Ghosts and Where to Find Them
These are the notes that I made for an talk that I delivered at The Grange, Saturday, 24 Oct. 2009. The Grange in question is in Mississauga, not The Grange at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the bailiwick of the late Goldwyn Smith and the ghost of his batman! Notably, the Grange in Mississauga is also said to be haunted.
I delivered the talk at the request of Carrie Pierce, head of the Meadowvale Spookies Paranormal Research Team. The turnout was small (perhaps a dozen souls) but their spirits were lively. Here is what I told my patient listeners.
I was pleased to receive the phone call from Carrie Pierce inviting me to address the Meadowvale Spookies Paranormal Research Team, if only because it assured me there is a lively person named “Carrie” around and that there is a lively group that blithely links two otherwise unlinked words – spookies and paranormal. I find this endearing: one is popular, the other is high-toned.
I find it endearing because most ghost-hunters are inclined to be solemn about what they do. I will not be solemn but I will be a little stately and structured.
On the spur of the moment I titled this talk “Ghosts and Where to Find Them.” I will stick with that title, but before discussing where to find them, I will take a look at some of the vocabulary.
Meaningful and Useful Distinctions
It is useful to distinguish between “ghosts” and “spirits.” Both are “presences” and the words are often used interchangeably, and we generally use the words “ghost stories” to refer to both of them, but there are differences between them.
A “ghost” is the personality of someone departed that persists or seems to persist following mortal death. It implies “the survival hypothesis,” that while the human body dies, the human personality survives, at least for some time, before it itself dissolves or is translated to another plane of existence.
In defining a “ghost” I have avoided using the word “spirit.” There are many words that one may substitute for it, words like apparition, phantom, shade, spectre, spook, wraith, etc.
A “spirit” is the “power” that is found to be inherent in a place or an object. Some places and spaces ancestral residences, old buildings, grottos, certain churches have their power to move us. Some objects, particularly fetishes and artworks, seem to possess a similar “wakanda” or “orenda,” Algonkian for “medicine” or “power.” Spirit-power is often identified with poltergeist-like effects, that is, manifestations with no known or visible causation.
Taber Hill Park
Let me illustrate this difference by telling you a story. It is not a ghost story or spirit story per se, but it does illustrate what I want to say. [Here I anecdotalized about the haunting of Taber Hill Park in Scarborough, a subject that I discussed fifteen years earlier in Haunted Toronto, but I did so now from the point of view of distinguishing between an infestation of spirits and a haunting of ghosts.] Now that we have distinguished between two types of presences – ghosts and spirits – let us now define some other familiar words: psychical, paranormal, parapsychological, investigator and researcher.
“Psychic” is not psychical. The word “psychic,” as a noun, may mean a clairvoyant or medium or fortune-teller or spiritualist. The word, as an adjective, may modify some power or object, such as psychic ability or psychic science.
The word “psychical” is an adjective and it means not “psychic” but “about the psychic,” as in the phrase “psychical research.”
Then there are the terms “researcher” and “investigator.” A psychical researcher is someone who probably has no psychic powers but who undertakes to research or study the phenomena in question. The research is undertaken in a study or library or office or studio or workshop. A psychical investigator is someone who probably has no psychic powers but who undertakes to do field-research visiting houses believed to be haunted, interviewing witnesses, etc.
The researcher and the investigator are the two halves of the single coin. Heads are investigators; tails are researchers. The investigator produces the raw data; the researcher places it in some context. Throughout the history of psychical research, the two have worked well together.
Then there are useful terms like “paranormal” and “parapsychological” which are terms that are not synonymous. [Here I anecdotalized about the Society for Psychical Research (gentlemen scholars) formed in the 1880s in Britain, the American Society for Psychical Research (psychologists mainly) formed a few years later in the United States, and the Parapsychological Association, founded (by research psychologists and statisticians) at Duke University in the 1950s.
The modern “ghost story” is a conventional tale that owes much of its present form to its two principal creators. Their names are Andrew Lang and Elliott O’Donnell. The former was a scholar and a folklorist, the latter a researcher and an author.
In the field of “mysteries,” all the commentators are promoters who have vested interests in the positive outcomes of their investigations and reports. Most of the commentators were and are scholars and researchers, authors and investigators, and today journalists and broadcasters, including TV hosts.
