A PARANORMAL “AGNOSTIC,” FILMMAKER PAUL KIMBALL CONTINUES THE HUNT FOR PROOF
Halifax documentary filmmaker Paul Kimball doesn’t know what to believe about the paranormal.
He’s all about keeping an open mind: a philosophy manifested in an ever-evolving career path that includes two degrees (one in history and politics, another in law), a couple of bands (back when Halifax was the next Seattle), a wide range of jobs in the film industry (government and private sector), and a brief stint in politics (as the PC candidate for Clayton Park West in the recent provincial election). This month, he’s launching and starring in a brand-new project called Haunted, an Eastlink TV series also featuring co-host Holly Stevens.
This new series, which Kimball also writes and directs, is a perfect fit for the Halifax filmmaker, who has a long history of exploring, writing, and making films about paranormal phenomena, including an earlier TV series called Ghost Cases.
He’s also the nephew of Stanton Friedman, a nuclear physicist who’s studied UFOs since 1958 and is widely recognized as the first civilian to investigate the Roswell Incident. But despite his family background, Kimball considers himself a “hopeful agnostic” when it comes to believing in paranormal beings like ghosts and extraterrestrials.
“For me it’s not about belief with any of these things,” he says. “It’s about what can you prove to me. And with the UFO stuff, I can look at documents.”
Kimball reflects on the 1960s, the decade of Nova Scotia’s Shag Harbour and Manitoba’s Falcon Lake incidents. “I’ve talked to some of the survivors of that era and there’s a kernel that makes me think some of these people might have had genuine experiences,” he says. “Do I know if they involved space aliens? I don’t. But I can read; that’s what I did to study … history.”
And there’s no shortage of reading to do. Paranormal references are everywhere: mythology and religion, urban legends, and first-person accounts. One such reference is in a diary written by Henry Alline, a preacher from the late 1700s who spent much of his life working to establish the Baptist church in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
“If you read his diary, he describes his conversion experience in great detail,” says Kimball. “And I’m paraphrasing here, but he talks about going out into a pasture and being wrapped up in God, ravished by the spirit. He describes it as a very intense physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental experience.”
In addition to his extensive reading, Kimball’s tells some interesting stories of his own. At least one of them occurred while he was filming Haunted at the Queen’s County Museum in Liverpool. It happened when Holly Stevens, Kimball’s co-host, walked into the research centre. Stevens was talking to the sound technician when an abrupt howl interrupted her. She bolted from the room, with the technician hot on her heels.
“I’ve never seen her do this, and we’ve been doing this off and on for nine years, including another TV show we did years ago,” says Kimball, referring to Ghost Cases.
Kimball recalls Stevens sharing that it sounded like “somebody was standing right in front of her and went ‘Ahhh,’ right into her face.” The crew had their personal audio recorders running and the camera was on, so they spent the next half-hour working out what had happened.
“We’ve gotten freaky stuff on camera before and on audio,” says Kimball. “I’ve never seen anything like that. For me, interesting evidence is when I can multiply things. There’s Holly’s experiencing it herself, there’s our audio recorder picking it up, and there’s Holly’s reaction. And we can account for where everybody else was in that building. It couldn’t have been us. That, to me, makes a very interesting story and I just go, ‘I have no idea.’”
Linda Rafuse, director of the Queen’s County Museum and a founder of Liverpool’s East Coast ParaCon conference, was in the kitchen watching the video monitor when it happened. She noticed that the crew had gathered in the archives, so she went out to see what was happening.
“That’s when Holly was telling her story,” says Rafuse. “She said it was a female, and that she felt like the female came right up close to her face and went ‘woo’ and it scared her.”
For Rafuse, this is nothing new. She says the museum has a number of ghosts hanging around. They don’t usually see anything, but the staff say they hear and feel things.
“We have people who tell us there’s an elderly lady who likes to hang down around the bookcases in the research centre,” says Rafuse. “And we’ve learned over the years that there’s a young girl who sticks around the gift shop in the museum. Then, in our main gallery, our big central room, there’s a gentleman who’s there all the time. Everybody knows him. Our lunchroom is right off of that gallery and most times he just stands there while we’re eating our lunch. You can’t see him, but you can definitely feel him.”
