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Photo: Paranormal NZ. Additional treatment by Archi Banal
Photo: Paranormal NZ. Additional treatment by Archi Banal

SocietyOctober 28, 2023

A night with Paranormal NZ, ‘Mr Smiley’ and possibly a ghost named Peg

Photo: Paranormal NZ. Additional treatment by Archi Banal
Photo: Paranormal NZ. Additional treatment by Archi Banal

New Zealand’s most active paranormal research group has spent years investigating an Auckland theatre. How do they prove it’s haunted?

Heavy black velvet curtains fall from a lattice of beams high in the ceiling onto the black stage. The rows of blue chairs are all empty. The house and stage lights are off, with the only lighting coming from the entrance and exit passages. In the centre of the stage is a bright yellow ball from the $2 shop with a smiley face on it. It is slightly deflated, and so immobilised. 

Mark Wallbank doesn’t investigate any building without packing “Mr Smiley”. It’s a “trigger object,” an invitation for a ghost who might announce their presence by moving the ball. Wallbank has dedicated much of his life trying to detect and understand ghosts, and for over a decade has led Aotearoa’s most active paranormal research group, Paranormal NZ (previously Haunted Auckland). He’s 55, but that doesn’t stop him crawling through a small opening in the ceiling and onto the lattices on which the curtains and stage lights hang, albeit with some complaints from his back. Nor does it stop overnight stays, sleeping on floors at places which are under investigation. He says his wife is “very tolerant”, and enjoys her space from time to time.

Before the Waitakere Ranges became the source of Auckland’s water, water was taken from Lake Pupuke by a pump in this building.

Tonight, we’re in Auckland’s PumpHouse Theatre with one of the group’s longest standing members, Sam Collier. At times, it’s hard to tell the two men apart. They are both wearing black pants, black Vans with white soles, matching black Paranormal NZ T-shirts with a ghostly white figure glowing on their chests, unbuttoned long sleeve shirts casually layered over the top, and somewhat meticulously groomed facial hair.

The pair admit to having a “shared logical thinking” which they use to avoid jumping to fantastical assumptions. Their motto is that they are not sceptics, but not believers either. Wallbank is particularly dubious of orbs, which is unfortunate because he thinks he may have seen one this year. He is looking for a way to debunk the strange flash of light.

Voices travel in from outside, where families are enjoying the last of the light by the lakeside of Pupuke, and creaks occasionally emanate from unseen corners of the building, which was built in 1905. These sounds only warrant short pauses for listening and are then left to pass. Wallbank and Collier are familiar with the non-paranormal sounds of the PumpHouse; they’ve been investigating it since at least 2014.

Despite spending years if not decades in this, and other historical locations like the Lake House Arts Centre, Carrington Hospital and Howick Historical Village, Paranormal NZ never says a place is haunted. What they will say is that there has been activity, unexplained occurrences, and that they have favourite sites that they would return to “in a heartbeat,” says Collier. All their investigations seem to be “ongoing”.

The theatre itself does not shy away from its resident ghost. Staff and visitors have reported feeling watched, props going missing and reappearing, and seeing someone in the green room in the stage right wings. They attribute these happenings to a ghost named Peg, who has her own tab on the PumpHouse website, lovingly titled “Our ghost”. In the late 1960s, Cicely Margaret (Peg) Escott was instrumental in rescuing the building and turning it into a theatre. Her play Saved was partly performed at the reopening weekend in 1977. Sadly, Escott died by suicide the following year. Her ghost is said to be a bit of a trickster, perhaps even one that might like to kick a yellow ball with a smiley face on it.

Wallbank and his tools on The PumpHouse stage at a public event in 2014. (Photo: Supplied)

Beside Mr Smiley on the stage are backpacks full of other tools. Half of them are for the purpose of detecting ghosts, and making contact with them. The problem, of course, is that no one is sure exactly what ghosts are, so detection is fraught. Wallbank says there seems to be a new gadget or phone app to detect ghosts every other day, and he doesn’t trust many, if any, of them. His preferred method of detection is to spend long, quiet hours sitting in a place and listening, either alone or with his group.

