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Overnight in a haunted house

When the Winnipeg International Writers Festival selected me as one of four dark-fiction authors to stay overnight at a haunted house, I was excited, but I didn’t have any expectations–at least not on the haunted side of things.

Still, it was an amazing opportunity. Dalnavert is far from your average house. A national historic site built in 1895, it was once the home of former Manitoba premier Sir Hugh John Macdonald and his family. (Macdonald was the son of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.) Today, Dalnavert House is also a museum filled with artifacts. No expense or effort was spared to recreate the home as it must have looked when Macdonald and his wife Gertie and two children–Daisy and Jack–were living there.

Dalnavert master bedroom

The evening started off with a reading from all four authors, including yours truly. The small room was packed with an appreciative crowd, and my thanks to Simon Fuller, Robert and Tara Clark, Andy Mondaca, and Rhonda Sandberg for coming out to support me. The conditions were auspicious for a spooky evening–it was Friday the 13th, with a full moon. What could possibly go wrong?

After our reading, Thomas McLeod, Executive Director of the Friends of Dalnavert Museum Inc., gave us writers an in-depth, fascinating tour of the house. Each area of the home had its own personality, whether it was the oppressive study of Sir Hugh with its blood-red walls, the lively bedroom of his fencing and pistol-shooting daughter Daisy, the elegance of the sitting room with its piano and extraordinary paper mâché writing set, or the eeriness of the nursery with its nightmarish collection of disturbing dolls. Following the tour, we were left with an embarrassment of snacks and bid goodnight (one staff member stayed on in case we needed him, but we were free to explore the house and write wherever we wanted). The access we were given to this incredible house, and the trust this showed, were nothing short of remarkable. In return, I believe all four of us became fans of Dalnavert that night.

Dalnavert sitting room

Once it was time to get serious about writing, we split up. Dave Demchuk, author of The Bone Mother, opted for the study. Stoker award-winning short story and screenplay writer Jess Landry tucked herself away in Daisy’s room. Adam Petrash, co-editor of the Parallel Prairies anthology and author of The Ones to Make it Through, settled by the front door, liking his view of the first floor, and I was drawn to the bedroom that had belonged to Macdonald’s son Jack. Though an accomplished athlete, Jack suffered from diabetes, which was nearly impossible to treat or manage in the Victorian era. He died before reaching adulthood–in the very room where I planned to write my story.

Dalnavert Jack's room

Jack’s room.

While there were a few disturbing things in the room, including a creepy toy, The Game of Life’s Mishaps (a macabre early version of the modern Game of Life), and Jack’s own stamp book, which apparently could resist attempts to photograph it, I didn’t get any negative impressions from the room. For a while, I sat on the floor by Jack’s closet with my laptop, but after a while, I decided to look out the window.

Just when I’d reached the glass, bam! The closet door flew open behind me with violent force, slamming into my laptop. Both Adam and Jess heard the sound (Adam thought someone had dropped their computer). Thankfully, my laptop was okay. I looked inside the closet, but of course nothing was there. Spooked, I told the others what had happened, and together we tried to recreate the event, opening and shutting the closet door and retracing my path to the window. Nothing happened, which didn’t set my mind at ease.

Dalnavert Jack's closet

View of room where the closet flew open–the door with the white knob is the closet.

Though it was terrifying when it happened, it didn’t deter me from staying in Jack’s room, and I remained there, either writing or trying to write, until 6:30 a.m. When Thomas arrived later that morning with breakfast, I asked him if anyone else had experienced anything odd with that closet, and he said no, that the staff often used it for storage.

So, my thanks to Jack Macdonald for ensuring I was the only writer who was scared out of her wits at Dalnavert, and also for inspiring the ghost story that will be launched on October 31st, along with the stories of my new writer friends. (Well, Jess was a friend from before, but I’d say we certainly got to know each other better during this experience!)

Have you ever stayed overnight at a haunted house? Is this something you’d be willing to do? Do you have any spooky stories of your own to share? Bonus if they take place at Dalnavert House.

Dalnavert Jack Macdonald

Jack Macdonald

P.S.  My new novel, Those Who Came Before, will be available soon! If you’re in the Winnipeg area, I’d love to see you at the launch on October 30th at McNally Robinson Grant Park at 7 pm.

Photo credit: Photo of the exterior of Dalnavert House by the Friends of Dalnavert Museum Inc. All other photos my own.

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  1. Random Musings

    This sounds like so much fun! And I’d like to think Jack was just trying to give you some inspiration for your story haha

    • Spencer Richard

      I would have pooped my pants. This is seriously the coolest thing to have been able to do though.

