Autumn 2008 / Feature
School Spirits

Tales of the supernatural abound at U of T


“There will be a couple of murders on this walk,” Richard Fiennes-Clinton tells the people gathering on a June evening for a tour of U of T’s haunted buildings. “Well, a couple of murder stories,” the ghost stalker clarifies with a grin.

As the small group assembles outside the Royal Ontario Museum, Fiennes-Clinton – who offers Toronto walking excursions through his company, Muddy York Tours – tells the tale of Celeste, a 19th-century girl who play fully haunts the planetarium. Turning onto Hoskin Avenue, the group hears about John Strachan, the founder of Trinity College who died on November 1, 1867, and is said to appear to students who stay out too late on All Hallows Eve. Then there’s the stone face in Hart House that some say dripped water – or is it cried? – out of one eye a couple of years ago.

It seems that the St. George campus, with its history of colourful characters and eerie Gothic buildings, is a natural dwelling for the supernatural. Add in the large number of people who wander the grounds late at night and a handful of mysterious deaths over the years, and it’s not surprising there have been so many spooky sightings. U of T English professor Marlene Goldman is writing a book titled The Politics and Poetics of Hauntings in Canadian Fiction, which explores the meaning of ghost stories. She says ghost tales are repeated through the generations because “we just love to be frightened.”

“We’re happy to think that there is a mysterious aspect to human experience and to the world,” she says. “We’ve been to the moon and we’ve been close to the bottom of the sea, but we still have the sense that we really haven’t mastered it all. Ghosts are uncanny reminders of our limitations.”

Goldman also says that our habit of telling and retelling ghost stories may be an attempt to cleanse ourselves of past misdeeds. “Very often, I think ghosts are tied to our most egregious behaviour: the ghosts of the Holocaust, or the ghosts of the Japanese internment, or the ghosts of the native peoples who were wiped out by illnesses, such as smallpox. We have a kind of collective historical memory whether we want to admit it or not. So the artists and writers in our society do us the favour of conjuring ghosts so that we can work this injustice through. There’s something socially beneficial, maybe even therapeutic, about ghost stories.”

Socially beneficial? Therapeutic? Or just plain scary? You be the judge. But don’t blame us if these creepy tales keep you awake tonight.

Image Duelling Stonemasons 

Russian stonemason, Ivan Reznikoff worked on University College, the crown jewel of U of T’s collegiate Gothic architecture, during its construction in the mid-19th century. By his own admission, Reznikoff was not a clever man, but he did enjoy his work. And he was betrothed to a woman named Susan, whom he loved madly.

However, Reznikoff ’s happy existence came to a brutal end late one night in 1856.

He had failed to notice a cruel joke that the project foreman, Paul Diablos, was slowly playing on him, right under his very eyes. Diablos had spent weeks carving a pair of stone gargoyles. One morning, while Reznikoff was admiring Diablos’ handiwork, the foreman asked Reznikoff if he recognized one of the grotesques. Reznikoff was aghast: one of the gargoyles was him. Diablos had carved his face into a hideous stone mask.

Reznikoff swore he’d get his revenge. In the middle of the night, he returned to the gargoyles (which you can still see today by the southwest corner of UC) and began to carve Diablos’ visage into the other one.

Then, Reznikoff suddenly disappeared without a trace. He simply vanished, and the foreman replaced him with another stonemason.

History might have forgotten Reznikoff had student journalist Louis Sokolov not resurrected the tale of the murdered stonemason in a Halloween edition of The Newspaper more than two decades ago. According to Sokolov, Reznikoff reappeared on a chilly, foggy evening in 1889.

That night, a student was walking across campus when he encountered a tall man clad in black, with lank hair spilling out from under a pointed witchlike hat. The stranger told the student he had a story to tell. The night was cold so they decided to talk in the student’s residence room. There, the two finished a bottle of rum, while the ghost of Reznikoff recounted how he had died so long ago.

