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Capturing Cape Breton’s spooky stories

A woman in an old storage room wearing a headset and holding a recording device, trying to record ghost sounds.

Mi'kmaw filmmaker and ghost hunter Dawn Wells (Applied Communication Arts ’03) uses her work to share stories from Cape Breton, often shining a light on her love for horror.

“I like to find something that's unique and never really told – that's what I love to tell!” says Dawn, who is from Membertou First Nation.

Six years ago, Dawn filmed a ghost series using an iPhone and shared it on YouTube for fun. Today her work is being broadcasted by some of the biggest media companies in Canada.

Her latest horror documentary series Creepy Cape Breton, which shares stories that her and other locals grew up hearing, was released on Bell Fibe TV in October 2023.

“I actually started with radio ghost stories,” explains Dawn. “I would put music in the background, sound effects and even throw in sounds from ghost hunting.”

After working in radio for 15 years, Dawn was laid off from her job during the Covid-19 pandemic. She decided to focus on the video projects that she made on the side and her career in film kept rolling from there.

Skill-based education

Dawn credits her career growth to the skills she developed through life-long learning which began at NSCC.

“I started in the Applied Communications Arts program at Marconi Campus, that was in my early years” says Dawn. “The photography, graphic design, and all the skills I learned through NSCC really helps in what I do today with film.”

Inspired by her love for movies and photography, Dawn went on to study radio and television at the Atlantic Media Institute.

“There's always room for education here and there. I actually took a ghost hunting course before working on Creepy Cape Breton,” says Dawn. “I'm always trying to improve myself anyway I can, even if it's just a lecture online or a course I can take.”

In addition to directing and producing, Dawn’s diverse skills allow her to help with bookkeeping, photography, lighting, scene setup, promotion, acting and narration for various film projects.

A videographer recording a scene in the snow with a ghost-like woman screaming. A female set working is standing near the actress.
Behind the scenes of Dawn's Creepy Cape Breton series.

Self-made career in film

While working full-time in radio, Dawn created her own production company, Cape Haunts Till Dawn Production Inc. and started her horror documentary web series, Haunted Cape Breton.

The positive feedback from this self-made series, including two film festival awards, inspired Dawn to change careers and pursue filmmaking.

“Haunted Cape Breton was all filmed on an iPhone. It was narrated and edited by me, including the special effects,” explains Dawn. “I did most of the makeup and even played some actors during the re-enactments. It was a lot of work.”

In 2020, Dawn focused on her production company and returned to school for business administration at CBBC Career College. That year, Dawn also produced a short horror film that she wrote, The Short Cut, which received four film festival awards.

“Every few years, I try to bring it up a notch even more, making it better if I can” says Dawn about her creative works – and that she did.

Making it on the big screen

In 2022 she co-wrote and directed Songs of Unama’ki, an award-winning documentary on Cape Breton’s Mi’kmaq traditional music, and co-directed Rooted. Both films were aired on CBC Gems and produced by Ruby Tree Production Films.

Dawn also wrote and directed two episodes of CBC’s Land and Sea, Finding Our Talk and Moose Camp.

“I try to talk about different perspectives, so people learn something new. I put stuff from Mi’kmaw stories like Kukwes, a Bigfoot-like creature, and little people which is Wiklatmu'j. I also talk about the Gaelic and I have fairies stuff,” says Dawn about the series.

She says it was a big transition from being a one-woman production crew on her web series to directing Creepy Cape Breton with a film crew.
“Hopefully I can be a part of a something from Cape Breton that can still be there years later when my kids are older,” says Dawn. “I want the art to stay alive.”

Shining a light on Cape Breton

Dawn never considered moving to a big city to make it in film, instead she’s determined to bring more attention to her home and help build the film industry in Cape Breton.

“I really want to tell stories of Cape Breton locals because you hear stories from the cities, the big places but you don't hear about Cape Bretoners,” says Dawn. She adds that having her own production company makes it easier to work on the projects she’s interested in.