After Holly Stevens and I had finished shooting the last four episodes of our TV series Ghost Cases in England in 2009, we did what every self-respecting reality TV hosts would do when your flights to Europe have already been paid for – we took a few weeks off and vacationed!
Towards the end of our adventures, we found ourselves in the beautiful and historic town of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic. We even managed to stay in an inn that looked like a wizard’s tower while we were there.
After two days of exploring the town, we found ourselves walking the streets after dinner on our last night there, looking for a place to have a few drinks to commemorate our adventures over the past month.
Holly noticed a sign hanging over a door. She skipped over and stood next to it in the way a Price is Right model stands next to a car in the final showcase showdown. A big smile crossed her face.
“C’mon,” she pleaded. “This is perfect!”
I walked over and stared up at the sign. It looked like a piece of abstract art, and had just two words on it: Horor Bar.
Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders, and go with the flow. This was definitely one of those times.
We walked in and immediately descended a staircase to the cellar of the building where the bar was located. All you really need to know about the Horor Bar is that it looks like a dungeon out of a 1930s horror film, and it has a coffin for a table where patrons can sit and enjoy a beverage. In other words, it comes by its name honestly. I almost expected to see Bela Lugosi hunched over behind the bar, hissing “yes, master” as Basil Rathbone ordered a nefarious-looking drink.
The joint was sparsely populated when we walked in. While neither Baron Wolf von Frankenstein nor Ygor were present, my disappointment was immediately ameliorated when I saw the waitress leaning against the bar. Wearing a Lana-Turner-at-the-soda-fountain face, she was possessed of the kind of physical beauty that carves a permanent little corner in your memory as soon as you behold it, like a first kiss, or a magic hour sunset.
Standing across from her was an older man whom I pegged for either a regular or the owner. There were a couple of locals huddled together at one of the tables near the bar talking to each other in low whispers, and a group of three young Americans tucked into a corner table by the door who were much more animated.
The waitress came over and asked us what we wanted (at least I assume that’s what she said, as she was speaking Czech). As soon as we replied in English, she smiled and said, “Ahh… more Americans,” a statement which drew a few glances from the group of boisterous gringos in the corner.
“Nope,” I replied good-naturedly. “Canadians.”
Her smile disappeared in an instant, and she became very apologetic.
“I’m so sorry,” she said in English that, whilst broken, was a lot better than my Czech. “Many apologies.”
I smiled and shook my head. I had seen this more than once in my travels. A few Canadians with low self-esteem get offended when they’re mistaken for our southern cousins, and I suspected that she must have run across a couple of these obnoxiously defensive types at some point.
“No worries,” I said in a cheerful tone. “Tonight we’re all Czechs!”
She smiled again, broader this time, and asked us what we wanted to drink. I told her to bring us whatever she felt was their best local beer on tap, a gesture of confidence in her knowledge of the local scene that she clearly appreciated.
In a couple of minutes she returned with two very fulsome brews. As this was our last real night of the trip Holly and I were planning on making it a late evening, so I inquired when the bar closed.
“When the last customer leaves,” answered the waitress with a friendly laugh.
“My kind of bar,” I said, as she smiled and then moved off to check on the Americans.
Holly and I raised a glass to toast eight months of adventures together.
“It’s been a wild ride,” she said enthusiastically, and then took an approving sip of her beer.
“No kidding,” I replied, as I tasted what turned out to be an excellent lager. I gave the waitress a wave of thanks and a nod to indicate that she had definitely made a good choice.
“Flirt,” joked Holly.
“Absolutely,” I countered.
“She’s pretty,” Holly commented, looking over at the bar.
I took another sip of beer and played it cool.
“Well, if you want some alone time,” Holly said, tongue planted firmly in her cheek “just let me know, and I’ll take an extended bathroom break.”
“Deal,” I replied with a grin, but knowing full well that I wouldn’t go beyond casual flirting.
As the evening wore on Holly and I descended into a state of happy-go-lucky inebriation as we conducted something of a retrospective of our time working on Ghost Cases.
“What would you say was the scariest experience you had,” I asked at one point.
Her face tightened as she took in a deep breath.
“Churchill Mansion,” she said quietly, and then exhaled, as if it had been a Herculean effort just to say the words, much less conjure the memory. There was no need for her to say anything else. I remembered that investigation very well.
Churchill Mansion is an old home in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, that had been converted to an inn. It has a well-known reputation for being haunted, and we weren’t the first television show that had filmed an episode of a paranormal-themed show there.
The stories at the Mansion revolved around the original owner, Aaron Churchill, a famous seafarer and entrepreneur who was said to haunt the place with lascivious intentions towards any female guests, and his niece Lottie, who eventually suffered a mental breakdown and wound up in an asylum in Boston.
On our first night there, Holly, the crew and I sat down with the owner, a gnome-like old-timer named Bob, who related to us all of the various stories surrounding the mansion.
“I don’t really want to go on the record with this,” Bob told us cagily, although I’ve always found that as soon as someone says something like that it means that they really do want to go on the record, so I always keep the camera rolling unless they specifically request that I turn it off (at which point I always oblige). In Bob’s case, the persuasion came from a bottle of whiskey that he kept close by. After a swig or two, he continued.
“One of the stories is that Aaron and Lottie had…” He paused, and swallowed hard. “A relationship.”
Churchill died in 1920, but Bob explained that in a small town like Yarmouth there were some stories that you just didn’t discuss publicly, at least not with outsiders.
