Putting the Normal back in Paranormal

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Martin Schongauer. 1480-90

All over the world, since the beginning of time, people have been having experiences that have defied their understanding of the world around them. With the advent of science and reason, however, mysteries that had long been considered unsolvable were finally being exposed and explained once and for all. Somewhere along the line, however, the scientific mind was repressed. The last of the great mysteries were suddenly regarded as forever unexplainable or, worse yet, completely nonexistent. Nowhere are these current and all prevailing attitudes of ignorance more prevalent than in the study of those things that many deem “paranormal.”

The term paranormal can be defined as “pertaining to the claimed occurrence of an event or perception without scientific explanation[i].”

No great scientific mind has ever, not even once, claimed that people were not experiencing “paranormal” events. In fact, there are many theories as to why certain paranormal incidents occur. A common theory is misidentification of what is seen or experienced. Another is mental illness. Some have made claims that these experiences are related to energy and are some type of hallucination. Sometimes drugs are suspect. There has also been speculation that certain paranormal incidents occur because of an event in the brain similar to a dream. Others have said that the mind is far more powerful than we are aware, and that we are able to manifest unexplained events or energies subconsciously (sometimes called a tulpa). In fact, there have been many proposed theories for various incidents over the years such as those I write about in my post Science and Ghosts.

Of course, there are also those theories that I like to refer to as “the Paranormal Status Quo.”

The status quo for hauntings, for example, would be that a dead person’s essence is somehow visiting or present. The common belief about Sasquatch is that it’s an undiscovered ape. The term UFO – which simply means unidentified flying object – has come to represent a spacecraft of an unknown alien life-form from another planet. These status quo theories are usually based 100% on correlations found between accounts or on communal speculation. In a haunting, again, individuals claiming to see deceased individuals represent the bulk of the evidence for believers in the “spirits of the dead” theory. These status quo speculations are merely mainstream conjecture. They’re usually the result of blind acceptance to reported correlations.

A correlation is when two or more things are found to be related to one another. There is a correlation between overeating and weight gain for example. A correlation does not, however, necessarily mean that a cause has been identified. In certain geographic areas, for example, people have claimed that a person’s race is a determining factor in crime. Despite there being a correlation between race and crime, we now know that race is not the cause of criminality. The cause is most often social based and has to do with poverty and other factors such as the community norms accepted within a specific area. In short, correlation is not the same thing as causation. In a haunting, once again, simply seeing the image of someone deceased does not automatically mean that that deceased individual is really present. This correlation has led people to conclude that ghosts are the spirits of the dead. Case closed? I don’t think so. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’m left to wonder, then, why can’t mainstream society simply accept that there are things in this world we cannot currently understand or explain? Worse yet, why are there only two sides presented in any of these arguments? Looking at hauntings one might determine that there are only two stances in North America: Either you believe in ghosts – as the spirits of the deceased – or you believe that all of these stories are make-believe. In my opinion, both conclusions are simpleminded and unscientific.

Until a “ghost” is somehow measured it will never officially exist. I tell you this as a person who has had my own experiences. I do not know if incidents such as hauntings are caused by the spirits of the dead and neither does anyone else. In fact, anyone who tells you that they do – including psychics – are only contributing to an ignorance of the collective. It is speculation at its best and we should all call it what it is.

On the other hand, those that merely disbelieve for the sake of disbelieving are lost somewhere in the realm of misinformed scepticism or outright fear. If they’re spiritual or religious they believe in the paranormal already, but just have different theories or views as to what the causes of these experiences may be. If they see themselves as science-based then instead of merely stomping their feet in childlike protest why wouldn’t they choose a speculative theory like an actual science-based person would? If they thought we were all misidentifying what we’ve seen, for example, then they should say so. It sounds a lot smarter than contradicting what science has already accepted, that these incidents are perceived as real by the bulk of those experiencing them.

The problem with the Paranormal Status Quo is that these whimsical theories do have an impact on our ability to solve remaining mysteries. Most scientists today, for example, will not go anywhere near the study of anything that may be deemed supernatural or paranormal. Not only are controlled conditions very difficult or impossible to come by in the first place, there’s also a stigma attached. As a result, many scientists have claimed that a study in this realm is not worth the risk to their career. Likewise, funding from reputable sources is often said to be virtually non-existent for the same reason. Also of consideration – because of the difficult nature of the study – is that the likelihood of success is very limited. In other words, studying the paranormal’s not usually considered a respectable pursuit in the scientific community, or a lucrative one either. This is both unfortunate and problematic if we ever hope to solve some of these last great mysteries.

