It was during October 2017, in the basement of the East Coulee School Museum near Drumheller, when paranormal investigator and Ghost Hunt Alberta founder Bonnie Milner, along with the 17 people in her troupe of mostly tourists, encountered what she believed to be a true paranormal phenomenon.
“We had a laser grid pointed at the far wall, because every time we’re down there somebody sees shadows darting across the hall, and we’d been trying desperately to catch this on camera,” recalls Milner. “We put an [infrared] camera down there, and we’ll see it with our eyes, but the camera doesn’t pick it up.
“So, we’ve got this laser grid pointed at the wall. We have 17 people all watching the laser grid, and something ducks in on one side, ducks in on the other side, and then comes up and stands in the middle of the room and then fades away.”
“Seventeen people, in a room, all gasp. But that wasn’t it, it wasn’t done,” Milner remembers. “The actual laser grid, something physically turned it away.
“We tried desperately to disprove this, that it fell over, or whatever, but we could not physically reproduce it … the only way you could is if somebody [lay] on the floor and somehow managed to grab the base, grabbing the things and turning it in a nice, clean arc, which was almost impossible.
“They'd have to be really tiny, with really tiny hands, we’d figured out,” says Milner. “Never mind events, or whatever, in 30 years of doing this, I’ve only on a handful of occasions, seen something physically move, and never have I caught it on camera.”
Encountering unexplainable events may not be rare for Milner, but they are for the paying tagalongs she takes on upwards of 30 events a year, scouring spooky places across Alberta for ghoulies, ghosts and long-legged beasties to both prove the paranormal and bring money into forgotten historical sites and towns.
Ghost Tours: A brimming business?
When considering a trip to Alberta, a few choice attractions and atmospheres usually come to mind: Mountains, over-sized malls and the occasionally-oppressing rodeo theme perpetuated by the self-professed “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” the Calgary Stampede.
It’s not often that people think of Alberta’s paranormal flair, or of the spirits that may still linger in the province’s boom-and-bust ghost towns. However, Milner is hoping to change that.
“My quote that I always tell people is: ‘I once listened to a mouse snore for six hours,’” says Milner, who started Ghost Hunt Alberta six years ago. “It was in a cabin in Dorothy, Alberta, and the only thing we recorded in six hours was a mouse snoring.”
The ghost-town of Dorothy is one such site Milner and her team return to time and time again, bringing with them brave and perhaps foolish ghost-hungry travellers from across the country, with the hopes of highlighting some of Alberta’s phantasmal history while bringing in tourist dollars.
“I noticed that in the U.K. and in the U.S., these paranormal tours were popping up,” says Milner, who began investigating the paranormal at the age of 14 using her father’s Radio Shack tape recorder. “I thought that was a fantastic idea. It gets people to have an experience, shows people what [investigations] are really like, and it brings money to the communities.”
“I was born here, I was raised here and I’ve spent my whole life exploring Alberta,” Milner explains. “We are blessed with amazing small towns with all these old buildings. Everywhere I go, it’s like, ‘Oh, have you heard about this place? Have you heard about this?’”
Through word-of-mouth and the sometimes-aggressive contacting of old sites, Milner has managed to set up a roster of frequented haunts. What started with the East Coulee School Museum then led to the Twin Cities Hotel in Longview, the old Crossroads Bar in Calgary and the Rockyview Hotel in Cochrane, among others.
“The things I hear going through small towns in Alberta is that ‘This place is closed, this place is falling down and no one is coming here anymore,” says Milner. “‘No matter what, we can’t get tourists out here.’”
“I thought, ‘Hey, have I got a deal for you: I will pay money for access to your historic buildings, which will bring you money, plus I’ll bring in 15 or 20 tourists into your town for the weekend, they’ll spend money, and let’s see what happens.’”
“You’re going to hell for what you’re doing”
But it hasn’t all been easy, with many of the sites Milner approaches to conduct investigations not being too keen on her paranormal purpose for doing so.
“I get shut down, I get hung up on,” says Milner. “They won’t respond to emails or letters. I don’t even get a ‘Sorry, no thank you.’ I've even had people say, ‘You’re going to hell for what you’re doing,’ and hang up on me.”
