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Devoted Cultist
Feb 4, 2021
Back of beyond
I used to love taking photographs on a film camera, especially of old, forgotten places. Blogs like Abandoned Ireland enthralled me, with their ethereal depictions of old dwellings and businesses lost to time itself. Sometimes I think I should go back to taking photographs like that again – and then I remember why I don’t.

It was a cold winter morning in 2001 or maybe early 2002, and I’d awoken to some light snowfall – a wee skiff, as they say round these parts. I probably had some university work to be getting on with, but instead I grabbed my old 35mm Zenit EM SLR camera, wrapped up warmly in my Oxfam tweed coat, and headed out.

I snapped a couple of photographs of the street outside, whitened overnight, and jumped into the car. I already had a few ideas of where I should go, and started with the seafront in Bangor – driving down in my little blue Fiesta, and then peeling off a few shots of the white grass near the coastal path, with the blue sky and sea against it. I’d only taken a few shots when I felt the familiar tightening of the advance lever. Out of film.

The camera was an enormously heavy Soviet item, brass bodied in a leather case and built to withstand pretty much anything. I’d been using it for several years, most often paired with a Bell & Howell adjustable lens, and I’d taken some pretty good shots with it. It had its idiosyncrasies, like the manual frame counter being easy to knock back round to zero so I could never be quite certain how many shots were left on the roll, but I could live with them.

This is the camera in question:


And this is what it looked like from above:


Exposure dial and light meter are on the left hand side, with the spring-loaded rewind knob depressed in the centre; shutter speed selector is just to the right of the flash shoe; with the shutter button and film advance lever in the middle; and the easily-knocked frame counter on the far right.

So, I manually rewound the film until the rewind knob went slack, then popped the back and replaced the used roll of 35mm film with a fresh canister, from a supply of new, sealed filmstock I kept in my backpack.

The usual drill: tug the tongue of film out about three inches; canister into the body; rewind knob fully pushed in; film edge into the carrier mechanism; perforations onto sprockets; and then pull the advance lever twice to make sure it was properly caught. Then snap the back shut, and replace in the leather holder. A very familiar process. I could do it with my eyes closed, and indeed sometimes had done it in the dark by feel alone.

I took another frame or two of the snowy seafront on the new roll, before returning to my car. I decided to head over and take some pictures of a large derelict house near to where my grandparents lived, over on the other side of the ringroad. I'd been eyeing this place up for a long time and thought the snow should make for some nice dramatic pictures.

This wasn’t some sort of dramatic Victorian gothic mansion, by the way – it was a large 1970s bungalow set in a sizeable garden, ringed with tall conifers and set on a busy junction between a main road and a shopping centre. I’d driven past it all my life, as it was round the corner from my grandparents’ house, and it had been occupied and neat until only a few years ago.

But this was near the start of the early 2000s property boom, and many of Bangor’s desirable and spacious detached houses were in the process of being bought up speculatively, pending demolition to build apartment blocks on the site. In just a few years, this entire area of expensive, once-desirable residences off the Old Belfast Road would become a suburban nightmare of bricked-up dwellings, graffiti and fly-tipping. But I didn’t know all that, then.

An image of the site, cribbed from Google Earth's archive, might help show the layout as it was in 2001:


I parked my car across from the house, on the Old Belfast Road - pretty much where the car in the aerial view is - and checked my camera. All okay. There were no other premises nearby from which anyone could see me enter the property - high hedges saw to that- but I still felt that I was doing something slightly naughty.

I stepped over the chain stretched between the gateposts to keep people out, apparently with limited success, and cautiously made my way up the driveway. Fly-tipped binbags and old mouldy pillows lay on the grainy tarmac, topped with a light dusting of snow. The surrounding trees were very tall though, and I was confident no-one could see me now.

The house wasn’t exactly beautiful or photogenic, but at that time the only houses I’d ever seen boarded up were run-down terraces that no-one wanted to live in. The idea of a large modern house like this being shut up and left to rot was a novelty to me, and intriguing. It was an ‘L’ shaped bungalow, with a tall sloping roof and a garage to the side.

