YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD GIVES ME THE CREEPS
by Adam Selzer
by Adam Selzer
One of the more popular stories on the ghost tours I run in Chicago is The Legend of Dillinger's Ding-a-ling. It's not a ghost story, exactly, but it's too good a story not to tell.
When we run the tour on routes that go past the alley in which John Dillinger, the Depression-era bank robber, was shot, I usually tell people the popular urban legend that Dillinger's 23 inch penis is on display somewhere in the Smithsonian Institute. Then I show off the picture that started the legend - a newspaper shot of Dillinger's corpse on public display at the morgue, covered from the neck down by a sheet. Rigor mortis had caused his right arm to be bent at a 90 degree angle, resulting in a large, tent-like protrusion in the sheet just about level with Dillinger's crotch. It does look for all the world like Dillinger's corpse is phenomenally well-endowed and awfully happy to be there on the slab. Most of the onlookers surrounding the stiff (pun intended) in the picture look pretty impressed, except for one woman who looks distinctly unamused.
It is, in fact, just his arm causing the protrusion, not his wiener. No chunk of Dillinger is actually on display in the Smithsonian. One nurse (presumably the nunamused woman in the picture) who tended to the corpse claimed that she peeked under the sheet out of curiosity and found that there was nothing remarkable about ol' Johnny in the crotch department. But the rumors inspired by the picture persist to this day, and the picture is usually a big hit.
However, every now and then, there'll be a crowd for whom that story isn't particularly appropriate - a crowd with a lot of young kids, for instance, or a crowd of insecure guys who might get jealous. Or sometimes the traffic keeps us from moving at normal speed, so the story is done before we even get to Diversey Street. Whichever is the case, it creates a few minutes worth of quiet time as the bus travels between Dillinger's Alley and the old factory were Adolph Leutgert, the original sausage king of Chicago, murdered his wife. I have to kill time somehow.
"Well," I ask, "are there any questions? Even if it's a totally off-the-wall question. This is Weird Chicago Tours, after all."
One person raises her hand, and I point at her with a flashlight.
I already have a pretty good idea what's coming.
"So, do you really believe in ghosts, or what?" she asks.
I take a deep breath.
That's a loaded question.
What, exactly, is a ghost, anyway? If I say I believe in them, are the people on the bus going to think I believe every story I hear about ghostly kids pushing cars over railroad tracks, every story about guys in white sheets who rattle chains and go "whoooo?" Will they think I believe that a translucent version of me is floating around in my body, ready to fly free when I die?
I spend a lot of energy trying to keep from seeming like a total nut, and saying I believe in ghosts - any kind of ghosts - will make me look like a nut to many people right away.
When we say "ghost," we usually think of the Hollywood model - a translucent version of a dead person that floats around wearing ghostly clothes that, while tranlucent themselves, still manage to cover up the ghost's hoo-hoos perfectly. According to the stories attached to them, this is usually supposed to be the soul of the dead person, either unable to "move on" or back from some celestial plane to sort out unfinished business. Do I have to believe in that stuff to believe in ghosts?
And what about the similar apparitions that we call "residual" hauntings - these look about like Hollywood ghosts, but aren't thought to be conscious entities. They're sort of like a video recording that plays over and over again, no more aware of itself than, say, the wind or the waves in Lake Michigan. Some theorize that these are caused by some sort of energy exerted at the moment of sudden, traumatic deaths, creating a sort of "mental picture." If that's true, do these count as ghosts, too, or do ghosts have to be intelligent, thinking beings to qualify?
In fact, those are just two of the countless kinds of ghosts that people talk about. You need a whole encyclopedia to cover all of them.
There are poltergeists - ghosts that can't be seen, but manifest by turning lights off and on, throwing things around the room, tugging at your clothes, and generally making nuisances of themselves.
There are figures so lifelike that you can dance with them all night and never realize that they're not a regular, living person until they disappear out of your car as you drive them past the suburban cemetery on South Archer Avenue.
There are vague voices heard in empty houses and hallways; sometimes they seem intelligent enough to communicate, sometimes they just seem to repeat the same word or phrase over and over again.
There are mysterious phantom houses that appear near a cemetery, disappear, then show up again on the other side of the graveyard.
Spooky faces that just appear for a split second in the mirror. Spookier faces that jump OUT of the mirror and try to bite you.
Strange forces that cause people to get hang-up phone calls from a number once owned by a long-dead friend, or cause a grandfather clock to stop with its hands frozen at 3:10, the time at which the clock's owner passed away.
Residual emotional energies that leave "bad vibes" in a place where a murder or disaster took place. Some say that these same energies cause the feelings of fright that come to people in darkened rooms with creaking doors and creeping shadows.
Which of these count as ghosts? Are any of them "real" to begin with, or are all of them just figments of overactive imaginations? If it's the latter, is there any value in telling stories about them at all, or in researching them scientifically? Am I just wasting everyone's time, or, worse, encouraging people to jump to supernatural explanations for everyday occurrences by taking them on ghost hunts?
