Exploring the haunted history of Toronto’s buildings

Ghosts and Spirits of the Distillery -- a guided tour by The Haunted Walk of Toronto through one of the city's most spooky spots -- runs year-round. (Courtesy of The Haunted Walk)
Ghosts and Spirits of the Distillery — a guided tour by The Haunted Walk of Toronto through one of the city’s most spooky spots — runs year-round. (Courtesy of The Haunted Walk of Toronto)

First rule of ghost reporting — don’t get spooked.

But strange things have been happening — while writing a Halloween feature about strange things that happen.

Perhaps this writer shouldn’t have spent three hours reading ghost stories about flickering lights, doors slamming, items disappearing, strange sounds and equipment glitches. But, while working on this story, an email disappeared without explanation and a phone call recording evaporated into thin air.

Two technical glitches — each of which have never happened in thousands of emails and hundreds of calls — within a few days, on the same story? Even a skeptical spouse was incredulous.

Something out there

And who doesn’t love a good ghost story? It’s a tantalizing concept: What if, behind these mundane malfunctions in our daily lives, there’s actually … something out there? We demand explanations for strange occurrences but it’s all the more tantalizing when no explanation can be found.

Luckily, some of Toronto’s most historic and iconic buildings are filled with such tales.

Believers and skeptics, locals and tourists alike, flock to the haunted walks and ghost trails in Toronto around this time of year. Local history, exquisite archaic buildings and the lore of the undead, on a chilly October night, mingles in our minds and sends shivers up our spines.

Daniel Cumerlato is the owner and a tour guide of Ghost Walks, which runs a guided tour every night of the week in October, and an extra route on Fridays and Saturdays. Rowena Brook is a manager at the Haunted Walk of Toronto, which runs several walks throughout the city on various nights of the week. Both spared a moment to chat with Toronto Storeys about walking with the undead amongst some of the city’s most beloved architectural feats.

What would you say is a highlight of one of your tours?

Cumerlato:

Has to be what judges say inside Old City Hall. Judges are considered to be above it all, technical and scientific thinkers. So when, in the 1960s, a judge starts talking about hearing footsteps from empty hallways and having his robes tugged by invisible hands — that stands out.

The Toronto Centre walk, by Ghost Walks, starts in front of Old City Hall and runs every night of the week in October. Among its many legends, this guided tour tells the tale of "the morgue attendant who was dying to stay." (Courtesy of Ghost Walks)
The Toronto Centre walk, by Ghost Walks, starts in front of Old City Hall and runs every night of the week in October. Among its many legends, this guided tour tells the tale of “the morgue attendant who was dying to stay.” (Photo courtesy of Ghost Walks)

This led to caretakers talking about moans and screams from empty jail cells in the basement, and the legend around Courtroom 33. Today, reporters have a tradition of wanting to stay in the courtroom at Halloween. To see what might happen.

Brook:

In terms of the most spooky, I think if you surveyed our guides they’d say that Black Creek Pioneer Village is one of the creepiest places we give tours. We did tours for the first time there last October, and we had so many things happen on tour that we actually rewrote our tour for this year to try to incorporate some of the things that happened.

One took place in the Burwick House, and all of the stories that we had heard so far about that building had to do with a woman who was seen there. It’s believed that she is mourning the loss of a child, because they’ve heard crying — and when there are children in the house, one of them felt a hand cup their chin after stroking down their face. So the ghost seems to take a particular interest in children.

It’s quite dark in the village at night and this one guide had a lantern that we always carry, but she also had a flashlight. She was opening up the door and she shone her flashlight inside and, in the room to the right of the entryway, she saw a woman. Sitting on the couch. And she could see a lot of detail, her hair was pulled up tightly into a bun and her collar went all the way up to her chin. So the guide and this woman lock eyes and the guide does what most of us would do — she looked away. And then she looked back and she was gone.

She was kind of excited but also nervous because she knew she had to keep going. Literally the next thing she had to do was step inside and bring this group in and tell the story about this building that has some other instances of seeing this woman or having experiences believed to be this same woman.

She did go back inside, she did the tour that night and she continues to do the Black Creek tours to this day.

