Everyone loves a good ghost story around Halloween. For some, a night of horror movies or a trip to a "haunted" corn maze isn't enough. Local groups like Mad City Paranormal Investigations devote countless nights and weekends to hunting ghosts. For the tour guides of Madison Ghost Walks, a love of spooky stories has turned into a growing business. Both groups are looking for something deeper and more personal than just a spooky thrill.
What is it about the supernatural that draws people in and bonds them together? To find out, I took a closer look at the world of Madison's ghost hunters.
'We want video'
The members of Mad City Paranormal are amateur paranormal researchers. Much like their counterparts on late-night cable television, they go into supposedly haunted locations at night and use technological gadgets to try to collect evidence of ghosts.
I exchange a series of emails with Ian MacAllister, who manages the group's website and is a de facto leader. Mac-Allister provides psychic and astrological readings as his day job; ghost hunting is his hobby.
MacAllister invites me over to his house for an interview, and I am hesitant. This man is a professional psychic, a Reiki master and he lives on the near east side of Madison -- all signs of being really, really weird. I'm worried he's going to admonish me for letting my chakras get so unaligned.
My fears are dispelled upon meeting MacAllister. He's an easygoing man who's quick to laugh. It's clear he takes his ghost-hunting seriously, but not too seriously. He is probably one of the more normal residents of the near east side, though I understand that's not saying much.
"We aren't making any money off this. All of our investigations are done at no cost," MacAllister says, eager to dispel any notions that this is a scam.
MacAllister shows me highlights from previous investigations. There are intermittent banging and dragging noises captured in the UW-Madison's North Hall. A ghostly voice speaks a full sentence into a microphone at an area secondhand store. A ball of light passes by the camera at the same time a whisper is picked up. Even though I'm a skeptic, some of the clips give me chills. Some may have rational explanations, but I can't deny they are creepy.
MacAllister walks me through the group's next investigation; the group is going to UW-Madison's Science Hall. No other location on campus can match the ghost stories associated with Science Hall. The building is an ideal haunted house; it looks more like a gothic castle than a university building. It has a macabre history -- there was once a morgue in the basement. There are numerous reports of beakers flying off shelves and unexplainable noises.
This investigation is going to be Mad City Paranormal's second trip to Science Hall.
"We didn't find much at our first investigation," says MacAllister. "We were based on the upper floors. The only evidence we got was a photo of an orb in a classroom on the first floor." That was followed by reports of "weird computer problems the next week in the second-floor library," he adds.
Since the upper floors produced nothing of interest, the new investigation will focus on floors one and two.
MacAllister invites me to look through the team's gadgets. There are electromagnetic meters and thermometers to detect changes in electrical fields and temperature, both supposed signs of ghost activity; and digital audio recorders to capture EVPs, a.k.a. electronic voice phenomena -- unexplained sounds that investigators believe to be spirit voices.
The centerpiece of Mad City Paranormal's equipment suite is a system employing eight night-vision cameras and microphones hooked up to a DVR. This allows for continuous coverage of two full floors of Science Hall. The setup is a big improvement over the old cameras the group used to run.
"When I joined, the equipment limited what we could do. The old cameras had a short range, but these go out 90 feet or so," says MacAllister. That's more than enough to cover the long hallways of Science Hall.
The equipment isn't cheap, and much of it was paid for personally by MacAllister. "It's important for me to do this in the most professional way possible," says MacAllister. "The TV shows have people talking about goosebumps and being touched. If our members feel that, it's nice -- but it's not evidence. We want video."
Meet the team
On the night of the investigation, I meet the other members of Mad City Paranormal. Many of them have been into ghost-hunting since childhood.
"I've always had an interest in the weird and the paranormal. I attribute that to my grandmother," says Jono. "She was an avid collector of the National Enquirer. As soon as I could read, I was picking those up. Reading from 'Bat Boy' on up."
Jono is a lighting and sound tech at UW-Madison who uses his technical skills to identify what may look like ghosts on a night-vision camera as dust or bugs.
"I'm on the tail end of the baby boomers," says Mike Adler, "so I grew up in front of the television. That meant Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and The Outer Limits. My children accuse me of being a closet geek."
Adler has probably held more jobs than the rest of the group put together. He's been a teacher, a police officer and a private detective, as well as working in homeless outreach. Now he works security for Madison's Central Library. Adler draws on his years working with the public to make contact with homeowners and property managers and explain the investigation to them.
