Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Oct. 31, 2023
Calgary’s Gideon Keys: Petrifying prose or ghoulish guide?
“Walk up and down the building’s staircases until the lights begin to dim and colour begins to drain from your field of view. After the colour has completely drained, exit the staircase. You’ll find yourself in one of the other libraries, in one of the other cities. The books will be altered, some subtly and others more overtly, and all will contain secrets that have slipped in around the edges.
“Beware the librarians, however. They prize silence, and they punish overdue books with a staggering ferocity.”
While this passage may seem pulled straight from the pages of a horror novel, its origins are much closer to home. In fact, these instructions are for the old MacKimmie Library Tower.
The excerpt is part of a series of entries in a composition notebook that was purported to have been found in Mac Hall in March 2009. Sensing an opportunity, the anonymous finder of the notebook began posting images and transcriptions from the notebook to the paranormal section of an online forum.
Dubbed the Gideon Keys, these 200 entries describe “roadside horrors” and “urban attractions” hidden throughout the city, waiting to be found by those daring enough to look. And look people have, as the Keys have generated interest on social media from Reddit to Tik Tok, and were even the subject of a short documentary released in 2023.
Search for entries' origins
Debate rages about these cryptic entries between believers and skeptics. Who wrote them? What happens if you try them? Are they even real?
“I want it to be true,” says Amy LeBlanc, a doctoral student in the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary. “I think it would be really amazing if it were true.”
The Gideon Keys resemble what is affectionately known as “creepypasta,” stories about the occult or supernatural that are anonymously posted to the internet.
“They have all the tropes of the campfire stories or the, ‘I heard this from a friend of a friend of a friend’ stories,” says LeBlanc, BA'17, BEd'19, MA'21. “Which is part of what makes me think that maybe it’s just a creative writing prompt, but a brilliant one.”
What’s striking about these creepypastas is the fear they can induce in such a short narrative, with some of them being less than 50 words. It’s a challenge familiar to LeBlanc, who published a collection of short horror stories, Homebodies, earlier this year.
“It’s really difficult to condense that sense of dread without all of the time it takes to build it up,” she says. “Unlike your typical horror movie, which builds up tension and then releases it with a jump scare multiple times, with something like this, you get one shot.”
Appeal of the Keys
What LeBlanc found interesting about the Gideon Keys is the similar refrain they have of ending with a warning of what will happen to you if you attempt to find them.
“So much of it is saying don’t do this, and then it tells you this fascinating thing that’s going to happen if you do, so, of course, it makes you want to do it,” she says.
A key point of tension for the Keys is the anonymity of the author, as it could be any random stranger you come across in Calgary. The decision to leave some of the entries omitted (117 Keys are accounted for and 83 are missing) further adds to the intrigue.
“Intentionally leaving some of them blank gives a strange veracity to it,” says LeBlanc. “It makes you think it has to be real because no one would intentionally leave pieces missing, but, if you wanted to make it seem real, that’s exactly what you would do.”
From the second-person narration, to including quotes from “authoritative sources” in some of the entries, to randomly leaving the book in Mac Hall, every effort was put into making the Gideon Keys feel authentic.
“The whole construction of it is really quite interesting,” says LeBlanc. “Most people write to be recognized for what they write, so it’s really rare to find something totally anonymous.”
The hidden in the familiar
The Keys, like any work of horror or experience of the supernatural, exist in the world of the uncanny.
“This is when something that’s familiar becomes unfamiliar,” says LeBlanc. “With this in particular, it’s places that Calgarians know and recognize.”
MacKimmie Tower is no longer just a tower, but a soft spot where access to another dimension is possible. The Bowness Calgary Public Library branch becomes a repository for forbidden knowledge. The Keys turn Calgary from a city that everybody knows into a city full of secrets.
“To me, this is part of being haunted by something, the idea that something doesn’t quite feel right,” says LeBlanc. “You have to go through a mental process where you think you know something and you think you know it for certain, but it turns out you actually don’t know anything.”
On the other hand, the Keys could also be a guide written by a native Calgarian to encourage others to visit places they love in the city.
“We don’t have the physical history and infrastructure that many other places have,” says LeBlanc. “This is almost history-making, even if it’s fictional, by ascribing a different history to these places that normally we’d only respect because they’re old and crumbling and ancient.”
Whether to make familiar locales unfamiliar or make those same places familiar by creating lore about them, the Gideon Keys are a uniquely Calgarian project meant to make people see the city through a new lens.
You could be a skeptic or a believer. You could believe them to be true or fictional. The Gideon Keys still exist online for you to investigate and explore yourself. But ask yourself this: is it worth the risk?