I wasn’t the first person to explore it, clearly – graffiti and scattered bottles indicated that this might well be a popular spot after nightfall with a certain demographic. There was also evidence of a fire in the building at some point – the guttering and uPVC cladding below one boarded-over window hung melted and sagging.

I uncapped the camera lens, and began snapping away – the rough, unkempt lawn with snow clumped on the tufts of shaggy grass; the lewd graffiti on the garage wall; the undisturbed snow around the front step.

I paused, and looked back to the road behind, then up to the house with a degree of unease. I felt like someone was watching me. There was no way I could be seen, but that was the feeling. Even though the house backed on to a busy dual carriageway, the trees made an effective acoustic baffle – I could barely hear a whisper. Everything was very still.

I moved round the side of the house to the back garden, past the garage, thinking that maybe I’d feel happier once I definitely couldn’t be seen at all from the road. Round the back stood a large conservatory, also boarded up, plus - disconcertingly - quite a number of children’s plastic toys scattered in the rank, snowy grass. Pedal cars, slides, assorted gaudy things – incongruous and abandoned. I snapped off another couple of shots; of the house, the toys, more graffiti. I did not feel much happier.


By now, I was in fact feeling quite creeped out, despite the bright sunlight. I felt totally cut off, and realised that the narrow path round the side of the garage was the only way out. The garage…

Before I knew what I was doing, I broke into a run, back the way I had come, and pelted off down the driveway. There was something in that garage, my senses were telling me. Something… bad. It sounds stupid, but that’s what I was being told. And I had to leave, now.

I skipped over the chain, and paused on the footpath in front of the driveway. The noise of the main road, the breeze, the birdsong, all suddenly came back at me like someone cancelling the ‘mute’ function on a television. I thumbed the camera’s film advance lever and raised it to my eye to take one last picture of the drive and house, now criss-crossed with my tell-tale footprints, but then paused.

Whatever was there did not want me, and it did not want me to take a picture. That much I felt, very strongly.

I lowered the camera, the shot untaken, and scuttled back to the Fiesta, chiding myself at my cowardice for no reason at all. I’d seen nothing and experienced nothing unusual, other than a creeped-out feeling that probably boiled down to being essentially law-abiding, and knowing I was trespassing.

I started the little car with its familiar engine rasp, and moved off, annoyed with myself. The sun was higher now, and the snow was starting to melt. I drove on down to the Brompton Road, near to the loughshore in Bangor West, but there wasn’t much whiteness to see now. I got out and snapped a picture of a bench by the water’s edge, using the shot I’d loaded but not taken outside the bungalow, and pulled the film advance lever for another shot. But I only got the tightness of a finished roll.

I looked at the frame counter. Fourteen. Now, I knew it wasn’t uncommon for the counter to be wrong, but I was fairly sure I hadn’t taken a whole roll of film over at the bungalow – maybe twelve shots, tops. I shouldn’t be out of film just yet. I tried pulling the lever again – nothing doing. It started to move ok, but the film just wouldn’t advance.

Surprised, but figuring maybe I’d taken more pictures than I thought, I released the rewind knob, and tried to rewind it. But again, there was nothing but tightness, and the knob wouldn't turn more than a millimetre or two. It appeared that the film had become jammed inside the camera body.

Cursing the crappy thing, I threw it back into my bag. I didn’t have access to a darkroom or anything, so I just went home, pulled the bedroom curtains and in the almost-dark, placed the camera under my duvet before popping the back (to avoid fogging the undeveloped film as best I could).

And it was then that I discovered - by feel - that the film canister (which, I must stress, had been perfectly fine when I‘d unsealed and loaded it just an hour earlier) had been completely crushed while still within the sturdy brass body of the Zenit. Crushed the way you might crush a soft drink can – pinched and buckled in the middle.