“One night I stayed late, working feverishly to finish the gargoyle,” he began. “I heard a girl’s laugh then Diablos’ voice saying, ‘See the dull-witted Russian.’ I crouched on the scaffolding and looked down. There, below me, stood Susan embracing the wily Greek, Diablos. Rage gripped me, but I could do nothing.”

“The next morning, steeled by alcohol, I attacked Diablos with a double-bladed mason’s axe. My first blow missed. My axe stuck in a wooden door. Diablos slipped through the door, but I pursued him. He ran up the stairs and hid near an uncompleted ventilation shaft. I did not see him until it was too late. His knife plunged into my side. He then hid my body in the shaft and said nothing about it.”

In the morning, the student awoke with a hangover and an empty liquor bottle in his room. His mysterious drinking buddy had vanished.

Two years later, much of University College burned in the Great Fire, but the door with the axe-wound in it can still be seen in UC’s southwest corner. And workers digging through the rubble discovered something strange: inside a ventilation shaft a skeleton wearing a belt with a buckle stamped with the stonemason’s emblem.

The Prisoner of Christie Manor 

The building at the northeast corner of Wellesley Street and Queen’s Park Circle is a holy place: the Sisters of St. Joseph lived there for many years and in 2009 it will become the home of Regis College, the Jesuit Graduate Faculty of Theology. But back when Scottish baker William Mellis Christie (who founded the cookie company known today as Mr. Christie) owned the manor, the building was to hold a terrible secret.

Legend has it that when William Christie passed away in 1900, his son, Robert Christie, moved back to the family home with his wife and concocted an evil plan. Robert is said to have trapped a woman in a secret, windowless room at the heart of the manor. Only Robert and a butler had any idea of the woman’s imprisonment.

Seasons passed in which the captive woman’s only human contact was with the butler, who periodically dropped off supplies. The woman eventually went mad from the solitude, and hanged herself with a bed sheet. The butler is said to have buried her corpse in neighbouring Queen’s Park under the cover of darkness.

According to the tale, Robert’s guilt over the suicide ate away at him, and he began to lose the fortune his father had accrued. Soon, he could no longer afford the mansion and sold it to U of T.

The unfortunate female students of the Sisters of St. Joseph continued to pay the price for Robert’s purported misdeeds. After the concealed room was discovered and then converted to a study, a woman entering the room alone late at night would find that the door suddenly swung shut behind her, trapping her inside. No amount of force could pry the door open, so the woman would have to pound on the heavy door until someone heard her. Then, her rescuer would effortlessly open the door from the other side. If no one heard the woman’s plea for help, she would be forced to spend the night alone and terrified in the former prison cell.

Some say the room contains a foreboding presence. Perhaps it’s the ghost of the prisoner forcing other women to endure the same hopeless misery and loneliness she felt when she was trapped inside. Others believe that the lingering spirit is Robert, and that his malevolent soul continues to do harm even beyond the grave.

The Master Returns

Some ghosts write their own stories. Robertson Davies, the first master of Massey College, is perhaps one such poltergeist. Davies died in 1995, but he may be helping keep alive a tradition he started 45 years ago.

As Massey’s master, Davies was in the perfect position to institute customs for future generations. For the 18 years he presided over Massey, Davies captivated the crowd at the annual Christmas party (known as Gaudy Night) with humorous and spectral stories of his own invention. He usually set these tongue-in cheek tales in Massey College and played with the conventions of the ghost genre. The story that began it all, “Revelation from a Smoky Fire,” involved a master from 100 years in the future visiting Davies himself. The rather pale traveller from 2063 didn’t know who Davies was!

Davies began this tale with a brief preamble aimed at the skeptics in his audience. “I am a more than ordinarily fanciful person, I am extremely nervous, and I don’t find anything intrinsically improbable in the notion of a ghost,” Davies said.“But I can assure you I found [what I am about to tell you] a disquieting experience.”

