It’s Halloween, a time for frights and chills, when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is as flimsy as the night is dark.

It’s a time for sharing ghost stories, of which I’m the keeper of a few, having written two non-fiction books on the subject. But people are surprised when I tell them that my fascination with the paranormal has little to do with fear, and everything to do with hope—and the love of a good story.

When I was a child of about seven or eight, I was suddenly gripped by a fear of death. I’d been reading a kids’ encyclopedia, which explained, matter-of-factly, that one distant day, the sun would engulf the earth and then there would be … nothing. I read this sentence over and over, stunned by its implications.

That marked the beginning of a string of sleepless nights, where, laying in the top bunk of our little flat by the main road in suburban Eastlakes, in Sydney, I would try hard to imagine this vast nothingness, this vacuum of life, this treacherous sun snuffing out everything.

But I couldn’t. Every time I came close, my stomach would swoop and dip and I’d be back to where I’d started.

I found solace in an unexpected way, wrapped inside a story my mother handed to me like the gift it was. She described how as a girl growing up in Uruguay, she’d had moments of precognition, where she’d sensed the imminent deaths of loved ones.

Of course, the stories were sad: two family members had died, one a cousin of only four. But how could my mum have known that tragedy loomed? What force steered her to her little cousin’s bedside in time to hold her hand as she died from an illness not even her mother knew she had?

It was a delicious mystery, hinting at a world beyond our own, of universal secrets and magic tucked away within everyday people.

It was an antidote to the fear that had lain in me like a weighted rock since I’d read that (deceptively harmless-looking) children’s reference book. Now, I could see a way out.

Many years later, as a journalist interviewing people who’d felt they sensed the spirits of late loved ones, I recognised the familiar flicker of those embers of hope. I’ve learned how these experiences can work as powerful healing agents.

I will never forget interviewing Kath Campbell for my book Spirit Sisters. Over the phone, Kath unravelled a story of loss that had me stifling sobs, as my children played in the room next door.

When her two little girls perished in a car accident, along with their grandmother, it was only the experience of seeing her daughters’ spirits that gave her the strength to go on.

And go on she did. Kath and I are still in touch, and I delight in hearing news of her son Thomas, a “miracle baby” born to Kath and her husband, Greg, four years after the tragedy.

In Where Spirits Dwell, three other bereaved mothers opened up to me about the ways they know their children are around—Laura’s son draws hearts in shadow and light on her walls, Jo’s baby sends his love on the wings of white butterflies and Christine’s beautiful daughter is a steadfast “silent partner” in her business.

As much as I relish this aspect of my work I confess to being a sucker for the singular delight of the classic ghost story, too.

They’re a language of their own, aren’t they? A universal currency crossing boundaries of race, gender and society.

“A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh bristled,” says the Bible (Job 4:15). Over the years, some of the firsthand accounts I’ve heard would bristle the hairs on the flesh of even the most ardent skeptic. There’s the the experience of Emma, an erudite book publicist who woke, one autumn night, to the sight of a wharfie rifling through her fiancé’s belongings in their 1800s-era workers’ cottage in Sydney’s historic Balmain.

“He was so real, I actually thought we had an intruder,” said Emma, remembering his “steely blue-grey eyes” and the “heavy cable-knit jumper” he wore. Lean and muscly, aged around 40, the intruder stood only centimetres from her partner’s sleeping head, inspecting a watch on the nightstand. Her heart racing, Emma sat up in bed, uttering a staccato “oh oh oh.” Hearing Emma’s voice, he calmly turned his head in her direction …

Then there’s Amy, a young criminology student I met for coffee at Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building. As shoppers bustled about, quietly-spoken Amy told a tale of waking one night to the sight of a colonial family staring at her as if she were a curio in an old wares shop: there was an intrigued-looking mother, an excited little boy who walked over to prod her and, presiding over the Twilight Zone-style tableau, a rather haughty-looking father. The details were seared into her memory, as they’re now in mine… And yours?

Few of us can resist the charms of a spooky yarn. It’s what Halloween is for—losing yourself in the literary nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe, or revisiting The Sixth Sense from the safety of your couch.

It’s all good fun. But, as I learned in primary school, and as my interviewees have taught me, sometimes a story about crossing the divide between life and death carries more than chills.

