1. How did you get into ghost hunting? Have you always believed in ghosts?
In all honesty, it’s just something I thought was cool back when I was twelve! My friends and I were really into Bigfoot, UFOs , Nostradamus, and things like that. But I tried to convince myself I didn’t believe in ghosts, because they scared the heck out of me! We didn’t have a whole lot of TV shows about ghosts and the unexplained back then–mostly just episodes of In Search Of with Leonard Nimoy. In those days, though I kept trying to keep myself from believing in ghosts, I had a very low opinion of skeptics ; TV shows almost invariably made them look like idiots. The narrator would say “skeptic” in the same tone of voice narrators use to say “liberal” in political ads, and the one skeptic they showed would always give some asinine explanation that involved imagination and swamp gas. As I grew up, I grew to be a lot more skeptical about ghosts–I haven’t seen anything that I’m certain will always stand up to scientific explanations, though some of what I’ve run into is going to be awfully tricky to figure out, at the very least.
2. How long have you been with Weird Chicago Tours? What is the oddest happening you’ve come across while doing tours?
I’ve been with the company since it started in 2006; before that, the whole Weird Chicago crew worked for one of the other local ghost tour companies. I can’t claim that something unexplainable happens on every tour, but every now and then something weird does happen. There have been some very strange nights—like the times we’ve heard a gunshot go off in an empty ballroom, or the time we saw a woman in a black dress float across an abandoned alley and vanish. I try to keep my skepticism up, but swamp gas doesn’t dress that well!
3. What kind of entities do you generally come across while giving tours? Are they generally benign?
I’ve never run across something that wasn’t benign. Every now and then we’ll hear about a ghost that has a bad attitude, but it’s not like they can hurt you. We hear a lot more than we see—footsteps, voices, the sound of people washing dishes in empty kitchens, the occasional moaning sound…stuff like that. One of the problems with doing these things in the city is that there are usually a million other places the sounds could be coming from. About as close as we get to something that isn’t benign is a voice we’ve picked up in the basement of a block that used to be called “Hair Trigger Block.” It was where all the shell-shocked Civil War vets went to gamble and shoot at each other. There’s a voice that’s been recorded down there that makes inappropriate advances at women and threatens guys to fights. But (assuming these are actually ghosts), these things can barely make an audible noise, much less fight anyone. You very rarely hear about ghosts that are that malicious; I mean, there was the Bell Witch story, but that was such an anomaly that we’re still talking about it two hundred years later. Most of them aren’t all that bright; even with the ones that we classify as “intelligent,” I’ve never run across anything that appeared to have anything more than a rudimentary intellect. I mean, obviously the things don’t have functioning brains!
4. Have you ever yourself been frightened by one of these entities?
Maybe a little. There was one time on the top floor of a hotel that I got the distinct impression something was chasing me. I ran like hell until I got to the elevator and wouldn’t look behind me for anything. It was only later that I found out that a ghostly little boy had been seen running down the hallway on that floor for years. Of course, this doesn’t mean that’s actually was chasing me. I’d say there’s about a 99% chance it was just me being a chicken!
5. What methods do you use to locate ghosts and spirits?
To be totally honest, we usually just go looking and hope for the best. You can use equipment like EMF readers to give you a clue, but there’s not a gadget out there that will actually tell you if there’s a ghost in the room—that jump in EMF might come from a radio tower a few blocks away or something. I know some teams that set up equipment and just monitor the equipment the whole time, but I don’t mess with that. For one thing, you’ll never know if it’s actually a ghost until one of them actually floats up to you. For another, it’s not much fun. Half the fun of a ghost hunt is to go poking around old buildings—you’re apt to find plenty of cool stuff besides ghosts.
6. Do you employ any other ghost hunters, psychics, mediums, etc. while doing your tours?
One of our guides is Ken Melvoin-Berg, whose day job is being a psychic detective. He’s about the only psychic to whom I give the benefit of the doubt. Every now and then we’ll have a “special guest” ghost hunter turn up for part of the tour.
7. Are there any myths about haunted locations that you feel need to be debunked?
Sure—the one that needs the most debunking is the story of the Devil Baby at Hull House. Hull House was a settlement house in Chicago—people could go there for food, health care, to learn English, or just to get out of the dirty streets. In 1913, rumors went around that some baby with hooves, horns, and scaly red skin had been born in the neighborhood and brought to Hull House, and hundreds of women per day lined up to see the thing. It never existed—it was just a rumor. But plenty of tours still tell people that it was not only real, it was buried in the garden next door and still haunts the building today! Now, most easily debunked historical stories are fairly harmless, but the people who work there today still have to deal with people showing up with shovels expecting permission to start digging up the garden (which, incidentally, wasn’t even a garden in 1913. There was a building there at the time). I’ve been trying to talk the other tours into dropping that story, but I’m not having much luck there.
8. For people interested in haunted locations, what advice do you give?
Do your homework first. The stories you hear from people who live in a haunted building about the history of the place are often going to be inaccurate—they probably aren’t lying to you, but they may be mistaken. I know ghost hunters who have wasted a lot of time looking for the ghosts of people who never existed. More than once I’ve had people tell me their house was haunted by an old woman who lived there years before and died upstairs, and a bit of research told me that not only did the old woman not die in the place, she’s actually still alive and listed in the phone book.