Paranormal Pursuits

On a cool November night, we meet south of Chicago at Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery in the Rubio Woods Forest Preserve in Midlothian, Ill. Unless some observant driver hurtling through the evening fog on the Midlothian Turnpike happened to spot the muted flashlight beams jousting on the side of the road, no one probably knows we are there.

But then who would expect anyone to be gathered near an abandoned cemetery on a Saturday night?

After a friend and I pull off the road onto the gravel turnoff lot, I approach the group of shadowy silhouettes. I ask into the darkness, “Is one of you Henry?” A figure steps forward in eager introduction and thrusts a large, weathered hand toward me. His face glows a cosmic blue, illuminated by the light from the digital camera that hangs around his neck and nestles comfortably on his round belly. The lapel of his navy blue t-shirt features a cartoon ghost and the letters CGHS.

Henry Pena is the founder of the Chicago Ghost Hunters Society, a local group devoted to connecting believers, researchers and curious skeptics. Pena founded the group, which now has about 30 members, just a year ago. Pena and other members conduct paranormal investigations in cemeteries, haunted buildings and disaster sites.

These days, no one pays much attention to Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery. With access to the cemetery cut off by the modern Midlothian Turnpike, the one-acre plot that dates back to the mid-1800s has been relegated to deepest pits of acknowledgement. But it’s a Mecca for local ghost hunters and was named the second-most haunted place in the country. Visitors have made more than 100 reports of strange occurrences.

Armed with equipment including thermoscanners, electromagnetic field detectors, video cameras, still cameras and electronic recorders, ghost hunters try to coax shy spirits into making themselves known. Common indicators of paranormal activity include cold or hot spots, mysterious sounds, and mists or glowing orbs in developed photos that were not visible to the photographer’s naked eye.

Membership in the Chicago Ghost Hunters Society is free. Pena collects photos and stories from members and posts them on his web site. Members conduct investigations at local haunted sites and investigate private residences or buildings upon request and at no charge. “I don’t believe in making money off the dead,” Pena says. “I do sell t-shirts, though.” Seventeen dollars buys a CGHS shirt like Pena’s. The money is used to purchase investigative equipment.

Pena only requests money if he has to travel long distances to visit a site or if owners who suspect their buildings are haunted request copies of photos or videos. “If it’s somewhere around I’ll go there for several hours at no cost. I don’t mind. I love this stuff,” he says. By next year he plans to organize a workshop to educate people about how to conduct a ghost investigation and operate the necessary equipment.

We wait for the rest of the group, including some radio personalities from 100.7 The Bus in Joliet and a police escort. Because it’s located in the Rubio Woods Forest Preserve, access to the cemetery is prohibited after dark.

“How’s Harold?” one of the other ghost hunters asks Pena casually, starting a conversation about a ghost Pena says haunts his house.

Harold is fine, Pena replies with a gentle laugh. Then he offers to play Electronic Voice Phenomena recordings of Harold’s voice.

EVP is the idea that electronic recorders – even the simplest handheld ones – can record voices that aren’t audible at the time of recording. Investigators ask questions leaving space between them. When played back, the pauses reveal the spirit’s responses.

Pena fumbles for the tape recorder keys until someone shines a flashlight his way. He presses the play button with a heavy finger and turns up the volume.

“Is anyone here?” Pena’s garbled voice asks on the tape.

In the tape’s buzzing silence we can make out a sound. A long, whispered “no.”

“He’s a smartass,” someone jokes while Pena cues up the next recording – Harold’s introduction.

Again, a loud muddled question: “What is your name?”

Out of the static rings a throaty, eerie, almost pained voice: “Harold.”

The listeners nod in agreement and awe. I hear it too.

People slowly resume individual conversations. They fill the time with their own ghost stories, told matter-of-factly, not with the intent to scare or impress, but rather just to share their experiences with others who understand. They wear their stories like badges and trade them like currency. Words like “poltergeist” and “paranormal” pepper the conversations of a small circle of people behind me.

“Even as a child my mom used to tell me stories about things that happened to me,” first-time ghost hunter Dave Harsh says while we wait. Even in the dull light of flashlights I see his rich, dark eyes. “I couldn’t have been more than a year and a half old,” he says. “My parents put me down for the night. About an hour later they heard my laughing and giggling. When they opened the door all they saw were lights, little sparkly lights all around the room. And I was just sitting there laughing and talking, having a gay old time.”

After about an hour of stories and no sign of the police, we begin our trek to the cemetery anyway. We quickly cross the turnpike and start down the worn path to the cemetery. The trees are tall and bare in the seemingly endless forest on our left. Headlights whip past behind the veil of trees on our right. The path is bumpy, neglected concrete riddled with pebbles and persistent weeds.

Just a half-mile down the path, a cemetery springs into view on the right. A tall chain link fence runs the perimeter of the cemetery, but the gates lean with age and the chain links have gaping holes, a legacy of vandalism. We enter without difficulty.

Bachelor’s Grove gets few visitors. The families of those buried there have long been resting in cemeteries themselves. The lone tether that keeps Bachelor’s Grove from plummeting into oblivion is its rich tradition of folklore.

