I’ve always loved history. Old houses, vintage clothes, historical dramas…I’m here for all of it. I’ve always wanted nothing more than to throw on a hoop skirt and be transported back in time to experience a bygone era. I fully comprehend that my love for modern amenities would quickly have me begging to be sent back to the future, but there is something magnetic and intriguing about the “old days.” It’s what drives people to visit historical sites on vacation, to fill their home with antique furniture, and to gobble up shows like Downton Abbey. I think it’s also what helps drive an interest in the paranormal and why the paranormal field has more recently become a very important tool for historic preservation.
The paranormal field may not immediately come to mind as a pathway to historic preservation. Typically we would think of museums, historical societies, and curators as the most important means of historic preservation. Yet, when it comes down to it, even the most well-funded historical societies cannot afford the upkeep on the amount of historical properties that exist in any given city. Many historic buildings are lost in an era where cities or potential home and business owners are overwhelmed or uninterested in preserving historical structures in favor of demolishing the old and building something new and modern. Recently in my hometown, the city has announced their plans to demolish two historic and incredibly well preserved storefronts just to build yet another parking garage to serve a large corporation moving into the area. A corporation that in 5 years time could decide they no longer have any interest in having their business here. It’s not the first time this has happened in my hometown, and surely not the last.
Drive through any city in America and you will see historical buildings in need—often with crumbling brick, broken windows, and a “for sale” sign in front. It’s truly a shame to see what was once someone’s beloved home, business, school, or significant town landmark being lost to time. When those buildings get demolished, often the stories they contain are forgotten as well. I’ve always considered one of the main jobs of a paranormal investigator to be that of storytelling. It’s our job to piece the paranormal evidence we collect together with the historical evidence to tell the story of what is happening in a haunted location. It makes sense then that when a city or historical society chooses not to take control of a historic location that a paranormal enthusiast may sometimes step in. There are countless examples of a private party purchasing a location destined to be torn down to save it from the wrecking ball and preserve it’s history. Sometimes these locations are notoriously haunted locations with stories that have been passed down through time and sometime paranormal phenomenon only starts to happen as the location is being renovated. Either way many owners of these locations take advantage of the activity to help fund its preservation. They give paranormal tours or rent out the building for the night to paranormal groups looking to gather their own evidence. What they charge for these events keeps these buildings standing; helps repair damaged ceilings, replace rotten floorboards, and restore buildings to their former glory. Some owners choose to forgo restoration and embrace the “creepy” element of a dilapidated building.
No matter what they choose to do with the building itself, it’s certainly not an easy responsibility to take on. I can only imagine there is a great deal of stress involved. The stress of maintaining the building with a limited budget, keeping out uninvited guests looking to explore the location on their own terms, and balancing respecting the history and spirits that may be present with the need to make a living (for the living!) I think there are a good many locations that get this balance right and are really in it for the right reasons. Unfortunately, I do feel there are locations that don’t do a great job of this and exploit the terrible things that happened at the location and the spirits that may remain there—just for a profit. But that’s a discussion for another day.
As I walk through many locations on investigations, it often occurs to me that I might never have gotten a chance to step foot in these spaces if someone hadn’t cared enough to save it. What good is an old prison once the prisoners have been moved to a newer facility? What good is a dilapidated asylum once it closes its doors to the patients? What value do these buildings hold? To someone in the paranormal field these places are invaluable. They are places to test new equipment, places to train new team members, places with stories to be told. We’ve all heard the saying “If these walls could talk…” Well, some walls do talk, and as investigators we are here to listen.
- Allie Schmalz
Co-Director, Transcendent Paranormal Society
Growing up in a small farming town in Wisconsin, Dubuque was considered "the big city" for me. The historic buildings always caught my attention and awe, and I wondered what they looked like inside. I finally had the chance to see what the Grand Opera House looked like on the inside, but not as an audience member of a show—as a paranormal investigator. I’ve been there a few times now and each time the experience never disappoints.