I knew exactly what he was talking about because when I was stationed as a special constable with the RCMP in northern Cape Breton in 1990, perhaps the most isolated region of Nova Scotia, we often had trouble getting people to talk about various crimes. They preferred to keep it “in house,” and then let us pick up the pieces after they had served their own rough brand of local justice.
“This is hard to do without getting into trouble,” he said. “We feel that there was a special connection between Aaron and Lottie. She was brought up as his daughter, and maybe she even was his own daughter. Lottie I think thought a lot of Aaron in ways other than as her uncle. There was certainly a connection between the two of them.”
Bob intimated that Lottie may have murdered a servant at the mansion, which he hinted was covered up. He then quickly moved on to other areas of the overall story, and we didn’t press him further as we all shared in the free-flowing whiskey.
After a while Holly left the living room. I assumed she was going to the bathroom. A few minutes later I was feeling peckish, so I stood up and asked Bob if there was any food in the kitchen. He told me that I was welcome to rifle through the large and well-stocked fridge and take whatever I wanted.
As I turned the corner from the living room and headed down the hallway towards the kitchen, I saw Holly leaning against the wall. She had clearly been crying.
“Hey there,” I said without my usual sarcastic edge. “What’s wrong?”
“Can I have a hug?” she answered with a quavering voice.
I’m not much of a touchy-feely type, but a friend in need trumps my naturally reserved nature, so I embraced her, and we just stood there for twenty seconds or so. Then she lifted her head, said “thanks,” and we stepped away from each other. I didn’t press for an explanation as she wiped the tears from her eyes. I just waited for her to get comfortable and tell me on her own time what was going on if she wanted to.
“He’s here,” she eventually said, her voice steadier, but still a bit uneven.
“Who is?” I asked.
“Aaron,” she answered. “I can feel him.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
She looked around her and shook her head. I could tell that she was getting her bearings again.
“I think I’ll be fine,” she said, and went back to the living room while I continued on to the kitchen. As I piled various types of deli meat onto a couple of slices of whole wheat bread I found myself hoping that Holly was all right, and wishing I could have done something more to help.
When we finally called it a night I went to my room at one end of the upstairs hall and Holly went to hers at the other end. Mine had originally been Aaron Churchill’s room, and she wanted no part of that, so she wound up in Lottie’s old room. The crew had positioned small digital cameras to monitor us as we slept, because allegedly paranormal activity had been reported in each room.
I managed to fall asleep in short order, only to be woken up about an hour later by Holly knocking on my door. In the episode, she described the circumstances as follows:
I tried to fall asleep, but couldn’t shake the feeling that there was someone else in the room with me. I was so spooked that I went down the hall and asked Paul if he would come up to Lottie’s room and keep me company while I tried to fall asleep.
I had never seen Holly quite so shaken before. She was almost on the verge of tears again, but there was something else at work, something that ran even deeper. I went back to her room (where we left the door slightly open, lest anyone get the wrong idea if they wandered by), and sat down on the second bed. We chatted for about half an hour and then she finally fell asleep. I nodded off shortly thereafter. All the while, the DVR camera kept recording, which gave us a record of what became a very strange and disturbing evening.
The camera recorded Holly tossing and turning in what she later described as one of the most restless nights she had ever experienced. She wasn’t the only one who found the room uncomfortable, however; I was lying on top of the blankets and was woken up by an intense chill, after which I crawled under the covers for the rest of the night.
As Holly and I were trying to get a decent night’s sleep in Lottie’s room, the digital camera we had stationed in the hallway recorded the door to a crew member’s room suddenly and violently opening and closing. There was no draft whatsoever that could have accounted for the savage force with which the door was moved.
Meanwhile, back in Lottie’s room Holly was still having trouble sleeping.
“It was made even more disturbing,” she later explained, “by the fact that I also couldn’t roll over. It was as if there was a person in the bed next to me.”
We both got a surprise when we reviewed the camera footage once we got home, because we discovered what appeared to be an unnatural indentation beside Holly in the bed as she slept, as if someone else was indeed lying there.
I asked her about it all again as we enjoyed another beer at the Horor Bar.
“It was almost as if I could sense the presence,” she recalled, as if it had just happened. “Remember the footage where I suddenly woke up shortly afterwards?”
“I could definitely feel something or someone in that room with me,” she said quietly, and then she looked away, as if trying to banish the memory to the ether.
I wanted to say something comforting to Holly – to let her know that I understood exactly how she felt. But we all cast our own shadows, and we have to walk with them by ourselves, so I just nodded, took a sip from my beer, and changed the subject.
The answer most often given by people who believe there is a paranormal aspect to ghostly phenomena is that ghosts are the spirits of the dead who simply refuse to accept the nature of their situation, and so they remain trapped in a netherworld between this life and the next. To the disbeliever, on the other hand, ghostly phenomena are nothing more than a trick of light here, a coincidence there, and any one of a number of other prosaic factors everywhere else.
In the vast majority of cases I have no doubt that the disbeliever is right. Indeed, there were times whilst filming Ghost Cases where we uncovered clear evidence of a hoax, or a story that had simply spun out of control over the years. But when confronted with experiences like those that Holly and I had in multiple locations in 2008 and 2009, I’m forced to conclude that there is the very real possibility that something more might sometimes be at work – something that reminds us of who we really are deep down inside.
What that “something” may be, I don’t know. But I do know that in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, on a cold winter’s eve in 2009, “it” may have paid a visit to my good friend Holly that left her terrified to the very core of her being.
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