  2. Catherine Cavendish

    What an experience! This looks like such an atmospheric house. Until recently I lived in a haunted apartment – fortunately populated by a benevolent spirit who satisfied herself with trying to make us feel at home. I think she also enjoyed fiddling with modern electrical gadgets because she certainly toyed with the washing machine and television on more than one occasion. A little unnerving sometimes but never threatening. Now the spooky cupboard on our landing – and the ghosts in the rest of the 260 year old building – were another matter entirely

    • Lynn Laughln

      Hi, would love to hear more about your “benevolent spirit”if you would care to share some experiences!

  3. David M. Burnham

    What an awesome experience. Thank you for sharing it with us. I’m halfway through “Those Who Came Before” and don’t want to put it down.

  4. Michelle Willms

    I’ve lived in two haunted houses. One belongs to my grandfather (and no longer seems to be haunted, after the house was updated a bit many years ago); the other was on a Native American reservation. Not all the experiences were pleasant, though most were harmless.

  5. Mary Aalgaard

    What an incredible experience. I would love to do that! Not so much the scary door slamming part, but it would be so cool to spend time in a creepy old house, or castle, and have the freedom to explore and write. Can’t wait to read your next book!

  6. James

    My sisters claimed to have seen some strange things (e.g., chairs rocking on their own, doors slamming) in my parents’ home. It’s not surprising, it’s very old and once belonged to my great-grandparents.

    My grandmother’s home is haunted and I wrote about a ghostly experience that occurred there a number of years ago (in my 2018 Laughs & Spooks book).

  7. Nikki B.

    What a gorgeous house! I mean, I’m not the least bit surprised that you had SOMETHING happen while you were there because I think Jack looks like the kind to be fond of a bit of good-hearted mischief. 😉

  8. Jim Edwards

    Sounds like a great experience in a wonderful old house! That you were the only one to be singled out for a special experience does not surprise me. Special experiences are for special people only!

  9. Birgit

    I would so love to stay in a haunted house and I think you are one lucky gal. Were you able to go to the attic and basement? The door flying open is very spooky but so cool! I love that and have a feeling Jack was letting you know he is there. he may want to be written about since he died way too young. Love to see more pics

  10. Alex J. Cavanaugh

    Well, that was certainly creepy. You got the full treatment of a haunted house.

  11. L. Diane Wolfe

    What an amazing and spooky opportunity. I don’t think I would’ve stayed in Jack’s room after the closet door flew open though.

  12. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    You are a brave woman! If I made it as far as the closet flinging open in the first place, that would have made me fly right out of that house way faster than my usual tortoise speed. 😮

  13. Patricia Josephine

    I bet that would be a great place to visit, but no way would I stay overnight if I knew it was haunted. Never mind the ghosts, I’d scare myself!

  14. Liesbet

    What a cool experience and opportunity, JH! Did you manage to create an entire new story that night, or did you follow an inkling of an idea? Did you get some sleep? And, enough time to interact with your fellow writers? I can imagine this being a perfect place to write a horror or haunted story – it would have been a good answer to this month’s IWSG question. 🙂

    • JH

      Thanks, Liesbet. I wrote a brand-new story (or rather, started one). I think it might end up being a novel or novella, as I really liked where it was going and had a lot more to say. Didn’t get much sleep at all–I stayed up until 6:30 am working on it, and then one of the other writers was packing up and writing at 8, so there was no sleeping past that.

      While there’s never enough chatting time, we did have some good visits during the night, and it was great to get to know the other writers.

  15. Kimberly

    I would LOVE to experience a night in a reputed haunted house!

    • JH

      It was a pretty amazing experience. Thankful I got to do it.

  16. Debbie Johansson

    What an amazing opportunity and experience. I don’t know if I’d be staying in that room after that! I haven’t stayed in a haunted house, but I have visited what is reputed to be the most haunted house in the country (Australia) one day and may have caught a spirit on camera. This inspired me to do a ghost tour of a haunted location in Sydney, where I had a couple of experiences, including seeing a ghost. Now I’d love to do more! I look forward to seeing your ghost story. 🙂

    • JH

      How cool that you caught something on film! Though I’ve tried, that hasn’t worked out for me (yet).

      Thanks for the comment and kind words, Debbie.

  17. Mark Murata

    I have to ask the skeptical question: Do you think the proprietors of this house/museum were putting you on?

    • JH

      I know they weren’t, but I understand why one might think that.

  18. Toni V. Sweeney

    I’d like to hear more about the “disturbing colleciton of dolls” and the “creepy toy.”


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