The Lady Novelist Explores the Dead Heart of Edmonton

20130907-153918.jpgDiary: 6 September

I gaze at my hands today with a certain trepidation. The insect bites I received at the Great Bear Lodge still cover my hands, and new bites have appeared on my arm and waist. Am I simply too tasty a treat for Canadian mosquitoes to ignore? Or am I, in fact, cursed?

As I prepared to depart from Edmonton, it seemed a fair question to ask, for Edmonton is known by another name: Dedmonton.

My first night in this deceptively lovely town was spent on the Edmonton Ghost Tour. Guide Nadine led us to sites of horrific true murders, tragic suicides and haunted buildings. Her wry and sassy wit and forthright delivery was an entertaining contrast to stories of dismemberment, cruelty and sorrow. Tales of ghost horses from the former firehouse and a later one of the ghost cats at the Strathcona High School were harmless enough, but other bloodied spirits preyed more upon the mind in darkened alleys and darker back streets.

The creepiest moment came at the aforementioned High School; while Nadine told us of the homeless man whose body was concealed in the foundations and whose spirit haunts a library typewriter and the third floor rooms, I looked up to see the silhouette of a man leaning out of the window, listening. A moment later he was gone, and the lights on that level turned on and off up and down the wings of the building. Almost as if there was a caretaker checking the building. Almost.

Besides leading various ghost and historical tours around the older parts of Edmonton, Nadine has written for several spooky TV series, including Creepy Canada, so the tour seemed an appropriate foretaste of the following morning, which saw me following the undead trail to the Alberta Film Studio.

20130907-154102.jpgMy tour was hosted by Brad Stromberg, of the Edmonton Film Commission. We explored the soundstage (empty at that moment: a huge blank canvas waiting for the next story to come and be made manifest in its vast space). The city’s cinematic fortunes were revitalised some years ago when its denizens decided to reclaim the pejorative label ‘Dedmonton’ and declared they would be boring no more. The studio become a place to go to make horror films. The Ginger Snaps werewolf trilogy, Prom Night 2 and the series Fear Itself were all made here.

The studio makes a broader variety of films now – feature films Cutbank and the thriller Freezer were recently made here, but it’s still proud of its horror history (and of the city’s famous son, Nathan Fillion). It’s also the home base of acclaimed series Blackstone (now showing in New Zealand and Australia).

A highlight of the tour for me was meeting the independent film makers with offices on the top floor: Douglas Cole of Imageworks told me about his amazing new 3D project aimed at providing immersive and emotionally connecting experiences for people experiencing isolation and limited mobility, particularly among the elderly. Perry Shulak of Critical Vision is writing a graphic novel in between developing state-of-the-art e-learning materials and Bogart Productions’ Patti Olsen is producing a documentary about the role of Canadian Indigenous women in first response roles, as well as several animations and a possible feature film. I met so many creative people using the space collaboratively and for such a diverse range of projects, it was very inspiring. I think I want to run away to Edmonton and burrow into that amazing space and find ways of working with these fabulous people.

20130907-154212.jpgThe horror film motif continued in the afternoon as I joined Tim in a confab at The Next Act Pub with the folks behind Dedfest and dEdmonton. (Pictured from left to right, Kevin Martin, Matt Novak, Derek Clayton and Darryl Plunkie.)

Derek Clayton is the president and event co-ordinator of the five-day horror film festival, Dedfest, which is on annually in October. In 2013, the festival will run 16-20 October, with films showing at the local Metro Cinema. Past Dedfests have shown films like the Nazi zombie flick Dead Snow and included guests like Michael Biehn. The festival has expanded from its origins six years ago to include grindhouse, SF and kung fu films along with the pre-requisite monster, slasher, stalker fare of the horror genre.

“We describe ourselves now as an international genre film festival,” said Derek over a beer.

Another brain (not in a jar) behind Dedfest is Kevin Martin, who runs a video store specialising in horror, The Lobby. Kevin is passionate and keenly knowledgeable on the genre, and has popped up on a couple of the festival’s promotional videos.

“Kevin and I did this for selfish reasons,” continued Derek, “There were so many cool movies we wanted to see on screen that weren’t coming here, because we’re considered a small market.” The broader appeal, both men say, is partly in the communal experience of horror fans getting to sit down together and share their passion (and cheer the gruesome deaths). “People really want to see these things with a crowd. It’s a lot of fun.”

The festival is expanding into edgier, more arthouse type films. Dedfest digital manager, Matt Novak, said: “We have a loyal following but we’ve also been branching out. It’s been working, the crowd is starting to trust us more.” New fare has included films like Toby Jones’s Barbarian Sound Studio which is a low-gore story about a sound engineer (Jones) working on a horror film and ‘one of the worst films ever made’ Miami Connection.

The general celebration of the reclamation of the Dedmonton moniker is also apparent in the yearly dEdmonton Halloween festival. Darryl Plunkie is the chairman of the festival, which operates as an umbrella organisation to promote and sometimes organise events for the spooky season. Past events have included a Miss Dedmonton pageant. Darryl also hosts the horror podcast Hauntopic.

Asked about the appeal of the communal experience of a horror festival, Darryl said: “There are lots of horror fans out there that in their day jobs you don’t realise that they like this, doctors and lawyers and that sort of stuff, then they come out and they cheer when the character they despise gets massacred on the screen. You’re sitting with a hundred other people, and half of them could be the most staid people you’ve ever seen until you get them into this environment.”

Asked for their Canadian literary horror pics, Darryl recommended the zombies-in-Vietnam comic 68, by Matt Jones, while Kevin Martin, recommended Ghoul by Michael Slade (actually the pen name of father and daughter writing team Jay and Rebecca Clarke.

So. The dead heart of Edmonton is clearly still beating a bloody pulse, and if you’re a horror fan, October is a good time to visit. Get booking – you still have a month to get here for the 2013 Dedfest and dEdmonton events!

In the meantime, I will go to Montreal in the province of Quebec and hope that these accursed insect bites stop itching soon.

See some of the Dedfest videos:
the 2012 Dedfest promo
Twas the Night of the Tree Beast created by House of Heathens and featuring Kevin Martin and The Lobby!

Edmonton Ghost Tours
Hauntopic podcast.
Film Alberta

Thank you to the folks from Dedfest and dEdmonton, Film Alberta, Edmonton Ghost Tours and Edmonton Tourism for their time and assistance on this visit.