Culture & Conversation

Nightmare on rue Principal

Halloween is our most theatrical of holidays and Montreal’s strong Irish heritage makes ours a truly magnificent and outlandish spectacle to behold. Based on the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, the ancient Irish New Year and a unique time when the dead returned to mingle with the living, today Hallowe’en offers a wide variety of spooky activities and frightful events. Children dress up and go trick-or-treating, costumed adults frequent spooky-themed nightclubs and parties, and there is an ever-increasing diversity of Hallowe’en activities on offer. Nowadays, those celebrating the big scare can enjoy everything from special museum events and kitsch Rocky Horror cinema to creepy attractions, spooky restaurants and, of course, haunted walking tours.

Hallowe’en has a special significance for me personally, and not only because of my Irish roots. As a professional actor, conducting haunted walks in Old Montreal is one of the main staples of my employment and Hallowe’en is easily my busiest time of year. For the past two seasons I have also been leading my own ghost tour, Haunted Mountain, up the slopes of Mount Royal in the darkness of night.

In my line of work, I meet a lot of people who are willing to pay good money to be frightened, or better yet, terrified. So, why is it that many people are so eager to experience emotions that are typically depicted as negative, such as fear, terror and horror? My best guess is that the thrill comes from experiencing an event related to danger, trauma or death, but in a controlled environment where there is little risk of anything bad actually happening. Ghost tours are not unlike extreme sports such as bungee-jumping, but are designed for the mind and not the body. The psychological adrenaline amongst guests is very real, even potentially addictive.

As an actor, I must confess that I enjoy playing within the horror genre the most. It all started in 1994 when I was hired by Hollywood make-up and special effects artist Bob Short, a master who had won an Oscar for his work on Beetlejuice. Bob set up a haunted attractions company called MonsterWorld, Inc. and created Chateau Greystoke, an elaborate haunted house that was located in a shopping mall off Décarie. My job was to hire and train various actors to inhabit the spooky environment, where Hollywood sets, combined with professional lighting and sound design, created the perfect haunted atmosphere for the actors to work.

Following my work with Bob Short, I went on to run the Entertainment Department at the U.K.’s infamous London Dungeon, before returning to Montreal to continue working in the genre, both with Fantômes Montréal and on my own projects. While I work mostly outdoors nowadays, I am pleased to report that our unique urban settings, such as Old Montreal and Mount Royal, easily rival the theatrical environments created by experts such as Bob Short or the Dungeon’s talented team of designers. The most important part of the horror genre is good storytelling, so the location, while important for atmosphere, is secondary to the material itself.

So, what am I doing on Hallowe’en night this year? Far from conducting a haunted walk in a cold, creepy outdoor environment, I’ll actually be in a warm classroom at the Galileo Adult Centre, where I also work, albeit as an English teacher for new arrivals eager to learn the language and experience local culture. The school is planning a Hallowe’en party, complete with costumes, cake, music, and dancing. My classroom will be a little bit different, because as a teacher I fully intend to dim the lights and engage the students in a little bit of spooky storytelling. With the wonders of modern technology, I won’t need to be outside or in a theatrical environment to create the perfect atmosphere – for that I’ll use my smartboard and a powerpoint presentation to bring the creepy story of Simon McTavish to life…and, of course, death.

Happy Hallowe’en!

PHOTO: Patrick Alonso

Donovan King is the founder of Optative Theatrical Laboratories, theatrum*mundi, and the international infringement festival. King also specializes in the horror genre, and has extensive experience creating and running haunted attractions, performances and ghost tours. Bilingual in English and French, King currently works as a teacher for the EMSB, as an actor for Fantomes Montreal and L’Entracte, as a cultural worker for the Save The Main coalition, and as a freelancer for anyone requiring his services.

  • 4 Responses to “Nightmare on rue Principal”

    1. Arturo

      Great piece! I just love that video about Simon McTavish. I had no idea!

    2. Donovan King

      Thanks Arturo! Yes, the McTavish story is a fascinating and long-forgotten one, which is why we are trying to bring it back to life!

    3. Bob Short


      Just stumbled across your blog while doing research on a haunted attraction project. I'm glad to see you are doing so well. (BTW I was a creative director for the Hollywood Halloween haunt that set up in Montreal (Laval) in 2009)

      Bob Short

    4. Donovan King

      Great to hear from you Bob! I saw the Laval attraction in 2009 with Dirk Hagen – your work is as amazing as ever! Here's hoping our paths cross again soon!

      Donovan King


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