Thursday, October 26, 2006

Myth and Memory and . . ?

Had the best talk ever today with Nancy Zingrone at the Parapsychology Foundation. Nancy was one of the first people I ever met in academic parapsychology, and she is still one of the most remarkable people I know. I ended up back in touch with her over a case going on in Wisconsin, and she filled me in on lots of developments in the parapsychological community.

I've still never met Nancy in person, but I've known her since I was an undergraduate, amazed at the existence of the science of parapsychology. As many young people do each year, I contacted the Parapsychological Association for information about careers in parapsychology, and I got the same advice that parapsychologists have always given: Don't quit your day job!

So I didn't. I pursued a career in history and folklore, which has gone a long way, I think, in helping to make Chicagoans aware of "what lies beneath" their city. When I wrote my first book, Chicago Haunts, back in the mid-1990s, two Chicago ghost tours had been operating for years, but--though we had the the Halloween stories in the local papers each year--not a single volume had ever been published on the subject of Chicago's ghostlore.

Unfortunately, among the great reviews of Chicgo Haunts were the unspoken responses of those famous Chicago ghosthunters who suddenly decided to publish their own books after thirty years. I know what their reviews were: "Who does this girl think she is?"

But that's okay. Because now, their years and years of research are documented for generations to come. That's a great thing! And that's all I wanted in the first place: for someone to write down all these intriguing stories. And boy did they ever! Today, there are about a dozen books on Chicago's ghostlore. And they're still coming.

Ghostlore is a funny word, but it works.It's a funny word because it's a made-up word. And it's a made up word because we needed one.

There is no word which adequately describes what my more able colleagues around the world and I do. It's its own thing--kind of like parapsychology itself. If you don't get it, you don't get it. And you can't get it unless you're willing to look at what you're looking at from out of the corner of your eye. Sound confusing? It is.

As some of the reviews on attest, "Is this supposed to be history?" "Ursula Bielski is a lousy historian . . . she doesn't even tell us the year these things happened!"

And so ghostlore is not traditional history. It is purposefully--and shamelessly--elusive at times, sparing of dates and names, all in the interest of maintaining a certain fogginess that speaks to the way in which people experience the remarkable events of which we write. Ghostlore tries to communicate that these events are timeless, and universal, and transcendent of our mundane existence.

Ghostlore is not folklore, because its subject matter comes from the rush of real experience--believe it or not.

Ghostlore is not even properly categorized with the thousands of ghosthunting reports published each year these days on the internet, or on television (or in books, less and less), because it is not searching for answers, but is happy with emotions . . . with memories . . . with sighs for days gone by. In fact, these are its only rewards.

I am enmeshed these days in preparing the third volume of Chicago Haunts, and as I work each day my own memory is flooded again and again with memories of my own Chicago--with that special blend of myth and memory--and experience--that makes ghostlore something that (like these beautiful, preternatural phenomena) refuses to be defined. I hope that my flooded memory--and the memories (and experiences, and myths and . . . ?) of many, many past and present Chicagoans--will make this coming volume as elusive, as transcendent, as decidely undefinable as the first two.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

It is children who have the most extraordinary relationships with the paranormal. Many are aware that adolescents usually serve as the agents in poltergeist cases, unwittingly upsetting the force fields of random or significant objects with their own displaced energies. What I didn't know is that, in the world of parapsychological research, children are proving responsible for much more than the chaotic activity of the poltergeist. In fact, many autistic children demonstrate significant psi abilities--abilities which they seem able to control much more easily than "normal" children or adults.

Judith Lecuyer, mother of an autistic boy named Ben, was used to living in a slightly different household. Like all of us, little Ben had habits that were difficult to live with, some of them symptoms of the mysterious condition called autism. Lecuyer was used to carrying Ben up the three flights of stairs to their apartment (he refused to use stairs but would climb up on to the furniture with delight), but she didn't quite know what to think when dangerous objects began to appear in Ben's hiding places. These were objects that had been deliberately placed in high, locked cabinets, well out of reach of a two-year old, yet they appeared again and again. Similar events continued to cause Lecuyer to wonder if something paranormal was going on. While the children were strapped into their feeding chairs in the dining room, a Winnie-the-Pooh cake on the sideboard found its way into the baby's lap. When questioned about the cake, Lecuyer's older son said that, while buckled into his chair seven feet away, Ben had made the cake fly. The moment of truth came one day in the family's kitchen, when an empty two liter pop bottle became the object of Ben's desire. Unable to reach it, Ben stared intently at the bottle. Lecuyer tells how his little face became beet red, and she watched as the bottle "shimmied and trembled and gently bounced its way to the edge."

