Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Searching for Ghosts at the CNE with Richard Palmisano

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Ghosts of the Canadian National Exhibition by Richard Palmisano

By Michelle Medford

In his Toronto home at four years old, as Richard Palmisano lays in bed at night, he hears footsteps in the hall outside his room. He crawls out of bed and peeks out through his bedroom door. He sees no one but continues to hear the footsteps inching closer across the wood floor, sending him running back to bed and under the covers. But then an even more frightening sound begins: a scraping in his closet. He knew it was the single wire coat hanger on a nail on the inside of the door right beside his bed head. He made it through the night in fear. Years later as an adult, Palmisano is a paranormal investigator and author, chasing the very things that scared him as a child. “As big as my fear was, a bigger component of my personality is to solve mysteries, and I think that’s what pushed me into doing what I do,” says Palmisano, who was driven by the desire to understand what exactly was going on and why.

With 31 years of experience in the field under his belt, Palmisano now works with The Searcher Group, a team who investigate, research and analyze cases of hauntings in the community, from homes to historical buildings to businesses. The crew uses a combination of devices that detect electromagnetic voice phenomenon, static fields, electromagnetic fields, frequencies and radiation, combined with audio and video surveillance and the use of a medium. They follow-up their investigations with thorough examination of their findings. Although it sounds like something you’d see on TV, it’s not exactly the same. In fact, his team was offered the opportunity to a television show but turned it down, saying that they’d rather maintain the integrity of their work as opposed to striving for ratings.

However, while Palmisano’s interest in paranormal investigation came at an early age, he says, “I was never intending to be an author.” Several years ago, Palmisano was investigating a haunting in a home, involving the spirit of a young girl who had committed suicide in that house, as well as other spirits dwelling at the residence. At the time of Palmisano’s investigation, an author who lived on the property asked to see Palmisano’s research notes he’d been taking throughout. Impressed, the author suggested that Palmisano drop off his findings at his publisher, Dundurn Press. “I had no expectations at all,” says Palmisano when he left his first draft with editorial director Tony Hawke. Hawke told Palmisano that Dundurn was extremely busy at the time and that they might be able to give it a look next month. The following morning Hawke called Palmisano. Hawke had been up all night reading it and wanted to publish it. “It put me over the moon,” says Palmisano. The book would be become Overshadows: An Investigation into a Terrifying Modern Canadian Haunting, Palmisano’s first of four books.

In 2009, Palmisano became interested in the CNE when he caught word of a ghost walk at the annual exhibition. After checking it out himself, he was intrigued and asked authorities if he could conduct an investigation there himself. He and his team began their work in fall 2009 and completed their work by late fall 2010. The findings of his 13-month project became his latest work, Ghosts of the Canadian National Exhibition. The book, which was released in June, has led to a series of tours and talks at the CNE this year, kicked off by a tour for the media this Tuesday.

On August 17, Palmisano arrives with his team at the CNE Press Building, a fitting starting point for the tour. He calmly describes to the crowd that the ghosts he encountered here were among the most polite and professional he’d come across throughout his investigation. Besides his natural curiosity, he was also drawn to this building for other reasons: his father used to work in the building staging military. “It hit home at that point, knowing that my father may have come in contact with these spirits,” he tells the group.

We then head to the General Services building where Palmisano and his team came across one of the most fascinating spirits over their investigation. On the third floor, they’d heard sounds of maracas and bells, though never picked up any voices from the spirit. Richard’s brother Paul, who also works with The Searcher Group, takes the floor now to describe the footsteps he’d heard. They weren’t heel-to-toe like most footsteps, instead they went slap-slap-slap, as if he had been wearing long, floppy shoes. Paul’s deduction was that the spirit had been a circus clown. Picking up after Paul, Richard takes the opportunity to say, “I’m basically nothing without my team.” He constantly brings the attention to his team. Prior to this tour over the phone he says, “They don’t get enough recognition for what they do. I couldn’t write these books without the work that they do as well.” Take for example his brother, who sat through 304 hours of DVDs, analyzing their content from the CNE.

Richard Palmisano leads us through a rattling elevator to the archives, which are adjacent rooms filled with walls and rows of countless cardboard boxes, save for one with a feathery headdress and plastic jewelled crown resting on top. There are also stacks of posters collecting dust and old statues cloaked in plastic wrapping. The room is rich with history. Palmisano calmly and rational describes his crew’s findings, gesturing with his hands as he recounts it all. Occasionally a team member steps in to add details.

Finally, Palmisano leads us to the Stanley Barracks. He says it’s the most haunted building on the property and the spirits they’ve encountered there hadn’t been too friendly. A trip inside isn’t included in the public tour, but it is for us. Palmisano describes the building’s history since 1841 including its use for RCMP training, housing wartime troops, holding enemy aliens during WWI, social housing in the 1940s and most recently as a restaurant and museum for the CNE.

Inside, Palmisano explains that spirits are just like the living, “When we get into people’s secrets in their past lives, sometimes they get upset.” Prodding during their investigation has led to one of their mediums having a boot heel imprinted on her back during a session and threats to Paul leading to him getting sick for a couple nights. But his team continued on. He leads us to the basement, where both the attack and threat took place. The team’s medium Amanda Keays soon picks up a presence, a soldier. He’s unhappy that we’re there. Eventually we leave and head back out. The tour is over. However, not all ghosts in the Stanley Barracks were unfriendly. As we exit the building, Keays tells us that there’s a little boy looking down from the second floor, peering out of a window with a bright light. His name is Oliver and he’s waving goodbye.


Michelle Medford is a journalism grad and intern at Open Book for the summer of 2011. She has written for TV Guide Canada, Glow magazine and other online publications. She’s also an avid blogger and film reviewer at Cinefilles.

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