The truth and misconceptions behind The Toronto & Ontario Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society.
Halloween is not a good time of year for Matthew Didier—ironic, considering he’s the founder of The Toronto & Ontario Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society.
Leading up to October 31, we’re inundated with plastic skeletons, vague spectres clothed in bed sheets and moustachioed Faustian demons—and, not coincidentally, this is also the time of year when interest in Didier’s intensely agnostic research society peaks. Their website can receive up to 10,000 hits per day in October as many of us become temporarily obsessed with ghouls and things that go bump in the night.
Typically, this means that inquiries about joining the society grow exponentially around this time of year. (“Welcome to October,” Didier says. “No one loves us in February.”) But for the same reasons that animal shelters don’t let you impulsively adopt a puppy in December to give as a Christmas gift, Didier and the society shut down their application process between September 15 and November 15. Naturally, Didier can’t fault people for their fleeting interest in the society he founded in 1997, but we’re not talking about a bunch of guys tip-toeing around an abandoned mansion on a hill with night vision goggles, collecting ectoplasm—one of the many misconceptions that, so to speak, haunt them and their work. Popular imagination might suggest otherwise, but the society’s research techniques and practices—spearheaded by academics and involving everything from historical documentation to folklore and true-blue skepticism—are far more incredulous.
But this all started because of ghosts, no?
“I am—take your pick on how you’d like to say this—a witness,” says Didier. “When I was a teenager in Leaside, I experienced what I would now call mild poltergeist activity. We had stuff coming off shelves and doors opening and closing. I was not satisfied saying, ‘It’s a dead guy.’
“That started me on a path of reading and talking to people. Because of this—and eventually being invited to places and having other experiences that just added to it—I had to explain this sort of thing. I wish I could say, ‘Absolutely—that was a ghost.’ I don’t know. I really don’t. If it was, I’d be thrilled because I’d have an answer.”
Contrary to what TV shows and movies would have us believe, they definitely aren’t running around haunted houses with proton packs.
“It’s a case-by-case basis,” says Didier of their research techniques. “Ninety per cent of what we get starts with the words ‘when I was a kid….’ On those rare occasions where it is ethical to continue, what we’ll do is ask for any kind of patterns and visual clues—anything that might tip us off to the possibility that there could be a history. If you find a house over 80 years old where someone hasn’t died or experienced a tragedy, that’s impressive and rare. You do need to say, ‘What else is this going to be?’ So you eliminate the natural [explanations]—someone says they feel a cold draft but have no reason to experience it, then [we] look around for HVAC vents, windows or air currents.
“[After] we’ve eliminated the potential for the natural, we then have to go through other patterns. The other part of our group will be wondering if this is PSI—is this person somehow projecting through psychical ability or latent abilities we all have?
“Assuming that there are wraiths and spirits floating about, it would be nice if they could become translucent or put on sheets, but they tend to be very subtle. At homes, pubs or theatres—where you’ll have people from the late morning on—you do get a lot of daytime sightings.”
Where rational thought meets folklore
Historical cases like the Fort Erie soldier ghosts—with one apparition spotted missing a head and another missing his hands, followed by the grave discovery of headless and handless skeletons—present a unique question for Didier when approaching an investigation: is it folklore, or not?
“Folklore comes into play when a private resident reports to me a succubus or an old-hag situation. Obviously, they’ve done some studying, and they’ve wandered into the realm of folklore. When you’re looking at an old hag, you have to look at the natural again and wonder if it’s possibly sleep paralysis.
“No one’s right or wrong without empirical evidence. That’s the only thing I hope separates us from anyone else; I want more evidence. That’s what we like to see ourselves as—we’re agnostic. We neither believe nor disbelieve.”
Membership is a tricky business…
Aside from the All Hallows moratorium on applicants, the membership process is rigorous and daunting. It begins with a 100-page online course that emphasizes the society’s agnostic approach. Then there’s the exam you have to pass before submitting two articles for peer evaluation. According to Didier, the process is so selective because he wants people who are dedicated and knowledgeable. As a result, he’s got two Ph.D. graduates and a Ph.D. candidate on-board, and a sound engineer from The Royal Conservatory of Music, among others.
…and then there are the media requests
There’s a reason Didier is selective about doing interviews this time of year. It took some genuine convincing to get him on the phone, and even then his contempt occasionally wormed its way into the conversation.
“Right now, we’ve had five people who’ve come up with the unique and never-thought-of-before idea of doing a doc on hunting ghosts. And all they want us to do is take them to a haunted house.
“I get grumpy with the media because they tend to ask stupid questions. In 1999, a person from a network television news group asked if I would ‘dance to the Ghostbusters theme for the camera.’ I literally told him that I would disembowel him first.
“I’ve also told Fox Television to go to hell. I have a big ego in one sense, in that I wake up in the morning and can’t believe I’m working with people at the University of Edinburgh. I can’t believe I have a marine biologist with phenomenal accreditation helping me out. To be honest, when you have that, it is really difficult to get terribly excited because somebody has a camera in their hand.”
So why go spirit chasing?
“I don’t think I’ll ever have the answer,” says Didier. “I wish I could say exactly what a ghost is. One of the problems I face is that I don’t think there’s going to be an answer. I think there will be many. On top of that, if there is life after death, I probably won’t know for sure until I’m dead.”