Other group members have had personal experiences with the paranormal.
Jenny, who works at a hospital, describes an experience she had before joining the group.
"It was a dark, dark, empty patient room. The TV turned on by itself. I thought, oh, maybe it's on a timer. Then the shower turned on by itself. The coincidences became harder to explain, and I had more and more questions."
The diverse backgrounds among the investigators produce interesting friendships. Jon is a conservative lawyer who gets along extremely well with MacAllister. The lawyer and the psychic enjoy each other's company, even though I doubt they share many political or spiritual beliefs.
"Jon makes me laugh," says MacAllister of their friendship. After the last couple years of divisiveness in Wisconsin, that answer seems incredibly deep. I ask MacAllister if he thought he would have been friends with Jon without Mad City Paranormal.
"Perhaps not," says MacAllister. "This stuff can really bring people together."
On the hunt
The team and I walk into Science Hall carrying tubs of equipment. There's a flurry of activity as the group deploys the array of cameras around the building. The experienced members are like well-tested roadies; they know every piece of tech and where it needs to go. Cords are taped down everywhere for this temporary paranormal surveillance grid.
In the middle of setup, there's a scream. We all rush to the source; I wonder if someone saw a shadow figure or a floating mist. The explanation is a bit more mundane. Science Hall has a resident population of bats, and our activity is stirring them up. Jono reminds the others not to tag bat noises as paranormal evidence when they review the audio from tonight's investigation.
After a final check-in, we break into teams of two, the lights are turned off, and we venture into the dark spaces of Science Hall. The hunt is on!
The hunt is pretty boring. It's like being on a movie shoot. If you've ever been to a film set, you know it can take an hour of setup just to capture a five-second shot of an actor. In this case, we're doing a shoot where our actors may not even exist.
Standing in the library, we ask questions to prompt any spirits to talk into the audio recorder: What is your name? Do you know you are dead? Who is the current president? We refrain from asking the ghosts how they feel about Obamacare.
We announce every time we make a noise. That way, when I stub my toe in the darkness, the group won't accidentally identify it as communication from the great beyond. If nothing else, Mad City Paranormal collects definitive evidence that I am very clumsy.
Everyone gets goofier as the night wears on. That's what happens when you stay up until 3 a.m. It feels like a middle school sleepover, in the best possible way: Staying up late and exploring a spooky building, with no alcoholic beverages in sight. It isn't very scary, outside of the bats, but the people make it a good time.
While Mad City Paranormal hunts for video evidence, local tour company Madison Ghost Walks is on the hunt for ghost stories. The group leads public and private walking tours through Madison's downtown, with regular stops for spooky tales along the way.
"Tonight, we're going to learn about the scoundrels and criminals who have roamed our state Capitol. And then we'll learn about the ghosts," says tour guide and company head Mike Huberty. "I normally start with a cheesy joke, get the temperature of the tour group."
Huberty is a local musician who started Madison Ghost Walks in 2010 after his sister Allison opened a similar tour in Milwaukee. How were two siblings so drawn into tales of the macabre?
"Nothing weird happened in our family! It was just growing up in the '70s. You had shows like In Search of...," says Huberty.
Much like the members of Mad City Paranormal, Huberty and his sister had an early interest in ghost stories. The siblings were disappointed that none of those stories took place closer to home.
"They never talked about Wisconsin. We wanted to see what was around here," says Huberty.
After seeing Allison's successful haunted tour in Milwaukee, Huberty began devising a Madison tour; the initial script took him about six months. "I wanted to make sure every story was documented in the historical record or was a personal story of someone I could interview," says Huberty.
A trainee tour guide, Lisa, is with us on the night's tour, and she tells the stories of King Street's rough-and-tumble period when it was Madison's red-light district.
"All good theaters seem to have spirits, because being theatrical takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears," says Lisa underneath the Majestic Theatre's marquee. "Before the Majestic was renovated, an employee was mopping up. He looked up and saw a man waving back to him. After a moment, the man's arm became detached from the rest of his body. Needless to say, there may have been a little more to mop up that night."
"Really good, but there are a couple more stories from the Majestic. The putty man," says Huberty.
"Ooh, I forgot to talk about the putty man," says Lisa.
As the night continues, Lisa's confidence with the tour script grows. She even adds a couple of her personal stories. Huberty says this is common: Tour guides often provide new stories and help keep the script fresh. Huberty is always looking for new stories, and sometimes the stories seem to find him.
