With Halloween right around the corner, the purveyors of candy, costumes and intense lawn decor aren't the only ones working longer-than-usual hours to help spread the spooky spirit of the season.
Here in Chicago, Ursula Bielski, an author and historian recognized as one of the city's principal authorities on all things supernatural and paranormal, is surely logging quite the overtime. In addition to authoring a series of books about local haunts, Bielski also founded Chicago Hauntings, which offers historically-based ghost tours of the city year round.
HuffPost Chicago recently spoke with Bielski about what makes the Windy City such an optimal home for paranormal enthusiasts.
The Huffington Post: Let's get down to business because I'm sure this is a busy time with you. How do you deal with that sort of seasonal uptick of interest in what's become your passion -- the paranormal?
Ursula Bielski: It's funny because when I was growing up, October was my favorite month and I looked forward to it and getting ready for Halloween, going to lots of haunted houses and all that fun stuff -- and now it's really work! It's pretty exhausting and gets more so each year because there's such a heightened interest in all things paranormal over the last 10 years or so probably.
A lot of people are interested year round in ghosts and hauntings and the paranormal, but this is the time of year that those who may not always be interested begin to think about it. So this is our opportunity to get more information across to those people, telling them more than just the spooky story. We try to really bring the history to life and memorialize the people that have died at the places we visit on our tours and the places I write about.
HP: I imagine a lot of that additional interest has come with the proliferation of things like "Ghost Hunters" and "Paranormal Activity." How does the way that paranormal research and hauntings more generally are portrayed in those sorts of programs impact how people approach your work?
UB: I've had a lot of difficulty in the last few years with the expectation of people who come on a tour and want you to whip out all your gadgets. I've never been too fascinated with gadgets to begin with. I love science and technology and think it's cool that people create equipment specifically to hunt ghosts. But this whole thing, these 25 years now, has always been about the person, the person's experience, how it relates to our history and culture and how it ties generations together.
I learned a very hard lesson when I was just starting out in college in 1988 and began formal investigation as part of a team as an undergrad history major. I went to some places around Chicago with a psychology student doing parapsychology work and it was my job to interview people who had experiences at these sites prior to the visits. I would talk to a dozen or more people who had profound experiences at these sites. And then we'd go in with the gadgets and if the leader found no so-called "evidence" of anything out of the ordinary going on, it would be announced that the place wasn't haunted and that would be that.
That emphasis on scientific evidence bothered me from the beginning. Ghosts and hauntings can't be studied the way science wants, so it doesn't make much sense to try and study these things with instruments when we found out a long time ago, back to the beginning of parapsychology, that it doesn't work.
(Scroll down to learn more about what are reportedly some of Chicago's most haunted places.)
HP: You've been doing this work for some time and are incredibly prolific. What has motivated you to stay in Chicago and study this subject here, versus anywhere else in the country? What makes our city so special when it comes to these phenomena?
UB: There's a lot of different aspects to that. First of all, there is so much water in the area. Researchers have found that places with a lot of water tend to see more reports of phenomena, which may have something to do with the theory that these phenomena are electrical -- water is a great conduit. Somewhere like Chicago -- with Lake Michigan -- and other cities on great bodies of water -- like New Orleans or Salem, Mass., the British Isles or Key West -- have more than their fair share of stories.
There's also talk about the Native American connection. There were so many people displaced during the time of settlement in Chicago. There's a long history in Native American folklore that a lot of the land was cursed as a sort of revenge for that removal.
But the main reason, we think, is the long history of trying to sort of rewrite history and forget about tragic events that have occurred. There's a far-reaching idealistic, hopeful and innovative mentality here in Chicago that is always forward-thinking, which is a great thing and has allowed Chicagoans to accomplish incredible things. But it also kind of sweeps aside the terrible things that have happened at times. The intentions are good, but if you don't remember people that have died in tragedies -- especially those that happened due to negligence or greed -- the ghosts will come around. Here in Chicago, you can go from site to site to site where huge tragedies took hundreds of lives and there's no plaque, statue or memorial of any kind there -- and that's done on purpose.
HP: With so many stories of experiences with ghosts in Chicago, there are bound to be a few that get blown a bit out of proportion. Are there any particular haunted spots in the area where you feel the legend and its actual history have become particularly separate?
UB: Absolutely, I would say probably the main one is Bachelor's Grove Cemetery. It's known as one of the most haunted places in the world and we're not really sure what actually happened there. There seems to have been some kind of horrific event in the past that's led to all these urban legends. The legends are very far from the original stories such as an apparition of a house seen for many years going back to at least the '50s, stories of phantom cars, a two-headed man, a woman in white.
There's a lot of reports of things that seem to be people getting carried away with their imaginations, though that's not to say that there's something profoundly paranormal about it. There's something very odd about Bachelor's Grove and there are very subtle things that go on there that really make you think about whether the legends are really true. It makes even skeptics think twice.
HP: Of all the places you've investigated and written about in the area, do you have any particular "favorites" so to speak? Places that, no matter how many times you return, still are unsettling?
UB: There are a few of them. One places I've probably been to 2,000 times and still get choked up at during tours is the site of the Iroquois Theatre fire, where the Oriental Theatre is today. In 1903, 602 people died there, a lot of them children, during a matinee performance. It's a terrible tragedy and it could have been prevented -- but a lot of it had to do with greed. I think there must be something more there that affected me more than all the other places we go with similarly horrific stories.
Another site that baffles me and some good friends of mine is in Libertyville, called "The Gate" in the Independence Grove Forest Preserve. It's an old stone gate out in the woods along one of the paths. There is a legend that at one point earlier in the 20th century, a girls' school was there. Some terrible tragedy occurred there and usually the story you hear is that one of the workers at the school went crazy, beheaded a number of children and put their heads up on the gate post. They tore down the school, the story passed into oblivion and there are no records of the school. It's one of those things that nobody talked about. Clairvoyants and psychics who know nothing about the story have said they hear children screaming and laughing and physical artifacts found at the site seem to be from a school like this.
HP: When you're not busy leading tours or writing, what's one of your favorite places in the city to go and kick back?
UB: My home away from home is the Portage Theater in Portage Park. They have so many different events, conferences, concerts, plays and all kinds of really cool old films, including lots of horror films. A lot of it is free and the manager Dennis and his wife Linda are so great. There's a bar there with a concession stand and I just love it there. I try to go as much as possible.
HP: And, since it is the season for horror, I'm curious: What are your favorite films from the genre?
UB: My two favorite movies are the original "The Haunting," which is based on Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House." The 1960s version with Julie Harris. I think it's still the best ghost story ever put on film, it's really, really well done. And another of my favorites is the old, old horror movie back in the '30s called "The Old Dark House." It's got Boris Karloff and all these great old actors: Gloria Stuart, who played the elderly Rose in "Titantic." It's very atmospheric, a really fun one.
Ursula Bielski will be giving a lecture at the Skokie Public Library on Monday, Oct. 29 and is hosting a number of other events around town in the weeks ahead. Click here for more information on Bielski's Chicago Hauntings tours.