It’s a Tuesday evening in late September, and I’m standing in the dim light of Victoria’s Old Burying Ground (Pioneer Square). The nearby oak trees and the city’s iconic lampposts cast long shadows. A chill is beginning to creep in through my shoes. “We know 1,300 people are buried here,” says our guide Kirby. “We know their names, we just don’t know where exactly they are beneath our feet.” My forearms prickle. On cue, the bells of Christ Church Cathedral sound.
We’re here to take part in Victoria’s popular Ghostly Walks. The 90-minute guided tours operate year-round and four times nightly in the lead-up to Halloween, when skittering autumn leaves and bleating foghorns ramp up the ambience.
Ghost tours are emblematic of what Victoria does so well in the haunting season: it plays gleeful host to Halloween festivities that celebrate the city’s colourful (and often chilling) past.
Ghostly Walks follow eight unique routes in the downtown core, taking in historic locations like the Inner Harbour, Market Square and Chinatown. An additional Halloween route launches in mid-October. All walks explore the region’s share of dramatic events—murders, untimely deaths and unexplained phenomena of all sorts—that have helped to solidify the capital’s reputation as the most haunted city in BC.
Helmcken Alley is one of several haunted stops on the Ghost Walks itinerary. Photo courtesy Tourism Victoria
On this night, our two guides unravel clever tales, both comic and macabre. Whether you believe in ghosts is beside the point; legends and whispers make for entertaining storytelling. We file into the Royal Theatre’s deserted garden where we are told the playhouse is so spooky, janitors there refuse to work alone. We learn the Fairmont Empress Hotel is among local landmarks with its own brand of resident ghost, this one in the form of an elderly woman in fuzzy slippers who haunts the sixth floor. We discover just how pervasive ghosts are in this city.
Victoria’s fascination with the paranormal stretches way back. Those who know will tell you that the long history of human habitation in this part of the Pacific Northwest ensures there is plenty of material to draw on. Victoria’s atmospheric assets—alleys, castles and cobblestones—make it a credible venue for supernatural storytelling.
Ghostly Walks guide Brynne Croy tells me the city’s bedrock, mountains and marine waters make it difficult for trapped “energy” to dissipate. “At Halloween, it all comes bubbling to the surface.”
Another highlight on Victoria’s Halloween roster is Gruesome Tales of Bastion Square. More history tour than ghost tour, the guided walk features grisly true stories centred in Bastion Square—the former site of Fort Victoria and the colonial jailhouse and gallows. In the 1860s and early 1870s, the jailyard was the scene of at least 11 public hangings. An unknown number of bodies (including those of murderers whose remains went unclaimed) were buried beneath the yard and never removed. It’s little wonder the square is among Victoria’s most haunted spaces.
Victoria’s resident keeper of ghost stories, author and historian John Adams leads Ghost Bus Tours. Photo courtesy Tourism Victoria
Those who prefer to size up ghosts from the comfort of a vehicle opt for Victoria’s annual Ghost Bus Tours. The two-hour charter coach excursions take creepy yarns beyond the downtown core, with stops en route for real-time ghost tracking.
“Expect classic tales from our ghost-hunting files, along with our newest stories and spooky locations,” says John Adams.
If the city has a keeper of ghost stories, it is Adams. Since 1970, the local author and historian has guided haunted walks. He leads the bus tours that are a fundraiser for the Old Cemeteries Society of Victoria.
While this year’s route is a closely guarded secret, Adams confirms a stop at the Victoria Golf Club is on the itinerary. The seaside course straddles scenic Beach Drive and slopes down to rocky outcroppings. Spectacular by day, it’s a desolate stretch of road after dark. Intrepid visitors are told to watch for Doris Gravlin, a young nurse found strangled to death here in 1936. For years, locals have reported an apparition in white near the seventh fairway, close to the beach where her body was discovered.
Visitors can make the most of the spectral season with Victoria Halloween packages from BC Ferries Vacations, including round-trip ferry, accommodation and spooky extras.
For package details visit: https://www.bcferriesvacations.com/promotions/victoria-and-vancouver-halloween-packages
For complete ghost tour details visit: http://www.tourismvictoria.com/events/halloween/events/
More spooky stuff to do in Victoria
Come October, Victoria revels in Halloween spirit. And it’s not only ghost tours that set the mood. From ghoulish decorations to festive events, the city proves it’s the spookiest place to be.
Don’t miss the Annual Victoria Zombie Walk. The hugely popular and downright gory event sees pint-sized zombies and the adult undead shuffle from Centennial Square to the B.C. Legislature. Head to leafy Oak Bay for Pumpkin Art on the Avenue, an impressive display of hundreds of jack-o-lanterns featuring carved likenesses of cartoon characters, politicians and celebrities. Taking carving up a salty notch, join local scuba divers as they shimmy into wetsuits and submerge for the 14th Annual Underwater Pumpkin Carving event at Saxe Point. Challenge your wayfinding skills—and your nerves—at the Vancouver Island Corn Maze at Pendray Farms. The massive, family-friendly maze features more than 10 kilometres of trails. Uncover the truth about the Crimson family in Victoria’s Horror Escape by working together to find clues and solve puzzles to unlock multiple rooms in 45 minutes. If you prefer your horror with a chuckle, check out Arkenham Abbey: Psychological Horror Comedy at Craigdarroch Castle. The Victorian-era mansion and museum is the backdrop for mayhem at a sanatorium for the “unethically psychotic.” Events at this stately (and spooky) haunt are always entertaining.
For event details visit: http://www.tourismvictoria.com/events/halloween/events/
– Sarah Pollard is a writer and communications strategist based in Victoria, BC.