A Haunting We Will Go
Ah, its 9:53 in the morning and the sky is still heavy with clouds the color of dirty wool. Its dark out and cold and the shop windows are full of red and orange cellophane devils and paper-bag spirits. It can only mean one thing… October! So, in keeping with the spirit of the season, I thought now’s as good a time as any to relate the time… insert suitable musical sting…I Haunted Bachelors Grove Cemetery!
It begins, as many things do in America, with a hugely obese man. The magnificent rotundage in this case is Chicago’s own premiere “Ghosthunter” Mr. Richard T. Crowe. International star of stage and screen, Mr. Crowe hosts a variety of tours through and around the windy city ( http://www.ghosttours.com/ ). Please feel free to judge Mr. Crowe by his web presence. His site and his shtick hasn’t changed since the late eighties, but be warned, his shtick can be persuasive to the open minded in the wee small hours of a cold Halloween morning.
Now, my friends and I, all artists and writers to a man, are of that peculiar stock that believe that the idea of a leisurely stroll through the more bedeviled areas of the world can only be better if it’s undertaken very late at night. And if that night happens to be All Hallows Eve, the one night the gates of Tartarus are thrown open and all the souls of the damned are loosed upon the unsuspecting living, all the better. So we opted for the more expensive tour, the midnight Halloween tour to be precise. I don’t believe Mr. Crowe offers a tour this late anymore; he’s not as young as he used to be and his poor bacon wrapped heart just can’t take the late nights.
The excursion turns out to be a pretty good Halloween diversion. Most of the four hour trip we spent sitting comfortably in large captains chairs on a luxury liner of a bus while Mr. Crowe stood at the front and regaled us with grisly ghostly stories from Chicago’s ancient past. We visited haunted bars and cemeteries, had a drink (a Bloody Mary of course) at the pub frequented by “Resurrection Mary” and looked skeptically at her handprints melted into the bars of the cemetery gates across the street. We heard stories of apparitions and half glimpsed shapes, mysterious lights and noises where no noises should be. And then, as eleven o’clock slipped past us and we drew ever nearer midnight, Richard began the tale of “the most haunted site in Chicago”; Bachelors Grove.
Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery is a hotbed of ghostly activity we’re told. Its secluded location near the Rubio Woods Forest Preserve and its adjacent stagnant lagoon made it an ideal place for Chicago mobsters to dump bodies during the heady days of prohibition. There’s a lady in white who disappears into the dense forest if you catch a glimpse of her, a “jumping tombstone” that’s rarely in the same place twice, a house you can only find if you don’t know it’s not supposed to be there and ghostly balls of light that flit from tree to tree almost constantly… if the stories are to be believed.
Mr. Crowe, fantastic natural storyteller that is, wove a dark tapestry of words that had everyone on the tour trembling on the edge of their seats waiting for the chance to pounce on the poor little abandoned cemetery. When I look back now, I should have known it was not to be. The grove is situated back in the woods and only approachable via an overgrown dirt path about a quarter of a mile long. Mr. Crowe, puffing and sweating from the exertion of standing for minutes at a time, was in no shape to make the trek, especially in the dark. Besides, the cemetery had been officially closed since nineteen sixty five and, though there was a large hole in the chain link gate, it could never be large enough for the sizable Mr. Crowe. But no one knew that at the time.
The bus squeaked to a halt on the side of a nicely paved, completely deserted road, just beneath a blazing white sodium arc streetlight. We all looked out the windows expectantly. Richard Crowe pointed to a pitch black gap in the wall of trees to our left.
“There,” he announces, his voice trembling with gravitas “is Bachelors Grove.” We all press our faces to the tinted glass, eyes squinting hard to see as far past the blinding streetlight as possible. I make out the edge of the lagoon closest to the street, kinda. And that’s it. The bus lurches into motion again and we glide anticlimactically through one or two more stops never quite getting over the fact that we were on a Chicago ghost tour on Halloween night and that we passed feet from the most haunted spot in the area without getting the chance to even step off the bus and gape.
Absurd! You say. Unconscionable! You cry. And you are right. I felt like someone had just described for me the most succulent filet mignon dinner with all the trimmings, perfect in every detail down to the smell and texture of the aged Angus, and then handed me a Slim Jim instead. I’ve never gotten over that betrayal Mr. Crowe and it may be the reason for all the fat jokes… who can say. Not you porky, that’s for sure.
I was galvanized. I didn’t want to see Bachelors Grove Cemetery, I NEEDED to see it. So I rounded up another group of friends, a completely different group of friends. A group of friends that feel, sure, it’s o.k. to go poking around a cemetery at night, but if you have to break the law to get into it, all the better.
The five of us piled into a jeep and headed to what we could only assume would be the spectral equivalent of Great America (if you want to visit the spectral equivalent of Disney World you need to go to the Winchester Mansion in California). We reached the Rubio Woods area around eight p.m. but spent another forty-five minutes looking for parking when we realized all the forest preserve parking lots were closed for the night. We ended up parking in the ‘burbs surrounding the park and hoofing the half mile or so to the path that lead to the cemetery.
