In the early nineteen nineties, I signed up to be a disc jockey for Radio Erindale of the University of Toronto, Mississauga. I signed up because I loved music, was heavily into the alternative live music and club scene in Toronto, and because my longtime friend, Gary Matos, was their newly christened Station Manager.
With a few other select personnel, we planned to collectively make a musical difference at a small, and slightly beleaguered, suburban campus radio station. We’d fill the thirsty ears of the student body with the music that we liked to listen to, with the tunes we were hearing in the downtown clubs we were regularly frequenting: La Vie, Catch-22 and Empire. And, most importantly, we’d get to talk bands and records and new music all day and all of the night.
I signed up for the late shift that quivered between ten o’clock in the evening and one o’clock in the morning. It was a time when solitary figures of the student body ghosted across campus in the dark, arms full of books and bags, and faces full of essay anxiety. I, meanwhile, was left alone to spin my personal records and compact discs, ethereally reaching out to everyone through the hallways, residences and student lounges.
It’s fitting, then, that this particular story takes place one evening at the end of October, the month when the days are short and the cold nights come early, near an intersection of foot pathways between university buildings appropriately called The Crossroads.
Here I was. Alone. At midnight. With music. With the unexplainable.
I’m fairly certain that it was All Hallows Eve. My memory of the exact ate may have faded over the decades but not my exacting memory of the experience.
In those days Radio Erindale was situated in an attic space at the end of a long, narrow and creaky staircase in Coleman House, a building that served various functions on the ground floor, not the least of which was as a meeting place for students wandering the maple tree-lined pathways between the main South and North Buildings of the University campus. It was adjacent to the Crossroads Building, an edifice that functioned as an interval for students and administration, housing the offices of Student Council.
As with every shift, I arrived early in the evening, spending time in Gary’s second-floor office, a tight, musty room at the far end of the staircase that was stuffed with papers, envelopes, cd’s, filing desks, a computer, walls draped with band posters, a well-worn couch from a by-gone era, and left over breakfasts, lunches and dinners along with coffee cups and empty cans of Coca Cola. My friend and I chatted about our day, our classes, and the tickets we bought for upcoming concerts: Blur, Suede, Charlatans, and potentially organizing a Sultans of Ping FC performance on university grounds. We were, generally, the only ones to regularly defy studying and stay late at the station during the week.
Afterwards, I made my way across the small landing, closing the administrative office door behind me while making sure not to trip over warped wooden floorboards and falling down the creaky old stairs. It was a long, painful way to the ground floor and the oft-locked, metal-framed door at the base of those stairs that led to the cold night outside.
Instead, I safely opened the door to the musical side of Radio Erindale, a narrow, warm room, full of wall-to-wall carpet and shelf upon shelf of records: LP’s and 45’s, from the last thirty years of music. The collection was a prized jewel of history and culture for the Mississauga campus, even if many students and faculty didn’t know it existed. Here could be found first-press vinyl Beatles and Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye and Donna Summer, Sex Pistols and The Clash, Spandau Ballet and Mister Mister. I’d spend the time before my show thumbing through sleeve after artful sleeve or, sometimes, just sitting on the floor and staring at the enormity of music in that library.
By 9:55 PM that night, the evening disc jockey had packed his bags and quickly scattered out of the small, glass-bowled DJ booth, closing the door to the functional side of the radio station behind him, leaving me alone to play my well-rehearsed, Halloween-centric program of music. Gary, meanwhile, listened from the office side of the station, across that narrow landing, opening mail from new, local bands who were always requesting interviews and airtime.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. It’s me again, Jean-Paul at ten o’clock, spinning music of the Brit Pop kind, keeping you company in and through the midnight hour as you leaf through your physics textbooks, as you pen your art history essays and as you begin sipping through your last coffee of the night. Maybe you’re busy playing dress-up, maybe you’re wolfing down chocolate, but we’re going to play something different tonight, something right for this season. Settle in, open your ears, listen up. This is Halloween, after all.”
And I began, playfully, with my evening’s set list.
Danny Elfman (from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas) – This Is Halloween
Spinning away from the turntable, I peered through the second storey window of the DJ booth that looked out onto the rarely used back patio of Coleman House. Surrounded by a forest, half empty of damp orange and brown coloured leaves, and half full of bare, skeletal branches, was a fenced-in swimming pool, covered with heavy tarp and the evening darkness.
Someone had drowned in that pool. A student, years ago.