Sometimes a story like that is a guiding light—a potent harbinger of hope.


Do you have a ghost story to tell?




Boo! Scream! It’s Halloween

Heaven is Real









Karina Machado was born in Uruguay and was 2 when her family moved to Australia, where she grew up hearing stories of her mum’s psychic gift, igniting a life-long curiosity about the paranormal. Always passionate about books and writing, Karina began her career in journalism as editorial assistant at TIME magazine in 1994, and is now a senior editor at WHO magazine. She’s also obsessed with the Tudors, and has been known to dress up as Anne Boleyn, whose ghost she’s sadly never seen. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two children. She is working on her third book, about the ways our late loved ones make themselves known to us, and she would welcome any reader stories at


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  • Reply October 30, 2012

    Lucy Clark

    Karina I had an experience when I was in my early 20s and working as a governess on an isolated sheep station in far western Queensland. I slept on my own in one of the old shearer’s cottages, and I always felt completely chilled just walking in there. I hated it. One night I awoke – and I maintain I was definitely awake – to the sensation of something sitting on my chest, something malevolent. I was unable to move and unable to breathe, although I must have been breathing! After what seemed like an eternity this entity whooshed off my chest and left me feeling very shaken. I didn’t stay in that job for much longer!
    Lucy, Ed.

    • Reply October 30, 2012


      Lucy, what you describe is sleep paralysis – it happens to many people, me included. When I was younger I was sure it was an evil force or an outer body experience. It was only recently after talking to others who had the experience that I was able to learn about it.

  • Reply October 30, 2012


    Don’t care much for Halloween but I love a good ghost story. I am a believer.

  • Reply October 30, 2012


    I had an experience in Canada at my cousins house. I was the only one who went to the bathroom twice that night, in a party where at least 20 of us cousins. Both times scared the …. out of me. Only me .. then 10 years later told my cousin what happen that night and they didn’t laugh as the cousin who owned the house had a priest there several times to bless the house on top of an old cemetary from 1800’s ! ..Never forget it..

  • Reply October 30, 2012

    Wendy Lee-Lusher

    My daughter often ‘sees’ spirits at the house where she and her father live. Several of her friends have asked her who else is in the bedroom or the spare room and she just says ‘that is the old man who lived here before us’, and she is in no way frightened of him.

  • Reply October 30, 2012


    My husband and I were on a world trip in 2009 and stayed in an old boutique hotel in Paris. I felt a bit ill so we stayed in our room one afternoon to have a sleep. Bradley was lying next to me (i was already sleeping) and he definitely felt someone sit on the end of the bed – then crawl on top of him. He couldn’t move and wasn’t asleep so he was very freaked out. He’s never been a believer but I think that certainly made him consider the possibility that there is more to life and death than he thought…

  • Reply October 31, 2012


    Thanks everyone for your comments and for sharing your stories. Lucy, I was also going to suggest that your experience had all the hallmarks of sleep paralysis, as does Rhi’s experience. Although it’s very interesting that you are certain you were awake, and Rhi also mentions the same about her husband. It’s intriguing, because paralysis features in a lot of the experiences people share with me, often as a prelude to encounters which occur while the person t is awake and going about their business. In Spirit Sisters, one woman tells me about moving into a terrace house where all three flatmates had the identical experience of feeling smothered (ie, a sleep paralysis-type experience) on the same night at around the same time. I asked a sleep disorders specialist about this and he was stumped, could only offer that that was not sleep paralysis, but “something else.” Mysteries abound …

  • Reply October 31, 2012


    I have absolutely no doubt that ‘ghosts’ exists … at least until they no longer need to. Energies more than ‘entities’. Spirits are longer term I reckon, as that is like the essence of us all. I don’t even think of this as controversial. The subtle ‘bodies’ we all have know a lot before things happen in the physical realm … so I am also not at all surprised by the sensitive child (your mother) who had precognition of loved ones deaths.
    I haven’t had such experiences but know of many who have, and more. How beautiful and poignant that those women had the experiences of her daughters spirits visiting her after their deaths … what a gift for her. Don’t have to over-analyze everything, we do that so much anyway, are addicted to it! Just accept the experiences for what they are, as touching other dimensions of this whole numinous world that we live in all the time anyway, whether we know it or not or ‘believe’ in it or not … Even dreaming is pretty much out of body stuff I reckon! Well that’s how I see life … not religious but non-physical reality is a constant background awareness, or if you think I’m delusional, lol a “belief” I hold. I will look out for your book, thank you Karina : ) PS: what an interesting ‘ghost’ photo above!