Without question, most of the ghost reports I hear can be explained away with the knowledge you'll find in any eighth grade science book. Any ghost hunter worth his salt will tell you that least 80% of all ghost reports can be dismissed very quickly.
But others are a bit harder to account for. Science may eventually find a way that a traumatic, sudden death can produce some form of energy that will, under certain unusual conditions, manifest as an "apparition." Anything's possible.
Some scientists say that for ghosts to exist, we'd have to rearrange physics, but for some ghosts, we may just have to learn more about it.
Or perhaps we don't need to rearrange physics at all, we just need to rearrange semantics. Whether ghosts are real or not depends a lot on what counts as a ghost and what doesn't. One thing I can say for sure is that there are weird things in the environment that can have the psychological effect of making you think there's a dead person hanging around. Should the wind blowing over a hole the pipes and making a moaning noise count as a ghost? It certainly functions as a ghost for all practical purposes, after all.
I'm a skeptic. Or, anyway, I try to be. I think just about everything (except for Bob Dylan) can be explained by science. Even the stuff that we can't explain YET will probably be explained eventually. And it's a good thing I'm a skeptic; I've had my palm read twice, and both readers told me I'd die in a bus accident. On the tours, I stand up at the front of a bus for long stretches of time - with the door open in summer.
But there're only a few blocks of space between the end of the "appropriate for all audiences" version of the John Dillinger story and the sausage factory. I don't have time to explain all of this. I just have time to break out a quick stock response.
"Well," I said, "I don't believe everything I hear, but I have seen some pretty weird stuff."
I have, in fact, seen some strange things. I've seen shadows cast on the wall next to my own when there was no one next to me. I've heard weird voices and ghostly music. I've heard gunshots ringing out in empty hallways. I've felt invisible hands tapping me on the shoulder and flicking my ear.
In fact, I've experienced almost all of those things at one particular location.
And it just happens to be the next stop on the tour.
ODIN TATU, 3313 W. Irving Park, Chicago, IL, - June, 2006.
When people become ghosts, they're pretty generally expected to haunt the places where they died. According to most of the scientific (well, psuedo-scientific) theories that seek to explain ghosts, what we know as a ghost is probably caused by a jolt of some sort of mental energy, usually at the moment of a sudden, traumatic death, and this leftover energy will only be strong enough to manifest in any way that we'd be able to notice it at the place it was first exerted.
However, by this logic, how do we explain the number of haunted cemeteries that are reported? Practically nobody dies in the cemetery, and, when they do, it can't be all that traumatic - in fact, it's sort of convenient, in a way. Same goes for funeral parlors; you might have had a few stiffs on the embalming table who weren't quite dead yet, but, hey, you're already on the slab, right? Might as well get embalmed while you're there. Dying of being embalmed when you're already in a coma probably won't bring forth the same jolt of mental energy that dying of falling six stories into an alley when you're already on fire would.
But we do hear a lot about haunted cemeteries and funeral parlors. Some think that the sheer outpouring of emotion that goes on in these places leaves a sort of an impact on the environment that can "create" a ghost. Ghostly funerals aren't unheard of. For instance, many people who lived near spots where Abraham Lincoln's funeral train rolled through in the 1860's reported "ghost trains" appearing occasionally for more than a century after Lincoln had been buried. And some people think that there may be some mysterious earthly energies that led early setters to put a graveyard or undertaking parlor in a given location in the first place.
When I hear about haunted cemeteries, I don't usually jump right into speculating that there's some sort of emotional residue or mysterious energy in the air. I usually just assume that teenagers probably snuck in to get high and started seeing things that they thought were ghosts. And I'm almost always right. In fact, let's call this Selzer's First Theorem: any remotely spooky place into which people sneak in order to get wasted will eventually turn up on a TV show, web site or book about ghosts.
So, when Ken Melvoin-Berg, one of my partners in the ghost tour business, called me and told me we were going to investigate a haunted tattoo parlor that used to be a funeral home, I figured it was probably just some place where the owners were seeing weird things in a drug-induced haze and blaming it on dead guys. It happens all the time.
Hence, my first question to Ken was "what are they on?"
"Oh, probably plenty," said Ken. "The owner is a guy named Tapeworm. I don't think he realizes that he knows me, though. I used to be a bouncer and roving psychic at a club where he hung out about five years ago."
I added this to my master list of Weird Jobs Ken Has Had, which, by now, also included maroon beret, EMT, soup chef, game designer, incense salesman, and porn star. And psychic detective, of course. That was his regular day job.
At the time, Ken, an author named Troy Taylor and I were running Olga Durlochen's Chicago Spooks ghost tour company. Troy had taken over the business end of the company about a year or so before when Olga's husband went to jail for arson. He handled reservations, marketing, and stuff like that while Ken and I took turns running the tours aboard a black school bus.