Things may not be so black and white, however. There is a third group that warrants consideration in any discussion of the paranormal. This is the community of hoaxers. Unfortunately, many individuals have chased fame by claiming the capture of evidence that had been contrived. Truthfully, trickery has likely existed just as long as legitimate experiences of paranormal events. The motivation for these individuals varies, but there’s usually some sort of financial reward involved. For example, spirit mediums and exorcists have always been able to ask for money, which can be seen as clear motivation for a hoax. Likewise, modern video and image evidence may lead to a career that involves book deals or even a documentary. There are also hoaxers that seem to find some sort of amusement or pleasure at the expense of others. Lying is easy. Unfortunately, we’re entering a technological age where we’ll no longer be able to accept video or images as evidence at all. CGI gets easier, photo manipulation technology gets better, and the ability to see evidence in its original unaltered state will be based on nothing short of blind trust. In a world of hoaxers, trust just isn’t enough anymore. Maybe it never was.

People who have had these experiences are often left extremely shaken. Some individuals become obsessed in proving to others that what they saw was real. Others become silent. Many have claimed to suffer a variety of symptoms that sound surprisingly similar to PTSD. Problems sleeping, fear of being alone, avoiding certain locations, terrifying dreams, anxiety, spiritual uncertainty, relationship collapse and feelings of “craziness” are all commonly reported. Rarely are paranormal experiences said to have been fun or desirable. In fact, most report that they wished that the paranormal event had never occurred in the first place.

So where does that leave us? Do we really need to accept that entities such as ghost are real? No, we do not. We merely need to accept, as the scientific community already has, that certain individuals have experienced these events. No one knows what the truth is despite what any one person may claim. That is why these types of events – such as hauntings – are considered unexplained.

No matter how crazy the truth may be, we can rest assured that a day will come where we’ll know beyond the shadow of a doubt what that truth really is. That answer may be a chemical imbalance, or it may be something far more significant such as proof of life after death. I do not know what that truth will be, and neither do you. Until then, all we have is speculation. At this rate, maybe speculation is all we’ll ever have? I hope not.

On a personal level, I can work within my own beliefs as I continue to grow and to evolve. I will try to keep in mind, however, that spiritual practices are viewed as faith-based for a reason. The only thing that I do know for sure, is that the older I get the more frustrated I become by people who claim to absolutely know the truth about anything. When it comes to the world of the supernatural, this is especially frustrating, because no one does. That’s why we use the term paranormal in the first place. These events are simply beyond scientific explanation… for now.

The Ghosts of Togo and his Wife by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. c. 1850

The Banshee: Ghost of the Celts

The Banshee’s arguably the most famous ghost of them all, and probably the least understood.

“When the Banshee calls she sings the spirit home. In some houses still a soft low music is heard at death.” – George Henderson 1911 (Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts)

There’s an Irish tradition promoting the Banshee as only ever interacting with certain families. Although folklorists have also made this statement in the past, it’s entirely false. The Banshee’s known by many different names, was encountered in many varied forms, and was believed to have existed by a wide array of people[i].

In Ireland, the Banshee is also called Banshie, Bean Si, Bean Sidhe, and Ban Side amongst other names. A great deal of surviving Banshee lore comes from outside of Ireland, however. In Scotland, for example, the Banshee may be referred to as Ban Sith or Bean Shith. On the Isle of Mann she’s called Ben Shee, while the Welsh call her close sister Cyhyraeth[ii].

The she in Banshee, or sidhe, suggests and older source for the stories. The sidhe were the old gods who had fled the Irish invaders to live inside of the hollow hills. They were also known as the Tuatha De Danaan or “the fair folk.”

Banshee: A female wraith of Irish or Scottish Gaelic tradition thought to be able to foretell but not necessarily cause death in a household.”  – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)

In the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, we’re told that the Irish Banshee was more likely to be beautiful, while the Scottish Banshee was more likely to appear in the image of an older crone-like woman. Like most things in Celtic lore, however, this wasn’t always consistent.

The Banshee would usually warn of death by: wailing, appearing as an apparition, playing or singing music, tapping on a window in the form of a crow, be seen washing body parts or armor at a stream, knocking at the door, whispering a name, or by speaking through a person that she had already possessed – a host or medium[iii]. The noble families of Ireland generally viewed the spirit’s attendance as a great honour. Some sources do say that the Banshee served only five Irish families, but others say that several hundred families had these spirits attached to them[iv]. The five families usually stated to have had Banshee attendants are the O’Neils, the O’Brians, the O’Gradys, the O’Conners, and the Kavanaghs. Many stories, however, are of other families.

The Ó Briains’ Banshee was thought to have had the name of Eevul[v], or Aibhill as she is called in the book True Irish Ghost Stories. Likewise, a great bard of the O’Connelan family had the goddess Aine (sometimes called Queen of Fairy), attend him in the role of a wailing Banshee in order to foretell – and honour – his death[vi]. Cliodhna (Cleena) is a goddess-like Munster Banshee, who people claimed was originally the ghost of a “foreigner.”  Most Banshees remained nameless, however.

