There’s a part of me that wants to believe that every kid remembers the one house in their neighbourhood that went all out for Halloween. This was the house that handed out massive candy bars, had themed decorations, and — most importantly — added an interactive component to their Halloween display.

My first encounter with one of these houses happened at the tender age of five. As I unsuspectingly walked up to a house, dressed in my pony princess costume, a man wearing ravaged clothing and revolting makeup jumped out at me from a hiding spot near the bushes. 

It wasn’t even a simple jump scare. The plastic collar around the man’s neck meant that he couldn’t catch me once I was out of reach, but the homeowner did continue to snarl and pretend to tear at his bonds while I bawled my eyes out into my dad’s thick coat.

Though I’m sure I hated it at the time, this memory has become one of my fondest. Just thinking of the imagination that the owners of the house must have put into scaring all those children gives me goosebumps. And although I can’t remember the feeling of that fear anymore, I still remember its echoes: my little heart beating faster, my eyes widening, my palms growing clammy. I’ve been seeking the high of the pure horror I felt that day ever since.

I would never again wear a pony princess costume; from that moment on, the rule was that I always had to be something scary on Halloween. On top of that, I started watching horror movies, reading horror books, and even watching horror ‘Let’s Plays,’ entranced by games like Outlast.

But none of these experiences really provided the same thrill. It’s easier to be nitpicky when you’re far removed from a situation, and so something always ruined the horror for me, whether it was a story’s bad writing, acting, or plot. Although my favourite books still contained elements of horror and I managed to find a select few horror movies with concepts that sparked my imagination like nothing else, none of them pulled me back into the mind and body of that scared-yet-exhilarated five-year-old. 

My desire to pursue that feeling — along with my recent interest in tarot cards and Ouija boards — was the reason I jumped at the chance to attend a séance. Once you’re that deep, you may as well take the plunge and try contacting the dead.

When I stepped into Etobicoke’s Eatonville Farmhouse, I received a black obsidian crystal for protection and was led into the large room where the séance would eventually be held. The whole experience left me mesmerized. I desperately wanted to have some kind of supernatural experience — anything to convince my deep-rooted skepticism that fear of the paranormal could be real. 

To my dismay, not much happened in the first hour of the séance. Our group toured the house and learned that we were attempting to channel the ghost of a boy who had been murdered using one of his favourite toys. I pretended to see shadowy figures in the corners of my eyes — anything to set the scene.

Things finally picked up when the host pulled out a Ouija board. I was absolutely thrilled. This was the same item I’d spent weeks looking at on the internet. Immediately, I volunteered to be one of the people who got to use it.

Me and two other group members were instructed to place two fingers each on the planchette and to wait and see whether it would move. Right off the bat, my hand jerked and the planchette was sent flying. The crowd gasped, and when they asked if any of us were responsible, I stayed quiet, wanting everyone to buy into the performance.

What happened when we started using the board again is hard to describe. There were no more dramatic movements, but the planchette was consistently in motion. My theory is that all three of us were moving just a little — enough so that if one of us stopped, the other two would compensate. Humans like to put on a bit of a show, even if they don’t think that’s what they’re doing. 

Though the Ouija board didn’t do much in regard to concrete plot development, it did catalyze several other events that led us back to the séance room, sitting in a circle with a rope strung between us in order to mimic a traditional séance not held during a pandemic, where members would hold hands. 

As the resident pot stirrer, just as the host was calling out to whatever supernatural entities would listen, I had to mention to the group that my wrist was starting to ache. 

Was my wrist actually aching? I’m not sure. Even if it was, it would’ve surely been something I would dismiss in any other setting. As it was, I was at a séance. My logic went like this: if I pretended to be in on the joke of ghost summonings for long enough, I would reach the point where I would slide out of humour and fall straight into terror. 

Sure enough, I finally got what I wanted. My declaration ramped up the tension in the room and other participants began to make their own observations about which signs of paranormal activity were present in the room. Finally, we started to hear noises: the faint ringing of a bell, the haunting melody of a toy carousel, and the heavy breathing of a grown man. At one point there was even a jump scare: a loud bang came from a bowl of rocks on the table closest to me. Since it was too dark to see, no one knew what had happened.

There, in that dim light with a group full of people around me, I finally found fear. For a brief moment — no more than a few minutes at the very end of the performance — the discomfort I felt when my loss of vision coalesced with the creeping feeling from the heavy breathing that I heard coming from right behind me. I was genuinely afraid, in a way that I hadn’t been since I was five years old. 

I remember it as both a smooth transition and a sudden realization. On the one hand, I had the physical reaction I was looking for: racing heart, jerky movements, clammy hands. I kept looking over to my right, where the entrance to another room was bathed in the red light of the exit sign. On the other hand, it took my brain a moment to catch up, to realise, “Oh, I’m actually afraid.”

It didn’t feel exactly the same as before; fear, like any emotion, is bound to change as we get older. But I still loved it. I was aware of every part of myself, and I was as tense as a wind-up toy. I was getting ready to act — to protect myself at all costs.

I’ve since spent time mapping out how the organizers could have staged all this. I’ve thought about recordings, mechanical triggers, and bluetooth light systems. Ultimately, none of that matters, though, because the emotional distance afforded to me hours after the fact was unattainable in the moment. My suspension of disbelief was so thorough that it was impossible to be rational about the situation.

For me, fear consists of two elements: a sense of danger and a loss of control. That’s why it’s always been particularly difficult to simulate. Fictional works, no matter how immersive, are unlikely to make me feel like I’m in danger. Plus, by this point, control is basically a fixture of my personality. When these elements of fear are absent, there are no stakes to the situation and, consequently, no reason to buy into my fear.

But the Eatonville Farmhouse séance reassured me that my penchant for control can be used against me in the best of ways. The performance took my willingness to cooperate along with my love of narrative and drama, and returned them back to me in full force. It felt rewarding — cathartic even — to finally feel scared. My attempts to make the séance exciting had paid off.

I’m already thinking about attending more immersive horror experiences. I want to enter into that space again, where my reality can be refracted as if I were in a broken mirror and my interpretations are twisted to create an environment that feels dangerous even if I know that it’s not. And when I participate in the performance, it creates enough tension to turn that space into a real-life version of the narrative arcs I have always loved so much — making the release all the more memorable.