By Anne Bokma
With its rich history of haunted happenings, Kingston Ontario, is arguably the spookiest place in the country to celebrate Halloween. From the eerie penitentiary where Canada’s worst criminals were housed, to the ancient fortress of Fort Henry where the ghosts of soldiers are said to still roam the grounds to the public green space known as Skeleton Park (built over an old burial ground with thousands of graves) there’s no creepier city to head to for the supernatural season. Consider Kingston Canada’s Salem.
My kids are teenagers now, but Halloween is still their favourite holiday. Since they’re too old for trick-or-treating we headed to the Limestone City for an enchanting October getaway with enough fantastical and frightening experiences to make us want to head back next year.
1. Dare to be scared at Fort Fright
Dozens of live “scare actors,” dressed as ghosts, zombies, skeletons and creepy clowns, come out of the catacombs at Fort Henry — a 19th century military fortress built on a hilltop overlooking Lake Ontario — to give you the fright of your life. Be warned — they succeed. I haven’t screamed so much since giving birth. While the actors aren’t allowed to touch you, they do get close and it’s thrillingly unnerving. We opted for the “Total Scare” package, which included “Terrifying Tales from the Tunnels” (not so scary) to an electronic coffin ride. I was the only one in my family who dared climb into the satin-lined casket which slammed shut and bounced rhythmically for two minutes while a video in front of my face played images of people shovelling dirt onto a coffin. It was more amusing than anxiety provoking. The attraction also features Hollywood-style animatronics, spooky sound and light effects and 3-D wall projections. But nothing beats the fear factor of the extremely convincing scare actors, especially the Jason character, right out of the Friday the 13th movies, who wielded a noisy chainsaw that actually emitted gas fumes (thankfully the blade was missing). When we left the fort at 10 p.m. his menacing figure was outlined on the hill against the smoky clouds drifting in front of an almost full moon as he sent us off with a last rev of the saw. We literally ran to our car in the parking lot, bent over in a fit of fear and laughter.
If all this seems like too much for little kids, Fort Henry has thought of that and provides an optional “safe pass,” a protective amulet that wards off the scare actors so children can enjoy the event without running screaming into the night.
2. Get spirited away on a Haunted Walk of Kingston
Guides cloaked in black offer 90-minute ghostly evening walking tours by the flickering glow of a lantern light in downtown Kingston, Fort Henry, nearby Gananoque and at Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg. Founded 20 years ago by a respected ghost historian, the walks feature tour guides who are talented storytellers, dramatists and history buffs spinning real-life ghost tales of local haunted hotels, hidden burial grounds, grave robbings and hangings at the old courthouse.
3. Get behind the bars at Kingston Penitentiary
Locked to the pubic for 180 years and shuttered in 2013 after nearly two centuries of use, Canadians can now go behind the dreary stone walls of this national historic site to get a glimpse of the dreary life inmates lived inside Canada’s oldest maximum security prison, once home to some of this country’s most notorious criminals. Former guards lead the tours of the cellblocks, inmate workshops and recreational grounds and recount details of famous prison escapes and the 1971 riot, during which six guards were taken hostage by inmates who had control of the prison for four days. Tickets for the 90-minute tours, which run until the end of October, are hard to come by. Almost 60,000 were snapped up soon after they were released for sale earlier this year. However, limited tickets for the 8:40 a.m. tour times are available by special offer with selected hotels, including the Holiday Inn, in Kingston (see www.visitkingston.ca/stay/special-offers).
If you can’t score a prison tour ticket, take a free (donations accepted) self-guided tour of the nearby Kingston Penitentiary Museum, the former home of eight prison wardens, where you’ll gain insight into the brutality of prison life in the 1800s (including instruments of torture such as a “strapping bench”), see hundreds of shivs and shanks (weapons fashioned by prisoners out of everyday items such as combs and toothbrushes which they used for self protection) and learn about Hollywood-style great escapes (such as that plotted by “Foxy Freddie” Caddedu who lost 20 pounds so he could cram into a small hole cut from a glued-together stack of orange dinner trays and snuck out of prison via the kitchen).
4. Take a slow stroll with the Kingston Zombie Walk
More than 150 of the “undead” showed up for last year’s annual Zombie Walk that starts in Skeleton Park on Saturday, October 22 at 1 p.m and meanders downtown. Prizes during the all-ages event are awarded to the best group, best couple, best individual costume and best child’s costume. Participants are encouraged to bring non-perishables for the Kingston Youth Shelter to the free event. Non-Zombie observers welcome.
5. Hop on the Kingston Ghost and Mystery Trolley
Take a peek into Kingston’s paranormal past with this old-time trolley ride that takes you to some of the city’s lesser known haunted spots, including Fort Henry Hill, Deadman’s Bay, The Rockwood Asylum, Kingston Penitentiary and the Cataraqui Cemetery, where you can disembark for an evening stroll through the notable graves — including that of Canada’s First Prime Minister, Sir John A Macdonald.
6. Light up your night with Pumpkinferno
For something more magical than macabre, check out the fantastic display of thousands of creatively designed handcrafted pumpkin installations at Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg. A 90-minute drive from Kingston, Pumpkinfero is absolutely worth the extra travel time. After checking into the McIntosh Country Inn, we had a traditional meat-and-potatoes dinner at the historic Willard’s Hotel, formerly a 1830s tavern, on the Upper Canada Village site before heading out at dusk to take in the magnificent sea-of-orange electrical show. We oohed and awed during the spellbinding hour-long walk as we marvelled at the glowing pumpkin displays, including a larger-than-life size astronaut floating high in the sky, a collection of witches dancing around a cauldron, a massive tree laden with hundreds of twinkling orange orbs, currency pieces from around the world and famous portraits from the Mona Lisa to Frida Kahlo.
The event has been recognized by the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario as the province’s best new event and it’s easy to see why. Our jaws were practically hanging open as each display outdid the last. Even if you’re too old to trick-or-treat, enchantments like Pumpkinferno make it easy to hang on to that child-like sense of wonder during the spooky season.
Although we do our best to provide you with accurate information, all event details are subject to change. Please contact the facility to avoid disappointment.