    • Reply November 1, 2012


      Thank you Anne, I love your suggestion to not analyse the experiences, to merely accept them for what they are. I so agree that, regardless of what you believe, it cannot be argued that the experiences are profound and, as in the case of the bereaved mums, transformative. Thanks again, Anne. I hope you enjoy my books if you get around to reading them. Please get in touch via Facebook and let me know your thoughts!

  • Reply October 31, 2012


    I’ve had two very real experiences. Taking a daytime nap twenty years ago in a holiday cabin at Nambucca Heads while husband and 2 kids played in the living area. Woke up with a start feeling that someone was in the room with me and was horrified to see a tall thin man in black Victorian clothes and stovepipe hat, long beard. Was later told the area was called the “land of the beardies” and shown pictures of past residents. Identical to the man I saw. He was not threatening, but i watched him for some seconds as he walked around the room and up to the side of the bed towards me, before I gasped very loudly and he dissolved before my eyes. Got the feeling he was curious not harmful. I didn’t sleep alone in there again.
    Second event was at Hurstville Community Hospital in the old wing, in 2000, there for an operation. Before any drugs given I might add! I watched as a small grey mass floated through the room and settled up near the ceiling then floated out again. Shortly after an overhead light fixture in nearby room fell off the wall and the patient in there screamed. The nurse said “Oh things like that happen all the time around here.” Within fifteen minutes I saw an elderly lady kind of float past my doorway and smile kindly at me. I smiled back and she said ” Don’t worry you’ll be alright”. I asked the next nurse that came by who the cute little old lady was and she said there were no little sold ladies on the ward that night.

  • Reply October 31, 2012


    Well reading this I feel compelled to put my 2c worth in. I lived in the Uk in 1989 in my Husbands house down on the south coast. I was renovating while he went to work. I would wash up in the morning at the kitchen sink and at the windows above the sink would see a gentleman Whoosh… past with a dark cape and top hat on. I would stupidly run to the back door and open it .. but there was never anyone one there. This happened so often I would go out side look around the garden for the person. In the end I thought I was going mad (an Australian living in the UK , the light was different anything .. to explain it ) Also during the day I would be up the ladder painting the ceiling and I would see a man walk into to the room, and definitely feel a person too ( I would start talking to him with out directly looking at him) as I could only see them in my peripheral vision, when I stopped painting and looked down there was no one there. I thought it was my Husband come home from work or some one else. I put all this out of my mind and never discussed it with anyone. When we moved countries I realised a couple of months later that I had witnessed. He was not threatening I believe he was a previous owner come to look at what I was doing to his house.

    • Reply November 1, 2012


      Thanks Jan and Suz, your stories raised a few goosebumps. Jan, your story of the bearded man is one of the most intriguing I’ve ever heard … thanks for sharing. And as for Hurstville Community Hospital, I had my son there in 2001, but I can’t remember which wing I was in! I’ve certainly heard many, many stories of haunted hospitals, they are clearly very “charged” places.

  • Reply October 31, 2012


    Heard Wendy Harmer on The Conversation hour with John Faine

    Wonderful stuff!!

    Her sentiments ring true about Comedy and television today

    Love you Wendy and what a princely sum you were paid back then??



    • Reply November 1, 2012

      Wendy Harmer

      I know, Mary. Wasn’t trying to show off. Just being honest and show that we are de-valuing the importance of the arts at the same time salaries for executives in business are ever-increasing. But i reckon the arts are incredibly valuable to us as a nation. Was thrilled beyond measure that I’d inspired Will Anderson… I did not know that and it made me feel proud to have done so. Wxx

  • Reply November 20, 2012

    lisa bunch

    I have had several out of body experiences and met up with my dad in 2010 who passed in 1991. I have also had sleep paralysis happen as well. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I was awake and knew there was an evil presence in the room as it was laughing at me. I couldn’t move I couldn’t scream or anything. I watched as my brother and grandmother came in and out of the room a few times. Now i know there is evil as well as good on the other side

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