On the side, we also conducted investigations of supposedly haunted places around the city. We weren't one of the more formal ghost hunting groups around; we didn't have uniforms or a team name or company song or mission statement or anything like that, like many groups do. Honestly, we thought that those were sort of corny. Part of the reason I got into the ghost busting business was so that I could QUIT working for companies that had lame mission statements. If someone really pressed us for a name, we'd say we were called Captain Spooky McGuffin and his Paranormal Posse. We took turns being Captain Spooky.
Troy Taylor's name was particularly well known in the ghost business - he had, at the time, written over thirty books on history and hauntings. His books generally focused more on the history behind the ghost stories than the "evidence," so I could read them as a skeptic and not think he was a maniac.
Ken Melvoin-Berg, who had brought me into the company some time before, had a reputation of his own. His grandfather was a psychic of some repute, and he himself had been trained by Irene Hughes, who had made a name for herself by predicting the Kennedy assassinations. Almost needless to say, Ken is a little less skeptical about ghosts and other strange phenomenon than I.
As a skeptic, I'm naturally quite suspicious of psychics. I get customers on the tours who claim to be psychic all the time. Usually, it's fairly obvious that they're really just nuts. Sometimes they'll tell me there are fairies on my shoulder or a gremlin on the side of the bus. Others are clearly just using the same tricks phony psychics have been using for decades upon decades. Ken, however, has impressed me on enough occasions for me to at least give him the benefit of the doubt. If he tells me the best place to investigate in a haunted house is some particular room or another, I have no reason not to give that room a shot.
Still, even with his assurance that the place was pretty spooky, I was quite leery of investigating the tattoo parlor, since it seemed like just another somewhat spooky place where people get wasted and think they're seeing stuff. But our investigations were almost always great fun. If nothing else, a ghost investigation is a great excuse to go poking around old buildings looking for cool stuff like secret passages, hidden chambers and nifty antique furnishings. And Ken assured me that Odin still had plenty of architectural details from the days when it served as the Klemundt Funeral Home, which the building had served as for several decades.
The records we have on the place tend to contradict each other, which is not uncommon in Chicago, where hardly a building went up in the late 19th and early 20th century without some worker or another needing to cover their tracks. But it appears that the Klemundt Funeral Home building was built around 1923, and was built over the foundation of an earlier undertaking parlor that is said to have been built in the 1880s. The original foundation is still present, functioning as the spooky basement that no haunted house is complete without.
There was plenty left in the tattoo parlor to remind visitors of the building's history, like stained glass windows, woodwork rumored to have been salvaged from a ruined South side mansion, and a gorgeous mosaic fireplace in the entryway. Rumor has it that the gate on the front door had been the doorway to the German village in the 1933 World's Fair. Rumor also has it that there had once been a graveyard out back, near the former stable (which is now a garage), serving a resting place for somewhere over thirty bodies. Given the fact that the building was an undertaking establishment, this is quite likely to be true. And given the fact that it's Chicago, it's also quite likely that the bodies are still there. Chicago has a real habit of moving tombstones and leaving the bodies buried beneath them behind.
On the day of the investigation, Ken and I began with a quick survey around the premises. The first thing that struck me as interesting was the fireplace - the mosaic work on it was done by the Tiffany company, we were told - in the entryway. Inside the fireplace, where one would normally put firewood, there was a gravestone dated 1957.
"We found that in the attic," said Nick, a tattoo artist. "But it made us all nervous having it be up there, so we brought it down where we could keep an eye on it. It took, like, five of us to move the thing."
It was an elegant building, full of ancient stonework, wooden archways, and all of the other classy touches that one expects in an old funeral parlor. But, for contrast, it also had tattoo facilities, loud music, spooky masks on the wall, a lot of things that looked voodoo-related, and a whole bunch of cool Star Wars stuff, including a life-sized statue of Yoda wearing a fedora, which is the kind of thing that you don't see in nearly enough funeral parlors. I'll just say right here that when I die, there had BETTER be a life-sized Yoda at the funeral. I'm flexible on the fedora - a bowler cap will do - but I'm adamant about the Yoda.
Gradually, the rest of the crew for the evening showed up. Hector, an improv comic who usually drove the bus for me on the tours I ran, was there. Also joining us were two teenage girls that I hadn't met before.
"This is Caitlyn and Keegan," Ken said, indicating the girls. "They're both very good natural psychics. I've known them since they were babies. Both of them are claireaudient, which means they hear things, and Keegan is clairesentient, like me, which means she feels things. And they tend to have stronger powers when they're around each other."
Caitlyn couldn't stay on the investigation long, since she was leaving for China the next morning, where she'd be attending a cheerleading camp. For a second there, I sort of felt like one of those sitcom characters who finds out that the doctor performing his coronary bypass is a twelve-year-old prodigy. I'm skeptical of psychics to begin with, and I'd had perhaps a dozen teenagers on the tour who had convinced themselves that they were psychic. Most of them were real pains in the ass.
