Halloween a timely reminder of ghost stories in Island’s past

Spooky Halloween is a fun and healthy reminder of our own mortality, says the author of a new book of ghost stories from Vancouver Island.

Shanon Sinn, author of The Haunting of Vancouver Island, said most cultures hold events to remember ancestors who have died, recently and long ago. It can be an occasion to party, like the Mexican Day of the Dead. Or it can be a chance to look back with solemn gratitude, like our own Remembrance Day.

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“So I don’t have a problem with the fun aspect of Halloween,” he said. “But I also think at this time of year it’s a good time to think about those who have gone before us.” Sinn said he approached his book, comprised of 25 other-worldly tales from Vancouver Island, as “a skeptical believer.”

As a creative-writing major at Vancouver Island University and a former loss-prevention officer who compiled arrest reports for major retailers, he has learned to constantly play his own devil’s advocate. Sinn said he approached all the tales he investigated with respect, whether it’s the ghostly appearance on the Victoria Golf Course of Doris Gravlin, said to be killed in 1936 by her estranged husband, or the appearance of a wolf on Discovery Island which some First Nations people have linked to the 2012 death of Songhees Chief Robert Sam.

Sinn said he grew up seeing the periodic appearance of a green mist. He saw it a number of times and came to assume it was his imagination. The last time he saw it was in 2000, when he woke up one night next to his girlfriend. He watched until he realized his girlfriend was becoming agitated and asked what was wrong. “She said, ‘Didn’t you see that green cloud?’ ” said Sinn. “I thought ‘Holy smoke, here I have just been dismissing this whole thing but there is probably more to it.’

“I’ve never seen it after that,” he said. “Part of me likes to believe it was just waiting to be acknowledged as something real.”

Sinn said he has done his best to maintain a cultural respect for the backgrounds of people who tell fascinating stories, such as the Chinese people who created Fan Tan Alley where apparitions are said to appear.

He kept in mind that much of Vancouver Island is still wilderness and the Indigenous Peoples have many amazing stories of shape shifters and wild people of the woods.

But his respect for facts has forced him to conclude many of the ghost stories, mostly from Victoria, are made up tales to enhance tourism at best or feed racist, cultural stereotypes.

One of the worst is the haunting of Robert Johnson, said to re-enact his own suicide by slitting his throat in Pioneer Square.

Sinn said his research revealed Johnson was a leader of a small community of former slaves from the U.S. If anything, his memory should be honoured, not turned into a silly ghost story.

“The whole story is completely bogus,” he said. “It’s actually kind of offensive.”

“He is actually pretty amazing and interesting,” said Sinn. “But now there are tour groups that go by and talk about this really scary person.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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