The description of the Banshee varies a great deal throughout the many accounts. If she was young she often had red hair, but she could have “pale hair” as well. She was often described as wearing white, but sometimes she could be seen wearing green or other colors such as black or grey. Red shoes were sometimes mentioned, but so was a silver comb,[vii] which she either ran through her hair or left on the ground to capture some curious passerby. Most described her eyes as being red from crying, or keening, or to be menacing and evil looking. The eyes were also often said to be blue. In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the Banshee was said to have webbed feet like a water creature. Sometimes she was wrapped in a white sheet or grey blanket – a statement that reveals an older funerary tradition and a possible source for the modern white sheet-ghosts of Halloween.

In True Irish Ghost Stories we’re told that the Banshee could not by seen by “the person whose death it [was] prognosticating.” This statement is not consistent with all of the stories either:

“THEN Cuchulain went on his way, and Cathbad that had followed him went with him. And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. ‘Little Hound,’ said Cathbad, ‘Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.’” – Lady Gregory 1902 (Cuchulain of Muirthemne – retelling of 12th CE)

Watcher of the Ford. Eleanor Hull. 1904

The Banshee – who’s often said to have her roots in stories of Morrigan the Irish war goddess[viii] – could also follow families abroad. One famous story regarding the O’Grady family takes place along the Canadian coastline where two men die[ix]. St. Seymour shares another tale in which a partial Irish descendent sees a Banshee on a boat in an Italian lake. In Charles Skinner’s 1896 Myths and Legends of Our Own Land we’re also told of a South Dakota Banshee living in the United States.

The Banshee could also be a trickster of sorts. She was said to mess with “the loom” in Alexander Carmichael’s 1900 Carmina Gadelica. There’s even a blessing in the section, which is chanted over the item. In W.Y. Evens-Wentz’ 1911 Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries we’re told of a Banshee who could be placated by giving her barley-meal cakes on two separate hills. This action reminds us of the tithes often left for other trickster fairies, and doesn’t seem to be a customary gift one would leave for a ghost. As Katherine Briggs once said[x], however, fairies fall into two categories, “diminished gods and the dead.” Unfortunately, our modern conception of fairies does little to remind us that either one of these forms would be considered as a spirit-being today. As Evans-Wentz further explains:

“It is quite certain that the banshee is almost always thought of as the spirit of a dead ancestor presiding over a family, though here it appears more like the tutelary deity of the hills. But sacrifice being thus made, according to the folk-belief, to a banshee, shows, like so many other examples where there is a confusion between divinities or fairies and the souls of the dead, that ancestral worship must be held to play a very important part in the complex Fairy-Faith as a whole.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz 1911 (Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)

The Banshee being attached to a certain family could be extremely beneficial and would have not been seen as a negative. As already stated, any family would’ve been seen as extremely important if a Banshee (or several) attended them. In George Henderson’s 1911 Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, a Banshee, or Maighdeann Shidhe, even gave the “Blue Stone of Destiny” to the Scottish hero Coinneach Odhar. In return for favours, however, it would’ve been extremely important to honour these spirits whenever possible, either out of respect for the Banshee, or from a place of fear in order to placate them.

In modern times, the Banshee became associated more and more with evil. As a portent of death she shared many things in common with the approaching Carriage of Death, the death candles, Ankou[xi] or even with the Grim Reaper. In her more ancient visage, she could easily be compared to the Norse Valkyrie (as the Morrigan often is) or to any other Shieldmaiden whose task it was to collect the dead[xii]. To the commoner of modern times, such a role was reserved for the Angels of God and for the Holy Church alone.

Furthermore, the Banshee – like other mystic beings of Celtic lore – was also able to appear in various non-human forms. A fact which would later make her seem in league with the devil:   

 “The Banshee is dreaded by dogs. She is a fairy woman who washes white sheets in a ford by night when someone near at hand is about to die. It is said she has the power to appear during day-time in the form of a black dog, or a raven, or a hoodie-crow.” – Donald MacKenzie 1917 (Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth & Legend)

Whether the Banshee does, or ever did, exist is a matter of conjecture. One thing is certain, however, the most famous ghost of them all is the one in which few people actually know anything about. The Banshee was more than a shrieking omen of death. In fact, individual Banshees appeared and behaved quite differently from one another in different stories.  Her attachment to a particular family was a relationship that was embraced by the Celtic people with pride, and with honour. Her haunting of a particular place, on the other hand, was met with wary bribes. An unknown Banshee – like a stray dog – could have been seen as something quite different altogether. It would have been this Banshee that brought with it fear – which was usually seen as nothing short of a greeting from death itself.

The Banshee in Celtic folklore seems much more interesting, when we realize that many of our modern ghost stories share the exact same elements. A deceased female relative forewarning death, a disembodied voice, a spirit attached to a particular family, or a haunted landmark may not seem to have anything to do with a Banshee today, but none of these stories are really all that different from the old ones at all. Like it or not, in modern folklore the Banshee still remains. It’s only our terminology that has changed.

Old Yale Brewery Tall Tale Series
Vancouver, BC’s Old Yale Brewery: Tall Tale Series

[i]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[ii]  (ibid)

[iii]  St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan. True Irish Ghost Stories. 1914.

