By Joanna Evans and Lisa Pridmore
The Ryerson Theatre School is haunted! Students in the building have been spooked by the testimonials and rumours of ghostly sightings and an unearthly presence in some classrooms.
“When you’re in there all by yourself, you feel like you’re being watched,” says dance student Julie Mytka. In her second year, Mytka was practicing alone in the third-floor Jack McAllister studio when she felt a presence. “I had to leave. I went to another room to work.”
Mytka later heard stories from other students that the studio was haunted.
The strange tale of the school begins back in 1886, when the Ontario College of Pharmacy opened its doors. Throughout its 77-year history as a college of pharmacy, it is rumoured that the students had a cold storage room where the cadavers were kept for the purpose of study. The building plans show the “cold storage” area in question — on the ground level at the rear of the building — with the added feature of a hoist, possibly used for hauling specimens up to the third-floor chemical laboratory.
In 1953, the school became the University of Toronto’s faculty of pharmacy. Ten years later the faculty relocated to new quarters on Huron street, and Ryerson administration offices moved to the tower, leaving the building on 44 Gerrard St. E. to theatre and journalism students.
Eight years later, journalism moved out and theatre expanded to take sole possession of the aging three-storey building.
In 1990, The Ryersonian reported that a security guard refused to go inside after she heard a piano playing in the empty building one night. She also reported smelling formaldehyde, adding fuel to the morgue myth.
Dispelling the myth seems highly unlikely, especially since professors such as Don MacQuarrie continue to relay the stories to students.
“Theatre students are usually old buildings where energies get left around,” he says. “It doesn’t surprise me that this place is alive.”
The studio is a big open space on the third floor of the building — the pharmacy students’ former oral examination room. It has cathedral ceilings, a full wall of windows and an attic above — where the ghost is said to reside.
MacQuarrie, who used to teach acting classes in the McAllister Studio, had his first experience with the supernatural there in the mid-1980s. He says he always stood in the same corner to teach hiss class. But one day, he felt a sudden chill run through his body in that corner.
“I began to see a field of energy around the students,” MacQuarrie says.
His first thought was that he was overtired or overworked.
He suddenly realized there was a presence moving around the students.
“It was a rough and fuzzy human form,” he says. “It was essentially light that had the proportions of a genderless human.”
MacQuarrie’s friend from university had recently died.
“I immediately saw it as my friend,” he says. “I think we project our feelings and interpret supernatural experience from a personal point of view.”
The students also felt a presence in the studio that day. They all felt it leave and went looking for it.
Their search led them to the attic.
The entrance to the attic — a 4-foot by 4-foot hatch in the ceiling — was open. One student climbed the ladder and said he felt a chill.
“I’ve always wanted to get a psychic to have a séance,” MacQuarrie says, “but I am a tenured professor, and that would not be acceptable faculty behaviour.”
But not everyone believes MacQuarrie’s account.
“I’m convinced he did a lot of acid in the ‘60s,” jokes theatre student Brad Rowe.
Disbeliever Charlie Deguara, a custodian who used to clean the theatre building, doesn’t buy into MacQuarrie’s tale of hauntings.
“The stairs creek and the radiators rattle, maybe that is why people think it is scary,” he says. “[But] I worked there for thirteen years, sometimes until two in the morning. I never saw anything unusual.”
But MacQuarrie has a theory that explains his skepticism — he thinks theatre people are more likely to experience the supernatural than ordinary people.