The “hot spots” where I’ve had the best experiences are—the auditorium, the costume room, and one of the dressing rooms. I’ve seemed to have made a new friend during our investigations there. We haven’t been able to confirm his name through our equipment yet, but there seems to be a gentleman on the top balcony (right-hand side, looking from the stage) that watches us. On one of our investigations, I was standing on the stage looking around and asking questions when I looked up to the top balcony, and seated in the second row, the second chair from the bottom, was a shadow of a person. It was a male figure. I determined this by the head, neck, and broad shoulders. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was my first time actually seeing a shadow of a person. I closed my eyes and reopened them multiple times. He was still there, sitting. I looked away and looked back again multiple times, and he was still there. I started talking to him, saying hello, asking his name, etc. I then saw him wave at me. I saw his arm/hand come up and wave slowly, and I got so excited. I waved back and said hello. We were able to get it on the recorder of me saying “Hi there!” and a male response saying “Hello.” The next time I went to investigate he was there, and I saw him in the same spot briefly.
The costume room is another hot spot for all of us. I’ve experienced the floor shaking, quick flashes of light, and footsteps walking behind me while I am standing in place. One occurrence was when we were speaking with a male on our spirit box, as a male voice came through saying “I’m here.” He was making our rem pod go off on command. When I asked if that was him that was making the floor shake behind me, he responded, “That’s me.” I’ve also heard clothes being shuffled around and lots of shadows being seen in the back closet that is closed off.
The dressing rooms downstairs have activity also. One night while investigating, we were asking questions and had our video camera recording. After a review of the footage, while we were facing away from the clothes rack, you can see the hangers being slid over to the side. I’ve also experienced female whispering/conversations in that area. I can imagine what conversations have gone on down there over time with just the hustle and bustle of getting ready for a show.
The Opera House is a Dubuque Treasure. Not just for its long, rich history and amazing architecture. It’s also a special place for those who still reside there. They are always willing to wither “talk” to us or to make their presence known somehow. To them, the building could be frozen in time, and they continue to perform and work there. That’s something I think about while I’m there—what is happening on their end. It’s a special place to investigate, and I feel like we are welcomed when we come—especially when my new friend on the balcony comes to say hello.
- Alisha Friederick
Investigator, Transcendent Paranormal Society
“How in the world did you get into this stuff?” It’s a question that you are sure to be asked no less than 987 times throughout your time as a paranormal investigator. I’ve gotten asked it at public investigations, the hair salon, family reunions, and the checkout line at the grocery store. It never bothers me, even if it’s asked with a heavy dose of sarcasm and a side of judgement. It never bothers me, because I know that under that raised eyebrow lies something important…genuine interest and intrigue.
So, how did I get into this stuff? Because it takes a certain kind of person to wander around empty buildings in the dark and talk to thin air for hours at a time. My story isn’t particularly unique or different from the stories I’ve heard from dozens of other investigators in the field. I didn’t watch someone levitate off their chair. I didn’t have a close encounter with little green men. And I didn’t play a game of parcheesi with my dead great-grandma. It wasn’t a harrowing experience, but nevertheless it’s an experience I won’t ever forget—and it of course starts with…a haunted house.
The house in question was one my family and I moved into when I was around 7 years old. There wasn’t anything particularly scary or ominous about this house, unless you find mauve carpeting and lace-embroidered, cat curtains scary—both of which I happen to find very frightening indeed. My parents were drawn to the house because of its old-world charm and unique architecture. The push button light switches and crown molding were the least of my concerns, I was far more interested in the fact that there were plenty of kids in the neighborhood my age and woods for fort-building out back. I gave my whole-hearted approval, not that it mattered, and we moved into our new home. Renovations began almost immediately. Turns out my parents were equally terrified of the mauve carpeting and cat curtains. The renovations stirred up some interesting activity in the home including a healthy population of bats living in the attic and their very close friends, a family of squirrels taking up residence in the walls. Besides the fact that there was was one particularly noisy squirrel, who enjoyed snacking on his cache of nuts directly behind my headboard at night, I wasn’t bothered too much. But there was something else that renovations stirred up that would soon phase me.