[iv]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[v]  Thos Westrop. Folklore. 1910.

[vi]  W.Y. Evans-Wentz. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911.

[vii]  This may be an overlap with the mermaid, which history likewise seems to have forgotten was also a spirit.

[viii]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[ix] This would most likely be referring to the east coast but could also be the west coast, as well.

[x]  Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. 1967.

[xii]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shieldmaiden

The Banshee
The Banshee. Henry Maynell Rheam. 1897
Bunworth Banshee. From Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825

Ghosts of the Downtown Vancouver Bay Store

Ghost of the Downtown Vancouver Bay
Vancouver Bay Store, 1918

If you live in Vancouver – or visited downtown – you’ve probably been inside the Bay on Granville Street. It likely never occurred to you, that many people who’ve worked there over the years have had what some might call a paranormal experience. It’s been a common enough phenomenon, but one in which the HBC Company might not be keen on sharing.

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), historically, was largely responsible for shaping Canada and much of the United States by bringing British law and culture into the New World along with a profitable empire built on fur trade. The HBC was chartered in 1670, and at one time the company owned 15% of the North American landmass[i]. What had began as a fur trading company, would, over time, eventually become the Canadian retail giant that it’s known as today. “The Bay” branch of the HBC has some 92 existing locations in Canada[ii]. Many of these remaining buildings are very old, and some harbor rich and dynamic histories.

The Vancouver Bay store was built in phases starting in 1913 alongside an older 1893 building. This older building would be replaced completely by the third phase of the construction in 1925[iii]. As you can imagine, portions of the building are very old… and extremely creepy.

Countless people have been employed by and have worked out of the downtown Vancouver Bay store over the years. For many of them – even today – the Hudson’s Bay Company was their life. Who could even begin to guess how many restless spirits would choose to roam the building’s floors if they were given an option? Many believe, in fact, that some spirits do just that. I personally agree that there’s something to these tales, as well.

I don’t merely say this because one of the cleaning ladies was crying one early morning after she stated she had seen an apparition on the second floor. This lady had claimed to have seen a woman in a red dress floating along the aisle. In fact, I was told that the cleaning lady requested to no longer work on the second floor at all. Interestingly – and somewhat unrelated – a woman in red is also supposed to haunt the 14th floor of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver a block away. This other haunting is much better known and is even considered public knowledge[iv]. Regardless, it takes a lot more than a single story to make me a believer, but I did have reasons of my own not to doubt her.

I used to be at the top of the alarm call-out list for the downtown Vancouver store. In fact, I was the Loss Prevention manager of this location from 2001 to 2005 where my duties included the arrest of those committing criminal offences (on or in relation to the property) camera installation, emergency preparedness, staff awareness training, and an overseeing of the physical security of the building itself.

Occasionally, I would get an unexplained motion alarm call out. This was during a period in which there were no overnight security guards on site. I would get the alarm call, attend, and then go into the store to investigate the cause. Due to budget constraints at the time, I would often attend the store on my own.

On more than one occasion, the elevators doors opened without explanation in the middle of the night. Reviewing cameras for that particular zone, which had been triggered by motion, would be interesting. On reviewing camera, I would observe the doors open. The light that was visible from the camera angle would then indicate that the elevator was going down or up. The elevator would then travel to a separate floor and open up again. The camera angle would sometimes provide me with a chance to look directly into that elevator when the doors finally opened. It would be empty.

I spoke with the engineers and they assured me that – technically speaking – this movement was impossible. Someone would have had to have been inside of the elevator, and would have had to press one of the buttons. This “person” would have had to push this button from inside the elevator or have called it from the outside by pushing the up or down call button. Neither of these actions could have occurred, though, because on camera there was nobody there. The alarm was not set off in this way very often, though. If it had been a malfunction, it would have occurred more often than it did. The elevators were very old and not computerized. They were not programmed to move in this way at all because they could not be programmed in the first place.

These elevators would always open up on the 2nd floor, or on the sub-basement level. They were usually the customer elevators, but this also occurred with the staff elevator, as well, which was located in a nearby back area. Other Loss Prevention (LP) associates experienced these incidents as well.

At the time, our loss prevention office was located on the mezzanine level between the first and second floors. This office was also our camera monitoring room. It was located beneath the 2nd floor washroom. During nights where one of us was on site – and in the office – the sound of wheels in the above washrooms was very common to hear. The camera would indicate that no one had gone into or out of the bathroom. If someone investigated inside the actual washroom, the sound would stop immediately (a second person was sometimes on camera and would remain in the office) and nothing would be found that could have caused the noise. The sound was similar to the noise that is made by squeaky wheels. This was experienced by almost everyone that I managed on the LP team. Some of these guys did not believe in anything paranormal, but were unable to offer a proper explanation for the noises nonetheless.

This was the full extent of the activity I experienced on the second floor myself. I must admit, however, that this floor did feel very “different” compared with most of the other store areas. Some staff members have, over the years, reported activity in the Seymour Room, which is a cafeteria-style restaurant on the 6th floor. I had never experienced, or felt, anything in this room myself, though.

