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The time for tales: How Halloween gets people talking about history

By in Features
Photo supplied by University Archives & Special Collections, Photograph Collection. A-261 | Graphic illustrations by Shawna Langer/ Graphics Editor

Halloween is a holiday with wide appeal to all kinds of people. For some, it means engaging in the festivities by dressing up in costumes and partying. While others might prefer the thrill of being terrified by a haunted house run by locals.

But there is a third activity that people participate in which makes Halloween truly unique. Because the holiday functions as the perfect time for everyone to share their spookiest stories about the city.

Whether or not one believes in such urban legends and ghost stories, these tales still draw listeners in because of their excitement and mystery. If you live in Saskatoon, you have probably heard at least one spooky story about some old looking building being occupied with spirits still lingering in the world of the living.

Whether told by a friend who swears that their relative saw a ghost while on the job or some blog post listing local hauntings, stories like this are enthralling because of how they are interwoven into the city’s landscape and rich history.

From ghosts haunting the halls of the iconic Bessborough Hotel to figures appearing in the windows of the Hose & Hydrant bar — even if the stories we share might be slightly fictionalized, they are always set in real places and often based off the lives of real people.

While we can never be too certain about the exact origin of most spooky stories, they are always contextualized by our understanding of the past to explain why ghosts haunt us in the present.

The Diefenbaker Canada Centre’s annual Ghost Tour is one way to have a fun night out, hear about supposed ghosts and learn more about local history during Halloween. Touring the University of Saskatchewan’s campus at night also provides an opportunity to see the school from a new perspective.

Although it will be Mark Everett’s first time running the Ghost Tour as the youth programmer for the Diefenbaker Centre, he is excited to lead the event with three other employees. He says whether attendees believe in ghosts or not, the stories provide an “access point to history.”

“At the Peter MacKinnon Building, for example, we talk about the grotesques or gargoyles on it,” Everett said. “There’s a little bit of a horror story that goes with them and it’s also a good point to talk about the architecture, stonework and history that goes into that.”

Everett says his favorite spot of the tour is the Thorvaldson Building because of its beautiful gothic architecture reminiscent of a picturesque haunted mansion and the many stories told about it. These stories include the mysterious airplane room being linked to actual lives of fighter pilots during the Second World War to the ghost of a former janitor who supposedly died with his family in a faulty elevator crash.

But the most infamous of these tales is that Thorbergur Thorvaldson, the chemist who the building is named after, is encased within the concrete block at the building’s entrance. Everett says that figuring out where spooky stories exactly come from is difficult since they are probably a mixture of local folklore and history.

“Some of them are straight up urban legends that don’t really have a defined [starting] point and some of them are pretty historically based,“ Everett said.

Even though Thorvaldson was a real person, Everett says he is “definitely not” in that cube. For stories like the elevator crash, they cannot find any historical basis of such an accident.

However, he does know for certain that some of the ghost stories featured on the tour are written by students who submit their most imaginative works to the Diefenbaker Centre.  

But the Ghost Tour on the U of S campus is not the only event of this kind that has happened in Saskatoon. In previous years, the Ghost Busser haunted sites tour would take participants through the historic Nutana neighbourhood.

Local historian Dianne Wilson had led the now-defunct tours that provided an opportunity for people to learn about supernatural occurrences and their historic counterparts right off Broadway Avenue.

One of the first stops of this tour used to be to a Saskatoon historical site, the Marr Residence. Built in 1884, it is the oldest house in Saskatoon still on its original foundation.

Being 135 years old — and kind of freaky looking — it is no wonder that people believe it became haunted at some point in its long existence. In fact, the Marr Residence is rumoured to have not just one, but multiple spirits held within the small interior.

These spirits include a quiet and reclusive man who wears white gloves while working at an antique desk displayed on sight. Another spirit is an aggressive man who dwells in the basement and is known for terrorizing female employees that go downstairs. Since the building served as a field hospital during the Northwest Resistance in 1885, it is thought that this ghost was a man still restless from combat.

Finally, there have been reports from people who work there that spirits of children visit the house as floating orbs. Many citizens simply walking past the heritage site have also reported seeing the faces of young kids — sometimes with red eyes — peering out of windows before disappearing.

Photo supplied by Saskatoon Public Library Local History | Shawna Langer/ Graphics Editor

While these stories may be related to some distant historical truth, the only thing real about them is that they are involved with the Marr Residence. The same place where the tales were first spun as a way to attract people to the house. 

Della Marshall has volunteered at the Marr Residence for over 20 years and for a period, sat on the board for the Saskatoon Heritage Society. She remembers the motive for inventing these tales as a way to get people interested in coming to the heritage site in the early 2000s.

