Walking scared

The Journal visits Fort Henry to learn about

Image by: Tyler Ball

A hanging corpse thrashes violently as the sound of distant screaming echoes across the stone walls. A bearded soldier stands motionless in the midst of a crowd of people, his jacket torn and covered with blood. Another man, holding a lantern and wearing a black cape, guides a group of followers through a heavy wooden door and into a dark room, where he begins to tell a story.

It’s Halloween at Fort Henry, and ghost stories abound.

Haunted Walks Inc., which runs walking tours of haunted spots in downtown Kingston, has been guiding tourists through Fort Henry from May to November since 1995.

This year, during the Halloween season, ghost-seekers at Fort Henry can also visit Fort Fright, a new attraction hosted by the UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring animatronics and live actors.

Jean-Paul Simard, who started working for Haunted Walks Inc. in May, said the stories he and his fellow guides tell are based on extensive research from newspapers and records at City Hall.

“Several people, unfortunately, have met their end at Fort Henry,” he said, adding that, if possible, researchers personally speak with people who have had ghostly experiences.

Simard said most of the ghosts who call Fort Henry home haunt the lower portion of the Fort, where most of the tour takes place.

As his tour began, he introduced the group to Fort Henry’s “Wandering Ghost,” who allegedly has a grey beard and sports a blue bombardier’s uniform.

“Our own haunted walk tour guides, many of them have seen this ghost,” Simard claimed. Another popular story features a ghost named Nils Von Schultz, who was a member of the Hunter’s Lodge, an American group that believed Canada was ripe for revolution during the 1830s, when the present Fort Henry was built. Along with 200 soldiers, he staged a revolt at the Fort and was defeated by local militia. On December 8, 1838, Von Schultz was hanged at Fort Henry, despite the efforts of his lawyer, Sir John A. MacDonald.

Simard, who has lived in Kingston his whole life, said he’s had a few strange experiences himself at Fort Henry, but nothing to scare him off the job.

“I saw a shadowy figure in the corner of the Fort one evening and didn’t really think much of it—thought it might have been a person, but didn’t see where it went. It disappeared,” he said. “The security guard saw some strange things that evening, too.”

But he said he does know of some tour guides who quit working for Haunted Walks Inc. because of spooky experiences at the Fort.

“I’ve seen some strange things, but I can tell you, we have had tour guides that have done these tours up here and have quit over their experiences and have never come back to work,” he said. “So it’s definitely one of Kingston’s haunted spots.”

Simard said although he hasn’t been spooked enough to quit his job, he does believe in ghosts, and has since he was a little kid.

“The neighbourhood where we do the downtown walks, which is the old Sydenham Ward, is actually the neighbourhood I grew up in,” he said. “There’s houses in that neighbourhood that I always figured were haunted, and now years later I’ve come to find that they’re some of Kingston’s more haunted spots.”

Most of the people who go on the haunted walks believe in the supernatural to some degree, he said, adding that he hasn’t had any big problems with skeptics.

“If people are going to come on a tour of this kind, they’re probably believers or they’re interested at least in the history,” he said, adding that it’s always easier to tell stories to people who believe in ghosts.

“As you’re telling the stories, you’ll see … recognition or changes on their face as you’re telling them,” he said.

But the animatronics displays and spooky sounds coming from the Fort Fright attraction—which opened on October 10 this year and runs until November 15—make things a little difficult for haunted walk tour guides at the Fort, Simard said.

“The tours I did in the summer … the Fort was completely abandoned, for instance, so it was only our groups that were going through. And so yeah, it is a bit spookier, and you figure if something is going to happen, [it’s] more likely with a quiet Fort.”

Bryan Mercer, Fort Henry’s supervisor of marketing, said co-operation between the Ghosts of the Fort tour and Fort Fright this year has been positive.

“In terms of what they do and what we’re doing, at first glance it doesn’t seem very compatible,” he said. “We have a self-guided walkthrough and they have a very low-key tour with ghost stories. We managed to develop a partnership where they take their groups through the attraction, then they break off into quiet rooms and still tell their stories and run their program.”

Mercer said the idea for Fort Fright started with Fort Henry Manager John Robertson’s arrival more than 20 years ago.

“We’ve got a natural set for an attraction like this, but the issue all along was that we didn’t have the budget to do it,” he said.

This year, the Fort received a $260,000 grant from the provincial government, allowing it to purchase props and animatronics, Mercer said, adding that local businesses contributed the rest of the funds. The total cost of the project was about $350,000.

“Fort Henry’s investment from its own budget is zero,” he said. “We’ve been able to grow to the tourism season another six weeks for the Fort and the Kingston community.”

Mercer said the Fort projected 6,000 visitors over the six-week period, but 13,000 have already visited the attraction. The estimate has been revised to 20,000 people, he said.

“A lot of people have been coming back two or three times,” he said.

Mercer said a couple of experts from Toronto helped set up the animatronics, including Jeff Skochko, who did special effects work on American Psycho II, The Hulk and Saw V.

He said the Fort will be looking to expand the project in future years.

“We are fully confident it will become an annual event. We’re looking to augment our budget so we can add something new.”

According to studies conducted in the United States, Mercer said, the amount of retail spending at Halloween is second to only the Christmas season. He said Fort Fright is filling a void in the Halloween market.

“There’s nothing like this on this scale in Ontario. The market’s just begging for an attraction in that business sector; we call it dark tourism. This is going to keep growing and growing and be a really big thing.”

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