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Taking heed when walking after midnight

Ghost stories are always popular – whether it’s around the campfire or watching a favourite movie – but it’s at this time of year where they really come to the fore.

Since ancient times, stories of spirits returning from the great beyond to haunt the places they died – or in some cases places that were memorable to them – have featured prominently in an abundance of cultures globally.

Even in our technological and skeptical age, ghost stories remain popular. From old-fashioned séances to television shows purporting to explore the paranormal, it’s entertainment. Add to the list the ghost walks featured in many communities, with this region being no exception.

While there may not be TV shows focusing on the subject here, many paranormal groups and local experts have discussed the matter through various media outlets and even host events, bringing in those looking for answers and giving them the chance to come face to face with a spirit.

From the historical Kissing Bridge in Woolwich Township to the Homer Watson Gallery in Kitchener, there are stories to explore.

Social historian and author Joanna Rickert-Hall has written books and shared her expertise about the strange goings-on in Waterloo Region. While she describes herself as a skeptical believer, writing her book ‘Waterloo You Never Knew,’ Rickert-Hall gained insight into the darker past of the region, of things that go unspoken in a community where people may not choose to open their minds.

“There is so much of our own history, as well as stories of the unexplained, that we may or may not know. I’m sure we know some of the more famous ones because these are the ones people point to – things like [hauntings at] the Homer Watson gallery. But there are plenty of stories that have happened to everyday people that don’t get talked about, because sometimes people are afraid to do that. People are afraid to share their experiences, I think, [but] on one hand it’s getting to be more common and more widely acceptable,” said Rickert-Hall. “I think the more that we hear of these things, whether we believe or not, we need to appreciate the fact that there are people who have had experiences that do defy logical explanation. They might be in the minority, but they still exist, and Waterloo Region is not any different than any other place that you will hear about.”

In addition to being able to explore many of the allegedly haunted sites across the region, Rickert-Hall has had her own experiences that hit close to home.

When she lived in Crosshill in the building that use to be the old post office, Rickert-Hall and her daughter had a few experiences she deems odd.

“We lived there in the post office, and we had been warned by a few people locally – it’s a tiny little hamlet  and neighbours were very friendly and they’re like ‘oh watch out, you know that place is haunted…’ and there was a building attached to the house where the actual post office would have been and would have been accessible from the street. No matter whether you would close those doors at night, or not, I’d come down in the morning, the door would be wide open to the basement. I could lock the doors to go between the post office and the house itself and it would be unlocked and sometimes ajar,” she added.

She says her daughter also saw a woman standing in her room one night. The woman was wearing a long black dress and a hat with lace, which to Rickert-Hall sounds like Victorian-era clothing that would have been worn by one of the two women who were said to live and work at the post office at one point in time.

Moving out of Wellesley and into the Woolwich area, Rickert-Hall spoke of two locations said to be haunted in some way, the first of which is the famous Kissing Bridge.

Late at night a girl is said to roam the bridge, and some have reported hearing the faint sounds of horses as they walk across an empty bridge. While there are conflicting tales about what caused this haunting, it is said that a young woman was waiting for her lover on the bridge late one night and she ended up being trampled by a horse, tragically ending her life and leaving her to spend eternity searching for the love she never met.

Rickert-Hall says another local spot that is said to be haunted is a cemetery outside of Elmira. She says she knows someone who was having car trouble and they ended up pulling off to the side of the road to check their tires. While they were doing this, they heard scratching on the opposite side of the car – the side where the cemetery was. She says that incident remains unconfirmed until she can do more research into the matter.

All of those stories, while perhaps interesting to people looking for a spooky thrill, remain largely unconfirmed and have not been fully explored. However, one local place that Rickert-Hall has taken the time to explore through the paranormal lens is the Homer Watson House & Gallery in Kitchener.

Back in the late 19th century, Homer Watson, an artist, lived there with his wife and sister. Watson was known for his eccentric ways and often conducted séances with former prime minister William Lyon McKenzie King. It was after the death of his wife that Rickert-Hall says that Watson really got into his fascination with the spirit world, including bringing in many mediums in the attempt to contact her.

“Homer lived there with his wife Roxanne, and it was after her death that he turned to Ouija boards and professional mediums in a desperate attempt to contact her. And also being a believer and supporter of spiritualism, other spirits were contacted as well. When I say séances, I’m saying these are people that would come with the active intent of ‘tonight we are going to attempt to contact the dead,’” she explained. “After Homer’s death in 1936, his sister continued to live in the house and stayed – the belief is that her spirit is still haunting the house itself. There are others who have been sighted in and around the grounds, but also in the house. There’s a man that was observed walking up the stairs. Sometimes on the grounds, people have seen someone walking around. So, it actually has been a very longstanding story.”

In addition to Rickert-Hall’s study, the gallery has been visited by paranormal investigators who want to prove that there are spirits still lingering around.

One such group of people are the Ontario Paranormal Society (TOPS). Led by Tim Butterworth, the organization has been working for more than a decade examining places that are said to be haunted. Recently, TOPS visited the local Homer Watson House & Gallery as they looked to further explain the various phenomena said to go on there.

Butterworth says during his time at the gallery that the team had many experiences and gathered a lot of good evidence.

“While we were there, we actually had somebody whistle,  somebody inside the house was whistled at us, which is quite interesting, and then we’re hearing some good footsteps up in the upstairs area. Then there are the reports of a shadow man that walks the grounds, and he’s also actually been known to be seen on the road leading up to the cemetery – we actually saw him. We think we got a thermal imaging picture of him. I got my team looking it over right now to make sure that it’s not a tree or something in the background. But yeah, we think we actually caught a picture of him, so plenty of good stuff there,” said Butterworth.

TOPS spent about five hours investigating the gallery. During their time they believe they came in contact with many spirits, however, there are some sprits that may not belong. While Phoebe and Homer are said to walk the building, there are others who are simply around without a reason.

Rickert-Hall explained the other presences in the residence by equating it to how insects can enter your home if you leave the door open. Sometimes when you open the door flies come in, so when someone at a séance has the intent to contact one spirit, you do not always know if that is who is coming through. This can happen if you do not know what you are doing and sometimes the spirits can be trapped or they can be there with a more malevolent intent, she said.

Whatever your take on the supernatural, ghost stories remain popular, especially around All Hallows’ Eve, when ghost tours abound. Visiting such places may provide not only a history lesson, but perhaps spark a belief that spirits walk among us.

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