JoElle Schramm was enjoying a quiet drink at Lincoln Park’s Red Lion Pub, where she serves as head chef, when the bartender began venting about a certain regular. He complained that a notoriously attention-hungry woman had lately developed a habit of calling his name repeatedly while hiding from sight.
“Just as he finished saying this, the cap to a bottle of Kahlúa shot into the air,” recalls Schramm. “Now, Kahlúa’s not carbonated, and it’s a screw cap.” Turns out, according to Schramm, the pesky regular had been at the bar with the chef and her coworker all along, eavesdropping while going unnoticed—an easy feat when you’re a ghost.
According to local paranormal authorities, the Red Lion’s otherworldly inhabitant is far from an anomaly. “Chicago is one of the most haunted cities in the world,” says Ursula Bielski, parapsychologist, founder of the popular ghost tour outfit Chicago Hauntings and prolific recorder of the region’s haunted history. Her career stats seem to bear out the claim; in 30 years, she’s investigated around 300 area locations—though she estimates the figure could be 10 times higher if she hadn’t also been writing, lecturing and leading tours.
Why the heavy supernatural traffic? First, there’s Chicago’s proximity to open water. “Paranormal activity is electromagnetic in nature,” explains Bielski. “Since water is such a great conduit for electricity, it’s also a power source for paranormal manifestation.” In her view, a local history of neglecting to memorialize tragic events (like the Eastland Disaster and the Iroquois Theatre fire) doesn’t help, either. “If we don’t commemorate the dead,” she says, “they’ll find a way to get us to talk about them again.” The author also theorizes that the city is scattered with interdimensional portals opened as a consequence of violent clashes between Native Americans and Anglo settlers.
Hair-raising as that may sound, Chicago’s supernatural residents may not be out to spook us. As paranormal researcher and Weird Chicago Tours mastermind Troy Taylor explains, “If spirits are truly the personalities of those who died, then a ghost will have the same kind of temperament it had when it was alive.” Indeed, the very notion that ghosts typically manifest in human form is dismissed as a misconception by both Bielski and Taylor, who liken most paranormal activity to tangible energy. “Spirits with true personalities are more rare than people think,” Taylor says. “I believe that most hauntings are merely history that has left an impression at a place.”
So how best to experience the city’s paranormal side? While tours offer a good crash course, Taylor cautions that encounters are never guaranteed: “Ghosts are supernatural creatures and won’t perform on command, no matter how much we’d like them to.” Bielski advises would-be ghost hunters to focus their attention on one location and exercise patience. “It’s like when you meet someone,” she says. “They’re kind of shy at first, and then they warm up to you, and then you become friends.”
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Photographs by Andrew Nawrocki, Jaclyn Elizabeth and Courtesy Chicago History Museum