Ghost of a Chance

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to join a UW student union mini-course on being a ghost hunter. It was only a few sessions long, and met once a week. Tuition for the class was cheap, so I figured “why not?” The target of our investigation would be the student union building itself. Built in 1928, a theater wing was added to the Memorial Union ten years later. Despite being a relatively modern building, the Memorial Union has a significant history of hauntings.

The UW-Madison MemorialUnion. This central part of the building is the oldest. The theater wing can just barely be glimpsed at the left of this photo.

The first session was mostly classroom-type stuff: talking about what procedures are for certain things, and a little bit of history about the Memorial Union building and some of the encounters people have had over the years. Our leader for this mini-course was Jim, who had been ghost hunting for years. His experience at ghost hunting was displayed in his confidence and in his knowledge of the equipment and of good operating procedures for a hunt. He also talked at length about false positive readings from things like an electro-magnetometer, which can be triggered by proximity to electrical outlets and older wiring. We were also joined this first session by a woman who was one of the administrators for the building; her office was just to the side of the theater, down a hallway that led directly backstage. Part of the course was a backstage tour of the theater, and we also got a look at the space above the ceiling in the theater auditorium, which provided maintenance access to a large number of lights and speakers, as well as a walkway to the projection booth and the lighting booth, both at the back of the theater above the balcony. She spent a few minutes talking about the recurring spirits reportedly seen in the building, and we all sat in rapt attention.

For our first actual session of ghost hunting, the 15-20 of us were divided into several teams to cover the hot spots more effectively. My group was assigned to the prop storage area underneath the stage in the Union Theater. It’s a cluttered place with lots of props and scenery stacked and arrays, with numerous clear pathways in between. Jim stopped in twice during our two-hour stretch to check on us, and the four of us felt pretty confident things would be dull down in the semi-darkness of the packed space.

The Union Theater. The walkway above the ceiling runs along the center bank of lighting.

One of the reports we were told about this particular space was that people heard bells ringing. Sure enough, after a few minutes, we heard a clanging sound too; it was brief, and only three or four jingles, but it was there. There was something familiar about the sound, so I moved nearer the part of the room from whence the sound had come. I heard it again, only this time I could hear the sounds much more clearly: just outside of the building is a set of metal trap doors, often seen in older parts of cities for loading freight into the basement of a building. The metal hatch squeaked and clanged as people walked over it on the sidewalk above. One mystery potentially solved!

We were instructed to be quiet during our stake-out, and our group was faithful to our instructions, speaking in whispers and only when needed. After the first hour, all four of us were getting fidgety. As I sat at a table, I began to feel a slight chill creep over me, growing steadily. I whispered, asking if the others felt anything. A young couple both said they did, but the fourth member of our group responded in the negative. The chill ran all the way up and down my spine, the hair on my neck and scalp began to tingle, and my eyes began to water spontaneously. I’d had this kind of experience before: years ago when I worked at a movie theater in town – built in 1908 and in turn a vaudeville house, a movie theater, a porno theater, and a second-run art house – I encountered this feeling often, particularly during my after hours janitorial shifts which I picked up for a bit of extra cash. This was the feeling of something not normal passing by, leaving a coldness in its wake. It lasted for more than a minute, gradually fading away again.

We all got together again afterwards, briefly, to debrief and report on our experiences. We explained the potential source of the bell sound, and also of the passing… something we experienced. Others had less interesting results; we seem to have been the only ones who had an encounter.

The next week we had heavy snow; I was disappointed – though understood completely – when the class was postponed for a week. The following week we met, and only about a half-dozen of the original group showed up. We took to the theater again, each assigned to a different place than before. I had no further unusual experiences, and this was the final session of the mini course. I sadly lost touch with Jim; he worked at a local camera store chain in town, and when, a few years later, I tried to look him up, I found he no longer worked there, and no one had contact information for him.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, it’s fun to explore the history of older buildings. Like a real-life stakeout, there are often long hours of boredom, but when something notable does happen, it often provides an astounding rush of adrenaline. The experience is a thrill that’s difficult to compare to anything else, but it can seem addictive. I was delighted with my experiences in this relatively safe environment, and would definitely consider doing some ghost hunting again once it’s safe for people – living people – to gather together again.

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