originally published October 29, 2013
For an old building, the rumor of spectral haunting is a compliment. It’s one thing to have a turn-of-the-20th-century gothic hotel in your town, creeping out passing pedestrians. But if you can pepper the building’s history with the tale of a chambermaid whose head was decapitated by the dumbwaiter door in 1906, with hundreds of tourists swearing they’ve heard her muffled screams through the walls or spotted her headless spectre dusting the ballroom ever since… well, now you’ve got a municipal landmark.
It doesn’t matter if the so-called haunting is real. Like I pointed out in yesterday’s batch of five creepy spots lurking around the continental United States, our collective imagination and willingness to buy into paranormal lore will continue to feed these tales. Those among us who are cynics and skeptics can draw our own conclusions.
But this is not the time for debunking. It’s the time for spelunking, by which I mean we should traipse through the shadowy cave of that which tightens our veins and sets our skin a-crawlin’. There’s something tragically anti-visceral about embarking on a quest to expose the illusions behind the unexplained. In this spirit I’m going to poke and prod around my own Canadian backyard for some quality Halloween-week spookery.
To do this right I’m going to start with a notoriously spirit-heavy spot in Edmonton, just a five minute walk from where I went to high school. Once upon a time it was the Charles Camsell Hospital, but in the 1990’s the crown of urban decay was hoisted on its asbestos-laden frame. Naturally, hundreds of locals have crawled about the wreckage, looking for whatever it is people look for in toxic abandoned building-bones. But some have reported hearing screams from the fourth floor, where the psych ward used to be.
If those tales of screams are followed up with anything other than, “…and then we got the hell out of there,” I’m calling bullshit. But there are other wonky goings-on in this hospital – footsteps heard ricocheting around vacant halls, the pleas of long-departed patients from behind dingy doors, and an elevator that seems to go up and down on its own. To the basement. To the morgue. If any building in this town is going to cure me of my skepticism, this might be it.
The Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, New Brunswick – which looks lush and exquisite though not nearly as spooky in color – is a great place for Maritimers to get their freak-out on. Guests occasionally leave a tip at the front desk for the elderly bellhop who helped them to their room while telling stories about the town and the hotel. Except the old man doesn’t exist.
Honestly, there are enough ghosts spotted at this hotel, they could start their own softball team on the Netherworld double-A circuit. An older spirit-lady rearranges the place settings in the dining room, a weeping ghost-bride haunts room 473, an ethereal child plays and frolics. From the sounds of it, the Algonquin could take the billing as Canada’s equivalent of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. Might be worth the trip.
The Chateau Laurier in Ottawa was a dream project of Charles Melville Hays, the guy who was trying to stretch the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad from coast to coast. The hotel was twelve days shy of its grand opening when Hays’ return trip from London aboard the newly-christened RMS Titanic became rudely interrupted by a life-sucking slab of merciless ice.
How much did the Chateau Laurier mean to Hays? Was it enough for his spirit to return, rattling walls and moving objects from place to place? Did he care enough to devote eternity to freaking out generations of hotel staff when they saw him putzing about the hallways? And why would he opt to hover around a building he’d never seen finished when he could visit his wife and/or four children? This is what I never understood about ghosts who haunt places. If I show up in ghost-form, I’d prefer spending my time pranking my loved ones and watching how they turn out, rather than rattling table lamps and freaking out tourists. But that’s just me.
The Vogue Theatre in Vancouver is one of the snazziest theatres on the west coast of this great nation, and it’s also a prime spot for ghost-sighting. Tonight you can drop by and check out John Cleese on stage, but you might also catch a glimpse of the male apparition sitting in the seats, sometimes with his ghostly friends. The spiritual residue of a young pregnant woman who took her own life is allegedly wandering around the theatre’s lower levels.
Shadowy figures have been spotted in the projection room, which can really interfere with an otherwise impeccable Tyler Perry movie. In addition to the paranormal mainstays – inexplicably cold spots, disembodied voices, etc. – sometimes the air in the Vogue gets so thick it’s hard to walk through. Thick air. That’s a fresh arrow from the otherworldly quiver, isn’t it?
Back in Alberta, no talk of spooked-out structures would be complete without at least a passing reference to the Banff Springs Hotel. The Banff Springs is legendarily exquisite, one of the most impressive buildings in this nation. At no time in my experiences there did I encounter anything remotely unexplainable, except maybe for the room service prices (rimshot – thanks, I’ll be here all week!). But from the sounds of it, I missed out on quite a show.
There’s the story of the bride who, on her wedding day in 1932, tripped over her dress and toppled down a staircase to her death. Now she can be spotted dancing alone in the dining room, just before bursting into flames. Then there’s Sam Macauley, the bellhop who died right after retiring in 1976. Staff have reported seeing Sam in full uniform, helping out guests as though he’d never left.
Great. That’s the dream. To spend eternity at work.
A ghost-bartender has also been reported, advising patrons when they’d had too much to drink and should go to bed. I’m not entirely certain the witness statements can be taken too seriously here, given that they’d had too much to drink and should have gone to bed. Perhaps most frightening of all is the thought of the headless bagpiper who has been known to haunt the place.
Is any of it real? My logical brain says no, but he can shut his damn mouth for a few days and allow the rest of me to bask in the weirdness of Halloweenie lore. It’s simply more fun to end these stories with at least a solid maybe.