It doesn’t matter where you are in Chicago. There are dead people somewhere in the ground below you. The millions of Indigenous peoples that flourished for millennia. The countless millions who trampled in next. And next. And next. All those bodies. All that energy. All those stories. Chicago is literally steeped in them. And in this, the season of Samhain and Day of the Dead, the veil between us and them can seem exhilaratingly porous.
Free Street has been collecting stories about Chicago ghosts and Chicago hauntings for years: The company has a vault of them, culled from interviews with more than 400 people. Under artistic director Coya Paz, some of those came out in 2016’s 100 Hauntings, a production that was equal parts thrilling, chilling, provocative, and funny.
The company returns to the topic with Ghosts on the Bloomingdale Trail, a self-propelled trip through 15 “ghost-train stops” on the titular trail (aka the 606) between Saint Louis and Humboldt Avenues. Scan the QR code at each station, and you’ll hear a four- to five-minute tale of a nearby haunting in the words of the person/s that experienced it.
“Yes, there’s the entertainment aspect of it and it’s spooky season, which I love,” says Luz Saldana, sound designer for Ghosts on the Bloomingdale Trail and founder of the podcast Radio Luzifer, which explores the supernatural through interviews with local residents. “But when you interview people about this, you have to understand that these are real experiences and there is a lot of history and culture and wisdom in sharing them.”
The city’s many bus-propelled ghost tours capitalize on the most salacious of Chicago celebuhaunts: Resurrection Mary is more popular in death than she possibly could have been in her corporeal heyday. The demon baby of Hull-House, aka the one about the infant that Jane Addams’s neighbors decided was the monstrous result of a curse, nearly always comes up. The “Alley of Death” (aka downtown’s Couch Place, where victims of the 1903 Iroquois Theatre who jumped trying to escape the conflagration met their ends) is a thing. So is John Dillinger, whose ghost is said to haunt the alley next to the Biograph Theater where he was gunned down by FBI agents.
Ghosts on the Bloomingdale Trail
10/19-11/15: available anytime of the day or night; wheelchair accessible, transcripts of stories available at each marked stop along the trail, mobile phone required to access the individual stories. Free.
Free Street takes a different tack. Rather than exploit past tragedy and reiterate History 101 with a patina of maudlin lore, the company simply lets those who experienced ghosts speak for themselves. There are no jump scares or spectral wailings.
“You’re not going to turn the corner and there’s an owl that’s actually a ghost,” Paz said. “These are more ordinary hauntings. One person said having a ghost was like having a roommate that didn’t pay rent.” Ghosts, so one stop on the trail tells us, can be menace or benevolence. Either way, they are always Other.
On the Bloomingdale Trail, these Others take many forms: A patriarch displaced from the vibrant home that sheltered his family for generations, determined to stay even after death. The mother of a newborn, trying to breastfeed and heal from a cesarean while also casting out a spirit hanging around the crib. The “knocking” ghost that for years provided advice: One knock for yes, two for no.
The entire production is an elaborately collaborative effort.
Saldana, an elementary school teacher in addition to being a podcaster, transformed the audio footage into 15 mini-epics. Chicago Mobile Makers designed and created the 15 “train stop” installations. Paz credits Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail’s Benjamin Helphand for coming up with the initial idea of a walking Ghost Train, and—crucially—with getting the Chicago Park District on board.
“Frankly, I’ve been wanting to do something like this for years,” Helphand says. “This finally seemed to be the right time. There’s probably not a single neighborhood in Chicago that doesn’t have ghosts, or people with a strong sense that they are haunted.”
The project got its final approvals from the city in September, leaving mere weeks to get each train stop installed and 15 mini-podcasts polished to an ectoplasmic sheen.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done something at such a breakneck pace before,” Paz says.
Saldana says creating the sound design—from interstitial music to field effects—was a natural evolution of the work she’s been doing on her bilingual podcast, which is centered on stories of the supernatural and paranormal, culled from interviewees.
“The podcast has been circulating in places where I know most of the people. This is my first opportunity to branch out from that,” Saldana says.
As you might expect, Paz has been asked a billion times whether she believes in ghosts. She even has a Ted Talk on the subject.
“For a long time in my life I was highly resistant to the idea of a ghost. I didn’t want them to exist. They’re creepy. They’re dead. They also are a way of thinking about the afterlife. Of our existence mattering, after we leave.
“So when people ask me if I believe in ghosts, I say I believe in the stories. I believe they are meaningful. And I have heard the same thing from so many different people; the visceral feeling that something was off, something was wrong. I always ask two questions when I’m thinking about ghosts. What does the ghost want? And what do you want from the ghost?”