The sub-basement was the area in which I did have the most convincing experiences, however. As I have already mentioned, the elevators sometimes opened up on this level unexplainably, as well. There’s a back corner of the sub-basement, in fact, which seems to be a hot spot of activity. In this corner, there’s a cafeteria and a staff kitchen. Before the renovation a few years ago, this had been a burger bar and a soup counter. Strangely, I would sometimes get a call from the alarm company of a motion alarm going off in this back corner.

Vancouver’s notorious for its Downtown East Side, which runs parallel to the Bay a few blocks away. Drug addiction was rampant in this neighborhood at the time, and our job could be very difficult. Addicts would sometimes stay in the store and try to burglarize the place or would try to smash their way out with high-end merchandise. When we tried to stop them they would sometimes be combative. The most common weapon pulled on us would be a syringe, but the hardware that they would potentially present was always varied. If multiple alarms went off in the Bay building, we would know that someone was there and we would enter the store with the police. If only one alarm went off, on the other hand, it would be a little strange. We generally thought that this was a false alarm, but we would still need to investigate. An item falling over or even a mouse could set off the alarm. If an intruder was fairly still they might set off an alarm only once. This has happened before as well.

Why I Believe in Ghosts
Vancouver Bay Store, 2012

I would glove up (Kevlar) and go into the area to investigate. Sometimes, I would carry a bat. If I did find someone in the store we would usually both be startled. These foiled thieves would usually allow themselves to be arrested without further incident. During these budget-cutback times, I would carry a radio and pretend to be talking to a second person and would even squawk it to make noise. I never gave the impression that I was alone but I often was. It was a very intense situation. Not enough evidence to call the police, no backup, and a dangerous type of addicted clientele that tried to take anything they could at any cost.

An intruder never seemed to be the cause of the alarm in the back corner, but at the time I was prepared for that to be the answer. Truthfully, to this day I do not know what set off these alarms. It was always important, however, to take these calls seriously.

Anyways, I particularly hated checking the sub-basement corner when it did go into alarm, because something just plain felt wrong to me. This feeling was not very friendly at all. It reminded me of the St. Louis Ghost Light’s angry buzzing, which I had described last week. It felt muggy, somehow, and there was an electric heaviness in the air as well.

I remember the times in which I experienced a heightened level of fear in that corner. The kitchen staff had an alarm clock by their sink. The thing went off twice right beside me as I walked past it! The time of night was different on each occurrence and the likelihood of someone setting the alarm to go off in the middle of the night was not very high. The first time I must have literally jumped out of my skin I was so startled. I was already on edge, for reasons I’ve already explained, just in case someone was actually back in that corner. I decided that the experience had a logical explanation the first time that it happened. I decided it was merely a coincidence.

The second time, however, I was thinking about this “coincidence” as I passed by the same alarm clock. Even though a part of me half expected it, the alarm going off for a second time really rattled me. I had to rule out coincidence. This realization made this particular feeling of fear just a little more unbearable. This occurrence was immediately followed by what I now refer to myself as “the hallway incident.”

I was walking up towards the hallway that led to the staff lockers and washrooms in this same corner. I was already rattled from the alarm clock. The area was sparsely lit and had an abandoned hospital look to it. The hall ran beneath the escalators going up to the Pacific Center mall. As I walked up to this propped open door I was taken aback by it violently slamming in my face. I kicked the door open in response. I was so wound up that I did not have a chance to think but just reacted. The door flew back open immediately.

As I had already known, however, there was nobody there. I had seen clearly down the hallway and it had been clear. The door did not shut that violently naturally. It was always left open with a stopper in place. There was absolutely no explanation. The stopper had been moved to the side and the slow closing door had somehow gained momentum on its own. No one was there, the doorway had behaved differently at that moment in comparison to any other time that I was aware of –  I also could not recreate the slamming door the next day when I tried to no matter how hard I pushed it- and it had slammed right in front of me as if it had been timed. The whole experience was very unnerving, I’m not going to lie.

“Okay. I get it. I know you’re here!” I stated aloud in an effort to sound confident. Saying this out loud always seemed to make me feel better. In retrospect, it also seemed to work on the ghosts of the Downtown Vancouver Bay store.

Nothing much happened to me in the store after that. I was still there for at least two more years. Being in loss prevention, though, others staff members would still sometimes tell me about what had happened to them. I would usually keep my own stories to myself, however. I didn’t really want to get into it, as I saw these incidents as a somewhat private affair outside of our department. What was most interesting to me over those years, however, was the fact that the 2nd floor and the sub-basement were the two areas attached to most of  – if not all – these ghostly claims made by staff.

Even over the few years that I was a manager in the store, there had been deaths in the building. If there was a lost soul in the Bay, it could have been a younger version of one of the many seniors who had passed away there, been an overdosed drug addict, one of the vehicle or pedestrian fatalities outside, one of the Skytrain suicides below the store, or could have even been a spirit from a far older time. There are more than a few possibilities as to where the ghosts of the Downtown Vancouver Bay store had come from.

