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Soul Searching: Legend Tripping in the Ghost Culture of Chicago

Elmhurst, Essays & Commentary, Holidays, Naperville Add comments

Photo: Gil Castellanos

By Eric Lutz

I don’t believe in ghosts.

But, if I did, it would be because of a weekend trip to Galena I took a few years back, when about ten seconds of “The Lovecats” by The Cure emanated from a closed laptop in the middle of the night.

I was pretty freaked out at the time, certain we’d been visited by some hipster ghost with a penchant for eighties post-punk, and wound up driving around all night until day broke.

Nowadays, I’m inclined to think the only thing scary about that night was my carbon footprint.

Maybe it’s strong to say I don’t believe. More accurately, I just don’t think about it very much.

At least not as much as many Americans do, if the market that exists for cultural items devoted to the question is any indication.

There are currently at least sixteen paranormal reality shows on television. Eight of those air on The Travel Channel and Syfy.

Some of the shows, like Animal Planet’s “The Haunted,” are dramatizations of supposedly true ghost stories. Others, like “Ghost Adventures” and “Ghost Hunters,” involve crews of paranormal investigators checking out supposedly haunted locations, chalking up every creak in the floorboards to restless spirits trying to communicate.

Search the words “ghosts” or “haunting” on Google, and you’ll find sites cataloging the locations of supposed hauntings so you could do the investigating yourself.

Add in the books, the ghost tours and cemetery walks and even an iPhone app called “Ghost Radar,” and you have what I think can be fairly described as “Ghost Culture.”

Though perhaps more visible today than ever before, Ghost Culture is nothing new.

In the 1860s, grief-stricken Americans in the wake of the Civil War paid spirit photographer William H. Mumler to take their portrait. In them, a vague impression of a person would appear behind the subject. The most famous of these was one of Mary Todd Lincoln in 1869, wearing funeral black, with what appears to be the ghost of her husband standing behind her with a protective hand on her shoulder. Showman P.T. Barnum was skeptical of Mumler, and set out to prove him a fraud.

When such a case was brought against the photographer after clients began recognizing some of the “ghosts” as still-living people, Barnum himself posed for a picture with Honest Abe in the background to show how easy it was to doctor a photo that way. Mumler would be acquitted, but the case torpedoed his career.

In the 1920s and thirties, the writer Charles Fort compiled a mammoth list of 40,000 unexplained incidents, and is often credited with being one of the first to attempt to use “science” to investigate paranormal claims.

This paved the way to one of the more famous portrayals of Ghost Culture in popular entertainment, with Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, “The Haunting of Hill House,” and its 1963 film adaptation. It’s the story of a paranormal investigator and three others moving into a haunted mansion and experiencing a whole lot of weird stuff. The film is a legitimately scary movie from an era when movies were not all that scary, and the novel by Jackson—who wrote the controversial and classic short-story “The Lottery” as well as one of the most underrated novels of all-time, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”—is chilling and oddly romantic.

Interest in the supernatural seems widespread and age-old, and yet I am so indifferent. I’d always loved horror movies and Halloween, but I’d never given much truck to things that are actually “haunted.”

But this October, I wanted to see what the big deal was. To visit supposedly haunted places and confront the eeriness that pervades big old cemeteries, regardless of whether or not you believe the bodies below you have spirits that still linger. To experience the most basic rite of Ghost Culture: the legend trip.

 

I enlisted my buddy Gil to take part in the mission. He is, I think, probably braver than me, and also more organized. If he can plan out the Camping Crew’s annual camping excursions, as he’s done every year since our group of six high school friends started going, he can certainly be entrusted to develop an itinerary of supposedly supernatural hotspots.

Gil checked “Chicago Haunts” and a similar book out of the library, while I perused the web.

On the web site “Shadowlands,” I checked out haunted locations by town.

Photo: Gil Castellanos

I learned the train tracks that run through Elmhurst, my hometown, are the supposed haunt of a man with a lantern, who disappears shortly after you spot him.  Also, a stretch of woods in the far northwest suburb of Woodstock where, according to the site, the apparition of a child rapist and the voices of his victims linger.

There are other places you’ve probably heard of: the Water Tower, the Hull House, the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

But of course, Chicago’s most famous ghost would have to be Resurrection Mary. You’ve read about her in the Trib,  you’ve seen her in all the ghost books and on all the ghost shows. She’s by far the Windy City’s greatest catnip for ghost hunters.

As the story goes, a young woman in the early 1930s got into a spat with her boyfriend at the Oh Henry Ballroom on Archer Avenue in Justice. Frustrated, Mary left and began walking home through the cold, winter night, and was soon killed by a hit-and-run driver. She was buried in Resurrection Cemetery in a white dress, and has been sighted by drivers-by ever since. Some have reported the apparition diving out in front of their car, absent when they pull over to help her. Others have picked her up as a hitchhiker, only for her to vanish suddenly while they drove or ask to be dropped off at the gates to Resurrection Cemetery, disappearing soon after.

