During Old Melbourne Gaol’s nearly 80 years of operation as a prison, the foreboding bluestone building was witness to 133 executions – not to mention countless more deaths as the result of poor conditions and treatment. While the building hasn’t seen a living inmate since the 1920s, there have certainly been sightings of former inmates who have lingered long after death... and nowhere in the jail is more inclined to spooky occurrences than the notorious Cell 17.
Located unassumingly in a corner of the jail’s middle floor, the infamous Cell 17 has hosted some of the creepiest, most spine-tingling episodes to occur in what is already a ghostly location. And it’s not hard to understand why the jail has given rise to rumours of restless spirits.
Old Melbourne Gaol tour guide Aurora says that with so many awful events unfolding at the gaol during its heyday, it’s unsurprising that so many visitors (and staff) now experience the unnatural there. “People tend to say that places where there have been really negative experiences tend to sort of manifest with ghosts,” he says. “And there were definitely some pretty negative things that happened [at] the jail while it was operating. It was definitely a real hub of cruelty.”
I don't really believe in ghosts, but I believe that the Old Melbourne Gaol is haunted
Cell 17 seems to be the supernatural epicentre of the jail, with many visitors reporting downright terrifying experiences inside the room. Aurora reports that he’s seen people running from the cell in tears, saying they’ve felt like someone was gripping their throat and unable to breathe. Others have reported feeling like they’re being petted, scratched, something tugging at their clothes or even that the floor is rocking back and forth. There seems to be a gender divide as well, with women tending to report something was trying to prevent them from leaving, while men saying that something was pushing them out. Even Aurora (who describes himself as a “borderline sceptic”) says he experiences “a very surreal feeling being inside there.”
One of the spookiest stories about Cell 17, however, comes from someone who went looking for a ghost... and perhaps got more than they asked for. Following a night tour, a woman decided to go for a poke around Cell 17. “She was a firm believer in ghost stuff and she really wanted to have this life-changing experience inside the cell,” says Aurora. The woman entered the cell and shut the door, waiting for something to happen. But after a while nothing does, so she goes to leave. “As soon as she has that instinct to leave and reaches out to open the door, she feels a tug at the back of her neck,” he says. “She’d felt that yanking feeling.” Looking down at the ground, the woman noticed the necklace she’d been wearing had fallen off – not undone, but the chain actually snapped in half. “She very, very quickly got out of the cell after that,” Aurora says.
Just why Cell 17 is so haunted, however, has remained a mystery. There are some unusual physical features of the cell (it’s the only cell flush with a wall and it has strange, gunshot-like marks on the internal door) but the records of the 50,000 or so inmates that went through the jail in its time were partly destroyed in a mysterious fire (“great for a dramatic story, but very frustrating as a historian,” Aurora laughs). “We don't exactly know who was in that cell. It could have been multiple people that have built up this weird energy, it could have been just one particularly nasty person that was in there at one point.”
We don't really tend to name it. It's not like it's a particular person. It's just the cell, the whole cell. It's just all rotten
During lockdown, Old Melbourne Gaol is closed, with tours paused. But once they resume you can go and visit Cell 17 yourself – if you dare. And if you do dare, Aurora has some advice: “Use a buddy system. Make sure that you've got someone with you so if something happens, they can corroborate your story.”
“And make sure that when you're inside the cell, that you don't close the door in on yourself. So that you don't get stuck in there with whatever malevolent forces are inside.”