10/16/2013 05:00 EDT | Updated 12/15/2013 05:12 EST

St. John's Ghosts: Hauntings, Spiritual Signs The Norm In Newfoundland

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Newfoundland actor Steve O'Connell was fresh off one of the haunted hikes he guides through old St. John's when he gazed on a misty night down one of its spookiest laneways.

"People ask me all the time if I've seen a ghost," he said quietly, recalling a recent encounter with a woman who had taken a photo during the tour.

"She asked me: 'Can you see something behind you there where you told that story on Willicott's Lane?' I said, 'Yeah. It kind of looks like there's a face in the window wearing glasses with a beard.'

"And she said: 'That's my father. He died six weeks ago.'"

Welcome to haunted St. John's. Billed as the city of legends, its history stretches back 500 years to its wilder days as a seaport stopover for all manner of brutish transients. It has also burned down successive times, including a massive inferno that scorched much of the downtown in 1892.

People here swap tales of haunted houses, supernatural signs, and the deeds of friendly or mischievous spirits as if they're discussing the weather.

"They talk about it all the time," O'Connell said. A friend of his recently wondered aloud if her house on historic Gower Street might be haunted.

"And I told her, no. But of course it is. Everything in St. John's is haunted."

Dale Jarvis, a storyteller and folklorist at the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, has led ghostly tours through the winding streets and back alleys of St. John's since 1997.

One of his favourite yarns is about the headless captain of Queen's Road. The story dates back hundreds of years and involves a captain who sailed between England and Newfoundland who was friendly with a certain local lady whenever he was in port.

One night as he left her home, he was ambushed by the woman's jealous lover and beheaded with a sword.

The ghost is still said to lurk near that spot in search of his unpunished murderer, Jarvis said.

Victoria Street in the heart of downtown St. John's boasts more paranormal reports per block than anywhere else in the city, he added.

One particularly chilling account is of a ghostly female duo.

"One of the women is seen dragging the other woman by the hair through the house," Jarvis said.

Other tales are less terrifying.

"There's a famous story from Twillingate about a lighthouse keeper who fell down the centre of the lighthouse and was caught by an invisible figure and set on his feet. He would have perished if he hadn't been caught."

Jarvis himself lives in a house in the Georgestown neighbourhood of St. John's that is said to harbour a helpful spirit.

"When things go missing ... if we ask for the lady who lives in our house to bring them back sometimes they will reappear in strange places."

Jarvis also frequently hears from people who describe receiving "tokens" or spiritual signs that a loved one afar has just died.

"I hear that story all the time from people who are, you know, sane, rational people," he said. "The telling of that type of story isn't seen as being a crazy thing in Newfoundland.

"People love listening to ghost stories. It's still one of those forms of storytelling that exists in the modern world."

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