According to Rafuse, they also make a lot of noise. “We have our privateer’s ship in the main gallery, and sometimes they’ll be over there banging on something, or it will sound like a couple of footsteps across the deck. Or we’ll be out in the main gallery and we’ll hear people talking in the archives but there will be nobody in there. We’ve all heard the voices. Sometimes you can hear papers shuffling in the archives, too.”
Rafuse says that when you work in a museum, ghosts just come with the territory.
“I would bet safe money that there is not a museum in this world that you could travel to that would tell you that they don’t have a story to share,” she says. “Because of all the artifacts. We’re believers in artifacts coming to a building maybe with a spirit attached to it. It could have been a very important piece to that person. Who knows. We always say we’ll never know for sure until we get over to the other side.”
Christopher Helland is an associate professor in the sociology and social anthropology department at Dalhousie University. He says the uncertainty keeps people talking about ghosts and the paranormal.
“Life is uncertain and it’s fragile,” says Helland. “Even though humans are resilient, the only thing guaranteed in your life is that you’re going to die. As morbid as that sounds, that’s a certainty. And it’s sad to think that that’s it. That your loved ones are done with, that that’s the end. So it is certainly comforting to believe that there’s something more.”
A basic belief in the paranormal is something all peoples have in common.
“It doesn’t matter how modern we become,” says Helland. “We have shamans, and people who claim to be able to speak with the dead, and I think a lot of people have very genuine experiences. Whatever they are, that’s a different question. But people feel there are ghosts and there’s an afterlife, and I don’t think there’s any culture that doesn’t have that.”
Whether experiences are paranormal or not, the resulting stories carry cultural relevance. Mainly, Helland says, they teach. They pass on the values of a community or a group.
“A lot of that stuff about ghosts or vampires or zombies comes down to ‘if you follow the group’s teachings and you do what you’re supposed to do then you’re going to go to a good place when you die,” he explains. “And if you don’t, then bad things will happen.’ Stories remind people what is good and bad or right and wrong. It’s interesting too, because they aren’t even all religious stories, although they are certainly dealing with the supernatural.”
It’s all cause and effect; in most ghost stories, there’s a reason the ghost is loitering around.
“Maybe it’s because it was a bad death,” says Helland. “Maybe it’s because there wasn’t a proper burial, or it’s because they didn’t follow the rules of the community. Maybe they have a message to communicate, or they’re somehow being punished, or there’s unfinished business.”
Kimball considers his work on Haunted to be “almost like being a folklorist,” because the stories he shares and the buildings he explores on are historically relevant. And he says that as we move forward as a society, we need to make sure we don’t forget our stories.
“Because that’s what people love about us,” he says. “We’re cool storytellers with lots of maps and legends and myths. They should teach Helen Creighton in school, for the truth of the stories she told. I think that’s important for people. Otherwise, you create a solely scientific society that’s divorced from myth and I think that’s a bad thing. It’s divorced from humanities and storytelling, and so then what you get are monsters, the sort of people with no idea about good and bad, and stories that help us understand what good and bad is.”
• ROSWELL, 1947: A rancher found mysterious debris in his pasture, which was located just outside of Roswell, New Mexico. At first, officials from the nearby air-force base suggested it was actually a weather balloon, and about 50 years later, the military claimed it had to do with a top secret “atomic espionage” project. But despite these offered explanations, many people considered (and still do consider) Roswell a UFO incident. From history.com.
• SHAG HARBOUR, 1967: On October 4, a number of witnesses noticed four orange lights hovering over Shag Harbour, on Nova Scotia’s southwestern tip. The lights veered towards the water. An RCMP officer spotted a yellow light on the water, but it submerged, leaving some yellow foam behind. The foam was noticed by the Coast Guard. Searches were conducted, but nothing was ever found. From the Barrington Municipality website.
• FALCON LAKE, 1967: Considered “Canada’s most famous UFO encounter,” the Falcon Lake Incident occurred on May 20, when Stefan Michalak was out prospecting. He was near the lake when he noticed two separate lights. One rose into the air and landed nearby, and when Michalak approached, he saw it was a “brilliantly lit” “silver craft” about 12 metres around. It suddenly took off, knocking Michalak down, and he later experienced symptoms consistent with radiation poisoning. No doctor was ever able to explain Michalak’s symptoms, or the burns on his chest that appeared months later. From CBC.
CORRECTION: Due to a fact-checking error, the print edition of this story incorrectly described Paul Kimball’s level of education: he doesn’t have a graduate degree in history. The story above has been updated. We regret the mistake.