Many people are discovering what the families and friends of autistic children have known for a long time: these deeply misunderstood children surely exist on a higher spiritual plane; they exhibit a deep empathy with both people and with animals and are often able to "teach" these abilities to those around them. Frequently, family members like Lecuyer report that, at an early age in the autistic child's life, the parents and siblings became aware of receiving images and messages from the child via paranormal means. With Ben, it was at the most frustrating moments--when communication seemed hopeless--that he would press his forehead against the forehead of his mother or father, brother or sister. And what followed was always a moment of clarity: instant knowledge-- without a word--of what Ben needed or wanted or felt.

"Normal" children, adults and their families aren't typically able to use their paranormal abilities at will. If I press my forehead against yours, it's unlikely that I will suddenly know you are hungry or thirsty or want to dance. Parapsychologists are starting to think it's because we don't have to. Often, even those with motor or vocal impairments have alternate means of normal communication. If one cannot pysically write or type, one can still speak--to another person or a machine that will transform that speech into writing. If one cannot speak, writing and typing are always there. Likely, it is the lack of any channel of "normal" communication--speech or writing--that forces autistic families to a place where they're desperate to communicate, and it's that desperation that starts the psi powers flowing. Interestingly, autistic individuals can sometimes learn to use a keyboard to communicate with the "outisde" world. Six years ago, when Ben's mom wrote her book about his paranormal abilities, Ben had not been introduced to one. I wonder if now, at the age of nine or ten, he has begun this method of communication. I wonder if, simultaneously, his psi abilities have decreased in proportion to his fluency with the keyboard?

I aim to try to contact Judith Lecuyer to learn more about the progress of her remarkable son. Her story--their story--is a fascinating one for anyone interested in paranormal communication. You can find Lecuyer's book, "Mommy! Ben Made the Cake Fly!" at

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Why do some places become haunted only years after their tragic events occur? And why do some haunted places become more actively haunted for no apparent reason? This question has bugged researchers for as long as we've been hunting ghosts, but what is the answer? Many believe that it lies in an intimate connection between the living and the dead: that it takes the living to bring them back.

Case on point: Dillinger's Alley in Chicago. This nondescript throughway draws thousands of visitors each year from around the world. For this little alleyway, just a few steps from the old Biograph Theater (now purhcased by Victory Gardens Theater and under renovation), is the storied spot where, on a hot July night in 1934, "Public Enemy Number One" John Dillinger was gunned down by police and Chicago FBI agents. Dillinger's death rocked the nation; in Chicago, where the climax came, the people were electric. At the site of the shooting, pilgrims gathered to dip handkerchiefs in Dillinger's blood, and countless Chicagoans lined up for a public display of the body at the city morgue. It would have been no surprise if passersby had immediately begun seeing the famous ghost of Dillinger--the bluish figure of a man stumbling and falling--in the alley where the shooting occurred. But they didn't. In fact, it wasn't until the 1970s--some forty years later--that rumors arose of the alley's haunting. Why did it take so long? Some cultural experts believe it's a matter of life and death--literally. In 1972, "The Godfather" took the nation--and eventually the world--by the throat. What followed was, among other cultural fallout, a rash of gangland ghost sightings in every American city. Seems the heightened interest in the culture of crime led to a sharpened perception of the ghosts it spawned. But are ghosts like these just figments of our activated imaginations? Or were they just waiting for us to see them?

All over the world, the recent mania over T.V's now-famous T.A.P.S. (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) has led to the formation of hundreds of new ghosthunting groups--and increased reports of hauntings and ghostly manifestations just about everywhere, including Borley, Essex. Long a favorite topic of mine, the haunting of Borley Rectory has held a place of honor as one of the world's most haunted places since Harry Price first made it public. This week, I was thrilled to start talking via email with one of Borley's modern investigators, Eddie Brazil. According to Brazil, who's made a career of photographing (very well) Borley sites and other British subjects, even the site of "the most haunted house in England" has become more actively haunted of late.
Why? Does the answer have more to do with us than we know? Who can tell. Nonetheless, we are grateful for the renewed opportunity to study some of the most famous ghosts in the world: at Borley . . . and in Chicago.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Haunted baseball on the brain. Something wanted me to think about the curse of the Cubs this weekend. Or about their great fan: musician Steve Goodman, devoted even after death. Or about "Holy Cow"-yelling Harry Caray, still very much with us even post-mortem. Or any of all the wonderful, mysterious things said to haunt Chicago's Wrigley Field. I met Friday afternoon in the shadow of the great park with writer Mickey Bradley, a great guy who is finishing up--with co-author Dan Gordon--what sounds like an intriguing read indeed: Haunted Baseball: Ghosts, Curses, Legends and Eerie Events. Mickey and I talked about all the memories you might expect: the day the goat came, the day Harry left us, the day the Cubs won the pennant--96 hours after the death of hardcore fan Goodman. Mickey seemed intrigued by the tale of our ghost hunt at Cubs' Park back in 1998, when all of Chicago thought the recently departed Caray was sending down some good vibrations to the home team. But Mickey had some tales to tell that even a neighborhood girl like me had never heard of, including chilling accounts of the haunted hotels frequented by on-the-road players. Be on the lookout for what sounds like a great book, expected to be released in time for opening day 2007. Check for updates at

