With Halloween comes ghost stories and spooky ambience, but for one group, flirting with the paranormal is all part of a day’s work.
Tara VanderMeulen, assistant organizer for the Haunted Barrie meetup group, has been part of many investigations over the 10 years the group has been active.
“It’s an odd hobby, and a lot of people are the only person in their own circle of friends to be interested in it. So, to have a group to go with.... it’s fun,” she says.
The group was started in March 2007 by head organizer Jeff Ostrander, with VanderMeulen joining up later that year.
VanderMeulen says the group started as a way for anyone with an interest in paranormal investigating to get involved. While it started with between 20 and 30 members, the membership has now ballooned beyond the 500 mark, attracting aspiring paranormal investigators from across Simcoe County and beyond.
The group meets once a month and the activities vary. Sometimes they’ll meet up for an evening at local haunts, gather at a pub, create workshops on new technologies for detecting spirits, have a seance or go all out for an investigative road trip.
“We get ‘the looks',” VanderMeulen says with a laugh. “(We wanted) a place where people could go and talk about this stuff and not feel like they’re crazy.”
VanderMeulen says some new members come in with a lot of ideas from TV shows that aren’t always true.
“Everybody wants to believe there’s a ghost, so when you explain stuff away, they don’t always love you for it,” she says. “We still want to have fun, but we also want to educate people.”
VanderMeulen says the group uses equipment such as video cameras, audio recorders, photo cameras and EMF (electromagnetic field) detectors, all used, at first, to try to rule out practical reasons attendees might be experiencing something strange.
“If you go to the (trade) shows, they have all this whirly, swirly, ‘beep-beep’ stuff,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a great way to spend money.”
However, she says she always tells newcomers to avoid gadgets because the most compelling evidence she has ever experienced comes from just feeling or seeing it yourself.
“We want to be able to rule things out.... like what’s a more reasonable explanation? People always get all excited (when they experience something), because yeah, they want to see a ghost. We know that, but we try to keep them busy and active (so they’re not looking for things that aren’t there),” she says.
As an example, Vandermeulen referenced an audio session done recently on the S.S. Keewatin in Port McNicoll, located north of Barrie in Tay Township. She says that, during a conversation taking place about music, the group heard a sound they didn’t make.
“We checked the camera down the (other end of the boat), and one of our members was singing, and our mic caught it,” VanderMeulen says with a chuckle. “If we get something (on a recording), we want to be able to rule it out as anything else. And if we can’t... we try to re-enact it. If we still can’t, then potentially it’s a good piece of paranormal evidence.”
“You sort of learn to trust your instincts. We all have instincts. It’s all about trusting your intuition.”
Haunted locations mentioned by VanderMeulen across Simcoe County include Museum on the Boyne in Alliston, Penetanguishene Centennial Museum, Bayview Wildwood Resort in Severn Township, Uptown Theatre in Barrie’s downtown, the Barrie Jail and South Simcoe Theatre in Cookstown.
“That’s where I was touched on my shoulder, up in the musician’s loft. There’s a spirit that wanders around up there. It was one of my strongest (experiences),” says VanderMeulen.
“I didn’t move. There was nothing falling on me. There’s nothing that could hit me. I rationalized it as much as I could. We kind of joke, it’s like your brain fritzes.”
Anytime the group catches anything on a recording that they can’t explain, VanderMeulen says it’s the group’s policy to hand that footage over to the owner of the property so they can decide what to do with the evidence.
“It’s all a theory in paranormal investigating. Nobody knows for sure,” she says.
Barrie is also home to Rivendell Books in the Wellington Plaza, which has its own haunted past.
“I always get asked about this at Halloween,” owner Wendy Cahill says.
Cahill has owned the bookstore for a little over nine years and has seen a few spooky occurrences during her time there, specifically pertaining to a “haunted” book she once sold.
“It was an older book on the First World War. An older gentleman bought the book, but two days later he brought it back with a story for me,” she says. “He said he awakened during the night to see this ghostly figure, an elderly man. The man was walking through his bedroom, holding on to the book.
"He said they made eye contact and the ghost walked into his closet, disappears and the book fell to the ground. He was terrified.”
“He said he went to see his minister, who told him to just get rid of the book,” Cahill says with a laugh.
Cahill took the book back, but then some peculiar things started to happen at the store.
“On Saturday nights, my husband and I have a routine where we clean the store. I vacuum and dust from back to front... and then my husband goes from back to front and washes all the floors, and then we go out the front door,” she says.
“When we came back on Sunday, there would be neatly piled stacks of books on the floor, always in the same section, the war section. There’s enough room between the shelves that they couldn’t possibly have fallen, and even if they had fallen, they wouldn’t have fallen in a nice, neat pile. It happened quite a few times.
“There’s no explanation, as far as we know. Nobody else has keys,” she says. “I’m not really a believer in ghosts, myself.”
Cahill has since sold the book, but that hasn’t stopped patrons from reporting seeing the ghost perusing the war section of the store.
Although she says she doesn’t think she has seen the ghost in the stacks herself, there is one instance where she thinks she may have.
“Many people have seen this ghost since then, and they all describe him in the same way: an elderly grey-haired man dressed in old-fashioned clothing,” she says. “(One time) I was quickly walking to the back, and I didn’t think there was anybody else in the store. Out of the corner or my eye, I saw this elderly man.
"I stopped and went back, but there was nothing there. So, I don’t know what I saw.”
The Orillia Opera House is also one of the places investigated by the meetup group, although VanderMeulen says they didn’t catch anything on video or audio recordings during that session. She does say they had some success there using a device called a ghost or spirit box. The device flips through radio channels at a rapid pace, emitting white noise.
VanderMeulen says the blips of sound can be evidence of paranormal activity.
“The opera house was one that was... legitimately answering some historical questions that we knew (through the ghost box). It’s all a theory whether it really works or not, but that (experience) was one that got me sort of into using it," she says.
The Orillia Opera House embraces its history and is said to be haunted by ghosts who make footsteps, slam doors, create moans, play music (piano or harmonica) and cause room temperature drops.
“We have a lot of paranormal companies coming through on a regular basis,” says opera house general manager Wendy Fairbairn. “We get quite a few coming and going.”
According to previous investigations and reports by patrons of the theatre, there are three ghosts: a female who played piano during silent movies (this noise has also been attributed to possibly being the ghost of Glenn Gould), a woman who worked in the ticket office and a patron who had a heart attack in the audience during a performance.
“There are probably 20 to 30 stories out there about different spirits,” says Fairbairn. “Numerous paranormal companies come in and they feel things, and see things and there’s orbs flying around. You can explain them all away scientifically or if you want to believe, you can believe them.”
Fairbairn says she hasn’t experienced anything she would consider to be paranormal in nature herself at the opera house.
“Two or three of our employees have had incidents of doors shutting, or feeling cold. My thing with spirits is, if they know the person is taking care of their space, they usually stop ‘haunting,’” she says.
“I’m doing so many renovations on the building and trying to get it back to its glory days... I think they’re happy with me, so I don’t see them,” she laughs.
For more information on The Haunted Barrie meetup group, click here.