WA History

Night in a Graveyard

540 applicants responded to the advertisements placed in ‘The West Australian’ and ‘Call’ newspapers asking for someone “to sleep all night in a graveyard“. While some people sent joke responses, others were genuinely interested in meeting the requirements in order to receive the “high pay” of five pounds.

Man or woman (excluding spiritualists) could apply. The main condition was that they had to be chained to a “warm, comfortable” bed from 10:30 pm on 28 April 1920 until daylight on the following morning. They also had to spend the night alone (without even a dog for company) but were allowed to take a gun “to drive away any human disturbers.

Advertisements continued and on the 28th it was announced that Mr R. Wells was the man chosen to carry out the graveyard sleep. He was to leave the Theatre Royal at 9 pm and would be driven (accompanied by a committee of four) to a Western Australian cemetery.

The fact that the place of departure was a theatre indicated that the stunt was not simply carried out for fun or curiosity. The graveyard sleep was an advertising gimmick in order to promote D. W. Griffith’s new movie, The Greatest Question, which was showing at the Theatre Royal. The film centred around the question of whether ghosts were real and the idea arose from the many strange spiritual incidents that were said to have occurred following World War I.

This picture says there ARE ghosts – we say there are not – we do not believe in them – and have instituted this competition to prove or disprove the theory…

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 28 April 1920; Page 2; Advertising

Mr Wells was taken to the cemetery, observed the spot where he would spend the night and expressed confidence that he would be fine. However, at 8 pm that night he sent a message stating that “pressure had been brought to bear” and he decided to back out. From a group of three other applicants, David Lord was selected to take his place.

According to ‘Call’ David was a “bronzed Westralian” who had travelled extensively throughout the outback (including the Murchison) as part of his work as a boundary rider. Unafraid of sleeping in a cemetery, David remarked, “Spooks haven’t got me bluffed.

At 9 pm an “immense crowd” gathered outside the Theatre Royal. They watched as David and the committee were ushered into waiting cars which sped in the direction of Karrakatta Cemetery. The destination was a ruse in order to prevent eager people from following them. Once the coast was clear, they turned around, drove to East Perth Cemetery and set up a bed amongst the gravestones.

A spot was selected under the pines in the centre of a cluster of a dozen or so tombstones which glistened eerily in the pale moonlight filtering fitfully down through the sighing tree-tops.

Call (Perth, WA : 1920 – 1927); 30 April 1920; Page 2; A Night in a Graveyard!
Looking towards Perth from East Perth Cemetery circa 1933.

Journalist Geoffrey Jacoby (clearly reveling in his artistic freedom) described the somber sounds of a dog yelping in the distance and the occasional thud of pinecones falling to the ground amidst an otherwise silent night. David got into bed and was immediately chained and locked to it. With wishes of good luck and good night, the group left him to sleep.

Geoffrey and cinematographer, Frederick Murphy (who filmed David’s release) greeted him in the morning. He looked pale and strained and as he was unlocked he declared, “I earned that fiver, by God!” He then launched into his tale of a night spent in a graveyard.

David barely got any sleep and found the quiet unnerving. He lay on the bed listening for sounds in the darkness. Everything he heard startled him. His biggest scare of the night was a blinding flash of light which came out of nowhere. Apparently he was too scared to move but nevertheless leaned slightly upright and happened to look towards the camera.

Later on he was terrified by a vision of a woman in white until he convinced himself that what he was seeing was probably the result of an overactive imagination. He smoked multiple cigarettes in order to calm himself down and then tried to sleep with his head under the blanket.

Even when he slept nightmares plagued him. He awoke and jumped in shock to see what he thought was a shrouded man standing at the end of the bed. Trying to make a run for it, he found himself stopped by the chain and fell and hit his head on a tree. He then returned to bed and remained there, willing the sun to rise.

I came here confident that my nerves were good enough to stand a graveyard experience at night, but I tell you I’ll never take this on again for anybody. I’m through.

Call (Perth, WA : 1920 – 1927); 30 April 1920; Page 2; A Night in a Graveyard!

The Greatest Question was shown at the Theatre Royal on 1 May 1920 and Fred Murphy’s footage of David being unchained from his bed was shown in conjunction with it.

There were, understandably, sceptics of the stunt who declared that it was all fake. ‘Call’ very quickly quashed those rumours by reiterating the fact that Fred Murphy had filmed the release. As far as they were concerned, that was enough proof. Regardless of the footage, it is clear that there was a large amount of artistic liberty taken with respect to the article, the photo (which looks posed) and perhaps even the graveyard sleep itself.

Adding to the scepticism was the fact that this stunt not only took place in Perth, but also occurred in other cities and towns around Australia. All followed the same guidelines and provided similar rewards. The published results of each graveyard sleep were slightly different however the underlying themes were essentially the same. Some sleepers were evidently spooked; others were unbothered by the entire ordeal. It almost appears that the ‘results’ of the stories were dependent upon the creativity of the writer. Differing from their eastern counterparts, the Perth promoter of the film appears to have been the only one to publish a photograph from the night.

It was to be expected that such a stunt would be met with criticism from some areas. The Western Mail described it as a “vulgar and essentially puerile performance” while later in the year the Sunday Times lamented that the cemetery had been used for “commercial utility, even ridicule.” Promoters of ‘The Greatest Question’ were more than likely unconcerned with such negative press. The advertising stunt had originated in New Orleans where “from every angle it was a huge success“. Plans were put in place for it to be “repeated in practically every city and town in the territory coincident with the showing of the Griffith attraction.” Perth (and Australia) was no exception.

Much like New Orleans (and presumably other areas in the United States) the stunt worked. Reports indicated that the “house was packed” for all sessions on the opening day of ‘The Greatest Question’ in Perth. Whether ticket sales continued in the subsequent days and weeks remains to be seen however, judging by the fact that the film continued to show in Perth and was then shown in towns such as Geraldton, Moora, Bunbury and Collie, it seems there was a good chance that they did.



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