Monday, September 30, 2013

Aural Anomalies Number 1: Screaming Tunnel, Niagara Falls, Canada

Screaming Tunnel, Niagara Falls, Ontario
The landscape that surrounds the Niagara Valley, to me, seems anachronistic.  A drive from Washington, DC to Niagara Falls will take you through the mountains of Pennsylvania and New York.  The spectacular falls rest in a deep valley and represent, truly, some of the world's most spectacular natural beauty.  But the lands north of the falls are flat and scrubby, reminiscent of where I grew up north of Dallas, Texas.  The area around the falls was scraped clean during the last great Ice Age and has really only been exposed to human habitation for the past 10,000 years.  As such, it lacks the ancient, claustrophobic feel of the deep forests of New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

On the day we visited the Screaming Tunnel - the day after Thanksgiving in the United States - it was as if I were visiting one of the old railroad underpasses near my childhood home in the Cross Timbers of Texas.  It felt uncannily familiar - not a feeling I had expected.  I have explored such places all my life, so I didn't expect much.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised.  It turns out that the Screaming Tunnel of Niagara Falls is, indeed, something special. 

The Story

The description published on the Niagara Falls Public Library's website can tell the background story better that I can.  Screaming Tunnel:

The haunting of the Screaming Tunnel is one of Niagara Falls’ most enduring legends. Located off Warner Road, the tunnel runs under the railway tracks that link Niagara Falls to Toronto and New York City. The tunnel is made of rough-cut stone and measures 16 feet high by 125 long. Around 1982, Canadian movie director David Cronenberg chose the tunnel as the setting for a brutal murder scene in his horror movie The Dead Zone. According to local legend, over a century ago, a farm house located just past the south entrance to the tunnel caught fire one night. A young girl, her clothes engulfed in flames, fled screaming from the house. She ran through the tunnel in an attempt to extinguish her garments but collapsed and died on the tunnel floor. A variation of this story has the girl set ablaze in the tunnel by her enraged father when he learned his wife had won custody of their children during an nasty divorce battle. Another version tells of a young girl who was raped inside the tunnel and her body burned to cover the evidence. All these stories allege that if you stand in the middle of the dark tunnel at midnight and light a match, the flame will go out and a girl’s screams will be heard.

The Location

The site is not too difficult to locate.  We navigated to it just after breakfast with the help of directions found on a local paranormal club's website.  It is located off of Warner Road, within a few hundred yards of Queen Elizabeth Way.  However, Warner Road dead ends before it reaches that larger highway, so it is necessary to approach from the west rather than from Queen Elizabeth Way directly.  Essentially you will follow Warner Road as it runs from west to east to its termination point, just to the west of Queen Elizabeth Way.  You cannot miss the tunnel - it is heavily trafficked and the parking spot is obvious.  Accessing it does not require a walk, but the ground is perpetually wet and muddy as a small watercourse seems to permanently flow through the tunnel.  If you are staying in Niagara Falls and wish to visit the site and you have access to a car, it's no more than an hour's diversion - especially if you plan on touring some of the local wineries (makers of the finest ice wines in the world.)  For collectors of paranormal real estate, it's an easy trip.

The site is not as rural as the paranormal groups which have "investigated" it like to indicate.  In fact, there are several houses across the street from it, just to the north.  And, again, there is a major highway literally within "shouting distance."  The tunnel, itself, is a heavily trafficked foot path.  During the two hours we were on site we observed fresh horse hoof prints in the mud from morning riders and a large hiking club passed through the tunnel into the fields to the south while we explored. From the amount of litter left behind and the tire ruts off the side of Warner Road, it's clear the site gets daily visitors.  The local houses are so close by we could smell the scent of their morning bacon wafting through the air as we explored.  Indeed, according to recent news reports, officials are contemplating closing the site due to the large number of visitors and the inconvenience they create for the neighbors.

The location of the Screaming Tunnel is important - in fact it's the key to understanding the mystery.  (More on that later.)  The reality is, the site is not remote and it is regularly visited.  Even if you go there at midnight, as legend suggests you should, you're not going to be "truly" alone.  There will be people within a hundred yards of you the whole time you are there.  Any phenomena that occur to you while at the tunnel, therefore, should be examined in this light.

The Claims

Putting aside the dodgy photo, video, and EVP evidence one can find on the web that has allegedly been captured here, the essential claims related to the Screaming Tunnel are pretty basic:

1.  A young girl died at or near the site of the tunnel and was consumed by fire.  

2.  If you stand in the middle of the tunnel at midnight and light a match, the match will burn out.

3.  You will hear the ghostly scream of the woman who died.

Investigating the Claims

1.  Death of the Young Girl

There is no reason to expend any time determining whether or not a young girl died in a fire at or near the Screaming Tunnel.  If an exhaustive search could prove this, that would provide no additional support for the latter claims of matches extinguishing themselves and disembodied screams.  Indeed, finding that a girl had burned to death would only provide us with the folkloric source of the legend that surrounds the tunnel.  Any investigator wishing to thoroughly examine this site - to be comprehensive - should, indeed, put in the hours of library research to determine if this tunnel's legend has a basis in reality.  However, my aim in visiting the site was to examine the actual physical claims that are said to be manifest. 

