For as long as there have been humans, there have been ghost stories. People are fascinated by the frightening, enticed by the eerie. Whether sitting around a campfire or curled up on the couch with a scary movie, for whatever reason, we love to hear tales of the unknown and unexplained that send shivers your spine and make you want to turn on the lights.
Newfoundland and Labrador is not exempt from this phenomenon. Hundreds of legends and stories of everything from ghastly ghouls and trickster fairies are found throughout history. Even in the Exploits Valley more than a few macabre myths have developed over the years.
Dale Jarvis is a St. John’s-based author, folklorist, and storyteller, and is also the Intangible Cultural Heritage Development Officer for the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. He’s written several books featuring various spooky stories found in Newfoundland and Labrador culture.
Jarvis told the Advertiser that Newfoundland and Labrador is a great place for someone who studies tales of the supernatural. He said there has always been a high level of folk belief present in the province, as a lot of people who settled in Newfoundland came from English and Irish backgrounds where these traditions were fairly common.
“People honestly believed in the supernatural,” explained Jarvis. “We had a great tradition in this province of storytelling – storytelling was a really important part of what we did for entertainment, and ghost stories in particular were always a great way to pass the time. We’re kind of lucky to live in this place where those traditions existed and still to a certain extent exist today.”
Jarvis said while many Newfoundland and Labrador ghost stories are rooted in legend and have common themes and motifs from other historical tales – similar to urban legends – he also collects many first hand, personal experiences with the paranormal.
“Ghost stories kind of fall into two rough categories. There is what’s called personal experience narratives, (which is when a person) fully believes they’ve had an experience that is supernatural or paranormal in some way,” said Jarvis.
The second category, Jarvis said, is local legends, which are stories that get passed around a community.
“(Local legends) are like when a location in the community gets a reputation as being haunted, people might not have first-hand experiences with those stores but they kind of enter the public imagination.”
Soaking sandals and spooky soldiers
Jarvis recounts a telling of two personal experience narratives out of the Exploits Valley in his book “Haunted Waters.”
In “The Soaking Sandals of Bishop’s Falls,” Jarvis tells of a young woman who went through a series of strange events in Bishop’s Falls in 2006.
The woman, named Mary, lived with her boyfriend in a basement apartment in the town; her boyfriend was attending college in Gander, which meant he was away during the week.
After about three months living in the apartment, strange things started to happen to Mary.
“One night, the woman awoke in her bedroom to find a small girl standing at the foot of the bed, staring at her,” the story read, and went on to describe the girl as having a snarled, scared looking face and twisted up limbs. She moved closer and closer to the frightened Mary before disappearing. According to the story, the same thing happened a few nights later.
Later on the same week, one of Mary’s friends received a frantic call from a very upset Mary, raving on about “wet sandals.” When her friend was able to calm her down and get the story, Mary said she was getting ready to go to a staff meeting earlier that evening and decided to wear her sandals, but found they were soaking wet. None of her other shoes were wet, and there was nothing that could explain how her sandals got soaked.
Mary decided to approach her landlord about the strange occurrences that had been plaguing her. He revealed to her that many years ago a young girl had drowned in the lake behind the house.
“Mary eventually moved right out of the province, putting a great deal of distance between herself and the Bishop’s Falls ghost,” Jarvis states in his book.
In another story, Jarvis tells of an email he received around Christmas one year from a man named Terry.
Terry claimed when he was around 11 or 12 years old, he left his uncle’s house in Grand Falls-Windsor after a visit with his mother, father, and sister, to return to their home in Bishop’s Falls. As they were heading home, they passed an old graveyard.
“I was in the back seat of the car looking out the window,” remembered Terry. “And just below the giant crucifix in the middle of the cemetery I saw a snow-white soldier walking past.”
When Jarvis asked Terry to describe the soldier, he responded that it looked like a First World War era soldier, with the old type helmet and a rifle flung under his arm, just sailing by the crucifix.
“He was all white, that is what caught my attention at night,” Terry told Jarvis. “It made such an impression I’ll never forget it.”
According to the story, Terry’s family didn’t believe him, but to this day, he distinctly remembers that day and seeing the snow white soldier.
“I’ve been with my wife over 23 years, and she can tell you today I swore to her when I first met her I saw a ghost in that cemetery,” Terry said. “You couldn’t pay me enough to look in (there) when she drives past it.”
According to Jarvis, Terry concluded his email wondering if anyone else had ever witnessed the ghost.
“Certainly men from Grand Falls…all served in the Newfoundland Regiment during the first Great War, many of them never retuned home,” said Jarvis. “Is it possible that battle-weary ghost still walks the graveyard in Grand Falls-Windsor?”
Mike Hickey is a horror movie enthusiast and a filmmaker that grew up in Grand Falls-Windsor. One of the local legends he recalls from his childhood was the inspiration for an amateur short film he made last fall through a first-time filmmakers course offered by Newfoundland Independent Filmmaking Cooperative.
“I knew I needed a ghost story, so I used one I grew up with and changed it a little bit,” Hickey told the Advertiser.
The story, Hickey said, surrounded an old mansion on Dunn Place in Grand Falls-Windsor.
“The story goes, there was a family that lived in this house, and there was this little boy. One day, he was siding down the banister in the house playing superhero wearing a towel or a cape wrapped around his neck, while he was sliding down he got caught up and the little boy got hanged,” explained Hickey. “It’s a very sad story, very dark, and the thing is, we all knew the story growing up (and) we always heard the house was haunted because of what happened. It was a very creepy house for us growing up.”
Hickey said he wasn’t comfortable using the story exactly as he remembered it for the 11-minute film, and ended up making a few changes to the storyline, like setting it in St. John’s and involving two children instead of one.
“Growing up as a kid, this was a true story, but as I got older I realized it could have been one of those exaggerated things that never happened,” he said. “But after my mom heard an interview (I did about the film). She called me and said she didn’t know that story was what I had based the film on, and said she remembered it actually happening in (the early 1980s).”
Hickey remembers more tales of other haunted areas in Grand Falls-Windsor, and said as a kid, he and his friends had great fun sharing stories and speculating on what horrors from beyond the grave lurked in the dark corners of the community.
“I’ve always been fascinated with it,” he said.
No matter where you live, from the smallest communities to the biggest cities, you’ll always be able to find scary tales of the spirits many once thought, and some still think, share the spaces you call home. All you have to do is look – but be careful – who knows what you might find!