I didn’t know the specifics of the tale. The story was just something that someone had said in passing at a party somewhere, earlier in the semester. The wind blew leaves and branches and their shadows danced on the concrete courtyard and over the pool covering, revealing hidden shapes that seemed to rustle and move underneath. I thought of the students on campus, my friends in residence, surely enjoying Halloween festivities somewhere, and how it would be so easy to jump that fence on a dare, late at night, after a few drinks. And I thought about how easy it would be for a tragedy to ensue.
A tap on the booth’s glass window startled me back from my temporary musing. Gary waved at me and opened the door to the small compartment, telling me he was heading to the South Building for a walk and to find a vending machine with some food. He showed me his keys, telling me his office door would be locked, that the door to my side of the radio station would be locked, and that the door at the base of the wooden, rickety stairs would also be locked. We were careful at Radio Erindale. No unapproved or unknown guests were allowed inside.
He closed the door behind him and I heard his weighty footfalls echo through the landing, wood creaking as he stepped each time and, finally, the heavy door at the base of the staircase opening and then closing shut.
I queued up the evening’s second track.
The Mission – Deliverance
With an intro of synths and mysterious guitar plucks and bass strums, the music formed a perfect atmosphere to the night’s proceedings. It was Halloween. What better time to “believe in magic, believe in lore, legend and myth”?
I sat back in my chair, proud of the night’s early progression, re-organizing my compact disc cases, re-mixing the order of the next set’s potential play, listening, bobbing my head up and down, and tapping my heels on the ground to the beat of the song’s drum.
What was that sound?
I heard the echo of the heavy door at the base of the stairwell slowly creak open and slink up the hallway outside the radio studio. I paused my air drumming and stopped the beating of my feet and heard footfalls rising up the stairs, slowly, slowly, growing louder and louder with each step, the warped floorboards creaking underneath a heavy weight. Gary had returned quickly.
The sound of those footsteps stopped at the top of the landing and I half expected Gary to unlock the door to the studio space where I was working instead of the door to his own office, and tell me that he had changed his mind and wanted, instead, to spend his evening in the DJ booth with me, listening to my program and chatting. But the door never opened.
It seemed like an eternity, perched on the edge of my chair, waiting for another sound to frame everything that I had just heard into some understandable narrative. Perhaps Gary had silently, if improbably, opened the door to his own office. Maybe he had forgotten his wallet. Maybe he was sitting in his office now, the two of us separated only by a door, a creaky landing, and another door.
Despite my curiosity, I brushed off the sounds I had heard and kept true to my set list. I queued up the next song.
The Mercy Seat – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
The eeriness was magnificent.
I was deeply into it now, the mood of the music I was playing and the sensations of the evening. “I began to warm and chill to objects and their fields” and the wind, the darkness and moonlight outside started to play with my mind.
Outside the window, at the back enclosure of Coleman House, surrounded by a forest of obscurity, I saw what seemed like human figures dart from the edges of my vision, from shadow to shadow. They were student residents, surely, taking shortcuts from building to building, party to party, circumnavigating the fenced enclosure and around the covered swimming pool where someone had once drowned.
The wind blew with a sudden and fleeting ferocity and dead leaves were caught up in swirling skyward eddies.
What? What was the story I had once heard at a party by someone, somewhere? Who told it?
Music flooded the booth, dramatic piano and eclectic guitar, and percussion, rising and rising and rising further in a frenzy, a brilliant cacophony of fret and anxiety and unease.
What was that sound?
Something dropped to the carpeted floor in the library directly outside the booth I was seated inside. Then, a shuffling of cardboard sleeve against cardboard sleeve – the sounds I made when I sifted through Radio Erindale’s imposing record collection. I hadn’t heard Gary unlock the door to my workspace. I hadn’t seen him walk across the room and make his way to the library section. Why would he? Why wouldn’t he have stopped in my booth to greet me first?
I got up from my now uncomfortable chair and peered around the corner and into the library. Shelves and stacks of vinyl records were situated exactly as I had last seen them at the beginning of my evening shift. The carpeted floor was barren of any item, save closed boxes of compact discs and even more vinyl, pushed up against walls and into the corners of the room. The door that led to the outside staircase was still closed, still locked.
I nervously ambled back into the DJ booth and slowly, methodically, set up the next song, the back of my neck damp, my senses on full alert.
