The University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper Since 1880

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

The haunting of U of T

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

While it’s true enough that U of T has its share of creepy-looking quads, and hundred-year-old hallways that seem all-too-fit for ghostly hangouts, which ones are actually haunted?

With its long and rich history, U of T has amassed many legends that escape logical explanation. With the help of volunteers from an organization called PSICAN (Paranormal Studies and Investigations Canada), The Varsity embarked on an investigation of one of U of T’s most haunted buildings.

The most famous story in U of T’s spectral lore is the infamous tale of Ivan Reznikoff and Paul Diabolos, two stonemasons who helped build University College. In the 1850s, when the building was under construction, Diabolos had an affair with Reznikoff’s fiancée, and after a chase that resulted in that famous axe-mark in the heavy door just east of Croft Chapter House (still visible today), Diabolos stabbed Reznikoff to death and disposed of his body beneath an unfinished stairwell. After the St. Valentine’s Day fire of 1890, cleanup crews allegedly found a human skeleton underneath the same stairway. But a proper burial did not remove Reznikoff’s angry spirit from his unhappy residence at UC. Legend has it that his tormented spirit haunts the building to this very day.

Another of U of T’s best-known spooky stories is that of the ghost which haunts Christie Mansion, located at the northeast corner of Wellesley St. and Queen’s Park Circle. As the story goes, Mr. Christie kept a mistress in a hidden room on the top floor of the stately home. The cookie magnate would visit her at his convenience, and ensured that a maid supplied her with food and other necessities. When his visits became increasingly less frequent, the poor concubine became distraught and took her own life, but did not leave the building entirely. The mansion then served as a residence for female students of St. Michael’s College up until this year, and the Sisters of St. Joseph who are the caretakers of the now-empty building were not so keen to comment on the eerie tales of poltergeist activity students have been reporting from the mysterious third floor room for years.

However, the staff at Trinity College were quite co-operative when approached about doing an on-site ghost investigation. Trinity commissionaire John Kim seemed a tad indifferent to the tales of ghostly activity, but admitted that he has had eerie experiences in the building.

“Once, it was summer time and nobody was around, and I thought I saw a dark figure moving, but I don’t pay much attention to ghosts and things. If they are here, at least they have a home somewhere.”

There are several stories centering around Trinity. Haunted steam tunnels, a mysterious presence in the towers, Bishop Strachan’s ghost, which is said to wander the school on or around the anniversary of his death (November 1, watch out!) and several different ghost sightings in the chapel are all the subject of enduring rumours.

According to, a website run by the PSICAN-affiliated Toronto Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society, several witnesses have seen a distraught older woman in the chapel who disappears into the small western side-chapel, which has no exit. Others report seeing a wartime pilot’s apparition in the chapel, and there is also an account from someone playing the organ in the choir loft seeing a strange figure peering up from the front pew below. The chapel definitely seemed like a prime location for a paranormal investigation.

So, if there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, and it’s something weird, that don’t look good, who ya gonna call? Why, trained experts, of course. The members of PSICAN are not the wrinkly oddballs or equipment-laden, EPA-hating fat comedians that movies and TV have taught us to expect of ghost hunters. In fact, they’re pretty normal folks. Penny Dobson, an outgoing Hamiltonian who grew up in a haunted house and studies social work at Sheridan College as a mature student, led the team that investigated Trinity’s ghosts. Chris Laursen, another member of the PSICAN team, is an articulate writer and historian who is fairly new to the organization and took part in his first on-site investigation with us at Trinity. The third PSICAN member was Scott A. Smith, who handled the technical equipment, and who said he became involved with PSICAN because of unspecified “personal experiences.”

As Chris explained by email, this investigation was an unusual one for the group. Generally, their investigations tend to centre on private homes, where the occupants approach PSICAN, not the other way around. Also, it is rare for PSICAN to investigate public buildings, because generally ghosts are not something public companies benefit from advertising. Unlike some groups offering paranormal investigation services, PSICAN is composed of volunteers who treat the subject matter seriously and with respect. They have a healthy dose of scepticism, and try to rule out natural explanations first, before coming to other, spookier, conclusions.

On PSICAN founder Sue Darroch’s recommendation, the team decided to “go on-site ‘cold'” Chris writes, “with no expectations other than to explore, observe and take note of what happens in the course of the investigation.” So, after receiving permission from the Trinity College Bursar and Chaplain, we set the investigation for the night of Saturday, October 14.

The autumn wind whips at our faces as we make our way to Trinity at 8 p.m. to meet the ghost-investigators. They have already arrived at the Chapel and are roaming around the space, getting a feel for it and deciding where to set up their equipment. Scott has brought along still and video cameras, an analog audio recorder, a thermometer and humidity reader, and a compass in order to pick up any tell-tale changes in electromagnetic fields. The practice of measuring EMFs by ghost investigators is controversial, and was potentially encouraged by 80s horror movies. Scott points out that something as simple as electrical wiring in walls can affect EMF meters and compasses. “I’m not convinced that any of these things actually work,” Scott explains, “but when you don’t know what it is that you’re looking for, you’ve got to go for every possible chance.”

Being inside the chapel at night and with this small, quiet group of people is a little eerie in itself, but over the course of the evening nothing happens to convince us that the place is haunted. Penny manages to capture a digital photo that includes an orb-some say orbs in photos are actually spirits, though most are quick to argue that they’re just tricks played by dust motes and light. “If I was a spirit I wouldn’t want to be floating around in a bubble all the time,” Scott quips.

The group decides to conduct an audio experiment. We’ll stand near the tape recorder and ask any beings present a series of questions in hopes of capturing unaccountable noises or speech that are known to ghost-hunters as Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP. The hope is that we’ll ask questions and potentially get some answers on the tape, even if we can’t hear anything while it’s being recorded. Chris and Penny introduce themselves to whatever might be in the cavernous room and respectfully ask a line of questions to any spirits in earshot. “Do you reside in the chapel? Does it have special significance for you? Do you ever leave the chapel? Are you Anglican?” Chris asks, pausing between each query. The scratching of my pen and the occasional gust of wind outside are the only sounds. Unfortunately, when Scott reviews the tapes later, he’ll find the only sounds recorded are ones we created.

After three hours of wandering, listening, and chatting in hushed voices, we decide to call it a night. Scott jokes, “If people are really afraid of ghosts, we’re the safest people to be around, because we never see any!” Though I hadn’t realistically expected to come face to face with a phantom, I suppose I had nevertheless hoped that something creepy would occur. Instead, it was like an unsuccessful fishing trip-either there were no fish, or they didn’t like the bait. I ask the investigators how they continue their search despite the frustrating lack of tangible results.

“Investigators rarely experience such phenomena, but when they do, I think it makes it all worthwhile,” Chris says. “It’s sort of like continuing to buy lottery tickets because you just might win the jackpot.”