Davies might not have convinced the doubters, but listeners found the experience of Davies’ storytelling so enjoyable that he kept spinning a new yarn every year. After his retirement in 1981, Davies published the tales in a collection called High Spirits. He also told his fellow faculty members that, given his druthers, he’d haunt Massey College himself one day.

Davies may have gotten his wish. A guest still reads one of his ghost stories every Christmas, and rumours of the supernatural swirl through the college all year long. Students past and present whisper of inexplicable phenomena within Massey’s walls – phenomena that began the day that Davies did (or didn’t) leave us. Kari Maaren, president of the Massey College Alumni Association, says she has heard about many strange occurrences – wraithlike figures that, when you look at them too closely, disappear into thin air; objects that mysteriously move or show up in unlikely locations; thuds and crashes coming from empty rooms; and an impossible shadow in the 2005–06 class photo that looks just like a man. It seems Robertson Davies lives on at U of T – in one form or another.

Joe Howell is a fourth-year English student and the editor-in-chief of The Strand, Victoria College’s student newspaper. He grew up next to a graveyard.


Tales from Grads

We asked alumni to share tales of spooky encounters they had while attending U of T. You can send us your own tale of a haunted campus by email to uoft.magazine@utoronto.ca, and we’ll add it here!

An Electrifying Presence 

I was a first-year engineering student, my lab partner and I were working on an electronics assignment in one of the old labs in the Wahlberg Building. We were having some trouble with a circuit we’d been asked to build and analyze, and we were scratching our heads over what should have been a very simple problem to fix. Eventually, we noticed a man watching us.

He wasn’t the course professor, and he wasn’t one of the lab technicians or tutors. He asked us what was wrong, and we told him we didn’t know. We had built the circuit exactly as described, but it was not behaving as expected.

The mysterious man told us to double-check our wires because they sometimes break. We took his advice and soon found that, indeed, there was a broken wire. We replaced it and completed the assignment.

We turned to thank him, but he was no longer there. Surprised, we asked the other people in the lab where the man had gone. No one else could remember seeing anyone who matched his description. Neither of us saw this man again during our time at the university.

Maybe he was an older professor who had retired or moved on. Or perhaps he was Emil Wahlberg himself, helping out a couple of frosh in the building that had been named after him so long ago. (Insert spooky music here.)

Leo Comitale
BASc 1997

The Ghost in the Cellar 

Throughout teachers’ college, I was fortunate to have a room in the “Christie Mansion.” The abode was every girl’s dream house: pink bricks with cream trim, arching entryways, spiral staircases, marble floors and plush red carpets. There were even mysterious closets and secret passages.

At times, though, the house seemed haunted. I remember many nights lying in bed, half-awake, listening to odd creakings and distant scufflings coming from behind the walls and floorboards. I convinced myself that there was nothing to fear – until Halloween 2005.

It was nearly midnight when I slipped into bed. As I was drifting off, I recalled how one of my upstairs housemates habitually held her breath and ran past the doorway to the mansion’s musty basement. She had persuaded several of her floor mates — and had tried to persuade me — that the basement was undeniably haunted. Not one of them would dare venture down those dark, aged stairs, for any reason.

Suddenly, in the silence, I heard an eerie, high-pitched, rhythmical grinding sound. It stopped. I lay very still. Then, I heard it again. It lasted a little longer this time. Was that sound coming from the basement? I listened closer. The sound returned a second and then a third time. I sat bolt upright in bed, threw back the covers, grabbed my glasses and emergency flashlight, put on my shower shoes and slipped into the hall.

My room was on the first floor, so it was a short walk to the dark, doorless portal to the basement. Every so often I would pause and listen, the folds of my nightgown swishing around me. The sound was still there.

My heart pounded as I craned my neck around the door frame and cast my gaze down. What I saw astonished me. Past the landing at the bottom of the stairs was a concrete wall and a door. All was black — there were no light fixtures, not even a hanging bulb. However, from the base of that tarnished, prison-like door a single sliver of light crept into the shadows.