However, Barb Steeves, executive director of the East Coulee School Museum, sees no problem letting Ghost Hunt Alberta conduct its tours.
“We said, ‘Sure, we didn’t mind if they came,’” says Steeves. “We’ve had the University of Victoria bring equipment here. We’ve had a number of different groups over the years come here because of [the paranormal history].
“First, I looked at it as just a revenue, but [Ghost Hunt Alberta] seems to be very genuinely excited about their visits and what they get. I think that’s great. It’s another area to focus on for the museum, and it’s certainly another way of getting people’s interest.”
The haunted history of East Coulee School Museum, which was re-built in 1985 but originally constructed in 1930, is tied to the experiences of former employees, Steeves explains, including the dog of a former manager.
“There’s been stories of children singing, stories of a piano playing before there was ever a piano in the building,” says Steeves. “There was a former manager whose dog used to go down with him to shovel coal into the boiler, and one day he just stopped at the top of the stairs and kept growling and growling. He wouldn’t go downstairs, and he never went downstairs again.”
That same basement was where Milner and her troupe had their major experience during an event in October of last year.
Even still, however, Steeves says most visitors to the museum come for the history rather than its paranormal past.
“It’s a small number that’s interest in the ghost stories,” says Steeves. “I mean, lots of people love ghost stories, but there’s few that will walk in an ask for them. There’s more people wanting to learn the history of the area, and what it’s all about.”
Busting myths and satisfying the skeptics
The major issues any aspiring ghost-hunter encounters is non-believers and naysayers, something Milner and Ghost Hunt Alberta relish in debating, and the safety of guests which is paramount in running a successful investigation.
With recording equipment and cameras always running, Milner sifts through hundreds of hours of footage to search for any evidence of the paranormal. With a “debunk rate” sitting at around 80 per cent, any potential audio or video of ghostly phenomenon goes through rigorous examination.
“I’m strict about my rules on-site,” says Milner. “We usually have a supervisor and ask that they sit in a room and not move while we’re in session. They’re only allowed to move when we’re moving from room-to-room, so I know where they are, and I know what their voice sounds like.
“Guests are told whenever they move or make any noise, they have to say, ‘That’s me,’ and when coming into and leaving a room, they have to say, ‘I’m not a ghost.’ That way, when I’m going back through a recording, if I hear a stomach growl — which sounds like demons — I know to disregard that.
“A ghost can walk out in the middle of the room and dance in front of the camera, but if I don’t know where everybody is when that happened, I have to throw it out,” says Milner.
Milner further explains that the lack of a shared scientific process is a major problem with the paranormal community, and while her approach is more stringent, others such as Ghost Adventures host Zak Bagans do a disservice to the profession by dramatizing events for the camera.
“After 30 years of doing this, I can tell when something’s actual, especially when it comes to EVP,” says Milner. EVP, or electronic voice phenomenon, is a means of capturing paranormal sounds through recorders and white noise.
“It is extremely rare to catch an electronic voice phenomenon in a recording that sounds like a human voice. It’s extremely rare to get one clear enough that you can put it in a video and people can hear it properly. So, If you’re getting two or three of them an episode, and they sound just like people that work for them?
“Things like, not to pick on Zak Bagans, but I will: everything on that show is demonic,” says Milner. “Everything is evil. I mean, I've been doing this for 30 years, and this is the same thing I tell everybody: 90 per cent of the time, it’s Aunt Ethel or Grandma trying to get through to somebody to let them know they're still here.”
“It’s pseudo-science, but my argument is … if the entire community of paranormal investigators would get together and decide on a standard of conduct and investigation, they would bring a legitimacy to this that we need,” says Milner. “The TV shows that are out there portray it as: ‘All ghosts are evil, everything is bad.’”
Legitimacy, above all else, stands in the way of a widespread acceptance of the paranormal, says Milner.
“The question I get all the time is: ‘Why should I believe this?’” says Milner. “You shouldn’t. You should go in not believing, that’s the first thing. Open mind, but skeptical. Question everything.”
“Don’t believe. Come in on one of my investigations, walk in a believer or disbeliever, and see what happens.”
- By Alec Warkentin