So-called ghost hunters who spend their time looking into the history of deaths at a site are really wasting their time.  Such investigations make two false leaps in logic.  First, it supposes that the "ghostly" phenomena at hand are connected to a dead human being (instead of a dead cat, an inter-dimensional being, a Sasquatch, a vampire, a living hoaxster, someone's imagination, or a mundane physical action/reaction.)  Secondly, it assumes that a death at a site is somehow an anomaly.  In fact, all living creatures die.  The older a site is, the more likely it is that someone has died there.  With enough digging at a site of significant enough age, it is virtually guaranteed the ghost hunter will eventually come across a death they can retrofit to the circumstances of their investigation. 

In most cases, unless the history of the site is directly related to the phenomena under investigation, such background research is simply a waste of time - and overly confusing to the primary focus of one's inquiry.

2.  Matches Will Extinguish at Midnight in the Tunnel

No need to wait until midnight - if you stand in the middle of the Screaming Tunnel and light a match, it will blow out.  Like virtually all structures built in tubular fashion, with ventilation at either side, the Screaming Tunnel forces a draft to channel through it.  As such, it acts as a "wind tunnel" through which air currents pass.  

On the day we visited there was virtually no wind blowing outside and a draft could not be felt in the tunnel.  However, experimenting with matches and a few blades of dried grass quickly reveals that even on a calm day, the Screaming Tunnel forces a strong enough draft that a match will not hold a light.  It is the subtle nature of this draft that gives one the impression that the tunnel is essentially windproof.  It is not.  One need merely stand in the middle of the tunnel and drop a few blades of dried grass to see that a heavy breeze is forced through the tunnel constantly.

3.  Ghostly Scream

It is this final claim that actually makes the Screaming Tunnel an interesting site.  As it turns out, there is an aspect of this claim that is valid.  Due to a trick of the tunnel's design and the landscape that surrounds it, the Screaming Tunnel functions as a whispering gallery.  The tunnel is long with a high vaulted ceiling.  To the north, it opens onto Warner Road and the relatively flat surrounds of the adjacent fields and neighborhoods.  To the south, however, just to the other side of the tunnel entrance, the pathway ascends sharply, boxing in the entrance and creating a very effective echo chamber. 

On exploring the site, my wife and I discovered this phenomena.  I was standing in the center of the tunnel and she was exploring just outside the south entrance.  I suddenly heard her voice, very clearly, over my shoulder, speaking as if she were standing right next to me.  This gave me a start!  She was yards away! 

I asked her if she had been speaking - and she admitted to merely mumbling to herself.  After additional experimentation, it turns out that a person standing at the center of the Screaming Tunnel is privileged to amplified sounds that could not normally be heard over such great distances.  We noted that the sound of people walking in the woods to the south of the tunnel was heavily amplified, as were big rig horns on the highway, and the sound of the limbs of trees rubbing together.  The sounds of the adjacent trees were an especially compelling noise when carried to the center of the Screaming Tunnel - the gave a high-pitched and eerie sound, very like a human voice. 

The fact that the Screaming Tunnel functions as a whisper gallery opens up a wide range of possibilities for explaining the mysterious "scream."  A neighborhood hoaxster familiar with the tunnel's properties would have no trouble sneaking into the woods undetected and giving a midnight shout.  It is obvious to all the neighborhood houses when cars are parked at the site.  The bark of the indigenous red fox carried through the tunnels echo chamber would be terrifying.  Even the sounds of the trees rubbing together, as we observed, creates a creepily compelling sound. 

Mysterious sounds at the site of the Niagara Falls' Screaming Tunnel, it turns out, are not in short supply.  Whisper galleries are disconcerting and unusual aural phenomena.  Most people have never experienced one. It is quite easy to encounter strange, disembodied sounds at the Screaming Tunnel.  Doing so in the dead of night, while expecting a ghostly encounter, would be terrifying.


To those interested in the paranormal, Screaming Tunnel near Niagara Falls is well worth a visit.  It is the rare "haunted" site actually capable of delivering an experiential phenomenon.  Disembodied sounds can be heard at the site and, through limited experimentation, it's possible to understand why.  I hypothesize that the screaming tunnel might provide us some greater insight into understanding that physics behind so-called haunts that manifest themselves aurally.  When an actual phenomenon is present, the landscape, the architecture, or a combination of both might well be its origin.  It is my hope that others who visit the Screaming Tunnel will forgo the ghostly seance, and put my theory to the test and try out the site's unique ability to transmit sound. 

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