But at least they weren't old enough to be senile, like most of the supposed psychics I met. And, as Hector pointed out to me, Ken could be rather arrogant about his psychic abilities, and tended not to believe that anyone ELSE was psychic. His seal of approval on Keegan and Caitlyn was a pretty big deal.
"Isn't Olga coming?" I asked Ken.
"She'll be along later, I hope," said Ken. "I haven't heard from her, though. And Ray's back in town."
We were all a bit nervous about Ray, Olga's husband, who had been let out of prison a few days before. Ray was, shall we say, a gentleman of somewhat uncertain character.
About a year or so before, Ray had had a bit of an episode. According to newspaper reports, he had stabbed Olga's mattress with a knife, left a note saying she was next, and left a message on her brother, a police sergeant's, answering machine threatening to do all sorts of colorful things to him with a screwdriver. He then set fire to a portion of the church where the tour bus was parked when not in use. One can imagine how we'd be a bit wary about the guy. Olga herself had said at his trial that he'd "keep doing this forever."
Ken and I were about halfway sure that Olga and Ray were going to restart the company from scratch - putting Ray in charge and doing all the tours themselves, and putting us out of our jobs. I was a lot more nervous about this than I was about running into a ghost that night.
But we had to keep this out of our minds for the moment - we had an investigation to do.
When everyone, except for Olga, had arrived, we were introduced to Tapeworm, the owner. He had come into possession of the parlor a few years before, naming it after his son, Odin.
"You're Santeria, aren't you?" said Hector, when they were introduced.
"Yeah," said Tapeworm, with a knowing nod. "You too."
Santeria is an afro-Caribbean religion not unlike voodoo, in many ways, except that, unlike voodoo, it actually DOES involve some animal sacrifice. Neither Hector nor Tapeworm actually practiced it; but both Hector and Tapeworm were of Cuban descent - Tapeworm was born in Havana - and had been raised around aunts and grandmothers who spoke about it frequently. And they spotted it in each other right away. Hector claimed that people from the Santeria tradition could always spot each other.
Of course, Ken claimed that Hector didn't know anything about Santeria. "He's not even Cuban, he's Puerto Rican," Ken said, when I asked him about it later. Ken and Hector picked on each other to no end - they were like brothers. But, like brothers, they were fiercely protective of each other. If anyone ELSE picked on Hector, Ken got mad.
Hector may have guessed that Tapeworm had some connection to Santeria because he recognized some of the masks and symbols that were set up around the parlor - Tapeworm was especially fond of Chango, a Santeria Orisha (spirit) known as the God of Thunder and Lightning. I knew nothing about Santeria, except that it was known to involve animal sacrifice, and that, according to Ken, there was a temple for it in the backyard of an apartment about four blocks from mine. I was never sure if Ken was serious, but if there was anybody in Chicago who knew where to go to see a chicken sacrificed, it was Ken.
As usual, after scoping the place out, we started out the investigation by interviewing the people who worked in the building, starting with a new guy who told us that he'd recently heard something going "whooooo" in the basement, where they used to do all of the embalming. As soon as he said this, Hector and I looked at each other, trying not to laugh.
One of the jokes we liked to play between stops on our tours was having customers play "scare the tourist" by making ghost noises out the windows of the bus at the passers-by on Michigan Avenue. Invariably, they would all go "whooooooooo," and the passersby would look on, halfway between amused and annoyed (except for one Amish couple, who were just plain annoyed). I would then point out to the people that I had never, ever heard of an actual ghost that made a noise like that. You hear of moaning noises now and then, but "whooo" is the kind of noise ghosts only make on cartoons.
I'm pretty sure that all ghost hunters, believers and skeptic alike, will agree with me when I say that, if a witness says the ghost went "whoooo," it means one of three things:
1. The witness is lying (or stoned) (or both).
2. It is, in fact, just the wind blowing through a hole in the wall or something, creating an effect not unlike the one you get by blowing over the rim of a pop bottle or moonshine jug.
3. It's not a ghost at all - it's Old Man Peters, the man who ran the haunted amusement park! And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling kids!
So this guy was not only quite likely lying, he wasn't even doing a very good job of it.
Most of the rest of the staff, however, told more plausible stories. Some of them told stories about poltergeist –style activity: shelves falling apart inside of glass display cases, ashtrays flying across the room and landing upside without spilling a single ash. One of the scarier masks - a Japanese one that Keegan found especially frightening - had a tendency to fall off of the wall and onto the floor.
A couple of people had more interesting stories than this - some told of seeing, hearing, or "feeling" the ghost of a blonde little girl in the front entryway, near the fireplace and the stairway that led to the apartment upstairs.
But Tapeworm, perhaps a bit predictably, had the most interesting stories.