I have heard it said that 47% of people in Canada believe in ghosts[v]. I imagine that some of these people are probably the whimsical types, while some are probably more similar to me… quasi-agnostic believers. Sometimes, a personal experience just can’t be ignored.

I know that there’s something that seems to coexist with us as humans, something that I cannot completely observe or understand. When I dismiss these experiences in my life, which I have done on occasion, it seems as if I can expect to receive a wake-up call of sorts. Something unexplained will happen similar to the hallway incident.

I do, however, now understand why some people believe in ghosts and why some people do not. In fact, if you told me that you had seen a ghost yourself, I would probably be very skeptical. I am a believer after all, but I’m also that self same agnostic. This seems to be a never-ending balancing act, and perhaps even a contradiction. I hope that one day, however, I will be able to fully understand these experiences and the others as well, those similar incidents which have also occurred off and on throughout my life.

Ghosts of the Downtown Bay Store
Hudson’s Bay Company Logo

[ii] http://www.thebay.com/eng/aboutus/aboutHBC.cfm (May, 2012)

[v] At the time of this writing on the Vancouver Fox radio station but read Qualicum Heritage Inn: the Great Haunted Condominium Sale for specific stats or Science & Ghosts.

* All images found on this post are of the public domain except for the 2012 image. This image belongs to the author.

Why I Believe in Ghosts: History of a Haunting

Why I Believe in Ghosts
The Home of a Ghost? Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. 1979

This may come to you as a surprise, but for the most part I consider myself agnostic. For those unfamiliar with the term, an agnostic believes that “the truth” is unknown or unknowable. This truth is usually in regards to religious or metaphysical reality, but the term can also be used in relation to other unexplained phenomena as well. Some might say that I’m stretching the term agnostic a bit here – and they might be right – but honestly I don’t care. The term makes it easier for me to express my leanings toward skepticism.

For example, as an Agnostic I may one day believe that there are humanoids from outer space visiting us in pimped out disco-like intergalactic flying saucers, or that large hairy monster-men are roaming the mountain ranges in search of non believing ATV-mounted outdoor enthusiasts, or even that there are creatures existing within the depths of our oceans, rivers and lakes just waiting to pull some unseasoned fishermen into their murky depths. Maybe I’ll be able to believe in all of these things one day. Maybe, but its not very likely.

These experiences may be completely legitimate, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not likely to believe in them unless I see them physically with my own eyes. Even then, I would likely be contemplating the more logical explanations. I would consider the possibilities of a hallucination, misinterpretation of data received through the senses, or even be considering devious trickery for that matter! If this particular “sighting” was profound enough, I would begin by reading books written by skeptics as I struggled to understand these mysteries from a more rational and down-to-earth viewpoint.

I have a hard time believing in almost anything extraordinary and sometimes even ordinary. Occasionally, I even question the most commonly accepted of truths. I question almost everything that most people would accept blindly. Close encounters with large businesses, the media, and a healthy dose of historic knowledge has reinforced my skepticism. I often wonder what a person can even accept as the truth anymore?

Ultimately, however, I’m forced to accept “facts” to a certain degree simply because they’re the beliefs that are also accepted by almost everyone else, but there’s a core of skepticism that lives within me. If I can’t measure something or touch it, I’m not necessarily convinced that it exists, has occurred, or is even real at all. In the end, however, I don’t usually care either way if its real or not. A person can get lost in conspiracy theories and become justifiably paranoid. A healthy dose of skepticism is never a bad thing as long as it doesn’t rule my life. I guess I’m just a skeptic, that’s all, most especially when it comes to those realms many call, the supernatural. It might be hard for an outsider looking in, then, to understand why I believe in ghosts.

 Why I Believe in Ghosts

My mother and sisters share my belief, that there’s at least one spirit attached to our family. Electrical appliances, lights, and the occasional faucet have been known to turn on or off. Objects have even disappeared and reappeared in separate places. Sometimes, I used to hear my name being spoken. Other times, I would feel a seperate presence in the room I was supposed to be alone in. This feeling seems familiar to me now, and I can only imagine that at one time it had just wanted to be noticed.

My mom, sisters, and I, can now talk about these experiences with one another openly as these seem to be attached to all of us despite location. What I mean by this statement is that these occurrences have taken place in many of the apartments I have lived in, my sister’s apartment, sisters’ houses, my mom’s house, three different childhood homes and many other residencies. It has never seemed to be attached to one place, like our early childhood home, for example.

Right about now you’re probably questioning how much of a skeptic I really am. Perhaps I need to explain something. I simply know that there is something. We assume it’s a ghost, because this now seems like the most logical of explanations. I use the term ghost loosely, however, because truth be told, I’m not so sure that what we consider to be a ghost is even necessarily the spirit of a deceased. The terms apparition, spirit, or ghost will be used here, simply because I don’t know for sure what this thing is. In fact, I’m not even 100% certain that there’s only one of these so-called spirits attached to us. There could easily be more. I really have gotten ahead of myself, however.

