It was an odd way to spend a Saturday night, I admit. But there I was with two off-duty ushers and a Ouija board trying to summon the dead in Massey Hall.
I have to admit it was all my stunned idea. I'd been online fact-finding for my first-ever work of ghost fiction (plot line: a guy gets phone calls from someone he saw jumping from the Bloor viaduct), when I came upon the Toronto Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society, and their impressive list of (excuse me) local haunts.
Society members consider themselves responsible investigators, and in that spirit they e-mailed back an itemized auto-reply of things journalists shouldn't do, like invite themselves to haunted private homes.
Theatres, though, are famously public. According to the group, "All great threatres should have at least one ghost.' The Royal Alex apparently has a phantom flyman and a ghostly patron in the second balcony; the Elgin/Winter Garden has more spectres than rush seats for Tango Fire. And Massey Hall gets a whole three pages in John Robert Colombo's famous Haunted Toronto.
Did I really want to meet a ghost? I guess I must have.
Just after midnight, Roy, Eric and I are hunkered down in the dressing room, suddenly aware of every bump and crackle in the place. We set out our two cameras and tape recorders, all meant to outfox the preternatural. And a Ouija board. To debunkers, the board is a mere parlour game; to believers, it's a supernatural minefield. Either way, I bought the thing at Toys Toys Toys in the Eaton Centre. A reliable tool of mediumship or just self-trickery, the Ouija board at least always does something.
We're not being all that original. A reporter entered what's now the Buddies in Bad Times space with a Ouija in 1980 and then hightailed it out the front door when scary stuff actually happened. A couple of journalists with a board apparently made contact with a boozy vaudeville trombonist at the Elgin Theatre who had taken a terminal spill into the orchestra pit.
Back in the dressing room, the lemon-yellow couches, clinical white walls and humming fridge make it the least atmospheric part of the Hall. But there should be a ghost around here somewhere. Maybe we should have gone behind the stage, where an apparition in old-style clothes said to be Massey Hall's one-time custodian has reportedly been seen, but there's an IATSE crew still loading out.
This dressing room is directly under an old attic apartment where the caretaker once lived. So we continue huddling with the Ouija on the naugahyde couches. After a minute or two, our fingertips lightly on the pointer, it actually moves.
"Come on," says Eric, "who's pushing it? Are you pushing it?"
"No, I'm not."
"Well, that's creepy."
We ask for the ghost's name and get a meaningless succession of letters. We're maybe getting results when we ask about its job. M-A-N-A.
"Manager?" I ask. The pointer moves to the upper left corner of the board where the word "Yes" is printed. All those years we thought he was the janitor. "When did you die?"
"1-9-1-0," says the pointer, stopping along the row of numbers printed at the bottom of the board.
According to Intimate Grandeur: One Hundred Years Of Massey Hall, by William Kilbourn, the trustees had to find a replacement for general manager Stewart Houston after his sudden demise in 1909. Close enough?
In 1859, researcher William B. Carpenter coined the term "ideomotor action' to describe unconsciously directed movements by dowsers and participants in "table tipping.' Are we ideomoting?
Toronto Ghosts founder Matthew James Didier gives more credence to tape recorders than to electromagnetic field detectors when I talk to him later. The assumption is that recording devices may pick up spirit noises inaudible to the human ear. He tells me he's heard a number of ghostly voices on tape, including one telling him to shut up.
Didier says he brought one of his own ghost-hunting teams into the Winter Garden. Miffed that they weren't allowed to use their special gear, the team nonetheless saw a seat bending downward as if a patron was sitting down.
Our Ouija session suddenly takes an interesting turn. "Is there a place in the building where we might have a better chance of contacting you?" Amidst various confusing replies, the board spells out B-1. Thinking at first it's a seat in the upper gallery, we ask if the Ouija means the sub-basement. "Yes."
Gene the security guard, apparently willing to humour us, takes us down. The sub-basement is occupied by huge cast iron boilers that keen and whistle mournfully. He points out a cavernous space that used to be filled with coal. If this place isn't haunted, it ought to be.
Listening to the tape later, I hear something strange. My voice: "Are you here?" Pause. "Is this where you are?" A breathy sound immediately after that might have been "Yes." "Are you here?" I repeat. More clearly, an unearthly voice sighs, "Yeees."
I e-mail Didier, sending along the clip.
I think about it, do a test recording and realize the first whispered "yes" is probably me breathing across the mic after my question. But the second?
Roy listens to his own recording, which captures the security guard talking to someone on his radio. In my recording, the eerie "yes" is preceded by a technological "fip" sound, like someone coming on radio. Mystery solved, it sounds like. I tell everybody to never mind.
Didier e-mails back, congratulating me for debunking myself.
Earlier, Eric had asked the Ouija, "Are we the most pathetic spiritual mediums you've ever seen?" The pointer moved to "Yes."