I told Gil we should make trying to encounter this Mary character a priority. If she’s the headline ghost of the Chicago area, she should be the main thrust of our ghost hunt, as well.

“Yeah, so I was thinking about it,” Gil said. “I’m not so sure we should include Resurrection Mary in this hunt.”

“But she’s the most famous one.”

“Exactly,” he said. “Everybody knows that story. We should make it about the more obscure ones.”

He was right. Mary was old news. We decided to look for the overlooked ghosts who’d been spurned in favor of that attention-hog.

We also decided to eschew all haunts in Chicago proper—Hull House, Water Tower, etc. One of the reasons was practical: Walking two blocks to the other side of town, only to stand outside some supposedly haunted building seems a little anticlimactic. Another was more atmospheric: There’s something about the seclusion of a country road, or an untouched corner of the suburbs, that seems conducive to legend. There’s also something about sprinting to the car after getting spooked and talking about it with adrenaline-laced voices.

We decided we’d start by driving out to Naperville, to visit a cemetery and a supposedly-haunted theater. Then we’d loop down to Forest Hill Cemetery on St. Charles Road in Glen Ellyn before heading north to haunted Cuba Road in Barrington.

Though we’d roughly mapped out our hunt, our goal was less clear.

We were not out to prove the existence of ghosts, as the shows on the Travel Channel attempt to do. But we also weren’t doing the whole, Skeptics-Go-To-Places-Supposedly-Haunted-To-Poke-Fun-And-Be-Ironic thing, because that’s been done a million times, too, rendered cliché by about three-million horror movies.

More than anything, I think, we wanted it to be about the process of legend tripping. So much of Ghost Culture is about pointing a camera at haunted places. We set out to point the camera back at ourselves, to capture the nervous double-takes and the dumb jokes meant to mask our heebie-jeebies. Legend tripping is a fundamentally American rite of passage, appearing as early as Tom Sawyer and continuing today. What makes that passage so essential to the American adolescent experience seems to have little to do with whether the legend winds up being true or not.  It seems to be about the process of finding out.

 

The night arrived.

It had been an unseasonably warm day in early October, with the trees’ leaves burnt red and orange and yellow, torn by the wind from gnarled limbs, scattering across the sidewalk in noisy piles. By nightfall, the sky had gone to a deep bruise-purple, with something close to a harvest moon hanging low in the sky.

Photo: Gil Castellanos

We pulled to a stop across the street from North Central College. The school’s theater, Barbara Pfeiffer Hall, is said to be haunted by a Lady in White, who died there while watching the debut of her grand-nephew’s play back in the fifties.

It’s an imposing building, square and stone with an uncomfortably symmetrical design, and after a few minutes of wandering, we found the place and were soon enough before it.

“Now what?”

It was a good question.  I hadn’t given it much thought.

It was about 11:30pm on a Thursday, and clusters of college students were shuffling between the campus and the bars of downtown Naperville. It was hard not to feel like creeps–standing uncomfortably on this college campus, taking photos of a dark building. But it was a little difficult to feel creeped out, like we should were we doing some serious legend tripping. We decided to hit up the cemetery instead.

Photo: Gil Castellanos

Naperville Cemetery, according to a web site indexing the haunts of the western suburb, is “seething with restless spirits!” Among them: unexplained lights, phantoms in period garb and shadow people, as well as the appearance of a Victorian Mounting Chair that does not exist.

We walked a few blocks through downtown Naperville. On the way, we spotted a couple of places we’d read about. One is a storefront that had been a vacant theater on Jefferson, where a phantom named Marilyn is said to hang out. Another, which is now retail space, had been a saloon in the 1800s. The spirit of a woman named Gladys evidently haunts the second floor, where she’d lived.

Gil set up below the window and took a shot of it. Like North Central, it wasn’t all that spooky because of the fact that there were so many people milling around outside the bars and restaurants nearby. But I tried to get into the experience: I stared up into the window and didn’t avert my gaze. I thought if I looked hard enough I might see something. Though it was black as pitch inside, I could see a wall. And after a while, it didn’t feel so much like looking as it did like waiting—it felt like there would actually be a shadow, or some unexplained bit of light, crossing it any second.

“Alright dude, ready when you are,” Gil said. He was on one knee, finishing the final picture of the site: a look up at the staircase that led to the second story apartment whose window I’d been staring in.

“Yeah, absolutely,” I said.

Empty-handed, we proceeded onward.

