By Chelsea Miya
I’m in the costume design room of the Ryerson Theatre School, crouched over a voice recorder with Mike Hainey and John Mizzi, two ghost hunters from Paranormal Studies and Investigations Canada. It’s almost 11 p.m. Other than us, everyone’s gone home for the night. The room is full of huge tables for cutting bolts of fabric, sewing machines and tall stools. Armless, faceless mannequin dummies for fitting costumes are clustered in the shadows, staring blankly in the silent dark.
Then the needle on the recorder starts going haywire.
“Are you picking something up?” Hainey asks.
“I’ll say — it’s bending the needle!” Mizzi says.
My skin starts to prickle.
No building in Ryerson is more steeped in the supernatural than the Theatre School on Gerrard Street.
Second-year acting student Phil Poirier wouldn’t recommend rehearsing by yourself in McAllister Studio on the third floor. He once felt so strongly there was someone else in the room “it was powerful enough to make me leave. I couldn’t focus.”
In the ’80s, a professor and group of students supposedly chased a ghost from that same room to the attic. And then there’s the story of the security guard who quit in 1990 after hearing a piano playing by itself.
Even the security guard who lets us in nods solemnly: “I believe.”
A stone-carved sign over the entrance suggests the reason for the hauntings. It reads: ‘The Ontario College of Pharmacy.’
The building served this function from 1871 until 1963, when it was taken over by Ryerson. Seventy-five-year-old Ernst Stieb studied at the school in 1948, and still remembers how the college used to be.
“The biology lab often had cadavers that you would be working on to advance your knowledge of the human body. There were some people who really found it very difficult,” he recalls. “One time I was sitting with two fellows and two girls across the table. Originally we were working on rabbits, but when they brought in an actual body I can still remember her gradually sliding under the table because she was passing out.”
Stieb says there were rumours of ghosts even then. Graduate students would sometimes swear they’d glimpsed strange figures wandering around the deserted building at night, or hear the sounds of voices coming from the locked attic.
We begin our investigation in the costume design room on the first floor.
In the old days the shelves would’ve been stocked with dusty amber bottles, strange medieval-sounding Latin names scratched on the labels. This room is where students learned the art of brewing and concocting the latest remedies.
John Mizzi, balding and slightly overweight, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm behind his tiny glasses, is the technical whiz. He sets up a homemade periscopic microphone, basically a giant metal salad bowl duct taped to a broomstick handle, that he says can pick up sounds from 400 feet away.
“The trick with this is that the ghosts don’t know we can hear them.”
Mizzi’s a huge believer in the technical and scientific methodology of ghost hunting. He’s collected dozens of recordings from his investigations. Electronic Voice Phenomenon, the captured sounds of ghosts or spirits, is a popular tool among parapsychologists for attempting to contact the dead.
He plays us a recording he took at a campfire with his wife. At first you can hear frogs and crickets in the background, but all of a sudden the noise drops out. On the tape Mizzi tells his friend he fixed the headlights of their car and from the wall of silence, a little girl’s voice very clearly answers “yeah.” Then you hear Mizzi’s wife say that it’s a good thing the lights work, to which a whole group of children seem to reply “wee!”
It’s crystal clear. No crackling or static. What Mizzi calls a “grade A” EVP. That’s what he’s hoping to capture tonight.
These paranormal investigators say ghost hunting isn’t as romantic as Hollywood makes it out to be. They’re sceptics themselves. Careful to question everything they collect and eliminate all other explanations before deciding a case is legitimate. They unwrap a new tape fresh from the package to show me the recordings they do tonight haven’t been tampered with.
“A lot investigation is really boring,” Mizzi says. “You’re sitting there in the dark with a camera falling asleep. You don’t really know you’re catching things. It always happens when you least expect it.”
The last room we visit is rumoured to be the most haunted in the theatre school: the McAllister studio.
The room is surrounded by mirrors, draped in heavy black curtains. Mirrors are commonly used in divination, considered mythical portals to other dimensions. I’d spoken to psychic Lynn Tucker beforehand. She’d investigated the theatre before and said she’d seen things in the mirrors when she took pictures of them in the dark.
It’s a strange, off-balance feeling, looking through a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. Not like the room is spinning, but rocking side to side as if you’re on a boat. Maybe it’s lack of sleep, but the tinkling rasp of the heating vents along with the click-whuuf of the camera flashes, bursting through the darkness at regular intervals, puts me into a weird sort of trance. In the corner of the many layered reflections, I can glimpse the stairwell where the same psychic said she’d heard whispering voices. I suddenly feel like something’s going to crawl up the balcony.
It’s a cold grey morning, two days later. I’m curled up in my favourite squashy armchair, slurping cheap instant coffee and puzzling over the last lines of my story.
The phone rings. It’s Mizzi. I feel a tingling rush as I reach for the receiver, like clammy fingers walking up the back of my spine.
“John? What is it?”
There’s a pause.
“We found something on the tape.”
A young female voice jumps out on the tape, not a crackling rasp that could be mistaken for radio static, but cold and chillingly clear: “Jesus Murphy,” it says.
It’s not my voice.
“We’re awaiting further investigation,” Mizzi says.