Black Creek
Black Creek Pioneer Village is said to be one of the spookiest spots in the GTA. (Photo courtesy of The Haunted Walk of Toronto)
Has anything unexpected or unexplained happened during one of your tours?

Cumerlato:

I have had many experiences over the almost 20 years I’ve been hanging out in haunted locations at night. But only one time stands out because it was the first and only time I saw something that couldn’t be explained.

In 2006, I was doing a late-night tour at the Hermitage Ruins (located in the forests of Ancaster).  I let my tour group mingle around behind the ruins for a bit before coming around to tell them it’s time to go. I then see two people walking towards me. I thought they were part of the group, called out and said, “It’s time to go.”

They ignored me. I called out again, and they walked into the dark woods. I ran, afraid they would trip and get hurt, only seconds later I was shining my light through empty trees. The couple was gone, vanished.

Afterwards I found out a couple things. First, no matter how dark it gets in the woods, I can always see faces and clothing. These two people I couldn’t; they were like shadows, walking arm-in-arm, mirror images of each other.

And second, my coordinator that night heard me call out the first time. She ran around to make sure everything was good, watched me call out the second time. Even though I could still see the figures, she said I was calling out to an empty field.

Still hesitant whenever I go out to the Hermitage to lead the tours.

Brook:

We’ve definitely had participants who’ve come to us afterwards who have noticed things, even this past weekend … we had some folks who came to us after the tour and they have felt something touching them, they’ll feel cold air suddenly surrounding them, they’ll show pictures they have taken that have showed odd things in it.

You host haunted walks in other cities — is there something that makes Toronto unique?

Cumerlato:

I’ve always been a fan of Toronto’s ghost stories. I wrote the article on the Keg Mansion and Casa Loma for our website. One thing that always stands out are the historical characters who become ghosts — such as Lillian Massey of the Keg and Sir Henry Pellatt at Casa Loma. And one of the best is William Lyon Mackenzie of the Mackenzie House.

This larger-than-life character was Canada’s true rebel, causing the Rebellion of 1837 and holding on to his more Republican views till the day he died. And even after death, still a proud character scaring away house caretakers and their families.

Brook:

I think when people look at Toronto they see the skyscrapers, they see the modernity, so people are skeptical about ghosts in Toronto. And they’re very surprised that it’s haunted. So it’s kind of like this secret, although I think it’s becoming more well-known nowadays. It’s very fascinating to people that this very modern-looking city could be haunted.

Ghost Walks
The Toronto North walk, hosted by Ghost Walks Friday and Saturday nights, starts in front of Queen’s Park and features paranormal lore such as crazy ghosts, students who are afraid to walk the halls on Halloween, and one of the city’s greatest legends. (Courtesy of Ghost Walks)
When you hear a bump in the night, what’s your first thought? 1. It must be something normal; 2. A deranged criminal is trying to break in; or 3. It’s something paranormal?

Brook:

I’m between first and third options. I would kind of want it to be something spooky but at the same time, my instinct — and a lot of our team here — our instinct is to kind of debunk things. OK, can we recreate this? Can we find a way to prove an explanation? But if you can’t, then it’s totally creepy.

I believe in the possibility of ghosts, I spent a lot of my time hearing different ghost encounters that other people have had because since we tell ghost stories all the time, people feel very comfortable sharing stories. I get a chill down my spine from hearing these stories but I haven’t had anything happen to me yet that convinces me that absolutely they exist. But I also, based on everything I’ve heard, I can’t believe that they don’t.

Cumerlato:

I’ve always been a skeptic at heart. I feel a ghostly experience should include a set of standard questions before it’s considered the real deal. Such as, “What natural phenomenon could have caused this?” “Is it really what it seems?” and so on.

If the experience survives the questions, then it falls under the category of odd or strange. Any stories I tell is presented as such … here’s something legit someone experienced, or it’s a legend, or it’s real dark history.

So, this is a long way of saying my immediate reaction is for the normal, then looking into the paranormal side. Never a deranged criminal, because I have a super-tough dog.

Note: Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity. This writer’s laptop and phone no longer appear to be possessed.

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