I very quietly began down the stairs, halting after each step. All of my housemates’ stories and their warnings echoed in my ears. The rickety wood staircase groaned under the pressure of my feet. In my right hand I clutched the flashlight like a sword, in my left, the splintered railing. The noises — the same noises that I had heard in bed — grew louder.

I reached the landing. Breathing fast, I stretched out my hands, my hair wild about me, and groped through the inky blackness toward the mysterious door. Thick dread thrilled through my veins. I leaned in close with my right ear toward the door and heard something. I heard voices. From the other side of the door.

I froze. People were not supposed to be down here. There were no rooms; the area had been used for storage but had long been abandoned. Rumour had it that the cellar had once served as some form of prison. Transfixed with fear, I slowly reached out my hand, grasped the rounded brass knob, turned it, and pushed.

Light flooded into the landing, temporarily blinding me. I blinked several times, amazed at what I saw. There, hunched over a table with her back to the door, was a girl – and her parents. The girl’s long black tresses swished as she turned her head toward me. It was then that I realized that she was a girl from my residence. On the table where she was labouring, and had been labouring for some time, probably hours, spread out in bits and pieces, was an architecture project due the following day. The squealing came to an abrupt halt as her father cut the power to the hand-saw that he was using to make a miniature wooden house-frame.

So, The Mystery of the Haunted Cellar was finally explained. However, I have always had a funny feeling about the private piano room.

Cathleen McKague
BEd 2006

Unexplained Phenomena 

For a year in the early 1980s, I served as an overnight watchman at University College. Colleagues warned me that UC was haunted, and I remember noticing soon after I started that locked doors sometimes became mysteriously unlocked. I didn’t give these isolated instances much thought, until a couple of things happened that I still cannot explain.

I showed up for duty one fall evening around 6. As I entered the college, I noticed sheets of insulation stacked neatly against the wall, outside a classroom. Construction workers were using the room as their office during a renovation. The sheets weighed about 80 pounds each and there were about 10 in the pile. Stretching on my tip-toes, I could barely reach the top of the stack.

At around 4 a.m., I was in the classroom when I heard a crash outside the door. I rushed into the corridor and there, lying on the floor, was one of the sheets of insulation. It was as if some unknown force had picked it off the top of the pile and dropped it on the floor. I called the U of T police, who sent over an officer to check for an intruder. We went through the building and could not find any evidence of forced entry into the building. UC was securely locked.

About six months later, I was working a Saturday evening shift. Students held a regular pub night in the basement of Laidlaw Library, but at about 1:30 a.m., I noticed that the library was in complete darkness; the pub had ended. At about 4 a.m., I looked up from a book I was reading, gazed out the window, and was alarmed to see that all three floors of Laidlaw library were lit-up like a Roman candle. I called U of T police and advised them that a break-in was in progress. Two officers arrived within minutes and searched the library for half an hour. Neither of the library’s two entrances showed any signs of forced entry. I wondered if the librarian had inadvertently set the light-timer incorrectly when he left for the weekend. The officers agreed that it was a plausible theory, except that the library was not equipped with a light-timer. “It must be the ghost,” they said, leaving me to ponder the mystery on my own.

Barry J. Breen
BA 1980 Woodsworth, BEd 1987 OISE


Reader Comments

# 1
Posted by Melissa on October 25th, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

I really liked that story about the haunted cellar.
Melissa. Age 8.

# 2
Posted by Amanda on October 29th, 2010 @ 11:29 am

Great article! I love a good ghost story. I myself grew up in a haunted inn. It’s neat to know that the university I now work at is haunted as well.

# 3
Posted by Robbie (BA 2017 Woodsworth) on October 15th, 2013 @ 8:46 pm

I have had one strange experience in UC. I went down the starwell from the quad toward the JCR on the west side of the quad. I found the door incredible difficult to open. Thinking it was lost, I turned to climb the stairs but heard from behind me the door open very quickly and slam against its stops. I went through the door and as I turned toward the JCR door, I heard from down the hall two or three doors slamming loudly one after another. It was really creepy!

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