You should know the names of some of the outstanding researchers, investigators, therapists, and theorists. If I had the time I would share with you the professional biographies of the following men (no women among them): Nandor Fodor, Harry Price, Peter Underwood, Hans Holzer, Susan Blackmore, Allen Spraggett, etc.
The last named gentleman, Allen Spraggett, was known as a journalist and broadcaster, though from the first he was an enthusiast and even an evangelical minister. He talked a blue streak and met all the famous mediums and investigators of his time, which was the 1960s and 1970s. He published a number of journalistic accounts of his experiences, but his contribution takes second place to those of the country’s two principal researchers and investigators. Can you name them?
I am thinking of psychical researcher R.S. Lambert and parapsychologist George Owen who worked with his wife Iris. I have written monographs on both of them, so I hope sometime you will avail yourselves of them!
The term I like to use is the term “anomalous phenomena” which was originated by Graham Reed, a psychologist at York University, who used it to replace the earlier term “abnormal phenomena.”
I am calling this talk G”hosts and How to Find Them.” By that I mean, of course, ghosts and spirits, and by them I mean learn to recognize five features:
1. What people expect.
2. What people can know.
3. What people do report.
4. What people really believe.
5. What people think is most likely.
“Place of Meeting” is the official motto of the City of Toronto. The motto is based on the Huron word for the locale, and happens to be a felicitous way to refer to the city because Toronto is indeed a meeting place, and a multicultural one at that. Today the city is home to 3.3 million people who have come here from over one hundred foreign countries, so it might easily be assumed that Toronto has no haunted heritage of its own.
But it does have plenty of its own ghosts and spirits! They are said to haunt its historic buildings as well as its high-rise condominium developments. If you are interested in haunted places and want to walk past them and even explore them, there are numerous ghost walks to take. Join a ghost walk during the summer months, when the weather is warm; during the chilly winter months, buy a book or borrow one or two from the city’s splendid libraries, for they will tell you all about the city’s haunted houses, ghostly mansions, etc.
The first book to appear on this subject is the one that I researched and wrote called Haunted Toronto, published by Dundurn Press in 1996. It is a guidebook that is organized geographically by urban districts, so on foot you can visit a number of the places with ghostly reputations. To check out other sites that are outside the city’s core, you will need public or private transportation.
Before I list the city’s main haunted attractions, let me offer a few suggestions. We should bear in mind that there is no proof that ghosts exist or that spirits are alive and well or ill. The evidence for their existence consists of traditional stories that appeared in old newspapers and books, or of contemporary eye-witness accounts told by people in private and reported by print journalists or recounted on radio or television programs. The accounts that appear on websites on the Internet are regularly based on printed accounts. I like to refer to the traditional stories as “psychical” in nature, and the first-person statements as “parapsychological” in nature.
Another proviso is that reports of ghostly activities do not necessarily tell us anything at all about the life after death (the so-called survival hypothesis), but they do reveal a great deal about human nature, social expectation, our hopes and fears, and our history. Some people think telling ghosts stories is indulging in superstition. Even the suggestion that a ghost may be present will send thrills and chills up and down our spines! My feeling is that ghosts are good for us because they encourage us to think about the nature of belief and disbelief, about evidence and proof, and about fate and destiny, etc.
Here is my list of the city’s ten most haunted places. I have concentrated on public sites, mainly historic buildings which may be visited at posted times.
1. Taber Hill Park. This city park in Scarborough has an odd feel to it: indeed, it is an Iroquois ossuary and a vision site that attracts mediums and spiritualists from afar.
2. Gibraltar Point Lighthouse. It seems the first lighthouse-keeper, slain by off-duty soldiers, will not abandon his post.
3. Historic Fort York. Many tourists have reported seeing spectres of British soldiers and Canadian militia in and around the barracks.
4. Queen’s Park. Did you know there is a tunnel underneath Queens Park, built on the site of a former lunatic asylum, that is said to be haunted by three Old Hags?
5. University College Ghost. See the gargoyles and the traces of the deadly feud between Ivan Reznikoff and Paul Diabolos that account for the haunting of the college to this day.
6. Osgoode Hall. Stories are told of the caretaker who never completes his rounds and of distraught women whose voices are heard in the law chambers.
7. Old City Hall. Courtroom 33 is the said to be haunted by the spirits of those who were convicted here of crimes and subsequently hanged.
