Although most tourist attractions shuttered their doors at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Haunted Montreal Ghost Tours hasn’t skipped a beat. Instead, the paranormal group has spent the last year expertly adapting to the ebb and flow of Canadian lockdown restrictions before finally settling on a completely virtual set-up. I sat down with Donovan King, founder of Haunted Montreal Ghost Tours, to discuss how he broke into the field of spooky tourism, his business’ transition to Zoom, and his favorite ghosts— all from the comfort of my own home, of course!
Elena Hollemon: How did you get into the ghost tour business and how have you developed your tours over the years?
Donovan King: Well, I started this business about 10 years ago— I had been working with another company doing ghost tours here in Montreal but they didn’t really see it as an artistic venture but instead as a product. We [at Haunted Montreal Ghost Tours] have created something more profound, you know? We have our blog where people can read all of these ghost stories and we’re trying to put Montreal on the map as a haunted destination— if you go to Savannah, there’s like 80 tour companies but here there’s two. I also wanted to develop more types of haunted experiences and not just one ghost tour in Old Montreal, which is the tourist district.
So, I developed a bunch of new tours— there’s one on the mountain [Mount Royal]; one is in Griffintown, the old Irish famine neighborhood; and one is in Downtown Montreal. Then I made a “haunted pub crawl” because I thought we’d want something in the winter that we can do because it’s very cold and snowy here. The clients demanded a “paranormal investigation,” so I set that up with a real ghost hunter because I’m more of a historian-type actor. And then of course we were forced into doing virtual tours and even though that was a steep learning curve, hopefully that’s something we’ll be able to offer in the future for people who aren’t physically in Montreal or can’t attend a walk (say, on the mountain where there’s steps). I’ve really enjoyed this type of work— doing the research and the performances, and even tying a bit of politics into the stories. That’s what ghost stories traditionally are, they’re a way to sort of cloak taboo topics like incest or murder. So, in the Victorian era, this is how they did it— they just made it a “ghost story” and then suddenly it’s acceptable to look at this issue. So it’s a really cool genre because you’re able to speak to the truth.
EH: What drew you to the world of the paranormal?
DK: I started as an actor in the world of haunted attractions and haunted entertainment. A man named Bob Short, who won an Oscar for Beetlejuice (he was the one who did the special effects and make-up), moved to Montreal in the 90’s. He had a train with all of his gear to set-up haunted attractions and he created a thing called “Chateau Greystoke” in a practically abandoned shopping center. It was this giant haunted attraction with rooms, sound effects, special effects and actors. He hired me to get him a team because he didn’t speak French. So, I hooked him up and got him all of these actors and then I started acting in the attraction myself and thought, “Oh wow, this is so much fun compared to regular theater or film.” I just fell in love with the genre. I ended up working at the London Dungeon in England for a few years, eventually running their whole entertainment department because I had a lot of ideas and a lot of experience. When I eventually came home, that’s when I started working for that other company and then founded my own after about six or seven years later.
EH: In your opinion, what constitutes a good ghost tour?
DK: Well, there’s three elements in a tour that are super important and anyone who doesn’t realize this risks giving a really bad tour. The first one is the script— so, a solid text that’s usually paraphrased. The second one is the performer and the quality of the performer, and the third one is the location(s). People want to see with their own eyes the “creepy building,” the “haunted canal,” or the “tomb of so-and-so.” If you don’t have those three elements, then you don’t have a good ghost tour in my opinion.
EH: Reading your reviews, it seems that people really love you and that you put on a great performance all the while knowing your material very well.
DK: Well, in my day job I teach English as a second language to immigrants and refugees, so I know how to build a rapport and get along with students and people. But, once we get into the performance, I somewhat “transform.” I mean, I might scare the bejebus out of someone but they’ll also have a laugh! We used to have a box office to check customers in, but I thought it was better for the actor to check them in because then they can build that rapport as they’re waiting. That’s another important element— to make them feel welcome and a part of something.
