By Abby Elizabeth Schacter
· Donovan, I am sure you have been asked this question before but we at Curtains Up are curious. How and why did you get involved in Montreal ghost tours? How do your family and friends feel about ghostly business? Are they believers in the supernatural?
I was hired by a Hollywood designer named Bob Short in the 1990s, who had set up a massive haunted house called the Chateau Greystoke in Decarie Square. Bob won the Oscar for his work on Beetle juice and he needed me to hire and train bilingual actors for his Montreal attraction. I realized that haunted acting was a lot of fun! I went on to run the Entertainment Department at the London Dungeon in England, and when I returned to Montreal I started doing ghost tours with Montreal Ghosts. I started my own tours on Mount Royal three years ago and this year I created Haunted Downtown Montreal. The reason I do ghost tours is because I love the genre of haunted acting and enjoy using the city as my theatrical set. I also like the fact that I can run an entire piece of theatre on my own. Because I do everything, there’s no need for a playwright, director, stage manager, technician or any other traditional theatre roles. My friends and family love the fact that my business is ghostly and some of them are believers in the supernatural. Those who aren’t appreciate the business model fact that I love my work.
· What do you think interests people the most in regards to ghost tours, the macabre and other esoteric and supernatural stories? What is it about the horror genre that pulls people in?
People are generally interested in the unknown, in this case what happens after death and whether or not ghosts and the paranormal exist. It is also tantalizing because traditionally these topics were taboo due to strict religious norms which disallowed communication with the dead and insisted ghosts don’t exist.
· What questions do you get asked the most during the tour?
People often want to know if the stories are true (yes, they are all based on fact), they want to know if they can enter haunted buildings (sometimes, but not with the tour group), and they want to know if I have personally experienced any paranormal activities (I did only once at the London Dungeon, when candles would constantly re-light themselves in an area where many people had died during WW2 when it was an air raid shelter and a bomb landed on it).
· Has anything spooky ever happened during the walk? If so would you mind sharing it with us?
Most of the encounters we have involve unsavory characters who interrupt a tour, like drunkards or crazy people who start yelling for no apparent reason. Sometimes something spookier happens, such as when a client feels uneasy or panicky because they feel a supernatural presence. 47% of Canadian believe in ghosts, and some people are more sensitive than others. There have been occasions when a client felt as though something invisible was grabbing at them and others have experience disturbing visions during tours.
· Are you a believer in the Supernatural or are you more on the skeptical side?
I am a supernatural agnostic. I have only had one paranormal experience involving candles re-lighting themselves at the London Dungeon, but cannot say with 100% certainty that it was indeed supernatural. Although unlikely, it is possible that it was an elaborate prank. It would have had to involve someone sneaking into the Dungeon before opening hours on dozens of occasions and relighting candles before I or one of my deputies arrived. The only other people with keys were the manager, who rarely ventured from the comfort of her office into the Dungeon, or the technician, who only came during emergencies. Until I have 100% proof of something, I cannot say that it is true.
· Do the tours last all year round or is it a seasonal event?
Private tours can be arranged all year round. The season at Montreal Ghosts lasts from June to September, and my own tours are currently given in the Hallowe’en Season and sometimes for the infringement festival and Jane’s Walk.
· Where do you find the stories for the tour? Do you personally go digging through old Montreal news archives or are there researchers involved? How do you choose which tales to share? Are some too gruesome to retell?
Yes, I am also a history teacher by trade, so I do go into the archives to find stories. I also find them online, people contact me with their stories through our hauntedmontreal.com website and I interview a lot of people who want to share a story. For ghost tours, I select stories based on whether or not they are good tales and can be told well and also based on location. I try to ensure when I tell a story it is at a location where the audience can visualize what happened. That’s why Montreal is an ideal city for ghost tours because we have preserved a lot of our old architecture. Some gruesome stories are inappropriate to tell, usually because they are new and as such very touchy. For example, I would not tell the story of Magnotta, which is unfolding in the courthouse, because it would be inappropriate. I have no doubt it will be told at some point in the far future as one of the more gruesome crimes that unfolded in Montreal.