"It was Halloween two years ago," he says. "We end the night at the Frequency. We're finishing up in the green room, and this woman comes up and says, 'Are you telling ghost stories?' and proceeds to tell the group her experiences down in the basement. It seemed like it was all staged, but it wasn't. I now tell her stories on the tour."
As a musician, he says, ghost stories from the Frequency affect him the most.
"I've been in that green room a thousand times and, yeah, it's always been creepy. But to hear and tell the stories gives that place a whole new feeling."
Looking at landmarks in a different light is an appropriate theme for the tour. Since taking it, I can't go by the Isthmus office without thinking of King Street's seedy past. When I look out on Lake Monona, I think of the reports of scary lake monsters lurking in depths more famous these days for scary algae blooms.
It's hard to pick just one story from the Orpheum. Employees hear mysterious footsteps attributed to a ghostly 'night manager.' A ghost named Pete moves stuff around in the projection booth. A woman in 1930s clothing is spotted on the left side of the theater but vanishes as soon as the witness turns away.
"The Orpheum, those are the best stories. So many physical encounters, so many characters. And the stories stretch over so many years," says Huberty. "One of these days, I'd like to get in there and do an overnight. I think it would be really fun."
If only there were Madison groups who did overnight ghost investigations....
About a month after the Science Hall investigation, I rejoin Mad City Paranormal to look over potential evidence. Remember the eight night-vision cameras? Each member was assigned one camera to review. That meant three hours of mostly silent, nearly empty video to inspect.
That's why MacAllister allows about four weeks between when he gives members the footage and when they all meet back together. "People have full-time jobs, they have kids, so they can't dedicate a whole day" to looking at footage, he says. He himself allots a half-hour a day, figuring he can get through a camera's worth in about a week. "I've procrastinated, like anyone else, where I'm left having to do the whole thing in one weekend, and that's pretty difficult."
Group members share what they found via a projector in Ian's living room. New members identify far more anomalies, most of which are quickly explained by the other members as dust or outside noise.
"On my first investigation, I reported a ton of stuff too, it's not a big deal," says Jon, trying to make the newbies feel comfortable.
When members disagree if an anomaly should be presented as evidence, they operate on a majority vote. Even if the decision is unanimous, they present it as "potentially paranormal."
The best visual anomaly of the night involves a camera in a classroom. In the middle of a row of seats, a glowing light starts fading in and out. I get drawn in trying to find ways to debunk the glow. None of us can explain it.
One anomaly gets everyone excited.
"Okay, that's weird!" Jono yells out, startled by what he has just heard on the headphones. There are only a couple pairs of headphones to pass around. We wait in line to hear what has shocked Jono. Once I get a shot at the headphones, I hear what sounds like a voice say, "I'm here."
It doesn't sound like static. It sounds lonely.
We're ready to believe you
A handful of unexplainable sounds and some strange lights. That's all the evidence from this investigation, the culmination of hundreds of hours of unpaid work. This is considered a good haul. Investigations can go a whole night with nothing interesting to show.
"Yeah, after 20-plus hours of review, sometimes you get nothing. That's where the disappointment sets in," says Jono. "Even with the best evidence, nothing I've found is going to change people's minds. It's interesting, it's out of the ordinary. But not proof."
Jenny has dealt with disappointing investigations many times.
"I go out there knowing sometimes we won't find anything," she says. "But there's still always that adrenaline rush. Maybe this time."
Ghost enthusiasts find comfort in hanging out with like-minded individuals.
"You take a risk with your friends and family when you announce that you are doing this," says former police officer Adler. "Some people are very interested, and some people, you can see them take a big step back from you."
That reminds me of something I heard from Huberty of Madison Ghost Walks.
"We're ready to believe you," says Huberty, quoting from Ghostbusters. He used that phrase as his voicemail message, originally as a joke. But as he began receiving messages from people who wanted to tell him about "this thing that happened to me," he realized there are few places for people to discuss odd, inexplicable occurrences "without feeling ashamed about it."© Perhaps more than any investigation or tour, maybe people just need a safe environment where they can talk about experiences and theories without judgment. Maybe we're all trying to say, "I'm here."
"A lot of people are really interested in this stuff, but they don't want to talk too much about it because they're going to look like a lunatic," says Huberty. "This is a place where it's encouraged to look like a lunatic."
He adds, "I don't really know if that should be my marketing angle."
Mad City Paranormal Investigations
Madison Ghost Walks