 

Gil had entered the cemetery into the GPS on his iPhone, and we were following the little blue circle down Washington Street a couple blocks south of downtown Naperville.

We were beginning to get skeptical about the technology when we spotted the graveyard off to our right.

It’s across the street from a gas station, but even the bright yellow cartoon light couldn’t make the place seem less lonely. Set over the upward expanse of a hill, the cemetery is like a black hole in a galaxy of bright stars and planets. Cars drove down busy Washington, waiting at stop lights, then growling past. We crossed the street and dashed inside the gates.

Let me tell you about this place:

A long stretch of pavement extends through the middle like a tongue. It’s lined on both sides by white stakes and tall trash cans. Because the trees are cleared from the path, it gets all the light from the street behind its entrance and from the athletic fields beyond the other end. This allows you to see the path and about three graves in to the immediate left and right, but it gets increasingly darker at the edges—especially to our left—and anything more than fifteen feet away is a silhouette.

So we walked into this place, Gil with his camera and I with my pen. A feeling that I guess was fear spread over me, beginning imperceptibly and growing, growing, eventually spreading through my body the way a tingling spreads across a sleeping limb. By the time we were halfway in, it became hard to think of something other than how creeped out I was. Try doing a math problem while you’ve got a splitting headache—it was like that.

To make light, I stated the obvious:

“This is fucking creepy as hell.”

Gil nodded.  “Yeah.  It fucking is.”

Talking helped. It at least broke the silence of the place, rooted us in a reality that wasn’t of our wild imaginations’ making.

We decided to examine some mausoleums.

We’d passed two on our way in: small stone buildings with gated doors. One had two sphinxes guarding its steps. I thought of the line from the one good Fall Out Boy song: “Lie in the grass, next to the mausoleum.” I’m guessing this wasn’t the one Pete Wentz pined over doomed love next to. There wasn’t anything romantic about it, nothing that made one want to go down swingin’.

Gil wasn’t getting a good picture. It was too dark. He decided to try the flash.

I watched him kneel at the bottom of the steps and focus the lens. Then I turned my attention to the door as he snapped the picture. The flash cast the spread of land in white light. My fear had been that in the brief moment of brightness I’d see something: a person, perhaps, or something less–an impression. Or, you know, a Victorian mounting chair. But nothing was exposed in the flash—just crisp dead leaves strewn over old graves.

 

Photo: Gil Castellanos

We were about to head to Glen Ellyn when we found in our guide book another Naperville haunt.

In 1946, a train passing through made an unscheduled stop at the 5th Avenue station. Another train blasting along tried to stop, but was going too fast and plowed into the first. Almost fifty people died, with more than a hundred injured.

Today, according to that trusty web site, the area along Loomis Street by the tracks is “one of the most haunted stretches of road anywhere!”

We decided we might as well check it out. We were feeling brave from our stoic performance at the Naperville Cemetery, and anyway it was on our way toward I88. So we parked at the train station and started out down Loomis.

The houses along the street were tall old homes with big front porches, partially obscured by big trees. Most were dark, but some had warm orange light coming from somewhere inside. Their bushes had fake cobwebs stretched over them, and fresh pumpkins resting on their front steps.

To our left, the train tracks. Beyond was the station, a brown brick building now home to loft apartments.

It’s lonely where the street intersects with the tracks. Well-lit but empty, and without the crowded suburban feel a sprawl of buildings gives off. Along the tracks was a paved path, streetlight-lit and lined by bushes and a tall dark fence. There was about a block to go from where we were to the station. If we were to encounter a ghost from the train wreck, it’d be here.

We went forth.

The gold light from the streetlights cast lopsided circles on the pavement. The shrubs to our right were dark with shadows.

The anxiety was not as strong as at the cemetery, but it was present. I was scared something would jump out in front of me, or to my side. But then when something stirred behind me—the wind blowing a leaf, a car’s tires galumphing over the tracks—I’d glance back. In the time I took to do so, I was certain something would have filled the space before me.

Again, though, nothing happened and we moved on to the next potential horror.

 

Photo: Gil Castellanos

I should confess that our main interest in Forest Hill Cemetery was not the story I’d read online of a little boy who haunts the place. We would be looking for a different type of ghost here: the ghosts of our former selves.

The summer we graduated high school, Gil and I made a horror movie called “Untitled Slasher Film.”  It was a forty-five-minute homage and, let’s say parody, of low-budget slasher films, which we filmed over the course of a month and showed on a makeshift big screen in one of our friend’s backyard a couple days before a lot of us were leaving for college.

The synopsis is, a group of high school friends reunite at a lake house to party, while a masked killer picks them off one by one. Don’t let the simple premise fool you; we still managed to riddle it with plot holes and continuity errors. Still, whatever it lacked in careful editing, it more than made up for in trip-wires and flaming axes.