Speaking of books and baseball . . . . After my meeting with Mickey Bradley, I headed downtown to give the nightly Chicago Hauntings tour. I arrived early, and it was getting drizzly, so I walked over to the Billy Goat Tavern to have a drink and ran into sweet Rick Kogan of the Chicago Tribune. We talked for awhile about things going on, and I got an update on the release date (September of this year) of Rick's upcoming book on the Billy Goat: A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, a Curse, and the American Dream, to be published by none other than Lake Claremont Press. Fitting indeed: both author and publisher are a Chicagophile's best friend. Check out for ordering information and forthcoming details on the book release party, to be held at none other than . . . The Billy Goat!

Monday, August 07, 2006

What's it like to be part of a ghosthunting team? Some days, you receive utterly intriguing posts like the one I got today, from a young woman who recently moved into the parsonage of a Northwest side Lutheran church in Chicago:

While living in the house provided by the church my family has been experiencing various paranormal activity or things we can not explain. Our events have varied from knives spinning on counters, mysterious figures walking in the halls, to bleeding scratches on my stomach in the middle of the night. We are also hearing voices call our names when there is no one home or making noises. My mother was pushed in to a wall with no one in the house. My sister has had her bed made and unmade in several cases when it was not done by anyone in the house. We have heard people walking in the kitchen (which) can be heard with no one there. We would like it if these events could some how be explained weather it be lights from cars, pipes clanking, or actual paranormal activity. Would you please rest our minds and help my whole family?

It's both exhilarating and unnerving to receive requests like these. On the one hand, they are invitations to observe firsthand the "spontaneous phenomena" that are so elusive to us as investigators, but so necessary for the further understanding of the paranormal. When something like this happens, we as a team experience two reactions: we are grateful, and we jump at the chance. On the other hand, it's hard to escape feeling the chaos of those families or individuals involved--and often traumatized--by their experiences with the events in question. Can we help to figure out what's going on? Will our efforts help to alleviate their personal fears? We never really know. All we can do is try.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A traumatic weekend. While on the way home from a family reunion in Waupaca, Wisconsin, I got word that the beloved but bedeviled Ghost Bus was having mechanical problems. Bad news for our tour tonight, but of course, Hector and Adam saved the day. Score another for the astonishing abilities of the Chicago Hauntings team! Good thing. Friday will bring the overnight tour company, Southern Ghosts, into town for a weekend with Chicago's most haunted. We'll be staking out the Congress Hotel on Friday night, focusing on two of the building's most paranormally active sites: the Florentine Room and the legendary Gold Room. Both sites did their folklore good when Ken, Hector, Adam and I did our preliminary investigation there earlier this summer. Particularly interesting is the Gold Room, where--according to longtime night security guard Johnny D--strange photos have been taken over the last few years. Wedding guests enjoying receptions in the Room have often taken photos around the piano on the dancefloor . . . only to have their photos developed with certain people missing from them. This intriguing phenomenon reminded me of an earlier trip to the Bell Witch Cave in Adams, Tennessee, where the property owner, Chris Kirby, keeps a binder of photographs that have been taken near the cave. A number of them bear evidence of the same phenomenon. Most chilling is Chris's photo of a group of schoolchildren, taken by a teacher several years ago on the steps of the welcoming cabin on the cave property. In the front row of the group of children is a child with his arm stuck out to one side in an awkward position. When asked why he held his arm that way for the photo, he pointed out that he'd been standing next to his friend, and had had his arm around him. The friend, however, failed to show up in the photo. We'll be taking a lot of pictures this weekend in the Gold Room--and enjoying what promises to be a great weekend with some of our best Southern pals. Check back next week to see what happens, and look for a full report on our Congress investigations in the weeks to come.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Welcome to Haunting Chicago, your look into the days of some of the city's most accomplished paranormal investigators. Please join us as our blog builds in the weeks to come. In the meantime, see what we're doing at, home of Chicago's most acclaimed supernatural tours.

Happy Ghost Hunting!
Ursula Bielski