Years ago, a group of friends and I ventured out at midnight to an old half-collapsed farmhouse deep in the woods in Central Wisconsin. We had gone on a dare to face the ghosts that local stories told us we’d find there. Inside, Jim Treblinka had shot his wife Helen at her piano where she played the same song, over and over again.
So five high school students, holding hands and flashlights, worked their way through the tangled underbrush of an invisible driveway to stand on the threshold before some shattered remnants of an upright and command: “Jim and Helen Treblinka. Come OUT!” Moments later, as we gathered in a clearing nearby to listen, sure enough – a piano, with a simple, one-finger melody, played the tune: “The Merry Widow Waltz.” We all heard it. No mistake. Our skin crawled — and then our feet flew, back through the snatching branches to our car.
The story turned out to be a hoax (we think), and two of us (not me!) ventured back into the dark woods moments later with flashlights to look around for a trickster. We never found anything.
I told this story to Chad Lewis, co-author of The Wisconsin Road Guide to Haunted Locations, and he wasn’t surprised. He and Terry Fisk narrowed down a list of 400 tales, of which just under 100 made it into the book.
Many places have that “dare,” something you need to say or do to make the phenomenon happen. But there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the possibilities. Not all freakiness occurs at night, for example, nor are they confined to rural areas and small towns. “You name it, there is a place that has that haunted story. Bars. Antiques. People.” Lewis has encountered both a Laundromat and a Subway restaurant with a paranormal problem. Even the State Capitol has a few wandering spirits. “One of them is a former lobbyist who won’t leave the politicians alone even after death.” Indeed, that does sound horrifying.
Lewis has spent years now investigating claims of paranormal activity. When asked if he believes, Lewis wavers a bit. “I approach this from the middle. I don’t know if these things are happening.” He has critics on both sides; some insist there is no such thing as ghosts and his work is foolish; others, who find Lewis debunking their claims, insist on believing that what they experienced was an actual paranormal event.
Regardless, he admits sometimes he gets freaked out. “If you are not getting scared, you’re not trying hard enough.” Even if you don’t believe in the paranormal, the purportedly haunted sites are “just downright creepy” by themselves. As an example, Lewis cites the farm of notorious body snatcher and murderer Ed Gein. “Just knowing the horrific crimes that took place there, you can’t help but get freaked out.”
But freaking out is part of the fun and the reason that people buy his road-trip book. It’s not enough to hear the story, they want to experience it – real or not. “Your mind plays tricks,” he says, “and it’s fun to let go with some of that.”
Lewis studied psychology in college and did his Masters thesis on the paranormal. His motivation began as finding out why people believe but evolved into examining what they believe. Some people are shy about coming forward and some fear being thought crazy, but Lewis listens with an open mind. “They are not mentally ill or trying to hoax me. I don’t know what it is. I’m left with more questions than answers.”
His job is to sort fact from fiction and he tells people to go there and experience the thing themselves. But the stuff that makes him a believer isn’t “speaking in tongues or plates flying around the room” or the like, but simply “voices on audio not heard on site. It’s “never overwhelming paranormal, more like ‘Did you hear that? What was that?’ A lot of people will claim to have the answers, but we really don’t know.”
Jim Schilling, of Tri-County Paranormal Group, also cites the voices, but visual apparitions as well thanks to a life-changing event. “I was in a car accident in the mid-80s.” He shrugs. “I didn’t make it.” For three minutes, Jim was not among the living, but fortunately doctors managed to revive him. When he saw his deceased grandmother in his room, things started getting weird. He went to a psychiatrist who ran him through tests to determine if he had all his marbles. He did.
He figured if he had this happening to him, others must be in the same boat. While he still keeps his day job, his weekends are busy investigating hauntings. “You got a plumbing problem, you call a plumber. Electrical, an electrician. Who do you call when you got a ghost?”
“Ghostbusters,” I say. Jim flinches. He prefers “paranormal investigating.” His mantra is a sort of twist of Sherlock Holmes’ “eliminate the impossible” philosophy. “Once you rule out all your natural things, maybe you do have something supernatural or paranormal.”
Paranormal investigators – both Lewis and the folks at Tri-County – have special equipment to do their work: audio recorders, cameras, video cameras, laser thermometers, and electromagnetic field detectors. Some may roll their eyes at this profession, but one thing’s for certain: those who contact Tri-County are very serious and their troubles have compelled them to seek outside help.
Tri-County investigator Mike Nadolinski warns about the number of paranormal groups out there. “Anyone with a voice recorder goes out and says they’re a ghost hunter, but do not hold themselves to professional standards.” When an expensive antique gets knocked over in a home investigation, no doubt poltergeists won’t be footing that bill. Tri-County has insurance. Jim and Mike go to meet property owners and sign permission forms to poke around, unlike some fly-by-night (literally) operations that trespass to gain access to a spooky site.
When Jim takes a case and finds no proof of spirits or poltergeists, people get upset. “They want [ghosts] now. They get kind of weird on you when you find nothing.” In the case of a business, a resident ghost can give a place a bit of publicity, some marketing angles. Surely some travelers stop in at Door County’s Shipwrecked Brewpub, for example, to hear about the seven ghosts that call it home.
Chilling tales are one thing, but seeing’s believing. Jim recalls a client named Lori who complained of a ghost of a man crawling into her bed at night. Jim did some research and found that the previous owner of the house, an old man, had died in it. He had been buying existing partial structures that had survived house fires and then adding them on to his modest cabin, turning it into a four-bedroom home.
“I walk in and I see a little boy 2.5 years old. He was dressed like he was just dropped off – it was cold that day. I look at him again and there were no whites in his eyes.” Jim turned to Lori and the rest of his team. “Did you all see that little boy?”
“That’s our son,” said Lori, a bit confused.
“Not him, the OTHER one!” No one had seen a thing. Lori had a child’s gate to prevent her dog from entering the house’s playroom. Jim opened it to pass, and watched as the little boy reappeared, placed a hand on the gate, and walked through to the next room. Jim never saw him again. Lori called the next day and said she had found her son talking to a little boy. “‘How come I hadn’t seem him before?’ she asked me. Because I let him in from the dining room. Then they saw him frequently after that.”
“For the most part,” Nadolinski says, “families that have a haunting don’t necessarily want to get rid of it. They want to know how to cope with it. Talk to [spirits] as children, tell them things are unacceptable.” Teaching people to deal with these occurrences is Tri-County’s mission, and they do it for free.
And the demand is there. Tri-County has been booked up many of the weekends throughout this year. Chad Lewis gets on average 200 emails per week of stories and requests for investigations. For those people, the hauntings are very real, but it’s just as serious for the investigators. Nadolinski recalls an investigation of Native American spirits near Camp Douglas. Sounds in the dark woods around them started to close in like a noose. “Jim said, ‘We gotta get outa here. Something bad might happen.’ When Jim says that, we leave.”
Unexplained Research www.unexplainedresearch.com
Tri-County Paranormal Group www.tricountyparanormalgroup.com