The first thing they tell me when we meet, just before 2 p.m. on a crisp Saturday in March, is to watch out for the mean man named Henry on the third floor. “Hold on to the railing when you’re on the stairs. We think he might push someone.” As well as being mean, there’s something unusual about Henry: he’s dead.
I’m standing in the gravel parking lot of the Players’ Guild theatre in Hamilton, conferring around parked cars with a trio of paranormal investigators from a team called The Searcher Group. Peter Roe — wearing a fleece sweater from the historic witch-hunting city of Salem, Mass. — James McCulloch and the moustachioed Palmisano brothers, Richard and Paul, are here to collect evidence and learn the histories of the ghosts on the property. They tell me there are at least four, based on their visit the previous autumn.
Staff at the community theatre, North America’s oldest, reached out to Roe last year because they sometimes felt like they weren’t alone — especially on the third floor and in the basement where they often work late at night, finding costumes or organizing props. One member heard a whisper in her ear as she went to lock the front door one night: “Help me! Get me out of here!” She turned around, expecting to see a friend playing a trick on her. There was no one there.
Once strange stories started swirling around the theatre, the haunting became part of the space’s mythology. The front page of its website boasts of “rumours of a ghost in the costume room,” adding it to the list of thousands of houses, churches and other landmarks rumoured to be haunted worldwide. In his 2013 book, Paranormal Nation, Marc E. Fitch argues that the growth of the Internet and the after-effects of 9-11 have pushed people toward the paranormal; extraordinary explanations for unusual experiences can bring order to the chaos of an isolating, uncertain world. The pop culture world has certainly picked up on this yen for the paranormal. Ghost Hunters, a reality TV show where investigators run around haunted houses with expensive recording gear and night-vision goggles, is in its 11th season; single-episode viewership has reached as high as 3.1 million. Innumerable movies with occult and paranormal themes come to the big screen every year, and Stephen King dominates bestseller lists.
For many, ghosts are more than just spooky fiction. A 2007 Ipsos Reid poll found that 48 percent of Canadians believe that ghosts are real; American and British surveys have come up with similar results. Ten percent of Canadians think that they’re living with a spirit
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