· Could you share with us the first supernatural tale, book or film that really spooked you?
My father read me The Hobbit when I was young, and that set my imagination on fire with its supernatural themes, creepy plot and deranged characters.
· What would you say is the most haunted area in Montreal and why?
I’d have to say it’s a toss-up between Old Montreal and Mount Royal. Old Montreal has a lot of colonial history and was the location of public executions by both French and British regimes. It has many old buildings and churches and there are old cemeteries beneath the streets and ancient crypts below the churches. A lot of history has unfolded there. Mount Royal, on the other hand, has the largest intact burial ground in North America, not to mention haunted hospitals and spooky universities hugging its slopes. A lot of disturbing history also unfolded there, such as the brainwashing experiments at the Alan Memorial Institute. Simon McTavish is also buried on the slopes above Peel Street. His ghost was said to toboggan down the mountain in his own coffin during the 1800s!
· Have you participated in ghost tours in other cities, if so how are they similar or different?
Yes, I make it a habit to go on other ghost tours when in other cities. For me it is both a way to enjoy a city and an opportunity to research storytelling techniques and business models. Most ghost walks are not done by someone “in character”, but rather by a storyteller with little to no personal knowledge. They are essentially reciting from a book or a text provided by their boss. The best tours, in my opinion, are by experts, such as Linda Jones of the Niagara Falls Ghost Walk. Even though she does not adopt a character, she grew up in the area and knows all the lore inside out. For my own tours, I not only know the lore, but I also adopt a character to make the storytelling even more dramatic. My approach is rare from what I have seen, but the spectators really appreciate it. I break my role at the end when I take my bow, and many are surprised that I am not actually a creepy old professor, but rather an actor playing this part!
· Ever capture anything paranormal on camera?
Yes, we caught a few “orbs” the other night on the Haunted Downtown Montreal tour near the old Sainte Antoine Cemetery (now Place du Canada). There are 60,000 people buried there.
· Have you ever participated in a séance, or played with The Ouija board? What would your advice be to people dabbling in occult affairs? Is it something we should take more seriously as horror films suggest?
I have never participated in these activities, but know of people who have. I know of stories where people claim to have summoned spirits using these techniques. My advice is to either avoid these activities or to proceed with extreme caution, preferably with trained professionals. Be prepared for everything from ghostly visits to poltergeist activity to demonic possession – I have heard stories of all three from Canadians I’ve met.
· Cemeteries, Creepy or comforting? Why do you suppose so many people fear the unknown and death? Why do you think is it such a touchy subject for some?
Cemeteries are creepy, in my opinion. They can be comforting during a funeral, in that a family and friends gather to bid farewell to the departed. However, following the service, the cemetery reverts to a creepy place with endless stone monuments representing thousands of bodies under the ground. People fear death and the unknown because we only have one life to live, as far as we are aware. It is a touch subject because some people believe in an afterlife based on a religion and others think it is distasteful or even taboo to talk about death.
· What makes a good ghost tour participant?
Personally, I like a participant who is easily frightened, especially someone who is on the edge and hangs on every word of the stories. I also like people with their own stories to share and people who ask questions. Interactivity is an important part of a ghost walk, in my opinion.
· Tell us a bit about the haunted mountain tour.
It is literally much darker and spookier than the Haunted Downtown tour. You can read all about it here: http://www.hauntedmontreal.com/haunted-mountain.html
· How can people book tours with you and are there group tours and rates as well?
All info is at hauntedmontreal.com, and, yes, it’s possible to book private group tours! We offer special rates for groups that are larger than 20 people.
Thank-you so much Donovan! We really appreciate you taking the time out of your very busy season to speak with us at CurtainsUp.Tv
Haunted Mountain http://www.hauntedmontreal.com/2014-tours.html