Manic Street Preachers – Archives of Pain
Throbbing, bone crunching bass and fingernails-on-blackboard guitar ripped through the airwaves – a punk aesthetic to wipe clean the agitation I felt, but my mind would not, could not, rest.
And these sounds! What were these sounds? A door opening. Footfalls on stairs. A rustling of albums in a music library. Something falling on the floor. And locked doors. All this with locked doors.
Someone was here. “Tear the torso with horses and chains” – someone was here, in this room, with me.
I frantically took one more thorough look around the room, moving throughout to ensure every angle was covered, that every space beside every shelf and behind every box was investigated. It was certain. No one was there.
I unlocked the door to the studio and stepped out onto the landing, the floorboards groaning under my feet. Peering down into the dark, narrow stairwell, I saw nothing. I knocked on Gary’s locked office door and called for him but it stood closed and resolute. Through the clamor of intricate, wailing guitar and the pounding of staccato drums over the speaker system, I knocked again, louder this time and again, called for my friend by name. No one answered.
Quickly walking down the stairs, hands firmly grasping the hip-high rails in order to keep my balance, I saw, finally, that the outside door was locked. Gary had locked it when he had left and locked it remained. He wasn’t here in this building. No one was here in this building with me and I uneasily trudged back upstairs, closing and then deliberately locking the studio door behind me, queuing up the final song of my first set that night.
Love And Rockets – Haunted When The Minutes Drag
In the DJ booth, I sat back in my chair, trapped. Why did I ever think playing music at midnight was a good idea? Why tonight of all nights? Who was listening? I should be at a residence party, dressed as some famous figure of pop culture, drinking rum and chatting with friends. Living a university life. Carousing. Having fun. Merriment.
Instead, “the word that would best describe this feeling would be haunted.” There was no other, conceivable explanation, I thought, exhaling long and deeply.
Then the sound came again. Footsteps on floorboards, creaking under weight.
Slowly, slowly and deliberately the sounds came to my ears, one for each step, one wooden groan at a time and each more distant than the next as they made their way to the locked outer door at the base of the long, narrow staircase. I heard the door open into the night, and then, just as quickly, close again.
I didn’t get up. I just sat in the chair, my muscles tight and ready to react. There was, in truth, nowhere for me to go. I was in the booth with only a turntable, some electrical gear and a window behind me that led to the back patio and the swimming pool, two storeys below.
Someone had drowned in that pool. A student. Drowned and not murdered, I convinced myself. Drowned. By misadventure. It was only misadventure. That was the story that someone had said to me in passing at a party somewhere, earlier in the semester
Looking through the window, I saw the same trees and the same bare branches and the same dead leaves from earlier in the evening, stationary now. Shadows from ambient light were flat against both the concrete patio and the tarp that covered the pool. There was no movement.
And then there it was again!
The door from downstairs opening! I heard the sound of steps echo through the stairwell and grow louder as they got closer. Someone was standing on the landing now, for sure, rustling keys and opening the door to the administrative office. I gathered myself and threw open the library door to the small hallway, startling Gary.
“Where have you been?” I demanded again and again. “Did you come back here after you had left?”
“No,” he answered, quickly. “I was at the South Building. I got some food. Like I said I would do. People are milling about there. Your set list sounds good.”
I told him about my experiences and the sounds I heard.
“Oh,” he serenely replied. “So, you finally met our ghost.”
Spoken of only in passing and always during darker discussions, it was fairly well known to building staff that Colman House and, specifically, the attic that was Radio Erindale, was haunted by an unknown entity. There are stories of DJ’s sleeping outside the booth in wait for their shift, mysteriously being shaken awake, just in time for their start, with no one there to shake them. It’s been said that two girls were once locked inside that booth – a booth that for security reasons and for fire regulations no longer had a workable lock. There are multiple tales of phantom phone calls into the station and, once answered, only garbled, indecipherable voices could be discerned from the other end. There are more accounts as well, some playful, some frustrating, and even some physically upsetting.
By all accounts, the entity that haunted Radio Erindale, now moved to a different location on campus, must have been a lover of music.
I know now, with time, that nonfiction can become something altogether different, something tempered, something molded that transcends this reality. And I know now that, with music as its atmospheric backdrop, how startling those experiences can become. Music, for when you’re feeling happy. Music, for when you’re feeling sad. And music, for when you feel…something.
How frightening the dissolution of memory.
But during the right season, on the right day, at the right hour – and with the right song, how magical that reflection.