I was very young when I saw my first apparition. I had descended into the basement of our Prince Albert, Saskatchewan home to retrieve a toy. I believe I was 4 or 5. This seventies home was still relatively new then.

At the time, I didn’t understand why the room was foggy. I had a very strange feeling, yet I wasn’t afraid… at least at first.  I tried to look at that fog, which seemed to be rolling, in an attempt to make sense of what it was I was really gazing upon. The foggy image started to gather together and began to form into a pillar-type shape in the corner of the room. I became frozen as I began to experience fear. I had this feeling that if I stayed any longer, in that spot, that I would eventually see a ghostly being. I had seen enough, however. I did not want to see a dead person materializing in front of me. I fled.

I ran to my childhood friend who was playing upstairs and I told him what I had seen. He didn’t believe me, so I cautiously brought him into the basement. I was much more willing to be afraid in his eyes than to be seen as a fool or liar. Of course, there was nothing there. He did not believe me. At the time, my parents didn’t believe me either. They had not been inside at the time. The thing that still stands out in my mind was that this unexplained cloud was greenish in colour. The apparition, if you can call it that, had appeared to me as a green cloud.

If you’re curious to know, I had seen this “entity” in the basement corner closest to the power meter in the Polaroid picture above. Sometimes, when staring at this picture, I believe that I can see images that are not there. In the windows or as part of the discoloured smear at the bottom. I’m willing to believe, however, that these are figments of my imagination. They probably are.

Anyways, over the years I would shift back and forth between skeptical and gullible as other smaller unexplained things occurred. Eventually, I embraced the idea that something was around me based entirely upon these strange occurrences. I discounted that I had once seen an apparition, though. I thought that it must have been a figment of my imagination.

Interestingly enough, I later found out that other people in the neighborhood had seen things that they couldn’t explain, also making them believers. One neighbour was my mom’s brother, my uncle, and there were some strange stories coming from his place as well. An unverifiable rumor emerged. Apparently, the land had once been a Cree burial ground. This of course seems to be a recurring belief in North American urban areas where unexplained happenings occur, but truth be told, I’m not so sure that the Cree people even had cemeteries as we like to imagine them today.

Why I Believe in Ghosts
Cree Camp. Charles Horetzky. 1871

Regardless, I grew up believing that something unexplained was around me. As a kid that thing was clearly defined as a ghost. I believed then that it was a dead person.

As teenagers, my buddies and I would often go to a place called the St. Louis Ghost light. This is a reputably haunted site that thousands of people have had experiences at. It became a regular hang out for us. It’s a well-documented site having even appeared on the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. I own two books Haunted Canada and Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan, which speak of this “haunted” location[i].

We spent a lot of time there. In fact, I can comfortably say that I have seen this light hundreds of times. We eventually decided that we needed to find an explanation so we tested everything. Despite what others may say, the Saint Louis Ghost Light has never properly been explained away. A similar image can apparently be recreated for a small window of time but most say it does not look the same (the attached link to the video would then be of a car very far in the distance, refracting light and driving along a road).

I have seen the Saint Louis Ghost Light during the day, looking the opposite direction (also during the day – this destroys the theory further), seen unexplained shadow figures and I have even seen other unknown lights off of the old train tracks. We shot guns at it[ii] (as embarrassing as this is to admit now) and had even tried to catch up with it on foot or in vehicles (there was no roadblock back then). The closest we could get, appeared to be less than twenty feet away from the very bright light (we were definitely messed up kids).

I’ve never stopped going there. Sometimes, when I’m back in Saskatchewan visiting, I go there still. What I’ve never gotten over, though, is the bad feeling that seems to accompany this light whenever it is present. It did not seem like the other apparition that I’d seen in the basement. Instead, this one came with a certain accompanying feeling (an external angry buzzing) that I would always become skeptical of over time. It was this feeling that became the main reason that I would feel the need to return to this site over and over again throughout the years. It was a strange thing to wrap my mind around, but it was always there when I returned.

These experiences ended up having a very positive influence on me, however. I would, over time, become more and more spiritual. I followed a path that was almost entirely shaped by these early experiences. I became open towards somehow discovering what these encounters really were. Many more occurrences took place over the years that seemed to solidify my general belief in spirits. These were many and I’m sure that I will share some of them along the way.

The Saint Louis Ghost Light seemed evil. It was mostly a repetitive or residual haunting, but it could interact with a person as well. Very often cars that had been fine would stop working and we would not be able to start them again (dead batteries). Radios would go funky. The horn or lights would go on or off. Overall, the Saint Louis Ghost Light would become a huge reason why I believe in ghosts.

These other experiences helped me to trust that the green cloud – which had begun to return – felt good. I wonder now if it had returned because I was no longer afraid of it? As strange as this sounds, it sort of became mundane. It lost its novelty. Eventually, I stopped believing it was even real.

