When there’s something strange that you need to research, who ya gonna call? The University of Manitoba’s archives is probably the best place to start.
After all, part of its collection on psychic phenomena and spiritualism is the source material Canadian actor and screenwriter Dan Aykroyd used as the catalyst for the 1984 blockbuster movie Ghostbustersfeaturing proton pack-wearing spectre-hunters.
“I think probably the general public might be surprised to know that the basis for the film Ghostbusters — the Aykroyd family’s archives into psychical research and spiritualism — is in Winnipeg. It’s not well known,” said Walter Meyer zu Erpen, who helped transfer the materials to the U of M from Ontario.
The material was donated by Dan’s father, Peter Aykroyd, whose family was infatuated with the paranormal.
Peter later wrote a book, A History of Ghosts, in which he talks about watching his family’s parlour seances through the crack of a basement door in their Ontario home and even participating in some.
The activities were hosted by Peter’s grandfather (Dan’s great-grandfather) Samuel Augustus Aykroyd, whose journals and other papers detailing his experiences from 1921 to 1934 were found by Peter in the 1990s, inside a locked trunk.
The items include seance messages — greetings from the beyond that Samuel gathered during those events — and stacks of letters that he wrote to his children, describing the seances and other experiments.
Dan has said in many interviews over the years that his family’s history and stories forged his imagination and led him to co-write Ghostbusters. (He was not available for an interview for this story due to the ongoing Hollywood writers’ strike, his publicist said in an email.)
Samuel believed in mediumship — that some individuals could be induced into a trance and act as a channel between the living and the dead.
He also believed the dead could produce ectoplasm, a physical manifestation of a ghostly apparition. Ghostbusters popularized the term, but made ectoplasm a green slimy substance.
The Peter Hugh Aykroyd Fonds arrived in Winnipeg in 2014, but arrangements had been underway for some time before that, with Peter saying Winnipeg’s reputation for spiritualism convinced him it was the right place.
“The University of Manitoba is becoming the locus for material on the paranormal of Canadian origin. It’s a very, very rich archive,” he said during a media tour in Toronto for his book in 2009.
The Aykroyd fonds, which include the “journals, letters and philosophical musings” of Samuel from 1855-1933, are contained in two storage boxes. It is a mix of original items and typed-out copies.
Shelley Sweeney, U of M archivist emerita, said no one seems to know where those missing originals are or if they even exist. It’s possible they remain with Dan, but Sweeney is positive the U of M has the only publicly accessible collection.
The materials are available for anyone to peruse, though Sweeney said some of the items are fragile.
“People have to handle it gently, but otherwise, there are no restrictions on access,” she said.
The largest part of the collection is the Hamilton family fonds, with more than 700 images and reams of documents.
There’s no doubt both Peter, who died in 2020, and Samuel, who died in 1933, were familiar with the Hamiltons, Sweeney said.
Thomas Glendenning Hamilton and his wife, Lillian, experimented in psychic phenomena in their home on Henderson Highway in Winnipeg between 1918 and 1945.
Their activities attracted the likes of Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King.
“I came away with the conclusion that Winnipeg stands very high among the places we have visited for its psychic possibilities,” Conan Doyle said after a visit in 1923.
Thomas Hamilton died in 1935 but Lillian and the couple’s daughter, Margaret, continued the activities until 1945, working to prove, scientifically, that ghosts are real and communication with them is possible.
“Winnipeg is, in Canada, is the largest archival repository for such material because of the Hamilton records having been donated in 1979. Shelley has written several times it was kind of like a magnet after that,” said Meyer zu Erpen, who is president and archivist of the B.C.-based Survival Research Institute of Canadawhich investigates whether some aspect of a person can survive physical death, and whether such a spirit can communicate with the living.
There are only two larger collections in the world that he is aware of, one in Germany and one in Baltimore.
The U of M collection is a vital body of research material into spiritualism and the existential question about life after death, Meyer zu Erpen said.
But the appeal is much wider than that. The Aykroyd fonds, like the Hamilton collection, document a movement during its peak in the early 20th century, Sweeney said.
“This is a slice of life in Canada at the time period. I think that people can go back into this material and mine it for a lot of different reasons … [and] social history,” she said.
Apart from that, “there is a huge popular cultural component in the fact that it was the inspiration for the Ghostbusters movies.”
The wild success of the original Ghostbusters generated three sequels; the most recent came out in 2020.
In 2015, Ghostbusters was among 25 films the U.S. Library of Congress put into its National Film Registry — a collection of films selected for preservation based on their historical, cultural and esthetic contributions.
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