He told us about seeing a woman in a white gown walking up to the counter, and a guy in a powder-blue suit that he'd seen walking across an archway near the main studio - apparently the ghost of some poor sap who died in the 1970's.
"There's also this guy I've seen twice who wears a brown suit," he said. "Looks like he's in his 60s or 70s, and he's dressed, I don't know, like it's the 1920s or 30s. I saw him a couple of weeks ago, standing there, like he was looking at me while I was over here tattooing. And I stopped what I was doing and tried to motion for other people to look, but I wouldn't take my eye off him for one second, man, cause I knew that if I looked away for a second, he'd be gone. And he was! The second I looked away, he vanished."
I was reasonably sure, at the time, that Tapeworm's stories were either lies or based on hallucinations - the woman in white, in particular, was a bit of a giveaway. When people tell me about a ghostly woman in white (which they frequently do), it's a pretty safe bet that they're just telling me what they think I want to hear.
I once spoke to a police officer who told me that when someone tells police that they were attacked by a "stranger with bushy hair," they assume that they're lying. Similarly, people who are making up a ghost story almost always seem to go with either a woman in a long white gown or a little kid playing with a ball. Of course, this doesn't mean I can brush off the stories automatically; just as the police know that there must be a handful of bushy haired strangers out there committing crimes, I have no way to know that there isn't some celestial bureaucracy that issues white dresses to dead women and rubber balls to dead children. Maybe it's the same place that gave Jacob Marley his chains.
And it was impossible not to like Tapeworm. His enthusiasm for his work and the building were infectious, and he was a much better story teller than anyone else we met that day. He was, at the very least, quite a character. One of my favorite things about the job was meeting people like him. You really do meet the weirdos when you work in the ghost business.
Tapeworm might, in fact, have had a checkered past, but he was now apparently living clean, and was a respected member of the neighborhood. Neighbors who had been apprehensive about having a tattoo parlor in their midst (as opposed to the incessant cheeriness of a funeral home) were won over by his personality, as was everyone on the investigation. No one who actually knew him personally, rather than by reputation, seemed to have a bad thing to say about him.
Ken, Hector and I all decided right away that most of the people in the building weren't making the ghosts up, exactly - they'd probably seen a few things that they couldn't explain, but some of the things they were telling us were likely just the result of their imaginations taking over after they heard that the place was haunted. Only one story has to be true to make a place haunted for real, though.
"Now, here's what really freaks me out," Tapeworm said, continuing to regale us with ghost stories. "Check out those stairs over there."
He pointed over to the main staircase. They were old, art-deco-tiled stairs leading up to a stained glass window where the staircase curved around.
"I remember being a kid in this neighborhood, and you could see those stairs in the window. I was always all superstitious about it, because of what the place was, you know. It was where the dead people were."
I sympathized. A natural out-growth of my childhood fear of cemeteries had been a general fear of funeral homes. I hated going with my family to pick up my brother at little league practice, because his team practiced near a funeral home, which meant there was a chance that I might see an actual coffin. I still don't know how they managed to get any baseball practice in with that place looming behind them.
"So I tried to avoid looking at it," Tapeworm continued. "And now, you know, things change around, and lo and behold, thirty years later, I'm living here. And twice, when I've been walking down those stairs, I felt like something was trying to push me!"
"Like, push you down the stairs?" I asked.
"Yeah!" he said. "And that fuckin' freaks me out, because everyone knows you can't fight back with these cats! So, the first time it happened, I just looked up and shouted ‘listen, motherfucker! If I fuckin' die in this fuckin' place, it is fuckin' ON!"
Naturally, those stairs were the first place we wanted to investigate.
And, even though I had my doubts about Tapeworm's stories, the place turned out to be as spooky as all get-out that night. In fact, it was probably the spookiest place I'd ever investigated.
My job on investigations, besides doing historical research and attempting to explain away anything weird that happened, was to be in charge of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP), which meant that I was in charge of walking around with audio gear to see if we pick up any strange sounds that might be audible on recordings, but not to the naked ear. On television, the EVP guys are usually the ones who wander around waving microphones in the air and saying "are there any spirits here who have a message for us?"
For the record, I don't normally do that - I'd feel like a real dork going around talking like that - but every now and then I'll say something out loud just to see if there's a response. That way, I can just analyze the audio for a couple of seconds after the question instead of listening to the whole thing for strange voices, which can be a pretty dull process.
I had recently modified my gear a bit to speed things up - I had set it up so the microphone was further away from the recording unit, so that it wouldn't pick up any noise from the unit itself, and had set it up with a pair of signal-boosting earphones that allowed me to hear what I was recording in real time. Using a sensitive microphone, it wasn't unlike wearing a set of high-powered hearing aids. This allowed me to make a note of any unusual sounds as they happened, rather than trying to find them later.