On our way we had an odd run in with the local PD. We openly admitted we were headed to Bachelors Grove and, instead of telling us it was private property and sending us on our way home, they made eerie insinuations that “bad stuff” happened there and that you wouldn’t catch them there after nightfall. They exchanged long and deeply meaningful looks and then they bid us a good evening and drove off. It was exactly like a hundred scenes in a thousand terrible teen horror flicks. And just like the stupid punks in the movies, we ignored the advice of the local authorities and set off down the dark path into the woods armed with nothing more than three Mag-lites a Swiss Army Knife and mouthfuls of biting sarcasm.
I’m going to tell you right off the bat, Bachelors Grove is not big. It is surprisingly small actually. But what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in atmosphere. The little leave strewn path through the woods is spooksville itself and the overgrown lagoon could easily contain a hundred waterlogged revenants, their eyeless sockets filled with pale crawdads and grubs. The chain link fence that surrounds the cemetery was overgrown with some sort of creeping vine and looked more like a large shrub than anything else and one corner was in the grip of some prickly bramble vine and completely impassable except for a small tunnel that lead through the very heart of the tangled mass.
We prowled the perimeter of the place, noting the sunken earth over many of the burial plots and the interesting names and dates on the headstones. We threw rocks into the pond; perhaps hoping something would stir in its muddy depths and take its revenge on us for foolishly disturbing its age-long slumber. We took some pictures which I have since lost. We sat on the jumping tombstone and tried to find the disappearing house. Eventually I got around to telling them about the specifics of the Richard T. Crowe ghost tour.
I had just, just finished the sad anticlimactic story, when I looked up past the lagoon and out the hole in the wall of trees where, weeks earlier, I had glared hopelessly into the darkness from a tour bus. Then, as if my words had conjured it out of very darkness itself, a large, lavishly appointed bus with a bad cartoon ghost taped to the side rolled off the deserted street and stopped, framed perfectly between the black silhouette trees beneath the glaring streetlamp.
“Dude!” I eloquently cried. “That’s it that’s the tour I was talking about! Right now everyone is slowly beginning to realize they aren’t actually going to get to see the most haunted place on their route!” We all had a good laugh at that and we waved coquettishly at the tour bus secure in the knowledge that no one could see as far as the pond much less the cemetery or us. Then the bus jerked forward and started to pull away. Quickly, I snatched the largest of the Mag-Lites out of my friends hand, pointed it at the bus and flicked it on. I ran across the cemetery waving the light above my head in a smooth wave-like motion. Then I flicked the light off. All in all I’d say the flashlight was on for about three or four seconds. The bus screeched to a halt half eclipsed by the treeline and began backing up. I could see camera flashes going off inside the bus as the passengers madly tried to capture my apparition on film.
The bus backed up under the street light and stopped. It sat there for another ten minutes before reluctantly moving on again. I was worried for a second that the possibility of seeing some actual haunting might bring the whole tour bus down on our heads, then the shiny face of Richard Crowe floated before my minds eye like a hideous sweaty pink balloon and I knew we were relatively safe.
But the night’s adventures weren’t completely over. It was about an hour later. We were beginning to get cold and the adrenalin from spooking a busload of people was beginning to wear off when we heard footfalls on the path. At first I thought it might be some of the people from the tour but it quickly became apparent that the majority of the group was tittery, scared high school girls. We couldn’t see them as they crunched up the path toward us because of the ivy on the fence, but the suspense was building inside me.
My friends and I were standing stock still in the middle of the cemetery. No one made a sound. The kids came closer and closer, their voices loud and overly raucous in a vain attempt to cover the obvious undercurrent of tension and fear. They were maybe twenty feet away from the gate, the gate that had no ivy and a very clear view of the five of us standing in a cold, very un-creepy huddle, when I exploded. I couldn’t take it anymore. A laugh so fiendish, so deep and malevolent that Vincent Price himself would have been very happy with it, erupted from me into the chill midnight air. One of the two girls in our group was standing beside me and as my laugh dissipated into the branches above us she screeched ear-shatteringly into the night the most bloodcurdling scream I have ever had the honor of hearing firsthand.
There was a moment,
a heartbeats length of silence,
then the group on the other side of the fence erupted into a chorus of high pitiful wails and crashed back down the path in the direction they had come, the sound of their bodies smashing through the brittle under-brush as they blindly raced back toward the street and light and safety echoing in the darkness.
I like to think that the next day, at some Illinois high school somewhere, a handful of wide eye girls and boys were adding to the mystique of Bachelors Grove with their own experiences (Satanists? Sacrifice? I can only hope.) and a group of people who’d spent Halloween night on a bus, where the most morbid thing around was the obesity of their host, were having a better time recounting the tale on their night’s adventure than I had had.