Still, the whole thing about paranormal activity is that it occurs mostly outside of human senses, so gadgets are used to expand what we can see, hear and feel. The gadgets Paranormal NZ use are mostly older technology, things that have been used by generations of ghost investigators. Many of them are different makes and models of electromagnetic field (EMF for those in the know) sensors. When I ask how much they cost, Wallbank will only admit that “it is an expensive hobby”.

Wallbank pulls one from his camo-print bag. It’s about the size and shape of a brick, and a cleated silicone case makes it look grunty, like if a demon appeared you could sock it over the head and run away safely. Unlike a couple of EMF meters which have made their way onto the floor, it has a complicated face. This gadget is an EDI Meter, which detects not only EMF but also temperature and vibration. It has a digital screen to display numbers, like an alarm clock, a row of little black buttons, a row of blue LED lights and another of yellow ones. From its top protrudes a memory card which records changes in the readings through time, like a song of activity beyond human senses. Tonight on the stage, it doesn’t seem to be picking up much of anything, until we take it to the light switch. Here, it gets excited, and emits an alarm sound. Perhaps looking for ghosts is not so quiet after all.

Just as important as the sensors are the legion of cameras, lights, tripods and dictaphones. After all, what would be the point of seeing a ghost if you don’t have evidence? 

The hours that Paranormal NZ members spend investigating are carefully documented from various angles and on various devices. Being somewhere is only the beginning, because afterwards, all this documentation has to be carefully scrutinised. Giggles that one member heard upstairs have been revealed to be another member laughing downstairs. Or, in an incident that still plays on Wallbank’s mind, the torch that was on the chair really did get flung down a flight of stairs, while he was asleep, without a worldly explanation. He would not have seen it, were it not for the camera pointed on the staircase through the night. For the detractors, there is a second video, recorded simultaneously in another room. It shows Wallbank sleeping, then being rudely awakened by the thump of the torch, with a timestamp in the corner. He has drawn diagrams of the space, visited it numerous times, and “still can’t figure it out”. 

All the documentation is stored on hard-drives in Wallbank and Collier’s homes. “The investigation does not end at the location,” says Collier, “it can continue for hours, or years, afterwards.” It’s not only an expensive hobby, but also a lifestyle and calling. “We’re just ordinary people with day jobs and problems,” says Collier. 

Collier and Wallbank say it takes a particular kind of person to investigate the paranormal. Photo: Gabi Lardies.

It’s hard to imagine how they have time for day jobs. The group investigates sites numerous times a month, and Wallbank has written a series of books about their adventures and findings. The most recent, Haunted Auckland, serves as a guidebook for all the locations that they don’t claim to be haunted but for some reason return to over and over again. The PumpHouse Theatre takes up just two pages of the 248-page volume. The activity here is “subtle” – not as exciting, they say, as other locations, but they have a good relationship with management and so have easy access.

They take me behind the curtains, backstage and upstairs, through a series of little rooms and into a pokey hallway next to a toilet. They reckon Peg could have other ghostly company. Wallbank tells me about a caretaker who not only cleaned the theatre but would dress up and jump on stage to act in non-speaking roles. It isn’t clear whether he was invited on stage or did it of his own gumption, but it seems it was accepted as his portrait is framed on the wall in the lobby downstairs. He passed away in 2017. It is said that after his death the doors of the cleaning cupboards were often found flung open. Wallbank opens the doors in the corner of the hallway, revealing mops, spray bottles, brooms and extension cords.

Then, there’s a much smaller ghost, with four paws and a tail. Tiger was taken in by The PumpHouse in 2011 when he was found sleeping in a shrub nearby. Though shy, he enjoyed the odd stage appearance, and would break the tension of many dramatic Shakespeare scenes with a loud meow. Tiger died in 2017, but cat-like shadows have been spotted in and around the theatre since. The idea of a meowing ghost is much more heartwarming than a caretaker, but sadly Tiger does not seem to be around tonight. 

When we emerge from the theatre, the sun and the people have gone. Wallbank says he’d happily talk about investigations and ghost theories for hours and hours, at which point Collier offers to walk me to my car. On my drive home, a traffic light is stuck on a flickering yellow signal. It could be an electrical fault, but who can be sure?

Keep going!