Believer or skeptic? Ghost stories attract people to learn about local heritage

Spirits, specters and phantoms exist in the minds and experiences of millions of Canadians. The numerous tales surrounding these spiritual characters remind us of our diverse heritage. I have been hosting paranormal events at historic sites for the past two years. From my experience, I can see it clearly: guests come for the ghosts, but they leave with the history.

Feature photo: The Old Hay Bay Church in Greater Napanee. Photo Credit: Alex Filipe

Bringing paranormal tourism to historic sites has many benefits, including reaching new demographics, invigorating economies and building community around shared heritage. That’s why I want to advocate for groups who run paranormal-themed tours and events.

To many Canadians, ghosts are more than the topic of campfire stories. In 2019, Pollara Strategic Insights surveyed Canadians about their beliefs across a range of serious and not-so-serious subjects. Of the 2,000 respondents, 27 per cent of Canadians said they believe in ghosts. The same number were unsure or had no opinion.

Regardless of whether you are a skeptic or a believer, ghost stories are intriguing. But who advocates for our ghosts, and keeps their stories alive?

Historic SDG Jail, photo credit: Will Clermont

Local haunted tour groups are striving to do just that. Late-night walks and ghost hunts are a growing attraction and can be found in many communities. These organizations advocate for both the historic sites and their ghostly residents, and teach visitors about their historical significance.

Jim Dean is the Creative Director of The Haunted Walk, a tour agency operated out of Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto regions. The company has hosted over 400,000 guests on Haunted Walks over the past 25 years. Dean says that partnerships between the company and historic sites have been very successful.

“They have expanded evening programming options by taking advantage of times when sites are typically closed,” says Dean. “They have also attracted new and often younger demographics to the sites, allowing for reinterpretation and renewed interest. We have found that new visitors who  attend a ghost tour of a site are much more likely to return in the future.

According to Dean, partnerships with historic sites give visitors the opportunity to direct their paranormal-related questions to the experts ­– the Haunted Walk tour guides.

“This creates a nice boundary between the ‘historical’ and the ‘haunted’ programming,” says Dean. “These partnerships have been a win-win scenario by creating new interest, new opportunities for interpretation and new revenue.”

One such partnership has been built at the Old Hay Bay Church in Napanee, ON, a National Historic Site. The church is the oldest surviving Methodist building in Canada, built by the United Empire Loyalist settlers in 1792. In addition to its religious uses, the building operated as a meeting place, a court, and even as a morgue following a tragic drowning in 1819. Eight youth and two adults were crossing Hay Bay on route to Sunday Service when their small boat took on water and eventually tipped. Family and friends watched from the shores at Old Hay Bay Church as the youth lost their lives. Numerous spirits have allegedly been seen at this site; visitors say that paranormal experiences occur regularly.

This ghost story acted as the impetus for a fundraising event at the site. “Pioneering Spirits,” which I hosted with Reverend Phil Wilson. The event sold out, raising over $2,000 with all revenue deposited in the Restoration Fund. Guests enjoyed a historical presentation, a lesson in divination using dowsing rods, a paranormal investigative workshop and an evening of paranormal activities. Of the 40 attendees, most had never been to the site before. All left with new knowledge of this piece of Canadian history.

Another such organization leveraging ghosts for good is Ghost Hunt Alberta. The team hosts “paranormal events” at the East Coulee School Museum, increasing visitation and bringing revenue that has helped fund improvements made to the site. Bonnie Milner, founder of Ghost Hunt Alberta, says that the paranormal events bring traffic back to communities who have seen a loss of activity in recent years.

“In this new age, we are no longer jumping in the car on weekends and taking a road trip,” says Milner. “Because of this, small towns everywhere are dying off.” She says that her company’s events get people back out to these communities, allowing them to have fun, learn about Alberta’s history and support the local economy. “Money is spent on food, accommodation, local attractions and gifts. This boosts the local economy and brings much needed revenue to local businesses and the historical buildings.”

There are hundreds of organizations, small and large, supporting our heritage sites through ghostly folklore and paranormal intrigue, attracting visitors and raising much needed revenue that supports preservation.  Check out what is happening in your community, and attend a nightly ghost walk or a public ghost hunt near you. If there isn’t one, consider organizing something new for your historic site by reaching out to local paranormal groups. You may be surprised by how much they can help bring heritage to life, by bringing the afterlife to heritage.

Lost Villages Museum, photo credit: Will Clermont