Ghosts & Spirits at the CNE

“Haunted Toronto” and “Spirits of Canada” were the titles of two public talks that I gave at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, the country’s largest annual fair and exhibition. The hour-long talks were held at 3:00 p.m., August 27 and September 3, 2009, and the venue was the Courtyard Stage, Heritage Court, Direct Energy Building. All 150 seats were filled for the first talk, 125 for the second – better ratios of attendance to seats than could boast former U.S. President Bill Clinton earlier in the week!

I was introduced by Mike Filey, broadcaster and columnist and compiler of books of vintage municipal photographs. CNE Archives sponsored the public talks as part of its exhibit titled “The CNE After Dark” which consisted of archival materials with captions related to the Exhibition’s “haunted heritage.” Also held were popular walking tours of the haunted sites on the Exhibition grounds.

In my talks I drew attention to the phrase “ghosts and spirits” and suggested that ghosts are personalities and that spirits are powers. Both are presences for which there are numerous explanations. I distinguished between supernatural tales and psychical experiences, suggesting that an interest in the one leads to an interest in the other. I discussed the nature of reports of encounters with ghosts and spirits, showing that these reports come in three parts: first a disclaimer, then a description of the event or experience, followed by another disclaimer.

I pointed out that belief in the supernatural or in the paranormal has little to do with the experiences so described. I also suggested that ghosts and spirits have little if anything to tell us about the so-called survival hypothesis. They do reveal a lot about social expectation and the human need for a narrative explanation for what it is we feel, sense, think, and imagine. I offered my maxim that “ghosts are good for us” because they require us to think about these matters and also about such concerns as fate and destiny.

The talks were sprinkled with anecdotes and experiences about strange events and experiences that I had collected in Toronto – from Taber Hill Park in Scarborough to the Exhibition grounds themselves. Some time was spent highlighting the seven regions of the country with respect to their characteristic ghosts, spirits, and mysteries – Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, Prairies, Western, Arctic, The North Pole. I alluded to some of the country’s contributions to the World of Mysteries – notably the Great Amherst Mystery (which provided the basis for the haunting of Borley Rectory in England) and the “Marie Celeste” (the most famous mystery ship of all time) and the Philip Experiment (which explored the nature of psychokinesis).

I have found that there is considerable grass-roots fascination with the “haunted heritage” of Toronto and Canada. Ghosts and spirits excite more people than does mainstream Canadiana. It was fun being on the CNE grounds again – after a lapse of some forty years! As for my parting shot, I warned the audiences: “I … shall … return!”

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