Chilling Spirits: A Haunted Walk in Toronto’s Distillery District
Standing in the shadows of downtown Toronto’s financial centre, beyond the ultra-modern contours of the King East Design District, the red brick dimensions of the historic Distillery remain beautifully intact—a Victorian time warp in a city of 21st-century sensibilities. A quaint and quiet neighbourhood of boutiques, galleries and cafés by day, the Distillery District awakens in the evenings, when Torontonians and tourists alike alight upon the pedestrian streets in search of the best brews the city has to offer.
While scenes of nocturnal revelry are common sightings, the footsteps that wander these narrow alleyways are not always so carefree…or so corporeal. The countless tales of paranormal encounters that checker the Distillery’s past reveal a history of its former residents that is by turns tragic, amusing and more than a little bit unsettling. Nothing excites me quite like a good story though, so while many Distillery visitors head for the bars in hopes of savouring some strong spirits, I set out with The Haunted Walk and a group of daring adventurers in search of spirits of a different, more supernatural kind. How many of us made it back? Continue on, dear reader.
Atmosphere is the perfect backdrop to a bone-chilling ghost story, and it was clear we were in for something special the moment we stepped out into the quiet wind on Grist Mill Lane; a deep, midnight-blue sky had descended on the Distillery, complete with a shining half-moon that bathed the brick rooftops in an eerie white glow—almost as if some kind of stage light had been turned on, summoning the restless spirits to make themselves seen (or heard). Obvious omens of doom notwithstanding, the silent beauty of the scene made it clear that the evening really is the best time to visit this unique neighbourhood, and I promised myself that I would make a point of returning for regular night-time visits, provided I survived this encounter (this blog may have been ghost-written, for all you know).
With cape blowing in the wind and lantern in hand to light the way, our guide Daniel led us off into the darkness and into the past. The hidden alleys and corners of the Distillery teem with (literally) buried secrets and tales ranging from the mirthful to the macabre, each one recounted with aplomb by an energetic, informative and entertaining storyteller. Storytelling is a difficult and mysterious art, requiring a keen awareness of suspense, pacing, tension and release, not to mention an ability to sense the emotions and expectations of one’s audience. It’s an intense juggling act that I imagine is even harder to balance in ghost stories, when apprehension hangs thickly in the air like a fog and each passing detail only promises a more gruesome payoff. It’s a credit to our intrepid leader Daniel, who would slowly and carefully set the scene, weave an intricate and elaborate web of details, build up to a violent crescendo and…pull the rug out from under our feet and reveal that the emaciated ghost of a maintenance worker was just really interested in making sure the molasses vats were running properly. It’s not worth spoiling the surprises to elaborate too much on the stories themselves, but suffice it to say it was this kind of humour that added a cheerful counterpoint to the jump scares (of which there were several) and the fascinating tidbits about Toronto’s brewing history, the latter of which forms the backbone of the tour itself.
Indeed, though the stories will be the main draw, one of the primary joys of this walk is simply the way in which wanderers are invited to admire one of the city’s most historic and picturesque neighbourhoods. Locals and visitors alike will walk away with a greater appreciation for Toronto’s industrial past in addition to an elevated heart rate, and if you’re looking to spend a little more time in the arms of a loved one, few things bring people together more than a gripping ghost story, especially while it’s still chilly out. So if you’re looking for a spring fright night, head to the Distillery District and spend some time with Toronto’s walking dead.
By: Noam Kaufman