Vandals left their mark on the cemetery in the 1960s and ’70s. Trespassers knocked over headstones and even attempted to dig up some remains, Pena says. Around the same time the site supposedly was used in satanic rituals. Melted candles on the headstones and animal corpses – some intact, others dismembered – have been seen there, he says. Tiny shards of brown glass still litter the ground between fallen headstones. Bachelor’s Grove also gained a name as a popular place for the secluded, sweaty fumblings of amorous teenagers. It’s still a delinquent’s paradise. Cops rarely venture back here.

But Bachelor’s Grove has a peace to it. Just beneath its desolate appearance lurks a history of vitality and beauty, like an aging southern belle ravaged by wrinkles and spider veins.

“I look at the beauty of it,” says Jessica, another ghost hunter, in a gentle, slightly spacey voice that is part dumb blond, part tarot card reader, all wrapped up in a faint Chicago accent. “This place used to be beautiful. It’s too bad that it’s been wrecked.”

Between puffs on her cigarette, Jessica talks about her experiences with the paranormal.

“My house is haunted by two dogs,” she says. “I have a feeling they are my protectors, because whenever I have a bad dream they’re in my dream.” The woman who lived in her house before her owned two dogs, she begins.

The red bud of her cigarette dances as she gestures, like a child writing his name in the air with a sparkler on the Fourth of July. The woman went insane, Jessica says, and one day the dogs simply disappeared. She later went to an insane asylum.

“Underneath the house is a crawlspace with two lumps, which we have a feeling are the dogs,” she says. “We’ve never dug them up. We don’t want to.”

I hear some chatter from the opposite side of the cemetery. Henry’s brother exits the gates with his video camera. “His video camera,” says Jeff, a tall, slim man with spiky hair, “it’s got 140 minutes left on the battery and it went dead. I took him back by a tombstone where eve
rybody felt something and it went dead when we got back there.”

Darting flashlights reveal pathways of glistening water droplets. Henry laments the fog; it prevents him from taking credible photos. The fog and visible mist might later be construed as anomalies, he explains. It is best not to waste the film.

The moon is a slim fingernail clipping in the sky and the fog is like an external cataract as we wander among the disorganized garden of cement and overgrown grass. I follow Henry down by the lagoon. Even though my eyes have adjusted to the darkness, I can barely discern where the ground ends and the water begins. Henry tells me that the lagoon was the dumping ground for murder victims of mobsters during Prohibition.

The group quietly disperses among the headstones, reading epitaphs, taking photos, waiting for a sound, a feeling – something.

Such is the life of a ghost hunter. Waiting for abnormalities, then dissecting them. Considering the logical possibilities. Scrutinizing film. Reviewing recordings. Waiting.

A sudden noise jolts a few of us from our solitary wanderings through the cemetery. From the far side of the plot, near the fence, rings the familiar clip-clop of horseshoes on cobblestones.

“Did you hear that?”

“Yeah, it’s like a horse”

“I hear it too.”

We squint at the location of the sound. Nothing. No horse. And even if there was one, horse hooves on the damp autumn leaves on the ground wouldn’t have produced such a distinct sound. The sound reminds me of the legend of the farmer whose startled horse pulled him into the lagoon, where they both died. The group absorbs the strange occurrence, then returns to their individual pursuits.

“I don’t try and make believers out of anybody. That’s up to them,” Pena says “If they wanna come on an investigation, feel free. And what I basically try to do is educate people about ghosts. That’s why I do it for free.”

Most ghost hunters tend to agree there’s no substitute for experience. No fancy equipment, lengthy research or society membership can replace a visit to a haunted site. “It’s like saying I’ve never been on a bike. I’ve read every manual about it. So I know how to ride a bike. But you don’t,” says Chris Fleming, founder of Unknown magazine and an amateur ghost hunter, during a phone conversation. “You can read everything about ghosts. You’re never going to know what it’s like to feel one, see one, smell one till you actually experience it.”

Pena isn’t scared at all. “I’ve come here by myself before, and I’m still here. The only thing that happened was I felt someone brush my arm and whisper in my ear,” he says.

Others don’t share the same confidence. Fleming, who has experienced paranormal occurrences his whole life, says he refuses to go to Bachelor’s Grove by himself. “I’ve done enough experiencing on my own. I’d rather have someone there to see it too.”

As I wander around the cemetery, I am amazed by how average the ghost hunters are. Everyday people with everyday jobs. And even when they sound like 10-year-old boys trading ghost stories over a campfire, it is still clear that they have a passion for and a belief in the paranormal.

“We’re not some sort of psychic group. We’re not flakes,” Troy Taylor, founder of the American Ghost Society says from his office in Alton, Ill. “We’re normal people with an unusual hobby.” The American Ghost Society holds a convention each year at the Alton offices, where ghost hunters gather from around the country.

I find myself deeply considering my own feelings, consulting my senses. Did I just hear something? What was I really feeling? I listen carefully for mysterious sounds, squint at shadows and snap photos. I watch the reading on the thermometer for aberrations. And then it hits me – I am just like they are.

We retrace our steps along the path back to the road. We cross quickly but casually. Pena is still answering questions when the headlights of a car rush at us. We all underestimate his speed and the driver doesn’t see us in the fog until he is within feet. Hearts racing, we laugh about the close call.

“He was coming pretty quick,” says Pena. “We were almost gonna be orbs!”

My companion and I head for the car. As we drive away, headlong into the billowing fog, I look behind us. It isn’t long at all before I can’t make out the figures along the side of the road. nyou