If you’ve ever tried to crush a 35mm film canister with your fingers, it is not a particularly easy thing to do. You can dent it a bit, sure, but to crush it – completely, as this was – would require something like a set of pliers.

It looked this this:

(Apologies, I'm no artist.)

Completely mystified, and more than a little creeped out, I closed the camera back again and removed it from under the makeshift cover. I then headed over to Classic Photo, a commercial processor in a small industrial estate off the ring road who also accepted customer films at a small office, and who I used for most of my processing as they were nearby and efficient. I explained the jammed film problem, and the person on the desk took the camera away and said they’d see what they could do to rescue the film and fix the camera.

I got a call the next morning. They’d managed to extract the damaged film canister from the camera in their darkroom, and had processed the exposed frames from it. They thought I should come up and take a look.

When I arrived, about three or four members of staff were crammed behind the desk in the tiny office, with a lightbox on the counter. Clearly, word had got around and this was of some interest.

There was my buckled canister on the table, which I was able to see clearly for the first time, plus my Zenit camera, and also the retrieved negatives. One of the staff asked me again what exactly had happened with the film, and I outlined where I’d been, and what I’d experienced - though leaving out the part where I'd been frightened and run away. One of the women gasped and started muttering, “Oh my God,” over and over.

One of the technicians switched on the lightbox, and showed me what was on the processed negatives. There were my first couple of shots down by the harbour, fine. And there was the last picture I’d taken, of the bench off the Brompton Road, followed by ten or so still-unexposed frames to the end of the film. Fine.

But in between – the photos that should have shown the bungalow and snowy grounds – were all blank. Every one of them showed nothing.

Now, the camera had been set as normal, and shooting conditions were good. I’d seen the shutter move every time I pressed the button. There was no reason that they should be blank. Yet nothing had been recorded onto the film. Or, almost nothing.

As the staff and I pored over the negatives on the lightbox, someone gave a small cry and pointed to the final blank frame of the 'missing' pictures.

At the bottom left corner was a dark smudge against the white negative. It was rather indistinct, but the position of the five dark marks looked exactly like a small human hand.

No-one knew exactly what to make of it. The woman who had been muttering earlier said that she’d heard that two children had died in a house fire there, and that was why it was boarded up. She was clearly extremely upset at the photographs.

The other technicians agreed that they’d never seen anything like this before, and had never seen damage to a film canister like that while in situ. They confirmed that the camera shutter and wind-on mechanism seemed to be working fine, and they could find no technical reason why my pictures shouldn’t have turned out as normal.

I paid for the negatives and took them home with me. One of the staff members asked if he could hold on to the buckled canister and show it to someone he knew – I agreed, but when I left in some more films a month or so later and asked if I could get my canister back, I was told that the guy had left. I never did get the canister back, annoyingly.

I was also never able to verify the story of two children dying in a house fire there – I know the house was in regular occupation until the mid/late 1990s, and with my grandparents living in the area, such a tragedy would certainly have been widely known and discussed. It’s possible this was total hearsay, or perhaps some confusion with another event at a different property. Most people I spoke to felt it had been boarded up purely to secure it from vandals, after being bought as a site for apartments.

A few years ago, while sorting through items in the attic pending a house move, I found the negatives from that roll of film again. But, on holding it up to the light, all the 'missing' frames now appear to be completely blank – the apparent ‘hand’ is no longer visible, though it clearly was at the time, and commented on at length.

The physicality of the whole experience is what stays with me here - this isn't about thinking I saw a shadowy figure, or imagining I heard a spooky voice. This isn't psychology, neurology or even psychosis at work - the usual claims by those convinced that the paranormal has no foundation, and those who claim to have experienced it are nothing but liars, fantasists and nutjobs. I'd love to agree with them, but this is another personal case that still stumps me.

I still don’t know how the film canister could have become so damaged while inside the camera – seemingly after I wound it on, just after leaving the garden, while standing at the end of the driveway and experiencing that strange feeling of resentment.

