‘A History of Ghosts’ explores paranormal past

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Everyone loves a good ghost story, right? That’s what Peter H. Aykroyd is banking on with his new book, “A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters.” The father of actor Dan Aykroyd tells a strange story — part history, part family legend — that inspired his son to make the film “Ghostbusters.” Here is an excerpt.

Prologue: May 12, 1929, Sydenham, Ontario
Four cars, all black, all polished for the trip from town, roll down the long lane to the farmhouse, the crunch of gravel beneath the tires momentarily silencing the birds. Dust settles on the gleaming finishes of the automobiles and they pull up beside the farmhouse, parking randomly on the grass: a Whippet, a Durant, a Willys-Knight, and a Dodge. The occupants alight. Four men in three-piece suits with well-shined shoes form a little knot. The women, four of them as well, all in black with stylish hats, form a companion group.

The faces are familiar. I have seen them all before. At church or in town, these people always have something friendly to say to me. But from here, in my hiding place among the newly budding lilac bushes, they appear unapproachable. Their minds are on something else.

I slip unobserved across the lawn to the back of the house and toward the outside cellar entrance. The cellar stairs are damp, and as I pull open one side of the heavy horizontal doors, I smell the rich, loamy scent of ripened apples. The rest of the family is puzzled by my favored mode of entry, but I am quite content entering the house this way. It gives me access to experiences I might otherwise miss. At age 7, I am as curious as they come.

I cross the cellar, which is dimly lit by the slanting sunlight entering through the outside door. I climb up the inside cellar stairs and kneel patiently on the top step, waiting. The cellar door is open a crack. From here I can see the kitchen in one direction and, in the other, the fireplace and the table in the parlor. I can hear the voice emanating from the Philco radio. It is crisp and clear as it delivers the news: A man named de Valera has just been sentenced to 1 month in prison in Northern Ireland, and a singer named Josephine Baker has been banned from the stage for something the newscaster calls “indecent behavior.” He doesn’t elaborate.

If I lean forward, I can see the front door and the verandah. I shift my position to see if anyone has entered yet, but apparently the people in the driveway are enjoying the last rays of the spring sun, the scent of lilacs, and the soft sounds of birdsong.

My grandfather is sitting in his usual chair by the fireplace, intent upon hearing every last word the newscaster has to say about world events: Mr. Trotsky is vowing to give up politics; the first in-flight movie has just been shown in the air between Chicago and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Grandpa grunts and snaps the radio’s dial, silencing it.

“People these days can’t seem to tolerate one moment without entertainment!” he mutters, almost to himself.

He stands and straightens his jacket, buttoning it formally across his lean frame, then glances at his pocket watch dangling from a sparkling gold fob. Moving toward the square table in the center of the cozy room, he adjusts the silk cloth in its center, then says something to the young, dark-haired man who is sitting there. Other than a slight wave of his hand, the young man gives little acknowledgment of having heard. His head is bowed and he seems unconcerned with his surroundings. Grandpa looks out the parlor window, then nods toward the kitchen, where I know my grandma is setting out the tea things.

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“It’s time, my dear,” Grandpa says to her quietly.

He turns and walks out the front door and stands on the verandah, his hands clasped loosely behind his back. The mantel clock is ticking, and I can hear the young man’s soft, rhythmic breathing as the grown-up scent of his cigarette drifts toward me. Waiting is pleasant, but I don’t have to wait long.

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The group, with Grandpa bringing up the rear, enters the farmhouse. They are chatting quietly. Once in the parlor, they are greeted by Grandma, a plump, smiling lady. I see that she is also dressed in black, as if for a funeral. As the fresh breeze wafts through the house, it brings another scent to me — the distinct aroma of freshly baked bread. And sure enough, through the crack by the doorjamb I can see two pans of buns, glistening from the application of homemade butter, warming at the back of the woodstove in the kitchen.

My mouth begins to water, but my attention is drawn away from my already full stomach. Grandpa has invited the guests to be seated and I must alter my position for a better view. I sense that it is important for me to see but remain unseen, for I am supposed to be in my bedroom preparing for bed.

The unlit coal-oil lamp stands on the sideboard waiting to do its part when dusk turns to dark. I wedge myself carefully between the wall and the inside of the cellar door, sliding silently to a seated position. Comfort will be crucial. It will be a long night.