The recorder began to act up on the staircase - it might have just been related to the air vents or the nearby neon sign, but there was an abnormal humming noise that would almost overwhelm me whenever we started going up the stairs - much more than noise than I'd normally expect from a neon sign. There was something odd about that staircase, all right.
Upstairs was the main living area, where Tapeworm actually lived. It was a bit of a mess, decorated with even more life-sized Star Wars statues. But there was an undeniable spookiness about the place - some sort of "weight" in the air, like a humidity, which I attributed primarily to the fact that it was June in Chicago, and the building didn't have any air conditioning.
But some places just have a "haunted" vibe about them - something you can't define, but you can sure as hell feel. And everyone present noticed it in Tapeworm's apartment that night right away. As far as I'm concerned, these places that have that vibe count as haunted, even if the real cause is just humidity, wiring, low frequency noise, or any of the other explanations we skeptics come up with. Once you've got a good story and that haunted vibe, all that remains is to gather some cool "evidence" and a good backstory and you've got yourself a building that functions as haunted for all practical purposes.
That vibe, the "haunted" feeling, comes and goes at any given location. Even the most famously and reliably haunted places don't have the feeling about them all the time. On the tours, I got to where I could tell the minute we stepped off the bus whether a location was going to be "active" that night or not. Ken described this as a form of psychic ability, but I just thought of it as something similar to being able to step outside and tell whether it was raining or not.
Of course, the question to ask ourselves here is whether this feeling comes from ghosts, or if it's caused by regular ol' environmental effects (humidity, barometric pressure, etc) that just make you THINK the place is haunted. But, for all we really know, maybe those environmental effects are what allow ghosts to manifest in the first place. You never can tell with this stuff.
Whatever the cause of that haunted vibe, I was feeling it in that upstairs living area. If picking it up was like being able to tell when it was raining, it was pouring in there.
Keegan and Caitlyn immediately gravitated towards one particular door, which was shut.
Keegan and Caitlyn immediately gravitated towards one particular door, which was shut.
"Can we open places?" Keegan asked.
"I don't think we should," said Ken, as we walked around the room.
But Tapeworm stepped in and told us it was fine to go in, so we did. The room behind the door was mostly empty, except for a drum set and some electrical gear. The light wouldn't come on when we hit the switch.
"Have you had any experiences in this room?" asked Ken.
"That was the first room I moved into," said Tapeworm. "I moved out within a week. Nobody can ever get a good night's sleep in here."
It wasn't difficult to see why - once again, it just had that vibe. It felt like there was something else in the room. There may be scientific explanations for this, but telling yourself it's just humidity or a low frequency noise having a psychological effect on you frankly doesn't make a place seem any less spooky in the heat of the moment.
Ken told Keegan and Kaitlyn to walk around the room and ask the ghost some questions. TThis is generally not the most effective thing in the world to get a ghost to show up, but it also doesn't really hurt anything, and it can help get people focused on what they're doing.
Keegan, however, wouldn't enter the room. She felt as though she simply couldn't. The rest of us soldiered on, with her watching from the threshold.
"Can we help you with anything?" Ken asked out loud. All reservations about asking questions aside, when we do get the idea that a ghost might be in the room, we usually ask if we can be helpful in any way. It's just sort of common courtesy.
"It doesn't need help," said Kaytlyn, confidently.
Hector fumbled with the light switch, but it wasn't working.
Hector fumbled with the light switch, but it wasn't working.
"This was an office at one time," said Ken, using his superpowers.
Meanwhile, in my earphone, I was hearing the faint sound of slow organ music - not unlike a funeral dirge - coming from somewhere in the room. It would be audible, if faint, on the recording later - mostly single whole notes, but at least one three-note chord could be heard, indicating that it wasn't just a vibration in the room. I didn't pick it up in any other places in the building.
"There's a temperature drop in here, too," Hector whispered. "And it smells different."
Keegan and Kaytlyn both seemed fairly exasperated by the room - even though Keegan hadn't set foot inside - and I was, too. It was an intense experience just standing in that room. I knew, of course, that if we came back the next night, it might feel fine in there. We were lucky - we happened to be investigating on an active night. One problem I have with ghost hunting TV shows is that the investigators on the shows are usually only in a location for a few nights (and it's usually edited down to make it look like only one). Whether the place is active while they're there or not is sort of luck of the draw; places can be active for months, then inactive for years.
Meanwhile, over in the kitchen, a couple of Tapeworm's friends chatted, smoked, and listened to music. If they were setting us up to fake us out, they were doing a terrible job of it. People trying to fake us wouldn't be so careless as to have extra people just hanging around the house; they probably would have planned the night out in great detail and not left anything to chance. I wasn't convinced that all of Tapeworm's stories were true, but I was reasonably sure that they weren't trying to trick us.
Ken directed us out, back into the living room area.
"Cool bed," said Hector, noticing Tapeworm's bed, which featured enormous angel wings above the headboad.