EH: When you started your business, how did you go about researching the historical context of the ghost stories before writing your scripts?
DK: I was actually studying at McGill University at the time as a History and English major, so I was learning all of these great techniques for going through archives and newspaper databases. I was in this building on McTavish street and learned that McTavish was this famous ghost from the 1800s and everyone had kind of forgotten about him. So I focused a lot of my classwork on individual research about his story— I think it’s Canada’s best ghost story because it involves all of our [Canada’s] elements: indigenous people, French people, British people, grave robbing, and even tobogganing and tobogganing ghosts. A lot of my stories come from first person accounts— a lot of people contact me to report something and then I’ll investigate it and if there’s a story in there, I’ll write it. Other stories are classics and others are forgotten, some of them are legends and some of them are weird stuff like UFO sightings.
EH: Wow, that’s incredible! Now, let’s talk about your business and how you structure your tours nowadays. When you’re giving a tour, what kind of character do you embody? Do you act more akin to a dramatized version of yourself or do you adopt an entirely different persona?
DK: It depends— when I was at the other tour company before I started my own, I totally took on a different persona that was extremely theatrical. At the end of the tour I would break it and people would be shocked that I wasn’t the same person— I mean, I’d have a different accent and everything. Recently, since I started checking people in myself, it’s a different dynamic. What I used to do before was tell people, “Ok, when I put my hat on, the performance is going to begin.” That way they would know when the theater starts, but some people were put off by that. So then I thought: “Well, okay, why don’t I act like myself and make it more natural, but then make it kind of creepier at times.” I use a lot of suspense, a lot of footsteps, a lot of juxtaposing suspense with an actual scream… it’s definitely a lot of fun and entertaining no matter which way I do it.
EH: How have you adapted your performance for the virtual tours? For example, are your customers usually on video or do they opt out?
DK: Some of them turn their cameras off, but it’s optional because I don’t want to force people to do what they don’t want to do. I usually begin with a little chit chat before the tour starts, and then just before it starts I’ll get my big hat and then I’ll begin. I kind of stay myself at first but then slowly get more creepy as we get into it. Again, I use the same scare factors as in person— I mean, one woman fell off of her chair the first time I did it! One of the unfortunate things is that you can’t hear anyone because the microphones are muted. Of course you can see if their laughing or falling off of their chairs if their camera is on, but I miss the immediate audience feedback the most because that’s super important to adjust the ghost tour.
EH: Now, because I’m sure everyone is dying to know, who is your all-time favorite ghost?
DK: My favorite ghost is the most popular one in Montreal right now: the ghost of Mary Gallagher. What’s cool about her is that she’s Irish and so am I, and she was in Griffintown— which is the old Irish shantytown built by the descendants of Irish Famine survivors. She was a [sex worker] and was trolling for clients one night with her best friend, Suzy Kennedy, when they ended up competing for a client. Mary got the client and Suzy went home empty-handed and jealous. Two days later, Mary came back to her flat with the client, Michael Flanagan, and they had three bottles of whiskey. At noon, the woman living downstairs heard this huge “bang!” on the ceiling and then a chopping noise. Needless to say, [Mary Gallagher] had been decapitated. Everyone pinned the blame on Suzy, but others also thought that Michael was responsible because it was the Victorian Era and how could a woman do this to a fellow woman? Mary’s ghost is said to reappear on the corner of William and Murray Street in Griffintown every seven years in search of her head.
EH: Have you ever had any encounters with ghosts yourself?
DK: Not really ghosts as much as weird, unexplainable paranormal type things. . . When I was working at the London Dungeon, my job was to blow out these candles at night and light them again in the morning. I would blow them out and they would just relight, even though I was the only one there! Maybe it was a prank, but who would do this for over a year? So yeah, I’ve experienced the crazy stuff that plays with your mind.
Check out Haunted Montreal Ghost Tours’ current tour, Winter Ghost Stories: A Québécois Tradition, this month!