[This issue, we sit down for quick interview with Kyla Lee Ward. A novelist and poet, Ward also leads tours through some of the most haunted locations in Sydney, Australia.]
ev0ke: How did you come to work as a Ghost Host in Sydney?
Kyla Lee Ward: I was headhunted! For the past three years I have been involved with “Deadhouse – Tales of Sydney Morgue.” It’s a theatre company that stages immersive productions based on crimes from Sydney’s past, in historical venues such as the crypt of St. James Church. For the past two seasons, I have been the Guide, taking on various roles to lead the audience through events. One of the established Ghost Hosts attended a performance and recommended me to his boss. Who also came to see the play, and there you are!
The Rocks Ghost Tours have been running for twenty-six years and have an international reputation. Everyone in the Rocks recognises the figure in the black hat and duster, out in the front of a group of nervous-looking tourists. I am a comparative newcomer, who holds the more experienced Hosts in awe! Each of them has their own unique way of presenting the material and instilling just the right sense of unease into the patrons. Unfortunately, tours have been on hold for most of the year, due to the pandemic.
ev0ke: Which haunted site on the tour is your favorite? Why? And what’s the story behind it?
KLW: The Parbury Ruins are an absolutely spectacular location, right in the heart of the city, that comparatively few people have heard of. Joining the tour is one of the few ways the general public can experience them. They consist of the remains of a two-room stone cottage with an external well shaft, constructed in 1820 by a convict mason for his family. The place had a chequered history, before literally falling out of sight. In 2000, a new apartment block was scheduled to be built, starting with the excavation of the underground parking level. When the builders discovered the buried structure, archaeologists were called in. The decision was made to go ahead with the apartments, while conserving the ruins underneath.
Unlocking that side door and going down the stairs into this subterranean vault, then coming on the old, stone house with its rebuilt walls, and the hearth and sink still intact in the kitchen, is an intensely eerie experience, before you even hear about the ghost. The well is dry these days, but still very deep.
ev0ke: What is the weirdest, most unsettling experience that you have had while leading a tour?
KLW: In fact, it was at a different location the tours no longer have access to. I’m told by the other Hosts that the Signalman’s Cottage was frequently the site of “incidents”, and we had already lost access to the lower floor before I joined the team. A woman saw Something in the bathroom mirror and bolted up the stairs in what was considered a dangerous fashion.
I only took two parties through before the axe came down, but I tell you, that place is live. The Signalman’s Cottage was built in 1848 on the grounds of the Sydney Observatory (itself an amazing, gothic revival structure with a time ball tower), to house the man who relayed signals from ships entering the harbour. One of those men had a bad time of it in the 1860s and this is believed to have caused the haunting.
I do not generally see apparitions, but I do pick up on energy and sometimes just “know” things about a place. The first time I walked into the Cottage, it felt like the floor was shifting beneath me, almost as if on a slow boil. I had previously experienced cold spots, but this was the first time I received an impression of heat. A distinct current led me to a room on the right, which I was later told was where one of the deaths had taken place. It was all distinctly uncomfortable and when I led the groups there, people reacted before I said a word and some picked up on the heat.
The Observatory is still a highlight of the tour, what with the other ghostly presences and the unparalleled view.
ev0ke: How has working as a Ghost Host impacted your writing and other creative endeavors? Do you find it a source of inspiration? Or are the tours another expression of your creativity? Or both?
KLW: I have long been a student of the darker side of Sydney’s history. Even before starting the tours, I could have told you where each of the old cemeteries lay, before they were “cleansed” and built over. I would have pointed out Sydney’s oldest gargoyles, clinging to the steeple of St. Lawrence’s Church, then led you up “Gallows Hill”. Really, the ghost tours are a perfect conjunction of these interests and my love of telling stories.
So yes, this has all fed into my writing — Prismatic, the novel I co-wrote with my partner, is set in Sydney during three time periods and full of that kind of detail. I am currently researching an interesting murder that took place on Pitt Street in 1927. A local medium attracted attention when she offered police the name of the killer. This research may become a future tale from the Deadhouse!
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
KLW: After my collection of dark poetry — The Macabre Modern — came out in 2019, I spent a fair amount of time pulling together a collection of short stories that I hope to shop around to publishers. Then there’s re-releasing Prismatic as both e-book and audiobook, and finishing the current novel. It is my hope that the tours will be permitted to start again at some point in the new year.