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I’ve spent most of the past week talking to people about ghost stories and real-life mysteries in a place where the boundaries between the two often seem hazy: the Victorian high country.
A string of people disappeared in its remote snow-capped mountains between 2019 and 2020. None of their bodies have ever been found. Stories swirled of a local recluse known as the Button Man.
It contained all the elements of a good Australian mystery, I thought.
It didn’t take me long to realize the real story was much more complicated.
The problem when fact and fiction blur is that the stories have an impact on their real-life subjects. That’s especially been the case for the Button Man, a real man who lives in the mountains and who has been unwittingly dragged into speculation.
There’s no evidence to suggest that he was involved in the events beyond that he’s been reported to have been the last person to have seen one of the hikers who disappeared. But his strange habits have become gossip fodder.
Locals who know the Button Man don’t think he had anything to do with the cases and have grown suspicious of big-city news media, believing it has fueled the speculation. Months after the police clarified the Button Man was not a suspect, locals say, journalists were still calling and asking to be taken to meet him.
Rhyll McCormack could see it both ways. A journalist in the area until recently, she knew all too well the value of a good story.
“Especially if you’re from the city, for someone to talk about the reclusive hermit who wears bones for buttons and preys on unsuspecting campers, it’s a good yarn,” she said. “It’s got good shock value, it’s intriguing, it’s mysterious, it’s a whodunit. It’s got all the trappings of a good story. Too bad if you’re the Button Man.”
When speculation about the Button Man first hit the news last year, she wrote a front-page article for the local paper titled “Button Man Trial by Media.”
“Imagine how he’d feel if he was innocent. That’s why we wrote the story — what happened to innocent until proven guilty?” she said.
Josh Todaro, who’s writing and directing a short horror film about the Button Man, has received messages from people concerned about the impact his eponymous film will have on the man.
To him, it’s all about how the character is framed. When the 30-year-old from Melbourne started making the film, not long after he first heard the stories last year, he conceptualized the Button Man as a “typical horror movie character,” he said.
But after researching, he decided to stick to using details that had been reported by the media and not insinuate that the character is malicious. “We stripped it way back, to him more being a mystery ghostly figure that is kind of there, kind of isn’t there,” he said.
He said the crux of the horror in the film is not in any kind of villain, but in the feeling of being alone in the remote Australian wilderness — until you suddenly realize you’re not.
“Say I’m out there camping with my wife in the most remote part of the bush and in the middle of the night an old man appears at our campsite,” he said. “What the hell would I do in that situation? I’d be terrified.”
Writing my own story has raised questions about responsible reporting and sensationalizing true events. In the end, I figured that the Button Man is still part of the story. And so are the worries that people have about how urban legend status is affecting a man who just wants to be left alone.
But there is so much about the Victorian high country that is strange and interesting beyond the story of the Button Man. Look out for my article about all of it in the near future.
Now for this week’s stories:
Around the Times