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In a hunt for haunts, Victoria has twisted its own past

Local author dedicated to ‘decolonizing ghost stories’

By Michael John Lo
November 1, 2022
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

In a hunt for haunts, Victoria has twisted its own past

Local author dedicated to ‘decolonizing ghost stories’

Photo: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily
Photo: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

In a hunt for haunts, Victoria has twisted its own past

Local author dedicated to ‘decolonizing ghost stories’

By Michael John Lo
November 1, 2022
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In a hunt for haunts, Victoria has twisted its own past
Photo: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily

Victoria’s said to be a haunted place. Ghost walks, creepy sightings, and enthusiastic front yard decorations come out in force around Halloween. The night has become a lucrative industry, as British Columbians are expected to spend a collective $224 million on Halloween alone.

Shanon Sinn gets a lot of calls from journalists this time of year: He is the author of the popular 2017 book, The Haunting of Vancouver Island, now in its sixth print, and he’s writing a sequel that focuses on coastal lore—ghost stories around lighthouses, cursed ships, mermaid sightings.

But Sinn tries his best to distance himself from the Halloween news cycle that comes with it, where media workers under deadline reach out to local paranormal experts for the annual spooky story. 

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“My work focuses on being more objective,” Sinn tells Capital Daily. “Decolonizing ghost stories is important to me.”

Sinn, who describes himself as a “skeptical believer,” has experienced paranormal phenomena that he can’t explain. But he holds reservations about the proliferation of scary stories that have changed over the years to suit a convenient narrative—particularly stories involving racialized people and Indigenous histories.

The haunting of Richard Johnson—sometimes referred to as Robert Johnson—is one such example, Sinn said. Johnson was a freed Black slave and leader in the all-Black Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps, a militia formed from the 600-strong Black community that had settled in and around Victoria in the 1850s. After the militia disbanded, Johnson moved to Metchosin and ultimately passed away there.

“About a year after this, people said that they saw his ghost in his old Victoria house,” said Sinn. “[A] servant said that she saw his face pushing through—she had put up a sheet over the window because she saw the face—and then it was pushing through.”

He’s now said to be haunting Pioneer Square, a popular stop on the ghost tourism circuit. Sinn says the story has been tweaked to make it scarier and more convenient for tourists, including the location and the manner of his death. 

“The story has changed now [to the fact that] that he haunts that cemetery—and he committed suicide, they claim, by cutting his own throat with a straight razor,” said Sinn.  “The scariness of him is really amped up: and I feel like it's because he's a Black spirit.”

Sinn says that his own investigations show that Johnson was buried on hallowed ground in Pioneer Square and received ceremonies that wouldn’t have been conducted for a person who had died by suicide. 

In his life, Johnson was an advocate for equality, and fought for his militia to be accorded the same rights as white militias during Victoria’s colonial days, according to the British Columbia Historical Federation. But, Sinn says that history is rarely mentioned when the haunting is brought up in paranormal circles.

“[For] a place that’s so predominately white for Canada—as Victoria is—it just seems so insensitive that here’s this guy that was an early civil rights leader being turned into a Halloween prop,” said Sinn. 

There’s a history behind how Victoria became known as a place where the supernatural was commonplace. It wasn’t always the case: Sinn points to how in 1958 Colonist newspaper reporter Bert Benny wrote about how he was disappointed with how few hauntings there were to write about. But by the 1980s, local ghost hunters such as Robin Skelton and Jean Kozacari began writing about ghostly experiences (eventually writing a book on the topic), and soon gained a following that would kickstart ghost tourism, Sinn said. In the 1990s, the wide-ranging Satanic Panic even originated in Victoria. 

The press would hone in on the public’s interest with the otherworldly, writing stories about the topic near Halloween. “By the 1990s … almost every newspaper would have something.” 

That fascination remains today, said Sinn, noting how Camosun’s student paper, the Nexus, runs a similar story about the local campus haunting every year.

Many of Vancouver Island’s spooky legends are rooted in anti-Indigeneity, he said. Skelton and Kozacari’s book on ghosts has a chapter titled, “Indigenous Inheritance.”

“If you read [the book] through today’s current lens, there’s an issue,” said Sinn. “[Skelton] at one point says that white people are the strong race.”  

Many parts of the city are literally built upon desecrated graves; the Uplands architect John Charles Olmsted noted the presence of graves all around the area. They were bulldozed to make way for houses, as were gravesites all over Victoria.

But the presence of an Indigenous burial ground has been used to enhance the scare factor in stories, said Sinns, citing incidents all over Vancouver Island: the naming of the Forbidden Plateau, for instance, after a fabricated K’ómoks legend by an editor at the now-defunct Comox Argus to drum up tourist interest, according to a curator at the Courtney museum; or the dressing up of the 1920s mystic cult led by Brother XII on De Courcy Island near Nanaimo, which Skelton incorrectly identified as a Kwakwakaʼwakw burial ground.

“That's all because they're selling this idea that [Vancouver Island] is a place to come and to enjoy these ghost stories,” Sinn said. “It could be done more respectfully.”

It's one of the reasons why Sinn thinks his book has been well received. “There’s a chapter that were stories told to me by Chief James Swan of the Ahousaht,” said Sinn, who had transcribed Swan’s retellings without any alteration. “It's really important, because there's nuances that you might not get.”

Those stories don’t get told as much, said Sinn. Over the years, he’s had many ghost stories told to him by the Indigenous community. But he’s not aware of anyone intentionally collecting their stories and publishing them as a body of work. 

That, he believes, may do something to change the tired stereotypes of an Indigenous ghost. 

“It’s like in ghost stories, the Indigenous ghost is usually in regalia, usually dancing. How come there can’t be an Indigenous ghost wearing skinny jeans with a latte?”

Article Author's Profile Picture
Michael John Lo
Editorial Intern

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