You see, somewhere along the way I had decided that these visual experiences were some sort of internally created manifestation. I would wake up and see it, or I would be in a very calm near meditative state before it showed up. This cloud was nothing more than a hallucination that would manifest itself as I was falling asleep. It didn’t matter if I believed in spirits or not, however, because the energy attached to it seemed positive and I felt good when it was around. It could not, or would not, harm me.

I eventually concluded that my mind – like it had so many years before as a kid in the basement – was continuously creating a symbol (aka a ghost) which my logical mind needed to interpret. I enjoyed waking up to that green cloud floating in my room. It was a cool sort of hallucination that I would watch until it faded away. It hardly mattered how often I saw it, though. I knew it was a trick of my mind. I had laid the foundation for my spirituality, grown older and maybe wiser, discounted the original experiences, and yet continued to go through the movements of a believer. I would light candles and incense for “the spirits” and would even speak with them (not that they would ever answer back in the way one would think). I was merely walking upon a symbolic and metaphoric path, that’s all. It worked for me, but I knew that none of what I was seeing was real. In retrospect, this was the period in which I had lost my faith.

One night, someone else saw it as well. I was staring at this thing in my typical state of apathetic enjoyment. She asked me – in fear – why I couldn’t see “that green cloud” which was hovering nearby. I really could, though. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I had not revealed these visions to her nor could she have known the colour of the manifestation most of all. We were not drinking and we did not do drugs. In one moment I was forced to reevaluate everything that I had come to comfortably believe.

I asked my roommate at the time what he thought. I asked him specifically, because he was a true agnostic and not some sort of noncommittal like me. He suggested that we had merely had a shared hallucination. It was a solid alternative explanation, but I thought it seemed even more of a stretch than the belief that something, whatever that something was, had been seen.

The incident seemed to validate something inside of me. It was a sort of belief that I had been fighting off and on for so many years. I decided, that this cloud had to be a ghost. I had simply had that same experience that people have been describing since the very beginning of time. I had seen a ghost! More than once! Now what exactly that ghost really was would become a whole other area of interest and speculation.

It would show itself a lot less often after that. The ghost seemed content that I now believed it was real.

Since that period of my life, which was much more than a decade ago, there have been other sightings of this green cloudy mist. Most recently, Elle saw it when she was alone in my place. I had never told her of its colour either. My skeptical mind had decided to hold back this information. I felt like a detective trying to catch a serial killer by holding back that one validating clue that no one else would have ever known about: the colour. Unfortunately, I have not seen that green cloud myself for a very long time, but it is ultimately the reason why I believe in ghosts.

It has been my experience that apparitions, whatever they are, seem to simply want to be acknowledged by certain individuals. They (?) have often ceased their activities when I have said out loud, “I know that you are here.”

I have many stories of these unexplained events that have occurred within my living spaces, too many to dismiss actually. Even fifteen years ago I was struggling to reason these things away. A TV turning itself on or off might be one thing to try to explain away, a light switch physically being moved to an off position when no one is near it is something else altogether. Try explaining an item which goes missing from a place you put it in only to have it reappear in the exact same place at a later point. In this case I lived alone. No one else was there. I left the room and came back and it had returned. There was nothing else on that bench. Not even a piece of paper. I had stared dumbly at it each time I had passed by knowing that my keys had been there. It then returned back to this spot only after I had declared loudly, “I know that you are here! I need my keys back!”

These are experiences that I cannot explain and reasons why I believe in ghosts to this day. We call it a ghost. Maybe it’s something else entirely, something that I cannot even begin to understand. Whatever it is, it seems to have intelligence. As strange as it sounds, logically, the most plausible explanation to me is that it’s the spirit of someone deceased. It feels like family.

That is the most interesting part of all. It feels like family to all of us. I have often wondered if it is attached to some old item that we had carried off of that farm[iii], or perhaps, it is merely the spirit of an ancestor, one of the many tragic deaths that has plagued our family’s past generation[iv]. That, however, is a story for another day.

Why I Believe in Ghosts
Plowing an Alfalfa Field by Tractor. Collier’s New Encyclopedia, 1921

Next week, I’ll share some personal experiences that took place in the old Bay building located on Granville Street in Vancouver.

[i] You can read about the Saint Louis Ghost at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Louis_Light or watch the Phil Campagna video found at http://www.philcampagna.com/stlouisghostlight/ghost2.html

[ii] The light would always turn red when we did this.

[iii] There is a couch that is suspect which once belonged to my great grandmother. I have my grandfather’s retro floor to ceiling lamp and my grandmother’s oil burning lantern in my home as well.

[iv] On the farm there was a house fire that killed the brother my grandmother was initially supposed to marry, a death by lightning, a farm accident with a combine, and at least one drowning. This list does not include all of those people who have died of “natural” causes. It was a very tragic generation.

* Scanned Polaroid picture is from 1979. All other images found in this post have been taken from Wikipedia and are public domain.

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