Here’s the question: Why visit a haunted house?
We live in Chicago. Have you seen how much we pay for parking? This place is already terrifying.
Bad jokes aside, the city does have its dark side.
Which is why we sought the counsel of Adam Selzer, a local historian and ghost-tour guide, for his take on Chicago’s most real-life haunted places.
Selzer’s been in the ghost game for over a decade. Not only does he run the tour company Mysterious Chicago, he’s written countless books on the subject, including a recently published paperback on the life and times of America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes.
He’s also a Field Agent for oddball travel site Atlas Obscura, where he’ll be leading a haunted boat cruise down the Chicago River this weekend. Consider it the grown-up way to celebrate Halloween.
While the tour covers everything you’d want in a boat cruise in October (“gruesome disasters, unsolved mysteries and urban legends”), we sat down with Selzer for an extended chat on the spooky sites that fascinate him most. So from humanoid bat-sightings to “The Alley of Death and Mutilation,” here are the strange histories behind the city’s most macabre places.
“The acres of open land in the South Loop have been sitting there, waiting to be developed for so long that it almost seems like it must be cursed. Back in the earliest days of the city, pioneers had a number of stories about the “prairie” south of the city being haunted, particularly by a woman with straggly black hair in a pale yellow dress who floated along with her arms outstretched, as though she was looking for something. They also spoke of a ghostly glowing mule that could turn into a sheep and a dog. Perhaps now it’s morphed into the humanoid bat [Ed. note: WTF?] that was seen throughout the summer?”
“From Schiller to Fullerton, the park was the City Cemetery for a couple of decades before the Great Chicago Fire, and plenty of bodies were never moved. But that wasn’t what made early 20th century security guards think the place was haunted. In the parks early decades, it was a very popular place to kill yourself and others. The Tribune once noted that there had been enough murders and suicides to furnish a ghost for every dark nook and cranny. If you’re looking for a particular site, go with the south end, near the Couch Tomb.”
Eastland Disaster Site and the Former Harpo Studios
“In the river between Clark and LaSalle, the capsizing of the Eastland in 1915 killed over 800 people. Ghost stories have been common since before the ship was even righted. It happened where the Chicago Riverwalk is today. The recently demolished Harpo Studios was a heavily-rehabbed version of the old Second Regiment Armory building, where Eastland disaster victims were laid out to be identified. Harpo employees told me about a bathroom where they could hear a woman crying and voices in the hallways. Now that McDonald’s is building an office on the site, it’ll be interesting to see if ghost sightings continue - sometimes ghost stories go away when a building is replaced, other times people just report the same ghosts in a new place.”
Couch Place Alley
“The section of Couch Place that runs behind the Oriental Theatre was referred to by the Tribune as “The Alley of Death and Mutilation” after a fire at the Iroquois Theater, on the site where the Oriental now stands, killed 600 people, many of whom fell from the useless fire escapes into the alley below. Ghost sightings aren’t AS common since they added lighting ten years ago, but a sense of spookiness remains for those who know the story. Across the alley was the Tremont House hotel — Lincoln, Douglas and John Wilkes Booth all stayed there at various times. Douglas even died there in 1861!”
The Congress Plaza Hotel
“There are a lot of made-up stories about this place going around (no, it was not the inspiration for Stephen King’s short story 1408, Al Capone never owned it and the stories about one room being “the haunted room” are brand new), but it drives me nuts that people even bother making up stories about it, because there are plenty of real ones. Security guards and staff have been telling first hand stories of ghosts for years, and there are endless stories of murders, suicides, and deaths in the place over the years. Opera stars used to attempt suicide in here with astonishing regularity.”