I mean, I simply couldn’t have wound on most of the roll, with that amount of crush damage to the metal casing. Even making the assumption that I'd somehow failed to notice it while loading the film – it just wouldn’t have worked, at all. But there was no conceivable way for the physical damage to the canister to have occurred inside the camera body, without the camera being completely destroyed in the process.

I also don't know how every single picture taken of the house came out blank, while the frames taken before and after (using the same settings) were all fine. I used that camera regularly for about eight years, putting hundreds of rolls of film through it in that time, and I never had any issues of that nature ever again. The shutter raised each time I pressed it that morning, of that I'm quite sure. Yet no light seemed to reach the film exposed at any point while I was in that garden. And I still don't know how that's possible.

As a footnote, the bungalow was razed to the ground not very long after this event but, in a bizarre twist of fate, five years later I found myself living in one of the apartments built on that very site. This is how the area looks today:


I did not, however, experience anything particularly strange while living there. And I'm quite glad about that.

Mind you, the street just terminating at the apartments is Killeen Avenue, and indeed a number of adjoining roads also have the same word in them (Killeen Drive, Killeen Park).

I understand that 'killeen' is the anglicised form of the Ulster Irish word 'cillín' - which means an area of unconsecrated ground used for burials, typically of unbaptised infants but also for other members of the community typically excluded from consecrated burial sites - suicides, vagrants, criminals and those with disabilities.

Indeed, such sites selected for this purpose frequently had a previous function, often sacred or significant - neolithic earthworks or cairns, ruined castles, and disused churches and churchyards were frequently later repurposed as cillíní, which are generally agreed to have been in use between c.1500 and as late as the 1960s. Recent studies have identified some 1,440 cillíní sites throughout Ireland, latterly including the notorious site seemingly used at the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam.

I'm not sure whether this part of the Old Belfast Road is a verified site of a cillín - but it does perhaps raise the question of what might be beneath.

I sold all my camera gear seven or eight years ago, including my film and digital SLRs. I'll leave all the urbex stuff to someone else.
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Great story! I still have my Zorki 4, somewhere, though it is a very long time since I used it.

The main attraction of those solid Soviet tank-cameras was their ability to accept a lot of lenses, which were not, strictly, designed for them.

I have no wish to explain anything away but is it possible that the lens you were using protruded into the case and caused crush-damage to the film cassette? Probably the technicians would have been aware of that, if it could happen. :thought:
Great story! I still have my Zorki 4, somewhere, though it is a very long time since I used it.

The main attraction of those solid Soviet tank-cameras was their ability to accept a lot of lenses, which were not, strictly, designed for them.

I have no wish to explain anything away but is it possible that the lens you were using protruded into the case and caused crush-damage to the film cassette? Probably the technicians would have been aware of that, if it could happen. :thought:
That's not possible without also destroying the shutter.
Great story! I still have my Zorki 4, somewhere, though it is a very long time since I used it.

The main attraction of those solid Soviet tank-cameras was their ability to accept a lot of lenses, which were not, strictly, designed for them.

I have no wish to explain anything away but is it possible that the lens you were using protruded into the case and caused crush-damage to the film cassette? Probably the technicians would have been aware of that, if it could happen. :thought:
It is a great story isn't it? And well written.

The crushed film cassette, the lens only screws in so far and behind the lens in the camera is the shutter. The film cassette is usually on the left hand side as you look at the back of the camera.
I have no wish to explain anything away but is it possible that the lens you were using protruded into the case and caused crush-damage to the film cassette? Probably the technicians would have been aware of that, if it could happen. :thought:

A good suggestion, for sure - though I don't think this was the case on this occasion, as the Bell & Howell lens on it that day was one I used about 80% of the time. The film rolls put through before and after used the same lens and body with no ill-effects. I had a number of adaptors and extension tubes with the Zenit, but never really used them - I wasn't much of a photographer, to be fair, but I quite enjoyed it at the time. Cheers for your suggestion, though!