Thirty-nine people, mostly tourists, are standing in the pouring rain in an empty parking lot between Long’s Hill and Queen’s Road just after 10 o’clock on a Thursday night. They hang on every word of their guide, Professor Jonathan Ignatius Wilkinson, who is telling the story of a very haunted house that once stood on the very spot. When the Professor hits a ghoulish high note on “death,” one of the old mercury vapour lights over his head, on the back-side of the pharmacy next door, comes on full blast. A few spooky beats later another light comes on. Both flicker for a moment before going back out as the Professor tells of the final tenant of the house who moved out the morning after waking up with deep scratches down the length of his back. The Professor—who may not be professor at all—must have some sort of spooky lighting remote control in his pocket. Maybe the wiring is on the fritz? Surely nothing paranormally untoward is going on. There’s no such thing as ghosts after all. Right?
The hour-and-a quarter tour winds down on the church steps and, between the weather, the mood lighting, and the grim stories, leaves the thirty-nine with an indelible impression of the city’s age and history. The next morning, even for the skeptical local, the city looks different in the daylight having gone on the Haunted Hike.
The brainchild of local folklorist and storyteller Dale Jarvis, aka The Reverend Thomas Wyckham Jarvis, Esq., the St. John’s Haunted Hike, scares the bejesus out of visitors every night of the week throughout the summer, either tromping through downtown alleyways and abandoned grave sites-turned-parking lots (Sunday to Thursday), or in the Queen’s Battery on Signal Hill (Friday and Saturday).
Jarvis began the hikes as an enterprising folklore grad student looking to earn some extra money. That was 15 years ago.
“I never thought the hike would become the the kind of tourist institution it has become,” he says.
Jarvis insists that 15 years worth of ghost stories, collected from archives and interviews, have never given him nightmares. Though he cannot say the same for the innocent hikers.
“Some of them I’ve told for 15 years, so for me they’re just like old friends,” he says. Old, headless, hell-bent on revenge friends. “They’re not frightening at all, but there are always new people on the hike who haven’t heard them before.”
The Hike has garnered Jarvis the reputation as The Ghost Guy, which leads to frequent requests for ghost busting assistance.
“People think that I’m a paranormal investigator, and I’m not. I’m a folklorist and a storyteller,” says Jarvis. “I’m not overly keen on going out with my electromagnetic field detector and hunting ghosts.”
How to tell a ghost story
1. Don’t be gross. “A good ghost story is one that makes good use of suspense,” says Jarvis, “which is creepy without being overly gory.”
2. Explore the supernatural. Jarvis explains that in a good ghost story “there is always that supernatural element, the element of the unexplained” which taps into a universal curiosity. “We all have questions about life after death and things like that.”
3. Know the genre. Ghost stories, Newfoundland ones at least, according to Jarvis, tend to fall into one of two catagories: the someone-died-here-and-their-ghost-hung-around type, and long-distance hauntings known as tokens (e.g. a clock stopping the moment someone away at sea died, etc.)
4. Hone your storytelling skills. “There is a certain amount of crafting that goes into telling a story,” says Jarvis. A good ghost story is more like a novel than the story of how your day went. “I take stories and of polish them and add more descriptive language than you would normally have in a conversational story.”