the vicinity of the Bell Tower. It lasted about two minutes and it was over.”
Morkel didn’t think much of the mysterious chill at the time, but later he found out that, in the 18th century, a soldier had committed suicide by hanging himself on the bell rope.
Derek Williams has worked at the castle since 1981 and has heard all the stories, but hadn’t had any personal spooky experiences until just last week.
He and his daughter were sleeping at the castle to oversee a group of boy scouts. Wilson was in a separate room away from the others. He closed all the doors and left one light on. There was no wind.
In the morning, he saw a heavy door, leading only to an alcove, standing wide open. No one else had access to that area apart from him.
But Steenkamp doesn’t believe that any bad spirits dwell there.
”As far as I’m concerned it’s a friendly old place.”
Many sightings over the years
Last year around October an independent film producer spent the night in the Castle, leaving audio and film recording equipment behind locked doors. Those who have seen the video footage say that what was captured was very interesting.
But what was most interesting was the audio recording from inside the Garrison cells. When the producer listened to the audio of him calling out for those who were there to speak up, a voice from the furthest point of the empty cells clearly stated: “In here.” When Ghost Hunters International visited the Castle they took their usual steps of setting up cameras and audio devices, and calling out for any ghosts to speak or show themselves. But they called out in English and, for a laugh, expert on the history of the Castle Willem Steenkamp told them that calling out in English would do no good because these were Dutch ghosts.
The Ghost Hunters were quick to hire a translator. One US cameraman called out to the ghosts in the Torture Chamber and was slapped in the face by an invisible hand. Steenkamp said you could see clearly that he had been slapped. “He was so shaken that he couldn’t speak,” he said.
The Castle’s resident restoration artist had to work late one night. She doesn’t believe in ghosts and knew she was the only person in that section of the Castle. The door behind her had been open, but when she turned around it was shut. There was no wind and not one person in sight.
The secretary of the defence reserve office in the Castle is, according to Steenkamp, a down-to-earth and practical person who is not “a believer”, but even she is shaken by the fact that every night she closes all the windows in her office – and many mornings one window, always the same one, stands wide open. “It happens often enough to freak her out,” he said.
One of the older Castle legends is that of the woman in the grey cloak. In the late 1860s there were at least two sightings by “responsible citizens”. When they started building the Castle they found a temporary graveyard, moving the bodies to another location. Shortly after the grey woman was spotted, they found another grave, that of a woman. They moved it and she was never seen again.
One night Steenkamp was doing a ghost tour and had lots of fake ghosts organised to add to the entertainment. While facing his audience he spotted someone on a bench below. At the end one woman complimented him on the “ghost” on the bench, and asked how you could see the bars of the bench through the man. And how did the smoke from his cigarette seem frozen in the air? Steenkamp just said: “Well, he wasn’t one of mine.”
The only known sighting in broad daylight was in 1915, when a sentry spotted a man in old-time clothing. The man was leaning on a wall, looking out towards Darling Street.
The sentry shouted: “Who goes there?” and the man vanished. - Weekend Argus