The drapes are drawn, but there is still a faint light in the room. As the guests file into the parlor, they nod significantly to the seated man and take their places, leaving vacant the chairs on either side of the young man. Once the guests are seated, Grandma takes the chair to the young man’s left. Grandpa follows and occupies the last chair, to the young man’s right.

For the first time I notice that the young man is dressed differently from the others. His attire is far more casual: an open-collar work shirt and a cardigan sweater in a curious shade that makes me think of Absorbine Jr. Grandpa speaks.

“Please hold hands around the table. Try to think positive thoughts. Pray silently, if you wish.”

The young man stubs out his Turret cigarette. He leans back, closes his eyes, and slips into a trance. In the deafening, pin-drop silence, it is as if some curtain is about to rise into some invisible arch in the ceiling. But the show is an unusual one. These guests have not traveled from town to see a play or hear a concert. This is a meeting of Dr. Aykroyd’s Circle. A séance is about to begin, and the people present are here to engage in an unusual form of communication.

They have come from town to talk to the dead.

Chapter 1: Ghosts at Home: The Home Circle
The sights and sounds of that childhood scene came tumbling back to me one mild winter afternoon more than 50 years later. My sister Judy and I had taken on the task of clearing out the family home in Toronto, the place where my grandfather, Samuel Augustus Aykroyd, DDS, had spent the last days of his life. The house at 9 Garfield Avenue had been sold, and Judy and I had taken a weekend out of our own busy schedules to decide who would get what, what would go to auction, and what would be donated to the Salvation Army. The rest would go to the dump.

We had kept the dark basement for last. Several items that were seen as childhood treasures had been located upstairs: memorabilia and photos, ancient jewelry, original artworks, and a few rare books. We were not terribly excited about what could possibly be lurking in the dark wasteland below stairs.

With the last drops of a Manhattan made from bonded stock rye warming our insides, we had already made several trips up and down the stairs. Next to the furnace, in a corner of what was once the coal storage bin, we came upon our last load. Most of what we found was destined for the landfill: old suitcases with jagged zippers and broken handles that proved they had been to more places than most people, empty cardboard boxes, a stained mattress from a twin bed. And in the back, against a wall, an old, blue metal trunk. With the dedication of two people who felt duty-bound to thoroughly examine everything in their care, Judy and I pried open the rusted metal clasp with a screwdriver. We had expected to find either junk or emptiness. Instead, we found history.

Inside were a photo album of black-and-white prints attached with triangular corner mounts and yellowed newspapers from decades back, saved for articles germane to the family. There was a scrapbook of recipes, and our father’s sheepskin from Queen’s University, Applied Science 1913, and a bundle of notebooks of the type that children used in school. They were bound together with kitchen twine.

We untied the bundle and began to read page after page of penciled handwriting. Not good handwriting. Very hard to read. With no anticipation of doing so, we had come across Grandpa’s journals (83 of them, to be precise), written in his own hand from 1905 through 1931 and containing thoughts, observations, and conjectures that he clearly had hoped might someday be shared with others.

Within the now fragile pages were handwritten copies of letters to his family and friends and to the editors of local newspapers. The majority of the words he recorded are actual accounts of séances, most of which took place in the small farmhouse on the north shore of Loughborough Lake, near the village of Sydenham, Ontario. Other passages are his musings over what it’s all about. The notes and letters aid my remembrances of the taciturn elderly gentleman who lived in that farmhouse, where I spent many gloriously happy days and nights.

In my mind’s eye I can still see him in faded blue shirt and baggy tweed pants, sitting on the bank of Lake Loughborough with his feet over the edge of the dock, jotting his thoughts into a child’s notebook with a Dixon HB pencil. My grandfather created in me a lifelong interest in the paranormal, an interest that has proved to be enormously engaging and fun. I have passed it on to my sons, Dan and Peter, and it also resulted in a television series and movies, which have been the most fun of all. In 1984, the year of Ghostbusters’ release, it became the most successful comedy in film history (to date it has been seen by a billion people), and it was absolutely and directly derived from the blue trunk. I only hope Grandpa knows what fun he started!

Excerpted with permission from “A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters” (Rodale) by Peter Aykryod.