“At one time it was considered by the board as a program to get people in the house and all of a sudden people began believing that it was haunted,” Marshall said. “They developed a haunted tour of the neighbourhood and it ended up here.”

She says that these spooky stories started as what could be considered a “PR stunt.” But after these stories of ghosts in the Marr Residence were popularized by the tours, the house was then featured on the television show Creepy Canada in 2004.

Marshall says that it was around this time, however, that the Saskatoon Heritage Society began “discouraging” ghost stories about the house after too many people began believing in the fictionalized accounts of encounters.

Apparently because of some “true believers,” the Marr Residence has been repeatedly damaged by individuals attempting to break into the house to contact the beings from the other side.

“People have tried to kick doors in, slammed windows and trampled the garden around the residence,” Marshall said. “So you realize that some of these people are pretty serious about the occult.”

Sue Barrett, another volunteer who has a similar experience with the house, highlighted that she has never heard of anyone having a supernatural encounter in the Marr Residence. But she recalls that the heritage society quickly lost control of the ghost stories even after they quit promoting the tales and participating in the Nutana ghost tours.

“They are on the internet and they just keep surfacing,” Barrett said. “We said we’re not going to do it anymore but because there are websites still up, you get people, especially around Halloween, in the yard causing damage.”

Barrett says because the stories began getting so out of hand, the City of Saskatoon has paid to have a security guard at the house every Halloween for the past eight years to deter people from harming the property.

The heritage society now encourages interested people to go see the “real ghosts” at the Diefenbaker Ghost Tour or by visiting the Western Development Museum because these places are now promoting their own supernatural occurrences.

The WDM was actually considered such a hotbed for paranormal activity that the museum conducted a series of investigations over three years. Unexplained stories of the WDM in Saskatoon include floating orbs, people speaking when no one is around and the well-known “Lady in the Red Dress” making appearances in the Boomtown Café.

Like the Marr Residence, ghostly encounters at the WDM are usually based on the testimonies of employees working alone at night in the museums or curatorial warehouse.

Photo supplied by Saskatoon Public Library Local History | Graphic illustrations by Shawna Langer/ Graphics Editor

One might believe these accounts for obvious reasons that ghosts always reveal themselves when no one else is around. But could the origin of these spooky stories be similar to the PR stunt conducted by the Saskatoon Heritage Society two decades ago?

For example, the 17 investigations included bringing paranormal investigators from the Saskatchewan Ghost Hunters Society and included two episodes on the Canadian ghost hunting show The Other Side. These investigations held at WDM locations across the province were then published as a book in 2012 titled You Are Not Alone.

The publication of the findings brought much publicity to the WDM and they could now argue the validity of their own ghost stories because the investigations relied on “scientific approach” instead of “psychics or mediums.”

Even though the museum did not make definitive statements on the existence of life after death, it is understandable how sharing their ghost stories could be used to bring attention to the number of artifacts held there.

In one newspaper interview, WDM director of marketing Janet Olsen was quoted saying, “It’s one way we thought we could attract a younger audience.”

The self-promotional concept becomes apparent within the rationale supporting the paranormal theories in You Are Not Alone. The book suggests that “personal items may still harbour a connection to their original owners,” and since the Saskatoon WDM houses over 78,000 artifacts on display or in storage, it is a prime spot for paranormal activity.

While one could criticize the WDM for promoting nonsense and riding popular trends, within the bigger picture this technique may be a great way to inform unaware people of the museum’s existence and impressive collection.

And in the case of the U of S Ghost Tour and the Marr Residence, evoking paranormal interest through spooky stories might be a viable method to teach people about Saskatoon’s history — as long as the people who do believe in spirits don’t go overboard and cause property damage.

Nicole Stillger, a journalist for Global News, reported on the supernatural at the WDM and the legacy of Nutana’s ghost tours last year. Although she has no preconceived notions over the existence of ghosts, she believes that there is a “high degree of human interest” in hearing supernatural stories during Halloween.

“People at the end of the day will draw their own conclusions about the paranormal,” Stillger said. “These particular stories, I mean, at the end of the day they’re kind of lighthearted and fun, right?”

She also feels that using our engrossment with the supernatural to contextualize history is a great way to engage with the Saskatoon community.

“For a lot of people, there’s a building you’ve walked by and heard stories about, and I think that just naturally sparks your interest,” Stillger said.

“And it’s a way to start the conversation, whether it might be something you don’t believe in or something you do believe in, it gets the conversation flowing about the place, the person and the setting.”

Photo supplied by Saskatoon Public Library Local History | Graphic illustrations by Shawna Langer/ Graphics Editor

Noah Callaghan/ Staff Writer

Photos: Supplied by University Archives & Special Collections, Photograph Collection. A-261, Saskatoon Public Library Local History

Graphic illustrations by Shawna Langer/ Graphics Editor

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