I was your standard, nervous 7 year old. The pops and creaks of the floor and radiators in our new old house sometimes made me jump and made it difficult for me to get to sleep most nights. It was on one particularly noisy night, as I tossed and turned trying to get to sleep, when something caught my eye. My bed faced a large window where light from the street filtered in. I had gotten used to the shadows of the furniture in my room at night and even the shadows that the trees outside cast on my wall. But, this shadow was different…very different. At the foot of my bed, stood something significantly darker and taller than any of the other shadows in my room and distinctly shaped like a person. What did I do? I did what any semi-rational 7 year old does—I yelled for my parents and stuck my head under the covers. Eventually my mom came to check on me. Of course the shadow didn’t stick around to greet her, so she had to rely on the shaky testimony of a semi-nervous 7 year old. I don’t begrudge my mom her reaction to my story as I’m sure most rational parents would have reacted the same…reassurance, a hug, and a night light will solve most problems.
Unfortunately it didn’t solve this one. The shadow came back again and again and again. Always the same shape, and always in the same spot. My reaction to the shadow never got any less wimpy—although, I eventually stopped calling for my mom’s help. I simply engaged the tried-and-true method of, “If I can’t see it, it can’t see me” and employed the best paranormal shield a child can muster…my comforter. This tactic seemed to work until one particular hot and muggy summer night where I found myself faced with a difficult choice— either I could face this stupid shadow, or I could endlessly roast in this self-imposed sauna. So, I mustered all the courage I had, popped my head out from under the covers (eyes closed still, of course, I wasn’t Joan of Arc after all), and told that thing to go away. When my heart rate slowed down enough for me to venture opening one eye, I found that the shadow was no longer there. It appears I’d won the battle, but I was not yet certain I’d won the war. The following nights were no less nerve-wracking. I would lay in my bed for hours and wait for the shadow to show up. But it never came back. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable in my room, but soon my biggest problem was once again that stupid squirrel.
Renovations continued—with my parent’s eventually putting on an addition to accommodate the two younger sisters that were now added to our family. Eventually, I moved out of my childhood bedroom into one of the larger new bedrooms (perks of being the oldest child.) My youngest sister took up residence in my old bedroom. My sister and I are a lot alike. We both love the outdoors and we both love puns. Turns out she, too, was a nervous-natured kid and perhaps even more wimpy than I was when it came to things that go bump in the night. She was never a good sleeper, but things seemed to get worse out of the blue. The door had to be open at night, like all the way open. Her bedside lamp needed to be on, and even then, she would sometimes wander into my parent’s room at night. It was clear she was afraid. So, one day I asked her what the big deal was. By this time my experiences had faded. I still remembered them clearly, but my rational teenage brain had now written them off as a kid who was afraid of the dark. Maybe I had dreamed them or misinterpreted them at the time? Maybe I had an overactive imagination? So, it came as a big surprise when my sister nervously said that a person shaped shadow was keeping her up in her room at night. I didn’t press her for many details, because I could tell talking about it scared her. But she did say it stood at the end of her bed. I knew instantly it was the same phenomenon that I had experienced when I was a child. Just like that I had exactly what I had been looking for ever since my own experience …validation! I still don’t know what or who the shadow was, but I know that what I experienced was real and that gave me a sense of closure. I had several other experiences in the house over the years, but I felt very differently about them than I did my first experience. I viewed them with curiosity instead of fear. Eventually, my parents completed the home renovations and with that a certain peace seemed to settle over the house. It’s like whatever had been active just kind of settled into the background—content with the work that had been done. My sister never really got over her fear of the unexplained. So, although I’d love to discuss her experiences more with her, I don’t bring up the shadow in the bedroom. Everyone deals with experiences in their own way, and I can respect that.
Many years after my own experiences, I got the chance to join a team that helps people who are experiencing the paranormal in their homes and businesses. I am so thankful for the opportunity to provide people the same validation that I received all those years ago. It’s for this reason that I will continue to wander around empty buildings in the dark and talk to thin air for hours at a time. I will continue to help people search for the answers they are looking for. And I will continue to follow along wherever this crazy paranormal journey takes me.
- Allie Schmalz