Tapeworm told us that he'd made the bed himself, and that he had poured all the suffering that came out of his divorce into the bed - his "wings of freedom." He also said that his bedroom was "calm."
"There's a very different feeling in this room, for sure," said Ken.
"This is the only room where I've been able to get any sleep in the house," said Tapeworm "But every time I have sex in here, I KNOW there's something watching me!"
We all had a good laugh - a lot of investigations have a "no smoking and no joking" rule, but it's very useful to joke around now and then if you've just been spooked out, even if it was just a spooky empty room. The Captain Spooky team tended to break the no joking rule a LOT.
"The window opens by itself all the time," said Tapeworm. "And the bathroom window too, right while I'm sitting there. And I'll go, 'gee, it smells that bad, huh?'"
Just as I was admiring a life-sized Darth Maul statue near the bedroom, the sound of Star Wars music came from Ken's cell phone.
"That's gotta be Olga," said Hector.
"It's Troy," said Ken. "Not Olga. Hang on."
Ken ran down out to a balcony to take the call, and I took control of the investigation for a second.
Ken ran down out to a balcony to take the call, and I took control of the investigation for a second.
"Shit," said Hector. "He's telling him we've all been fired. I know it."
"Shit," I agreed.
Ken popped back into the room.
"Girls," he said, "I have to take this outside. Follow Adam, he's going to help you with the investigation."
Ken stepped out to the balcony, and the rest of us started to head downstairs, with me leading the way.
I decided to lead the group back down to the main floor. We all grabbed tight onto the railing of the stairs, making jokes about not wanted to get pushed down the stairs. As we did, I thought I heard some sort of laughter coming from the walls in my earphones.
"It's making fun of us," said Kaytlyn, who didn't know I was picking up the laughter. "The ghost. It thinks it's funny that we think we're going to be pushed. Cause it's not gonna push us."
"Well, that's pleasant, anyway," I said.
The laugh was very clear on the recording - I didn't even have to turn it up to hear it clearly. My first thought was that it was the little girl ghost, but it doesn't seem like she'd have much to laugh about, and, anyway, it sounded more like an adult laugh. Actually, it sounded like the lovechild of Fran Drescher and Krusty the Clown. Scary.
When Ken returned, we lingered around the tattoo parlor, letting Tapeworm show us what he thought was once an embalming room. Ken talked to Hector for just a second, then began to lead us to the basement.
"Do you know what Troy wanted?" I whispered to Hector.
"Don't worry about that for now," he said. "Just focus on the investigation."
"Are we all fired?" I asked.
"No!" he said, as though I'd just said something really stupid. "We're not fired! Let's go!"
So, with great relief I headed down the creaky back staircase into the basement, the supposed foundation of the funeral parlor from the 1880s over which the current structure had been built. Not long before, I wouldn't have gone to the basement of such a place on a bet, but the relief of knowing I still had a job overcame any nervousness.
You can probably imagine that the basement of an old funeral parlor is going to be a reasonably frightening place. It was a musty, open space with a ceiling of exposed beams barely six feet above the floor, eroded by years of termites. There were only a few bare bulbs to light the entire area. A quick look around showed a casket-sized hole in the wall - supposedly used to pass caskets to hearses, or something like that. We found a drainage area, and the probable location of an incinerator.
While a record proving the place had been a funeral parlor in the 1880s hasn't yet turned up, the basement was clearly much older than the rest of the building. We could see clearly where the windows were, back when the building was the first floor, not a basement. Many Chicago basements were the first floors of buildings before the street levels were raised to make more room for sewers decades ago. Richer people could have their buildings raised, but most people just turned the first floor into the basement. Many of these basements became apartments that realtors cheerfully refer to as "garden level" today.
We wandered through the basement, gravitating towards the Northeast corner.
"It's over here!" Kaytlyn said, confidently.
As I stepped into the corner, facing the wall, I felt someone tapping me on the shoulder, and turned expecting to see Hector, but found nobody there.
The corner also felt remarkably cold - there was a temperature drop that seemed as though it couldn't have been less than twenty degrees. In a building without air conditioning in Chicago in June, this is off the charts.
"There's something here," I said. "Something is very strange right here." I turn some of my skepticism off during investigations sometimes in order to just "let things happen." We can usually hold off on analyzing things until the next day.
"What's your name?" Kaytlyn called out.
Just then, through the earphone, I distinctly heard a voice. It sounded like it was coming from far away, even though we were against the wall.
"Walter!" it said.
I was stunned.
"Did it just say it's name was Walter?" I asked.
"Yes it did," said Kaytlyn, confidently.
I realized right away that I'd made a mistake - I shouldn't have said the name out loud. All Kaytlyn had to do was agree with me. It would have been better if I'd said "are you getting anything?" and she'd said something about hearing the name "Walter" herself.