In one scene, two drunk people scurry off through the woods toward a cemetery, where the young woman proposes they have sex. The young man is less enthusiastic about getting it on atop some graves, worried there might be ghosts, and suggests they instead go back to the house to do it. Frustrated, the young woman says: “If you wanna fuck me, you’ve gotta catch me,” and sprints off into the boneyard. The killer gets them both seconds later.

We had intended to use Forest Hill for this scene, and drove there one July night to shoot some B-roll. It turned out to be too dark to use, and we filmed at a different cemetery instead. But still, whenever I drive past it, I’m reminded of the summer we dedicated to that movie, before a still-vague sense of responsibility set in, when hardly an inch of sidewalk wasn’t covered by cicadas.

So we pulled up around 12:30, and this one was way, way darker than the previous cemetery we visited. The cars scuttling past Naperville Cemetery were absent here. And instead of being nestled right in the meat of a suburban downtown, Forest Hill backs up to a forest preserve. It’s dark, and wooded, and sits a bit below the sidewalk.

Photo: Gil Castellanos

So, as we walked toward its entrance, we were able to look clear over its black fence posts at the expanse of it all. Like Naperville Cemetery, it had a long paved path winding through it. But when we entered the gates, it was a lot harder to convince our feet to move.

Old, slouching trees leaned over the path on either side, a canopy against the sky. The path itself was split in places like skin in the dead of winter, scraped up by years and years of feet walking down it. I’d forgotten how creepy this place was that night we tried to film here.

There was a loud whirring sound coming from the trees.  I thought of Ichabod Crane in the old “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” cartoon where Bing Crosby does all the voices—that part where Ichabod is riding through the woods alone and keeps hearing all the forest sounds, more aware of what’s around him because of his fear.

Behind us was the gate. In the ghost story we pictured ourselves in, we would have walked deep into the cemetery and spotted something. Then we would have run for the gate only to find it closed.

Instead, we retreated a bit. From where we were standing, we could now see baseball fields across the street with their lights on. We were regaining our confidence. Then, a dog howled. That was enough. We went back to the car.

 

Cuba Road, our final destination, carries a lot of supposedly supernatural baggage.

Back in the roaring days of Prohibition, Chicago mobsters are said to have headed out to Barrington and Lake Zurich to unwind. Nowadays, a mysterious black car is said to follow some passersby, vanishing suddenly shortly thereafter.

As an apparent requisite of supposedly haunted roads, a spirit woman is said to walk along the shoulder, flagging down cars and disappearing when they pull over. Less typical are reported sightings of an old farm house that is said to have burned down long ago. A little ways down, at old White Cemetery, sightings of orbs, mysterious lights and other paranormal phenomena have been alleged.

We found the road sometime past one in the morning and set out to find the supposedly haunted stretch of it, over near the cemetery.

As we did, we summarized:

“So we’re pretty much in agreement that the last one was by far the scariest, with Naperville Cemetery a close second?”

“Yes, consensus has been reached.”

“And that the train station was more or less just eerie?”

“Agreed.”

Photo: Gil Castellanos

“And that if anyone asks us about Forest Hill, we say we went all the way in and were not the least bit freaked out.”

“Yes. And that, regardless of whether anything actually appears or not, we Photoshop ghosts in the background of every picture.”

“Celebrities. Ones who are clearly not dead. Like Tim Allen or Don Cheadle or somebody.”

“Right.  For star power.”

“Agreed.”

The houses were passing at less frequent intervals, and the suburbs gave way to country.  We wound through dark woods, past private drives. There were small pastoral farms lined by white fence, each post cutting through the night like sharp teeth. We could see the leaf-strewn lawns if they were close enough to the road, houses dressed for Halloween.

And there was White Cemetery, off to our right.  It was small and rectangular, hemmed in by the silhouette of fence. I waited to see an orb, or lights, or the shadow of a house. I kept looking but there was nothing interrupting the darkness. I turned back to the road, where there were no ghost women, no ghost cars—no ghosts of any kind.

We hadn’t set out to see any ghosts and prove they’re real, but I was still sort of disappointed. Before the trip, you don’t expect a whole lot. But when you actually get to some of the places, and you’re already a little on edge because you are, technically speaking, trespassing, and you’ve read all the stories, and other people—people no different than you and I!—attest to having witnessed these things, you do almost start to, I don’t know, believe you’re going to see something.

That’s maybe the allure of the legend trip—that it promises a glimpse into the chasm between what we Know and what we Don’t Know. What’s there when you look down in pretty much depends on what you want to see. It might be a road extending out before you, dark and empty. Or maybe it’s something seen from the corner of your eye, gone before you can turn to face it, vanishing past like a memory, like a dream.

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