8. Mackenzie House. For a decade this stately brownstone building was described as the most haunted house in Canada.
9. St. Mary Magdalene. This historic church is said to be haunted by the spirit of the mysterious Grey Lady.
10. Royal Alexandra Theatre. No legitimate theatre is complete without its ghost, and the spectre of the Royal Alex’s is that of the phantom flyman who appears backstage where the real drama takes place!
Spirits of Canada
The official meaning the word “Canada” is “people” or “settlements” or “communities,” in the language of the Iroquois who greeted the explorer Jacques Cartier as he sailed up the St. Lawrence River in 1534. Today, the Dominion of Canada has a population of 33.3 million people, and close to one-third of the population of the country consists of people who were born in other countries of the world. In the process of immigration, they have brought with them their own cultural traditions, so it often takes time and effort to determine what was here before they came and what is here today!
What is here today is an amalgam of Native traditions and French and English and Celtic and other cultures, including those that are European (Central and Eastern), Eastern, and Far Eastern. I first explored this melange of spirits of the past in Mysterious Canada (1979) and in such book as The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories (2008).
It is quite common to list Canadian Firsts and Canadian Achievements. For present purposes I will list some of our outstanding spirits and spiritualists. Not many of these are known to the general public, but all of them should be better known. My maxim has always been Canada only needs to be known to be great.
But first, a few words of caution. The proof is scanty that ghosts and spirits exist; in fact, the phenomena is largely word-of-mouth, but it is nonetheless important for all that. What is interesting to recognize is the fact that every country has its own legacy of ghosts and spirits: the United Kingdom has Borley Rectory which was once known as the most haunted house in England; and the United States that its demon-infested Amityville Horror. Canada has its own haunted heritage.
Our national heritage may be discussed region by region. Atlantic Canada is rich in the mysteries of the sea and “grey ladies”; Quebec has more than its share of miracles connected with religious shrines; Ontario is noted for its many haunted farmhouses and log cabins with their poltergeists; the Prairie Provinces have mysterious medicine wheels and crop circles as well as the dreaded Wendigo; the West Coast is famous for its Native traditions and modern legends including those of Ogopogo; the Arctic is the home of the Inuit and their spirits including the all-mighty Sedna.
Here are ten facts and fantasies that will be of interest to the person with a taste for ghosts and spirits.
1. Wendigo. The woods are haunted by the dreaded Algonkian spirit known as the Wendigo who represents cannibalism and avarice.
2. Shaking Tent Mystery. Performances of the rite of the Oracle of the Indians have been recorded since the arrival of the first explorers.
3. Hoodoo Ships. Maritime waters are restless with phantom frigates, fire ships, and jinxed vessels like the ill-fated Mary Celeste.
4. Wynyard Apparition. This is one of the best-known instances of the appearance of an apparition, or spirit-double, in the history of ghosts.
5. Great Amherst Mystery. The possession of the Cox family home in Amherst, N.S., gave prominence to the mystery of Borley Rectory in England.
6. Fox Sisters. The mediumship of the infamous Fox Sisters of Consecon, Ont., marked the birth of the modern spiritualist movement.
7. Hamilton Spirit Photographs. Who can easily account for the black-and-white photographs of ghosts and ectoplasm taken by Dr. T. Glen Hamilton of Winnipeg?
8. William Lyon Mackenzie King. He was not only Prime Minister of Canada, he was a noted spiritualist with his own crystal ball.
9. Mackenzie House. The activities of ghosts and poltergeists were well reported here, turning this historic building into the country’s most haunted house.
10. Philip Phenomenon. A handsome residence in the citys Rosedale district served as the setting for the influential Philip psychokinesis demonstrations.
I will leave you with my fond farewell. But before doing that, let me advise you to check out the website of the Toronto Ghosts & Hauntings Research Society, It is quite informative! As for my farewell, it is short, only three words in length, so please pay attention when I say:
I … shall … return!
Addendum: During the lively discussion period, I shared with the members of the audience my favourite insight into this field of human (and inhuman) endeavour. The words that follow were spoken by Northrop Frye:
The knowledge that you can have is inexhaustible, and what is inexhaustible is benevolent. The knowledge that you cannot have is of riddles of birth and death, of our future destiny and the purposes of God. Here there is no knowledge, but illusions that restrict freedom and limit hope. Accept the mystery behind knowledge: It is not darkness but shadow.