Still, I'd picked it up on the recorder. And it was clear - not like the sound of Charlie Brown's parents, which is what most EVP sounds like. It sounded like a regular human voice. And I didn't understand why it sounded like it was coming from someone ten or twenty feet in front of me, when the only thing in front of me was a wall.
"There's something else here," said Ken. And he began to talk to the ghost, too. "What did they do to the left side of your body?" he asked. "A knife?" he paused. "Bigger than a knife?"
Meanwhile, the recorder was picking up some distant noises that sounded, if vaguely, like a person in agony.
"Can we do anything for you?" asked Ken. This time, there was nothing in my earphones to indicate any sort of response.
Just then, the light came on. Everyone jumped.
"Sorry, guys," said Hector, who was holding the chord to the light. "That was me."
Everyone let out a relieved sort of laugh. A second later, I felt the temperature in the corner warm back up the normal, and the feeling that any ghosts might have been around simply evaporated. The "haunted vibe" can come and go in a heartbeat.
"I think we got a name," I said. "I just got something saying ‘Walter.'"
"It said its name was Walter?" asked Keegan, sounding rather like she didn't believe me.
"Yeah," I said.
"That was the name of the guy," she said. She didn't seem to be saying this because she had a psychic feeling about it, either. It seemed like something she'd researched.
"That name of what guy?" I asked.
"The guy who owned the funeral parlor."
"That was his name," Tapeworm confirmed. "The guy who died. There were three generations of the family who owned the place, and Walter was the last one."
"There are actually six ghosts down here," said Ken, confidently. This was the sort of thing Ken is given to saying on investigations, and I have no way to tell if he's bullshitting me. It's not like I can say "Come on, Ken, any idiot can see there're only four." Ken is also wrong fairly often, and he's the first one to admit it.
We hung around the corner a while longer, but whatever had been there before was gone. Ken said that whatever we had picked up was a "trickster" ghost - the sort who might act all spooky, but is really just playing around. Walter might not have been the ghost's name - it might have just been calling out to someone named Walter, or it might have been just saying a name, confused by the question. Most ghosts, even the ones that we classify as "intelligent," don't seem to be that bright. Ken equates it to those creatures in the dark depths of the ocean that do little with their lives other than sit around, instinctively eating any creature that get too close. They aren't exactly smart - they just have a sort of instinctual intelligence.
Nobody felt a single thing the rest of the investigation. The vibe that had been in the house before has simply ceased to be.
After we decided to call it a night, I asked Ken what the phone call had been all about.
"Olga," he said. "Apparently, she was doing some press event about ghosts at Wrigley Field, and Ray showed up drunk and calling her unprintable names."
He showed me a picture of Ray, so I'd know what he looked like, and instructed me to call the cops if I ever saw him, since there was some worry that he was going to try to show up and commandeer the bus on an upcoming tour. Hector and I made some fighting plans, and I tried to remember what I'd learned in karate lessons back when I was seven.
Tapeworm wanted to hear the voice saying "Walter," but we were still using the recording gear. I told him I'd get it up online shortly, and we made tentative plans to do an overnight investigation at the parlor in a month or two.
After that, we dove into historical research on the place. We got a lot of different stories about Walter - some said there was no such person. Others insisted that there WAS a Walter, but he couldn't be a ghost, because he wasn't quite dead yet. We did find evidence of several people named Walter whose funerals had been held in the parlor. In the end, what the ghost in the corner might have been talking about proved to be sort of inconclusive. Maybe it was the ghost of someone who had been embalmed in the building, or someone who had lived there, or maybe it was just messing with us. There's also always the chance that the voice came from someone passing by outside, randomly shouting the name "Walter" right at the time we had asked "what's your name."
We also heard from a few members of the family who had owned the funeral parlor. They'd thought that the place was haunted for YEARS, which at least made me feel a little more confident that the tattoo people hadn't made the whole thing up. Something was in that building making people think that there were ghosts around.
I began telling stories of the ghost of Walter on the tours, along with stories about Tapeworm, whose language I generally cleaned up considerably when I retold his stories. His story about challenging the ghosts on the staircase to a fight in the event that he died in the place was an especially big hit.
Three weeks after the investigation, Ken called me again.
"Remember Tapeworm?" he asked.
"Sure," I said. "How could I forget Tapeworm?"
"He died yesterday," said Ken.
Tapeworm had suffered a heart attack and died in his bedroom - just a few feet from the staircase.
Tapeworm had suffered a heart attack and died in his bedroom - just a few feet from the staircase.
He was thirty-seven.
In the months that followed, lots of things would change. Ray would take over Chicago Spooks, and Ken, Troy and I would buy a bus of our own and found Weird Chicago Tours, our own outfit, in the name of job security. Hector would become Chicago Spooks' main tour guide before being fired when Ray, as we'd predicted, started doing everything himself. After that, Hector drifted out of the ghost business altogether for a while.
But Odin Tatu would just get weirder and weirder.