I don’t believe in ghosts.
That’s how a lot of the stories start, writer and historian Gina Armstrong notes.
I don’t believe in ghosts . . .
And, after issuing that categorical denial, the storyteller will often say – perhaps a bit less certainly:
“I don’t believe in ghosts but . . .”
“Everybody has a ghost story for you,” Armstrong laughs. “People want to know what happens after we die. We’re sort of afraid of it but we want to know: what are the possibilities? . . . Are we still able to be involved in the world somehow? Is there another side to things that we don’t know about?”
Before starting on her career collecting tales of the creepy and morbid, Armstrong was working as a banker.
She and her sister Victoria Vancek – who shares Armstrong’s affection for the eerie – were planning a trip to Victoria when the pandemic forced them to stay at home.
Instead of heading to the island, the sisters pored over their old photos of Victoria, ultimately deciding to release a 15-month calendar entitled Haunted: A Unique Look at B.C.’s Haunted Capital.
Joined by Greg Mansfield, they followed up with a Haunted Vancouver calendar. There were radio appearances to promote their work, the launch of a website, and an Instagram account.
Armstrong eventually quit her job to pursue her dream of writing full time. She and her sister penned an essay on Supernatural British Columbia for The Feminine Macabre and contributed a chronicle of the Vancouver Police Museum for Morbid Curious.
“I never thought I’d be writing about the paranormal but that’s what seems to be catching people’s eye at the moment,” she says.
These days she searches for what Stephen King once called “spiritually noxious places, buildings where the milk of the cosmos has become sour and rancid.”
səmiq̓wəʔelə (formerly Riverview)
The grounds of the former hospital are a hotspot for cold gusts, footsteps without feet and voices without faces – what Armstrong calls “the classic things.”
Often used for filming, Armstrong recounts two conversations with crew members who said they saw a woman in what looked like period costume.
In one of the stories she was gardening in the pouring rain but she wasn’t wet.
“We’re thinking: was it somebody from the past maybe still doing a little gardening?”
Given the generations who lived and died and were buried on the grounds, it makes sense that people would see something there.
“It could be something residual from the past that’s kind of lingering,” Armstrong says. “That negative energy . . . the buildings just absorb it.”
Besides collecting spooky stories, Armstrong says she’s had a few tricky-to-explain experiences, including one in Port Moody.
The Port Moody Station Museum was: “probably one of the most haunted experiences that we’ve had,” she says.
There were multiple equipment problems, including a voice recorder stalling, a camera failing and a cellphone camera suddenly turning pixelated.
Leaving the museum was “the most drained that we’ve ever felt,” she says.
Still, she’d happily return.
“It’s a really fantastic place to visit, hauntings or no hauntings.”
In almost every city there are places that make people feel uneasy, places people tell stories about. Still, there are explanations.
“We haven’t personally found anything in Port Coquitlam.”
Armstrong and Vancek are currently at work on their next book: Evenings & Avenues—Hauntings in the Outskirts.