It’s educational, historic, friendly, and very Manitoban – for the majority of the year. But for five nights in October, Lower Fort Garry transforms into a historical stretch of scares, screams and nightmares called Fright at the Fort.
This year, its theme is prison break.
“The Lower Fort Garry penitentiary has been overrun and the most heinous inmates are on the loose,” Parks Canada’s website reads. “Enter the grounds at your own risk as you encounter local residents and officers as they try to end the bloody rampage of the escaped convicts.”
David Lavallee, a communications officer for Parks Canada in Winnipeg, says the idea of doing Halloween-themed activities at the Fort isn’t anything new. Scaring the pants off people, however, is.
“Two years ago, we decided we wanted to focus it more on the young adult crowd and so we came up with Fright at the Fort,” Lavallee says. “The idea was to make it a... jump-out-and-scare-you type of a program, as opposed to simple ghost tours, which is what we used to do.”
Lavallee suggests bringing children who are over age 14, as some of the scares are quite intense (although there are also children’s Halloween programs that run during the day at the Fort).
Lower Fort Garry was originally built in the 1830s by the Hudson’s Bay Company. On the western bank of the Red River, just 20 minutes from Winnipeg, the fort was commonly known as a supply depot for the Red River settlement and surrounding groups.
The historic site that stands today is reminiscent of the original 1800s settlement. The walls and buildings are the same and the insides are furnished with authentic, realistic decor.
During the year, school groups and kids of all ages use the site as an educational tool, learning about blacksmiths and fur trading in hands-on experiences and activities with the fort’s staff – who are dressed in period costumes and act ancient, of course.
Megan Dudeck has worked five seasons with Parks Canada and has heard all sorts of ghost stories about the site.
“(Lower Fort Garry) was where the first penitentiary and mental health asylum in Manitoba were,” Dudeck says, as she guides The Uniter through the haunted maze.
Dudeck says she’s heard of people painfully freezing to death in the winter along the banks of the river, and that someone in the town was allegedly a violent serial scalper.
“When (the builders) were fixing the Fort, they had to fill in all the (jail) cells with sand,” she adds.
Dudeck heads inside a small cabin, which looks similar to the shack in Evil Dead, its bare walls splattered in blood.
In another dimly lit room, just beyond a doorframe, a young actor sits motionless in a burlap bunny mask, its eye-holes drooping and hollow. Her hand is clutched tightly around a six-inch blade dug into the table.
“Tuberculosis was a horrible problem, too,” Dudeck explains. She says they kept children dying of the disease inside a small shack.
Despite many screams, jumps and near pant-wetting moments throughout the rest of the tour, the small cabin was perhaps the scariest spot. It’s the history of the haunt that made it truly creepy.
Published in Volume 70, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 29, 2015)